Thursday, June 30, 2011

Guest Review: Gettysburg (1993)

By Tennessee Jed

Whatever else I may think of Ted Turner, I owe him a debt of gratitude for spending a fortune producing historical films like Gettysburg. Adapted from Michael Shaaraʼs 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Killer Angels,” Gettysburg effectively conveys the horror of combat, while still laying out the strategies, tactics and motivations of the commanders by following several key participants in the battle. While not perfect, this remains the best depiction of civil war era military action to date.

Authenticity - What sets Gettysburg apart from prior Civil War films is the impact of the re-enactors. When casting calls went out for extras, the “hard cores” responded en masse. These guys have a passion for historical accuracy that borders on obsession. The most serious refer to themselves as “super hard core” and even soak the brass buttons on their uniforms in urine to gain an authentic “worn” patina they claim cannot be otherwise achieved. Their leader, the late Brian Pohanka (a nice cameo as General Webb, the Brigadier in command of union troops at the “angle”) was able to convince filmmakers of the wisdom of doing things accurately. Thus, virtually all pan shots down the lines, all marching shots, cannon fire, rifle volleys, and drum and bugle calls are as authentic as possible. When you see the strain of battle showing on the faces of members of the 20th Maine, you feel as if you are majestically transported back in time and plunked down inside the action. The director even does a wonderful job of creating the passage of time as they beat back attack after attack.

Where the film comes up a bit short is its inability to convey the magnificent sweep of the action. Made before CGI, it was just not possible to show a three day action involving over 150,000 combatants and 300 artillery pieces, and which produced over 50,000 casualties. Nevertheless, Director Maxwell did the best he could to frame shots to minimize the problem. Look closely at the forming of the ranks for Pickettʼs charge and you will see the nature of the problem and can judge how well it was handled. At Gettysburg, there were 150 artillery pieces in the “pont au feu” preceding Pickettʼs charge. “Pont au feu” is a term coined by Napoleon for one of his favored tactics. Literally meaning “bridge of fire” it refers to withering artillery bombardment focused on the point of attack to break up the defense preceding an infantry advance. It lasted over an hour and was heard as far away as Lancaster. They only had about 30 guns available for the film, but when you listen on a great surround system you can get at least some idea of what the 150 would have sounded like. Imagine, the terror of 150 pieces firing at you continuously for over an hour and knowing “luck” was the only thing keeping you from literally being blown to pieces.

The Story - The screenplay does a nice job adapting the novel. This was the largest Civil War action in terms of combatants and casualties, and to many, represented the Confederacy's best chance to win their independence. Thanks to Lincoln’s address, no Civil War battle is better known, and most Americans are aware of the names “Gettysburg” and “Pickettʼs Charge.” But surprisingly few beyond historians or “buffs” know many of the battle details. Gettysburg achieves a good balance between filmmaking and providing a historian's level of knowledge. Indeed, rather than trying to capture everything in the battle, the film follows a handful of key participants. There is nice coverage of critical moments, such as the role of Union Cavalry Commander General John Buford in holding back the enemy long enough to save the favored union position on day one, but the storyline primarily pivots around three individuals:

General Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, is one of the best, most beloved military leaders ever produced in America, a true legend. After the war, some southern historians adopted a theory known as the “lost cause,” part of which assigns an unrealistic infallibility to Lee. As such, any failures had to be due to either impossible circumstance or the failure of subordinates. The person most often blamed was Lt. General James Longstreet, Lee’s most valued and senior Corp Commander. He is the second key character. Indeed, Gettysburg fairly accurately depicts the relationship between the two and the tension that created at Gettysburg. It also does a credible job of outlining tactics such as the “left oblique” utilized in Pickettʼs charge (masking the specific target point of the attack.) Longstreet did disagree with much of Lee’s strategy at Gettysburg, and he did fail to execute his orders in a timely and, in some cases, effective manner. Although his “certain knowledge of futility” is perhaps overplayed, the facts and the film tend to support Longstreet rather than his detractors. Certainly, other subordinates also made mistakes and random chance played a huge role as well. Lee, ever the gentleman, appropriately took bottom line responsibility for the failure of the campaign.

The third key character is Lt. Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, commander of the Union’s 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Just as they reached the field, it was discovered the left side of the union line had mistakenly been moved forward leaving the flank “in the air” with the tactically crucial position known as Little Round Top left unoccupied. The regiment is rushed to the top just in time and becomes the flank of the entire Union Army. They are ordered to “defend against all hazards,” in essence a fight to the death.

Despite continuous assault by elements of Hood’s Division, the line holds. Attackers from Col. William Oates 15th Alabama try to turn his flank. Chamberlain employs the tactic of “refusing the flank” (bending the line back at right angles to itself in order to prevent becoming outflanked.) Overcome by fatigue and running out of ammunition, Chamberlain orders a pinwheel pivot bayonet counter charge since he really has no other option. Flank secured, army and union saved; hurrah! Chamberlain is not a professional soldier, rather a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College. Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his defense of Little Round Top, he would be wounded no less than six times later in the war, including a grievous wound through both hips. Thought dead, he miraculously survives and eventually returns to active duty. Promoted to Major General and a position of honor at Appomattox, after the war he becomes Governor of Rhode Island and president of Bowdoin -- a true American hero.

The Cast - Mixed results. Jeff Daniels is nothing short of superb as Chamberlain in what may be his best role. As evidence, I offer the speech he gives to the “deserters” early in the film. Almost worth the price of admission on its own. Despite being entirely too short for the role (not an insignificant problem) Sheen did a good job conveying Lee’s nobility and grace. When he finds Harry Heth has engaged Buford without knowing the extent of enemy strength, Lee is furious with him. Without raising his voice, Lee literally cuts him to shreds. Masterful! Tom Berenger is nicely cast as Longstreet. Big and raw boned, he accurately conveys the larger than life presence of Lee’s second in command.

Sam Elliot is made for these kinds of films and does a great job as Buford. The late Richard Jordon in his last role before succumbing to a brain tumor seemed a tad over the top as General Lewis Armistead. Brian Mantle, also suffering from a lack of physical stature, was unconvincing as General Winfield Hancock. As evidence, see the dialog when an aide tries to convince him to be less of a target (sounds like a high school play dialog.) Kevin Conway is his usual professional self as the fictional “Buster Kilroy.” Likewise, Cooper Huckabee did an interesting job as Harry Harrison, Longstreet’s Shakespearian actor turned master spy. Former James Bond actor George Lazenby has a great scene where he tries to present his academic treatise on artillery to Longstreet as they go into battle. Longstreet jokes that “he doubts he will have time to read it today.”

Other Factors - At over 4 hours, this is a long film. In its defense, it was originally intended to be presented as a mini-series on TBS, but Turner was pleased enough with the result to put it into limited theater release first.

The storytelling technique sometimes resembles a Shakespearian play. Major characters are permitted to launch into speeches that seem out of synch with modern conversational style. I understand how this can be somewhat off-putting, however, people actually did engage in more flowery rhetoric back then as normal course. The speeches also tend to serve as a device to convey deeper motivations of the combatants.

Finally, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of arguably the defining period in our nation's history thus far, I urge people to see this film. I guarantee it will increase your appreciation the next time you hear Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address . . . “from these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause to which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

P.S. When I visit Gettysburg, I stay in the “Lee Suite” at the Cashtown Inn featured in the movie and in the painting by Mort Kunstler in this article. In the actual historical battle, it served as General A.P. Hill’s headquarters. During filming of Gettysburg, it served as Sam Elliot’s lodging. The second painting, also by Kunstler, depicts Chamberlain’s counter charge on Little Round Top.


AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks for a great review of a film that I consider the best civil war film out there. The level of realism in this film sets it so far apart from anything else that it's just amazing. And I love the fact they go through and discuss all the motivations for fighting -- something liberals generally no longer allow as now we're supposed to believe the only reason anyone fought was slavery.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. In honor of the up coming holiday, everyone should tell us your favorite pro-American/patriotic films!

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - thanks for your kind words. I have long been a civil war enthusiast. I must give a lot of credit to my wife. Back in 1993, I attended opening night with my wife on my birthday. At four hours, she went "above and beyond the call."

Seriously, I'd hope the message of this movie is one that people of all political stripes could enjoy. As I mention, some of the soliloquies probably seem a touch unrealistic, but one could make that same argument about Shakespeare ;-) I do often wish this film could be "re-worked with modern CGI to give the viewer a better idea of what a battle involving 150,000 forces looks like.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, In truth, I'm glad they haven't. CGI just doesn't work.

Look at how the real war looked with uneven lines, the disjointed uniforms with no two people really dressed the same except in the rarest of circumstances and the sense of chaos throughout. CGI loses all of that. You would get perfectly shaped squares of identical clones all moving perfectly at videogame speed. Not to mention that you know canonballs would suddenly set of mini-nuclear explosions.

It would be like adding a cartoon into the middle and it would wipe out the realism. I think you would be cautioning people -- see the original, not the cartoony remake.

Joel Farnham said...

Nice job Jed. I still remember the first few lines of the Gettysburg Address. I had to memorize and recite it in my English class in High School.

My favorite pro-American/patriotic film is Yankee Doodle Dandy. This clip is the routine of the same name as the movie.

Tennessee Jed said...

Perhaps you are right. Best to not use it at all rather than badly. I would only consider it for a very broad satellite shot taken from high enough to take in the entire battlefield. I agree most effects look fake and are over-utilized, but I kind of remember I liked the look of 10,000 ships being launched Troy in an otherwise mediocre movie.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Joel. I loved Cagney in that. Pretty much an American classic.

T-Rav said...

Excellent review, Jed! I have Gettysburg on tape at my house (VHS all the way, baby), and while I haven't watched it in a long time--honestly, the characters launching into quasi-Shakespearean speeches does grate on me a little--it does have a lot of wonderful qualities. (Armistead as a character was definitely over the top.)

Some years ago, I was at the Vicksburg battlefield, where they fired off a Civil War cannon--without the cannonball, of course. Even with my fingers in my ears, the blast was deafening. Waiting for an assault in the face of that 150-gun cannonade took a special kind of courage.

What do you think of Gettysburg as a battlefield today, incidentally? Because all around, it wasn't my favorite.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - on the effects thing, one of the greatest examples of what I'm thinking about actually occurred in Gone with the Wind. A long shot slowly zooms in on Miss Scarlett in the streets of Atlanta showing all the dead and wounded soldiers. Only about half were real actors, the rest were manequins. In today's technology with blu-ray, you could pause and easily pick out the dummies. But in real time, it only last a few seconds, but gives the viewer a better feel for the scope.

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Rav; thanks ! have been to most of the battlefields, although not Vicksburg. I need to get there because my great grandfather and two of his brothers were at Vicksburg, and his oldest brother died of yellow fever contacted during the siege.

I understand you point about Gettysburg. Unfortunately, modern growth, zoning, and commercialization has had a huge impact on battlefield preservation. The best preserved I have seen are Shilo and Chickamauga. Still, the battle of Gettysburg has been studied more than any other, and there is something very spiritual about that place.

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Rav; While I have often carped at the constant changing technology, one of the things that prompted me to write this review, was getting an email notification of it's pending blu-ray release earlier this year. I have to admit that if you have a 1080p screen, the blu-ray version is pretty awesome.

Ed said...

Jed, Nice review! I enjoyed this film a lot, though I only saw it once. I saw it after seeing "Glory" so I wasn't expecting much as I found found "Glory" too political. I figured this would be too. But this really was a movie anyone can enjoy because it doesn't seem to have an ideological agenda and it was really well done. You really feel like you are seeing the real war.

As an aside, could you imagine walking all over the country in those thick uniforms in the middle of summer and carrying that much gear?

Tennessee Jed said...

Appreciate that, Ed. I really do feel both the book and the screenplay are meant to measure the incredible sacrafices made by the participants rather than pushing a particular ideology. At the same time, I must say I felt Glory was also extremely well done and reasonably accurate. It happened 150 years ago, and a lot has changed since then.

As far as marching in the summer in those uniforms, it does boggle the mind. I do know from playing football as a kid, it is amazing what your body can become acustomed to over time. Many units had more people drop out from injury and illness than from actual combat wounds. Straggling was a reality of that war. The "super hard cores" make it a point to subject themselves to the same deprivations whenever possible. A great book on re-enactors is "Confederates in The Attic" by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Horwitz. It is a hoot and the source of my comments about "button soaking." :D

T-Rav said...

Jed, that's kind of the feeling I have. Much of the Gettysburg field is breathtaking and well-preserved, but it's also become cluttered with commercialism and doing to death every detail of the battle. Plus, urban development is really starting to encroach on the Cemetery Hill area. It's still a must-see, but if what you're looking for is a chance to quietly reflect on what happened so many years ago and the sacrifices made, I think Shiloh and maybe Vicksburg and Antietam are better suited for that. (Haven't seen Chickamauga, but it's on my to-do list.)

Regarding the film itself, and repeating what Andrew said, it is interesting to see both the Union and Confederate characters explain to others (such as Fremantle) their opinion of the conflict and why it started. You can watch the film and be highly sympathetic to the Confederate cause, while at the same time thankful that the Union ultimately won. Of course, that sentiment would be anathema to many "professional historians" nowadays, but oh well.

rlaWTX said...

excellent review - you actually make me want to see it again...

I read Killer Angels in a survey history class in college - about 2 years before the movie. I liked the book, but it was (at 19yo) ponderous as a movie. My dad LOVED Civil War era history and loved this movie. He kept meaning to read the book, but I don't know that he ever did.

In 2002, I was living in No VA and he & my mom came for Spring Break. One of his requests was that we visit Gettysburg. [I pulled out the book and skimmed it.] We drove ourselves through the battlefield. It was amazing to me how -- sacred? heavy? -- it felt. Dad gave us play-by-play of the battle and we climbed around some getting a better perspective. The only other people there were in a bus across the field. It was kinda eerie but awe-some.

Thanks for the reminder walk down memory lane.
Daddy died unexpectedly just under a year later.

rlaWTX said...

"be highly sympathetic to the Confederate cause, while at the same time thankful that the Union ultimately won"
I often feel that way about the War between the States.

Tennessee Jed said...

Ria - you are very welcome, and sorry about your dad. There is never a good time for them to leave us, whether young or old, but I am glad visiting Gettysburg created a special memory for you.

I also understand what you mean about the ponderous nature of the film compared with the book. As I said, it was intended as a two or three parter for television rather than a feature film. I enjoyed the books written Michael Shaara's son Jeff "Gods and Generals" which was a "pre-quel" to Killer Angels, and "The Last Full Measure" as a sequel.

"Gods & Generals" was also made into a movie by Ronald Maxwell with some of the same actors. Robert Duvall replaced Martin Sheen as Lee. Steven Lang moved from playing Pickett to portraying Stonewall Jackson. That was a pity because Duval at his "Godfather" age would have been a dead ringer for Stonewall. Alas,!

That movie was a huge disappointment compared to Gettysburg. From about 12 hours of film, it was culled down to around three, and had a real lack of continuity. As a buff, I wished they had kept the 12 hours, made it into a mini-series and sold multi-disc sets to buffs like myself.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: There's very little that could be added to your review. TCM showed it recently, and I watched it again for the second time, Tivo'd it, and watched it for the third time at my leisure. It's a bit like reading a very good historical novel. There's so much to absorb, that it bears repeating. I was glad that they retained so much of the speech patterns, particularly of the Southerners. And the actors were expert enough to make it sound noble rather than corny or overblown. As for Jeff Daniels, I agree that he stole every scene he was in.

Excellent review, and thanks.

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Rav - you are so right about the commercialism encroaching. Manassas, and Gettyburg are probably the worst along with the whole Richmond Petersburg area. Antietam is wonderful. I think the battles in areas that still have a more rural flavor really helps in that regard.

If you get a chance to go to Chickamauga, Chatanooga is special as well. The terrain around Chatanooga is simply spectacular. Although some sites have become completely urbanized, Fredericksburg was really cool because you could gain a real perspective on just how impossible the field was for the federals attacking Marye's Heights. Likewise, the Wilderness/Chancelorsville battlefields are pretty well preserved. If you ever want to do Chatanooga and Chickamauga, let me know.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Hawk. A compliment is always particularly special coming from you. It is a movie that I fully admit has many flaws, but on balance is worth viewing on many different levels.

Tennessee Jed said...

Ria - by the way, I love your comment about being sympathetic to the southerner's cause (states' rights) while being glad the union won. It makes a lot of sense.

As far as making you actually want to see the film again, you don't know how happy that makes me, because that is exactly might intent with this post.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, rlaWTX, and T_Rav, I think the idea of treating the Confederacy sympathetically is one of this film's great strengths. Usually, people believe what they are fighting for in wars and their motivations are often very complex. Unfortunately, modern Hollywood likes to take complex issues and convert them into simple yes/no answers and then demonize "the bad guys." But civil wars aren't really full of bad guys. They tend to be full of people who genuinely believe they are in the right, people who are defending their country (on both sides), and people who are fighting for a complex set of reasons. Gettysburg does a great job of laying that out and letting you understand that this was about so much more than just slavery.

Tennessee Jed said...

First, RlaWTX - sorry I have been mis-spelling your online name (l.o.l.) Not only am I an old man, but suffer from Brown's syndrome which gives me double vision when I lookat a certain angle. I used to mess up Hawk's name for the same reason.

Andrew - I completely agree. I know this war litrally turned brother against brother. It was a tragedy the proportions of which have not been seen in this country before or sense. But people's motivations were extremely dynamic and complex.

There is a great scene in the movie that was derived from a famous painting by Winslow Homer of three confederate prisoners being interviewed by General Barlow, one of Meade's staff officers. The movie took artistic license to Change Barlow to Chamberlain's brother Tom.

The point is, it was a tragically comic scene in a way where the youngest prisoner talks. He was too poor to have any concern whatsoever about the economics of slavery. Rather he was fighting for his "rats," which Tom Chamberlain couldn't even decipher until he heard him say it a second time.

Tennessee Jed said...

By the way, speaking of eyes, I have a routine eye exam at 2:00 p.m. so I'll be out for a couple or three hours this afternoon. I will personally acknowledge everyone who has taken the time to make a comment or pose a question sometime today or tonight :-)

Unknown said...

Tennessee: Good luck on your eye exam. But don't worry. My liberal friends tell me I've been totally blind for twenty years. LOL

Koshcat said...

I first saw this movie in the theater and really enjoyed the film. I agree with Andrew that CGI would probably screw it up and have 100,000 pixelated men in Pickett's charge. The reenactors add a sense of realism except a few of them were fatter than I expect most of the real soldiers were.

The movie only touches on it lightly, but there is this myth that Robert E. Lee was a great general. Gettysburg is a good example of his making fundamental military errors that great generals wouldn't have made. The first and formost was Lee didn't need to fight at Gettysburg at all. He was already north of there and could have easily made it to Philadelphia long before Meade could catch him. If he didn't want to do that but wanted to crush Meade's army, he could have chosen a good defensive site and allowed Meade to come get him. Finally, with the union entrenched, he could have engaged them to keep them busy and moved his army south into Washington, which was one of Lincoln's fears. Pickett's charge was doomed to fail from the beginning and was an unnecessary loss of life on both sides.

The only good thing to come out of the battle was the confederate army would never regain its strength like this again and the end of the war was then probably a forgone conclusion. The south needed a quick end because they didn't have the materials for a long, drawn out war.

I read a recently published book call Sun Tzu At Gettysburg where the author laid out many of these mistakes. It also lays out both successes and mistakes using the Art of War logic in other famous battles in world history.

T-Rav said...

Jed, I've seen that Winslow Homer painting and it's a great depiction of the different characteristics between North and South. Well, I should say it's a great depiction of those characteristics from the Northern point of view. :-)

Kosh, those are points a lot of historians have made. I would qualify your statement a bit by saying that his one critical error was to let Stuart take off with most of the cavalry. Because of that, he was marching through Pennsylvania virtually blind, which explains a good deal of his subsequent decisions. Lee didn't need to fight at Gettysburg, true enough, but he didn't want to, either--the battle blew up almost out of nowhere, and he was originally hoping to break it off before it reached major proportions. Ditto on why he didn't try to swing around and get between Meade and Washington--he couldn't know the extent of the enemy positions in that direction. Also, it must be said that Lee had an extremely aggressive character, and preferred to hit the enemy where he was, not dodge around for elbow room. Finally, I would be a bit more critical of Longstreet than Jed was, to say nothing of the conduct of his other corps commanders. They deserve some blame, too.

An interesting book that lays this and other campaigns out is Bevin Alexander's "Robert E. Lee's Civil War." It critiques his strategy and tactics at several points, but does, in the end, argue that Lee was a great general, or at least the greatest the Confederacy had.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, That's an interesting sounding book and I'm going to look for it. It's interesting to me how many times generals can be rather brilliant until the moment it all goes wrong and then they make a whole host of mistakes.

Lee's whole concept was to fight a defensive war and I never did understand why he didn't leave Gettysburg once the Union held the high ground? I'm not aware of any reason he couldn't have walked away and made the Union forces chase him -- something the Union had proven incapable of doing well?

fr8jock said...

As a interesting side note to this film, essentially the same cast and crew finished "Gettysburg" then filmed "The Rough Riders" about Teddy Roosevelt's role at San Juan Hill, which is also an excellent film.

AndrewPrice said...

fr8jock, Good point -- I'd forgotten about that one. I do recall enjoying it very much. I'll have to see if that's on Netflix. :-)

fr8jock said...

For those who like the book versions, Michael Shaara's son Jeff followed his father's style and wrote "Gods and Generals" following many of the same characters from the breakup of the Union to the night before Gettysburg starts, setting the stage for what happens there.

Jeff also wrote "The Last Full Measure" following them until Lee's surrender at Appomattox, and "Gone for Soldiers" where most of the major players served as junior officers in the Mexican-American War.

His works on the American Revolution, WW I and WW II are also excellent.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, see my comments above replying to Kosh. Basically, I think it comes down to Stuart's absence and Lee's own aggressive personality. Also, had Stonewall Jackson not been killed at Chancellorsville, he probably would have persuaded Lee to take the course you mentioned--or at least make something other than a frontal attack.

Koshcat said...

For the type of war the South needed to wage, Stonewell Jackson was probably their most brilliant general. Lee often did straight on attacks and most of time that strategy doesn't work. I have heard that Lee did not want to fight at Gettysburg, but the arguements I have read is he didn't have to. Therefore, he chose to, I suspect because he felt a smashing victory over Meade would probably end the war because the road to Washington would be open. In essence, he became impatient. I am not an expert, but have read a little. From what I have learned, the Union was lucky Jackson was killed so early (and many of his superiors choose not to follow his recommendations on how to wage the war).

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, What's interesting is that in hindsight from our century, there is no way anyone would make a front assault in these circumstances. But back then, they still did it. In fact, they did it even as late as WWI and they got hundreds of thousands of people killed walking into machines guns -- the British in particular were bad about that.

fr8jock, Thanks for the recommendations!

T-Rav said...

Andrew, that's a good point; the rifled musket and the Minie ball had only caught on less than a decade before the war started, and everyone had been taught Napoleonic tactics of a massive frontal assault. Had Pickett's Charge happened ten years earlier, it may very well have succeeded.

And that said, the charge wasn't exactly doomed from the start. It did temporarily breach the Union line, and the preceding bombardment had destroyed much of the artillery support and made it impossible for Meade to get reinforcements to that area quickly. If it had been made on a different part of the line, if it had been effectively supported by other units--in any case, as the guerrilla John Mosby said to Pickett after the war, "Well, it made you immortal."

Tennessee Jed said...

Koshcat - I suspect you are correct about the weight, but who knows? Debating Gettysburg, and Lee is one of the biggest parlor games going for civil war historians. I wouldn't propose to get into a long debate here about Lee's abilities as a general, but I'll give you my humble opinion.

I think Lee was not a particularly good strategist. He was a very good defensive tactician. And, he was one of the greatest ever leaders of men. The Army of Northern Virginia would literally go through a brick wall for him. That cannot be taught, it is inate.

Lee let his army get too spread out, and was operating blind because he gave J.E.B. Stuart to much freedom, and Stuart took advantage of it. he was used to having Stonewall Jackson as one of his two Corp Commanders. I think he had actually planned to set up a front near South Mountain and let Meade come to him. That gave him an escape hatch through the pass. Heath, against orders, engaged Buford and brought on a general engagement before Lee knew what he was dealing with.

I think the book you read would be very interesting, but I am always leary of new authors who get to see things through the advantage of hindsight. As it turns out, a couple of breaks the other way, and Lee may well have won. Ewell, who replaced the killed Stonewall Jackson a month before was cautious in the extreme. Jackson may well have taken cemetary ridge on the first day had he been alive.

If you are interested, the bible on this battle remains Stephen B. Coddington's "The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command." It is for the serious student, not the casual reader. It does not absolve Lee of his errors. He surely made them. The biggest, is believing his troops could pull off anyrthing; e.g. over confidence.But there are so many other factors involved, I think it a bit strong to call him a poor general or suggest they were obvious mistakes.

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Rav; the Winslow Homer painting was taken from an actual sketch, of real prisoners, so I don't really see it as a point of view per se. It is an accurate depiction of a slice, nothing more or less. My only point is it was used in the movie, and based on those prisoners.

See my comment to Koshcat on the book. There are dozens and dozens on Lee. I still recommend Coddington as the most definitive detailed study of the campaign.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - in addition to the other comments, I would say the reason he didn't retreat is he felt he could kick, the Army of the Potomac's ass. He had ample reason to believe that based on two years of beating every commander they threw at him like a drum.

That said, the south, despite their military successes in the east, had a manpower and supply problem. Lee felt confidant enough of his army that he could inflict serious enough damage on the Army of the Potomac to either 1) sue for peace 2) help the anti-war forces in the north grow stronger. 3) get European powers to recognize the south.

Something else to consider for everyone. Lee died without writing his memoirs. Longstreet, a close friend of Grant, became a Republican and served in the government during reconstruction. He was hated by many in the south, and became bitter as a result, becoming more critical of Lee than he ever would have been during the war. Many of the generals were also politicians and they tended to shade their view of events to cast themselves in the best possible light. The best historians work extremely hard to get as many accounts as possible to arrive at the most likely scenario as well as give most weight to people who were directly on the scene and had nothing to gain by shading the truth.

Lastly, if anyone wants to be a serious student of Lee (Bev's ancestor by the way) Douglas Southall Freeman is an absolute must.

Tennessee Jed said...

Fr8jock - thanks for that comment. I may be mistaken, but believe that may also have been Turner. I enjoyed it immensely. Turner also did Andersonville which was special to me since my great grandfather's youngest brother was captured at Drewry's Bluff,and died at Andersonville.

Also, I have read all Of Jeff Shaara's historical books and thoroughly enjoyed them, especially the Revolutionary War novel "Rise to Rebellion." Before retiring to Tennessee, I lived virtually right on the Brandywine Battlefield which took place on 9/11/1777. I don't know if you happened to catch my comments about the problems I had with the film adaption of Gods and Generals.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew: T-Rav is right on about the minnie ball. The war was right on the forefront of weaponry outgrowing tactics. The generals all took the same classes and learned the same tactics at West Point, primarily Napoleonic. At that time, the whole idea was to mass infantry fire. Advances in artillary, and the advent of the rifled bullet changed that. Longstreet, was one of the first to recognize it. Indeed, the slaughter pen at Marye's Heights made it clear as day.

After Gettysburg,people begin to dig ditches. In fact my great grandfather was seriously wounded at Peebles Farm while doing just that (digging a trench in the line.)

T-Rav said...

Jed, I was going off not the painting itself, but a description fo the figures by a contemporary. It may have been Homer himself, but I don't remember. In and of itself, no, it's not slanted any way in particular.

Based on a conversation of Lee's I once read, I had the idea he planned to prepare a defensive position in the hills northwest of Gettyburg, defeat and destroy Meade as he came up unit by unit, and then advance on Baltimore and Washington. It's an academic debate, of course, but it is interesting nonetheless.

In addition to that Alexander book I mentioned earlier, I think a good analysis would be Gary W. Gallagher's "Lee and His Army in Confederate History," which evaluates Lee as a strategist and tactician, as well as the performance of his lieutenants. If you want just a detailed general history of the conflict, though, I can't recommend Shelby Foote's trilogy enough.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed & T_Rav, I know we can never prove how things could have been, but I have to admit that I am always fascinated by the small moments that change the world. WWII in particular is full of those. Indeed, there are about a dozen "small" decisions that ultimately doomed the Germans and a few that saved our bacon and the Russians.

Jed, In terms of technology, that's always been one of the big problems -- is that the generals usually start each war fighting with the prior war's tactics, without ever realizing what advances in technology have done. And usually, the first side to make effective use of new technologies is the winner.

In terms of relatives, that always makes it more interesting to "know" someone involved.

rlaWTX said...

great conversation!!!

I have to admit that this war has never been my "favorite" so a lot of your arguments are over my head - but it's still been a great place to "eavesdrop"... (and if I'm honest, my memories about my "fav." war (WWII Europe) are sketchy after having ignored it for 15 years - I think about getting back into history, but only after I finally finish this Psych MA!!)

Jed, no worries about the name... it's not the one my mama gave me ;)

fr8jock said...

Tennessee Jed:

I thought Rise to Rebellion was his best also, but enjoyed the nearly unknown history of Gone for Soldiers and the Mexican campaign.

I did not see your comments on Gods and Generals, I just discovered this site recently, but have enjoyed it immensely.

One more nit a friend pointed out to me, Chamberlain was from Maine, and became governor there, not Rhode Island. He also ran for president, but the public had soured on generals after the scandals of the Grant administration.

Koshcat said...

Tennessee, definitely Lee knew how to run an army better than I could ever dream. I can barely run the vacuum. Far be it for me to be overly critical, but it is fun to wonder how things would have been different if other choices would have been made. One of the issues I often hear is that Lee didn't know exactly what he was dealing with because Gen. Stuart was unavailable. But, as a leader, should you be rushing into battle without all the information you think you need? I have a hard time imagining that Lee would have felt comfortable attacking the Union forces without knowing what he was attacking. I think either he thought he knew and was mistaken or didn't think he needed it.

The book I referred to covered different battles and Gettysburg is just one chapter. It is important to be critical only so that similar tactical mistakes aren't repeated (and unfortunately they have been over and over). I found this essay and found it very informative for those who don't want to wade through a whole book. Despite the title, it is actually pretty supportive of Lee.

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Rav; to quote Ed McMahon, "you are correct sir" ;-) That is exactly what Lee wanted to do. Form a line at Cashtown and choose the ground. If I may sort of quote from the film:Mr. Heth, were my orders unclear. Heth talks about thinking it was only militia, getting their dander up, etc. Lee: well things will get out of control.

While I am on the subject. It is fashinable today for a lot of people tp dump on Lee. His strategical plan on day two was a very good one with one fatal flaw. It required, ideally simultaneous flank attacks. This is the kind of strategy he could pull off with Jackson and Longstreet, but not with Ewell, Hill, and old slowpoke himself, James Longstreet.

Lee came within moments of occupying Big and Little Roundtop. Had that happened, does anybody doubt a vastly different outcome. And lastly, Lee actually did ride out to his troops and say all my fault. He never dumped on Longstreet or anyone else. I believe he ranks among the top generals our country has produced (oh boy, I'm gettin' carried away ;-)

Tennessee Jed said...

RlaWTX - thanks you!

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - You are absolutely right. So much in these battles had to do with things that fall into what I like to call "shit happens" category. At Gettysburg, Lee was overtired, worried about Stuart, sick from eating over-rioe cherries, and suffered from Angina. I might not be on top of my game either l.o.l.

And yes, some weaponry lasts longer than others, but whoever adapts more quickly benefits. In the Civil War, it almost always fell to the south because of the nature of that war. "We quit your county.' "You can't quit it." "Oh yeah,you gonna make me--come and get me, etc" so the union was usually the attacker.

Tennessee Jed said...

FR8Jock - thanks for picking that up. Of course it was Maine, and it is hard to believe I missed that in several edits. My only excuse is that I have been writing a lot about the 36th Mass Volunteer Infantry Regiment; my great grandfather's unit. They were mostly attached to General Ambrose Burnsides IX corp. Burnside was from Rhode Island and became governor there.

An interesting aside to Little Round Top. The commander of the Confederates trying to over run Chamberlain was William C. Oates. Chamberlain became governor of Maine and Oates became governor of Alabama and were great friends after the war!

Tennessee Jed said...

Kosh - your question is absolutely a valid one. Lee gave Stuart the freedom to roam. It can be argued, Stuart should have known better, but he was a bit of a cavalier and showboat. Lee learned of the general position of Meade because of Longstreet's scout Harry Harrison (a real historical figure by the way.) He and Longstreet agreed there was a potential to catch Meade's army and crush each corp as it came up, but only if he could get his own troops concentrated quicker himself. He didn't want to engage until he knew for sure, especially on unfamiliar soil. But, Heth's boys got there dander up, and things got out of hand.

The southerners won the first day because they got more guys there quicker, and after Reynolds was killed, Union Generals Doubleday and Howard positioned their corps poorly. Ewell was cautious, and a potential fatal rout was averted.

So yes, Lee was always ultimately responsible and shouldered the blame. I'm just saying a lot of factors, some not even human error had a huge impact as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed and others, For what it's worth, I used to know someone who taught at West Point and he said they routinely identify Lee as the greatest general America has ever produced (and Gen. Mark Clark -- WWII as the worst for his Italian campaign).

Tennessee Jed said...

That's the way I see it Andrew, and I am not a "lost cause" apologist. At the time the civil war generals were going through the point, they were all studying the art of Napoleonic warfare as put forth by Henri Jomini. Most had never even heard of Karl von Clausewitz, let alone read his works on military science.

Sometimes, how it all turns out is based on more than strategy and tactics. Sometimes it is the sum of a bunch of guys who were professors of rhetoric who fought their hearts out at just the right time.

One aspect of Gettysburg that often gets overlooked. George Meade, and in particular, Win Hancock performed extraordinarily well. They made all the right moves, and a team that had just gone 0-9 over the past year won in the playoffs (using a silly baseball analogy l.o.l.)

T-Rav said...

Jed, I know of another interesting relationship you may know about too. The guy from the Homer painting, Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow, was badly wounded the first day at Gettysburg during the Confederate attack; Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon, leading a Georgia brigade, came upon him and agreed to quickly write down some last words of Barlow's and get them to his loved ones. As it turned out, Barlow survived the battle and the war and met Gordon again twenty years later when they were both Congressmen in Washington! They were close friends for the rest of their lives.

Also, regarding Longstreet, I think Foote put it best when he said that the general fully carried out the letter, but not the spirit, of Lee's orders, and of course the Army of Northern Virginia had thrived on the spirit interpretation.

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Rav; I do know about the Gordon and Barlow connection, a great story. I have a wonderful book of Winslow Homer's paintings including this one with the back story. The Gordon who he read was killed turned out to be a different person. Gordon was certainly one of the great generals in the war. I think he may have been chosen to participate in the ceremonial surrender with Chamberlain, if memory serves.

As for "old Pete" I have a great biography of Longstreet by noted historian Jeffrey Wert. Great detail on his whole career, and, of course, Gettysburg. Longstreet had Lee's confidence. No one was braver. Wert along with others feels Longstreet deserved censure for his actions at Gettysburg. He had a very good and close relationship with Lee, and as such, had the ability to speak much more freely than other subordinates, but came perilously close to crossing a line. At some point, after you have voiced your dissent, you need to support your superior's decision whole heartedly.

That said, as always, things are a little more complicated than they seem. One of the problems was, in the position after day 1, Lee's army was spread over a longer line causing communications to take longer. Longstreet, compared to Jackson had always been slower and he had, by far, the largest corp. His corp was last to arrive, were strung out over the farthest distance, and their were plenty of mix ups, so the delay in his attack on day two was not just due to his own foot dragging. His soldiers performed admirably exploiting Sickles aggregious forward shift, and came very close to breaking the union right. Meade, with a shorter line was able to shift enough troops around that coupled with some valorous efforts, saved the day. At the end of the day, Lee's plan was good in theory, but depended on perfect coordination of the two wing attacks. Had everybody been fully in place the night before, and ready to go, it probably would have suceeded. . . . or maybe not, no one can say for certainty and hindsight is 20/20 as they say. Lee had always pulled that stuff off when he just had Longstreet and Jackson, but not this time.

Where I take issue with Longstreet is that after the war, he took so much venom and blame by the south, he tended to revise some of his memories, and kind of turned on Lee who was no longer around to defend himself. Ultimately, Lee was the commanding general, and as such, gets the glory for the wins and the second guesses for this big, big loss. He always manned up and took the responsibility.

Despite all of that, Longstreet performed wonderfully under Lee for a long time. His own chance at independant command (right here in Knoxville) didn't work out so well.

I am glad you are an astute student of this stuff :-)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Great review Jed!

I recall liking Gettysburg but I wanna see it again now.

My wife and I recently saw the entire North And South series, and although I liked it too, there were more than a few moments that required a suspension of disbelief.

Plus, I love Loyd Bridges (he's es muy macho! Old SNL skit...very old), but a few times I expected him to say:
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue," lol.

On a more serious note, IRT America's greatest general, I would have to go with George Washington.

He faced far greater odds than Gen. Lee and far worst weather.
No military strategist could look at Washington's meager forces and supplies and expect him and his men to defeat the British.

Washington credited Divine Providence, and I can't argue with that, however, Washington and his men still had to keep fighting despite seemingly hopeless odds against the British and the weather and hunger.

And Washington had to keep their moral up enough to do that as well as keep the support of his supporters who came so very close to giving in to despair and conventional logic: we can't win.

Washington found the words to convince them otherwise.

I do have the utmost respect for Lee, however. I agree he is the best general of the civil war and arguably the second best after Washington.

What makes great generals great isn't always the tactics and strategies they use, but how much they inspire their men to keep fighting with everything they have (particularly in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds).

Great generals also garner the utmost respect of their men. Patton comes to mind of course, as does great Navy admirals such as John Paul Jones.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...


My favorite war films:
Most WW2 war flicks, Midway, Tora Tora Tora, Iwo Jima, To Hell And Back, etc.

Also, the entire Combat! series is very good.

There's not many vietnam war films I like, but We Were Soldiers is outstanding and I love the part where the reporter starts fighting when it looked really bleak.
Green Berets is another good one, IMO, and I can excuse the obvious preaching in light of all the anti-war propaganda and lies the MSM was forcing down our collective throats.

Our military didn't lose that war...our yellow politicians prevented them from winning it with help from the MSM in the later years.

Heartbreak Ridge: I know, Grenada was hardly a blip, but those guys still faced real bullets and stupid officer mistakes that could've been more disasterous if the enlisted men hadn't filled the void.

Battle: Los Angeles is a recent one I really liked a lot after a string of over a dozen anti-American/anti-military films...all of which flopped at the box office.

It's fictionous, but it portrays the theme of self sacrifice, honor and courage of our troops accurately.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, My favorite war movies kind of fluctuate. Sometimes I like the more filmy-films like Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes, sometimes I like the more realistic stuff like Gettysburg or Band of Brothers, and sometimes I like more historic stuff like Midway, Tora Tora Tora or Longest Day.

A couple of interesting ones I really like are a German movie called Stalingrad and Das Boot and a Finnish film about the Soviet invasion in 1938 called Talvisota (The Winter War).

If I could only watch one war movie ever again, it would probably be Zulu.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks for your kind words and comments, Ben and happy 4th weekend. It was my hope to inspire people to view the movie, either for the first time or as a repeat. Hopefully, my review and the group's comments can add a slightly different perspective for some readers.

Like Lee, Washington was great primarily great because of his leadership and inspirational qualities rather than any great tactical or strategic skills.

Tennessee Jed said...

I was a huge fan of North and South, both the books by John Jakes and the mini-series based on them. I also enjoyed The Blue & Gray based on James McPherson's work. A line that stuck with me from that during a barn dance where soldiers from both sides attended with some local women, the young kid said "you sure don't sweat much for a big ole fat girl." and she replied something like "you're not so bad yourself."

I liked Heartbreak Ridge as well, and the great line uttered by "Swede" before he fought Clint Eastwood. ;-)

I tend to like most historical military films. The Revolutionary War has never been well represented, although Jeff Daniels did a good Washington in the Crossing. Before moving to Minnesota, I lived very near Washington's Crossing for a few years. Trenton, to me, was his best effort, and New York his worst.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks Jed! Happy Independence Day to you, Jed and all you guys n' gals!

Andrew: Aye! Those are excellent flicks too! Brings to mind The Dirty Dozen.

BTW, I look foreward to Lone Survivor the movie (not sure if that'll be the title but that's the book title) in the next year or so.

It'll be based on the book written by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell of SEAL team 10, the only SEAL to survive operation Redwing.

He and his team faced over 120 Taliban (with reinforcements coming to help) and they had rocket launchers.

I highly recommend the book. It's compelling and impossible to put down.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I concur, Jed.
I wonder how long we'll have to wait for a decent movie about the Revolutionary War?

If done accurately it would be a very engrossing movie, I think.
I'm surprised that not one good one has been made yet.
Morso surprised that golden and silver age hollywood hasn't shown any interest.
Not surprised that the current hollywood hasn't.

I also agree with your assessment. Washington, and his officers learned early on to start thinking outside the box.

Tennessee Jed said...

Ben - I have read Lone Survivor. Great news in my opinion is that Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights and the Kingdom) is signed on to direct and Taylor Kitch who played Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights will star as Marcus Lutrell. I CAN'T WAIT!!!!!

Tennessee Jed said...

I would like to see Saratoga as part of a film because my 4G grandfather, David Goddard served the future country by giving his life there. Luckily for me, he died after fathering my 3G grandmother ;-)

I am a guy who has enjoyed Mel Gibson over the years, but admit "The Patriot" was probably not his best. Earlier in the comments, we were talking about the lack of CGI in "Gettysburg." They were used aplenty in Mel's film which duplicated the battle of Cowpens in north western South Carolina. They weren't the worst CGI ever on film, but it probably underscores the points made by both Andrew and Kosh.

Tennessee Jed said...

BTW, I am technically incompetent to post a real link, but here is an interesting site which takes exception to the account given by Luttrell. In my view, the actual number is almost irrelevant-- I have nothing but admiration for those guys and I think it will make a hell of a movie even if slightly embellished.

Tennessee Jed said...

here is the "link" to the film:

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Here are your links.




AndrewPrice said...

Ben, "The Dirty Dozen" is one of my all time favorites. I can watch that over and over.

Jed & Ben, I have not read the Lutrell book, but it's interesting that Hollywood is finally going to make a pro-American film about the Middle East. Maybe they're learning their lesson? Or maybe this is just during the Obama administration? I guess we'll see.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - thanks for doing the links :D

I really think you would enjoy the book. I honestly don't know if there is any proof any of the facts were embellished, but we are talking about the worst disaster ever for the SEALS. Incredible heroism, involved.

I know Berg had done a somewhat favorable film previously, so I have this sneaking suspicion he is a closet moderate. Ridley Scott did a good job with Blackhawk Down so he would have been a good choice. I remember "chatting" with Gary Graham about the book and film. I had hoped he could get a cameo as an instructor or something.

There are some stories that are too populat to ignore. This is one, and of course, there are plans to make a film out of "American Assassin" which is the "origins" story of Mitch Rapp, Vince Flynn's version of a straight arrow supersized Jack Bauer. I always envisioned Rapp as a younger version of Fox News Corp.'s Brett Bair. Since I doubt he is available, maybe Eric Bana?

Anyway, I always wonder about how films get made from who buys the rights, secures the financial backing etc. Maybe that is critical to whether a film gets made or not. Surnow is a good example. I'm not sure people knew his politics when 24 first got green lighted. Later, after he was no longer with the show, we got little middle fingers thrown at us like Jeanne Garofolo. Maybe the fact the wars are winding down and Bush is no longer having to run for anything makes the difference. I keep expecting to hear an announcement on the killing of Bin Laden with James Earl Jones as Obama, Halley Berry as Hillary, and Harrison Ford as the C.I.A. guy . . . . oh wait, they already did that and called it Patriot Games. Oh well.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I may read it. I've got a huge backlog at the moment, but I'll see if I can't fit it in somewhere.

In terms of whether it's 100% true or not, I can't think of a book about combat that doesn't get that criticism -- especially in the modern world where things happen so quickly and so explosively. Also, sadly, a lot of people have axes to grind and their nemesis publishing a book is usually a great chance to grind away.

In terms of Hollywood, your guess is as good as mine. I know the process, but what I don't know is where the political NVKD officers are located. In other words, what happens if you get conservatives all along the line -- at what point do the liberal thought police step in and refuse to distribute the movie? Maybe at the studio?

As an interesting aside, I read the other day that most action thrillers are written by conservatives -- something liberals find very frustrating. Thus, they are pushing liberals like this Steig Larson guy.

Tennessee Jed said...

That is an interesting point about action thrillers, Andrew; one which I had not considered. I'll admit I have not read any of the Larson books. It appears he has been extremely successful, but I had not been aware of his political leanings. After reading your comment, I checked out his website, and the only thing I was able to glean out of it is the protagonist is apparently a kick-ass female action hero (?)

That certainly appears to be a theme in current Hollywood action t.v. series. Lots of great looking women in roles as cops, lawyers. They all have hip hugging jeans, tank tops and blazers. I see the continued thrust of portraying women as leaders, in position of authority, and able to subdue big thuggish males. Most recent is a new CBS series this fall which is a remake of "Prime Suspect."

The reasoning, I suppose, is to reinforce that women can do anything, and shouldn't "settle" for more traditional female roles. Up to a point, that is o.k., I guess, but at some point, it becomes obvious, boring, and extremely unrealistic. But, that is good old La La land for you.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think the female hero thing is pretty cynical actually because Hollywood has learned to sell them as two contradictory things. First, they sell these women as "hot chicks" to male audience members, with the idea being that men will watch to satisfy sexual urges. But then they turn around and sell feminists the line that these are "strong women."

It's truly cynical and I find it rather disturbing how easily Hollywood sells both points at once and how happily actresses play along.

I haven't read much from Larson either, just snippets, but I've read about his politics. I was amazed just to discover that this is largely the domain of conservatives -- as you never hear about conservatives in publishing. But then you start to list out authors in this field (like Tom Clancy) and you quickly find a lot of conservatives. Interesting!

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm late!

I still haven't seen this film but I enjoyed the hell out of Jed's review. As for Gods and Generals, the recently-released Blu-Ray includes a longer 280-minute cut of the film (theatrical version was 219 minutes).

Patriotic films, eh? I'll name one: The Right Stuff. In fact, you should do some kind of "Quintessential American moments in film" poll. One of mine is the scene from this film when the guys are outside barbecuing and a plane flies overhead. Sure enough, they look up, instantly identify it, and start commenting. Go to 10:23.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - thanks for your encouragement. I figured you must have been on the road since you normally comment on films ;-). I noticed that once they released the Gettysburg, Blu-Ray, now they are adding G&G. Naturally, I'll get it, and maybe, just maybe the extra footage will help.

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