No guts, but glory: “Gettysburg” (the movie) and the antiseptic Civil War.

This week is the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the climactic engagement of the Civil War and the largest battle fought in the Western Hemisphere. Around this time every year I re-watch (not all in one sitting) the 1993 film Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell, which is an adaptation of Michael Shaara’s wonderful, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 novel The Killer Angels. This is one of my favorite films and also generally highly-regarded among historians for its accuracy and attention to historical detail. As good as it is, however, Gettysburg‘s much-discussed accuracy really only goes so far. What it chooses to show is pretty much true to what the battle was really like. There’s quite a lot, though, that the movie doesn’t show us, and those aspects too are an important dimension of the war. Thinking about this raises some interesting questions about the depiction of history in popular entertainment, and the duty that filmmakers and storytellers have to provide realistic recreations of the past.

Gettysburg is an extremely long movie, 4 hours and 14 minutes, and very unusual for its time. It’s a broad picture of the great 1863 battle focusing on several characters, beginning on the eve of the battle with Union General John Buford (Sam Elliott), then shifting on the second day (July 2) to Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), and finally, July 3, to gloomy Confederate General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) who is ordered by General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) to conduct a massive frontal attack whose ultimate failure Longstreet foresees. In addition to the numerous scenes of actual battles as well as planning and military conferences, there are some more human moments, such as Chamberlain dealing with a group of mutinous Maine soldiers who have tired of fighting, or the emotional struggles of the wistful Lo Armistead (Richard Jordan, in his final role) as he recalls the pain of having to take up arms against his best friends. The film does an excellent job of balancing the battle action with characters and their stories, which is difficult considering we only see three days in their lives. The writing sticks pretty faithfully to The Killer Angels, which is written in a series of internal monologues by the principal characters; in the movie some characters actually quote from these monologues, giving the dialogue an interesting 19th century rhetorical tone.

Over the film’s 4 hour plus running time we see numerous battles, from Buford’s opening engagement to the epic slaughter of Pickett’s Charge. What’s noticeable about them, however, is how tame and bloodless they appear. A lot of extras grimace, clutch their chests and collapse dramatically as they’re shot, and in a few scenes we see dead bodies draped on the scenery, but that’s about it. Probably the bloodiest scene is not a battle, but where Longstreet goes into a barn turned into a hospital to visit wounded General John Bell Hood (Patrick Gorman). Doctors are covered in bloody smocks and we see some casualties with bandaged stumps from amputations. Aside from that, the toll of the battle is remarkably invisible. Gettysburg indeed only got a PG rating, not even a PG-13, unusual for a film that probably contains half again as much gunfire and explosions as your typical Hollywood action film. It is indeed a largely antiseptic view of the Civil War, with a lot of its unpleasantness carefully left offscreen.

In reality, of course, the Civil War was the most horrendous military conflict in American history. Though 20th century battles like Normandy and Okinawa were particularly ferocious, it was the sustained high-intensity slog of the Civil War that made it so bloody. Also the nature of the weaponry and the state of tactics made it even worse. An American soldier shot with a steel bullet on Omaha Beach in 1944 at least had (statistically speaking) fairly good odds of surviving, with a lot of tissue damage and trained medics very close. A Union soldier shot with a one-inch musket ball at Gettysburg in 1863, if he survived, could expect to lose whatever limb the ball had passed through, and a harrowing trial in an unsanitary field hospital with no painkillers or sterile instruments. And the casualty rates were much higher. Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, Alexander Gardner and other photographers took a series of photos of the battlefield dead that horrified people when they were published. They showed the awful toll of the battle: bloated, mangled corpses, blood-soaked fields, piles of bleeding amputated limbs outside of hospital tents. That was what the Civil War looked like, but very few of these kinds of images appear in the movie Gettysburg.

These and other photos of the aftermath of Gettysburg disturbed many people–exactly as they should have. Even they are fairly tame compared to what it was really like.

The emotional and moral cost of the war is at least a little better-represented. One of the most touching scenes is when Chamberlain hears from his brother Thomas (C. Thomas Howell) about the death (off-screen) of their friend Kilrain (Kevin Conway). Daniels portrays this scene perfectly, choking up and seeming almost unable to function for a while. At the end, Lee and Longstreet huddle around a small campfire, lamenting how the price of Southern independence is getting ever higher. There’s also a few very brief references to slavery, both from Union and Southern characters, but no more engagement with the thorny moral questions of the conflict than this. The Civil War was a moral catastrophe as much as a human one. Every war is, but this one was in particular.

Don’t get me wrong. I perfectly understand why the filmmakers chose to present a relatively antiseptic view of the war: originally Gettysburg was to have been a television miniseries, not a theatrical movie. The choice to turn it into a feature was daring, especially given its length, but it was quite commercially successful. I remember trying to go see it on its opening week in October 1993 and being surprised to learn all the shows were sold out. Gettysburg had a pretty tepid marketing campaign, so its popularity was spread mostly word-of-mouth–a true organic blockbuster. It’s the kind of film that you could show your kids to introduce them to history. A middle school social studies teacher would have no problem showing parts of Gettysburg to a seventh-grade class. This is probably a good thing. Another more realistic Civil War film, Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), gives us exploding heads, shocking racial prejudice and war atrocities committed on both sides. It’s a great film, but it’s an emotional slog to get through. It’s an entirely different kind of film.

This clip from Gettysburg showcases Richard Jordan’s powerful performance as General Armistead. Personally I think he should have gotten at least an Academy Award nomination. Not the best clip technically; the audio is out of sync.

We must be aware, however, of the risks of “cleaning up” history for popular consumption. Gettysburg is full of crackling muskets, waving flags, galloping horses and heroic commanders. These were genuine aspects of the real Civil War, but they were inseparable from the horror, catastrophe and moral inversion that accompanied them, and which are a part of all wars. Depicting war this way is not immoral in itself, but letting these depictions dominate society’s understanding of war is immoral. Future generations must understand the true costs of war, and today in the U.S. with an all-volunteer military, our awareness is increasingly dominated by media depictions of conflict rather than by histories or the I-was-there stories of family members, friends and other witnesses. Maybe we need pictures like Gettysburg, but we also need pictures like Glory. I enjoy Gettysburg and I will watch it again next year, but I have an excuse: I know a little bit about the darker side of the war too. Not everybody who sees the movie will have the benefit of that knowledge.

The poster art for Gettysburg is copyright (C) 1993 by Turner Pictures and New Line Cinema. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use under copyright laws. The 1863 photograph is public domain.

John Buford and the Battle of Gettysburg (the first day).

Today is the 155th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg, the pivotal battle of the Civil War and the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. A key figure on the first day was the man pictured above, John Buford, a Union cavalry general.

In some ways Buford was responsible for the entire battle. Scouting ahead of the main Union army on June 30, 1863, Buford and his key commanders rode into Gettysburg and realized that some Confederate troops were approaching. Buford correctly ascertained that the main body of the Southern army was behind them and that Gettysburg was a key location. He deployed his forces near the town to try to prevent the Confederates from gaining the high ground.

On Wednesday, July 1, in the morning, Buford’s cavalry–now dismounted–faced several units under the command of Confederate Gen. Henry Heth. Although Buford’s forces were badly outnumbered, he managed to hold them off until Union reinforcements arrived. Sporadic battles took place over the rest of the day, but Buford’s defense of the high ground became the key factor of the battle.

Sadly, Buford himself didn’t live long after the battle. He contracted a disease, probably typhoid, and died on December 16, 1863. Lincoln promoted him to Major General on his deathbed.

Padre Steve, a military chaplain and historian, has a long-running series of blog articles on the Battle of Gettysburg, adapted from a book he’s writing about the battle. Here are his great observations on the first day’s fighting.

The Leader is unavailable: the strange legend of Stalin’s post-invasion breakdown.

Seventy-seven years ago today, on June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. This was arguably the most important single move of World War II. Heady with his victories in the west and burning with an ideological passion to wipe Bolshevism off the map, Adolf Hitler lusted to take out his arch-rival, Stalin. We all know how it turned out; Hitler couldn’t complete his victory in time to avoid bogging down in the Russian winter, and the Soviet Union eventually rebounded to crush Germany. But in the first terrible hours and days of the invasion it looked like the USSR might really be finished. This was an extremely trying time.

There’s a famous legend surrounding Stalin just after the invasion. Supposedly he was so surprised by the move, and devastated by the potential consequences of not having anticipated it, that he suffered sort of a breakdown and could no longer function as supreme leader of the USSR. Most accounts of the story have him retreating to his dacha outside Moscow where he remained for three days, seeing no one, making no decisions and possibly going on a bender. (We do know that Stalin was a heavy drinker, so this is totally plausible). He may even have feared that he was going to be arrested or deposed. Finally some of his lackeys, principally Molotov (foreign minister) and Beria (secret police chief), went to the dacha, bucked him up and convinced him to come back to work. Then with his steely resolve he decided to do whatever it took to annihilate Hitler.

Here is actual color footage of the German invasion of the USSR taken on June 22, 1941. Courtesy of Romano Archive.

But is this really what happened? The story of Stalin’s breakdown is so well-entrenched in World War II lore that it seems dangerous to question it. It’s a part of almost every retelling of the invasion from the Soviet point of view. I’ve heard it mentioned in many documentaries. In the 1992 HBO TV movie Stalin, where the dictator is played by Robert Duvall (who won a Golden Globe for the performance), the episode is depicted with the “bender” angle added; Molotov and Beria reticently creep into the Leader’s bedroom, which is trashed, to find him sitting on the floor surrounded by glasses and empty vodka bottles. Most of these depictions come from the testimonies of Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan. However, in recent years some historians have come to question this “standard” account, pointing to various military orders signed by Stalin in the post-invasion days, suggesting that he was engaged at least to some degree and perhaps the “breakdown” or “bender” story is exaggerated.

Inevitably, judging the severity and timing of Stalin’s breakdown involves a determination of what the Leader was thinking in June 1941–and that’s by no means an easy call. In August 1939, Stalin signed a ten-year nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. The purpose of this treaty was largely military, at least from Hitler’s perspective. He wanted to make sure the USSR didn’t move against him when he took over Poland, which he did beginning on September 1, thus initiating World War II. But neither Hitler nor Stalin, ideological arch-enemies, trusted each other. The Soviet government in fact received a number of intelligence warnings, some from the British, that if properly interpreted should have told Stalin that Hitler was building up for an attack. It’s kind of hard to amass 5 million troops on Europe’s largest border, equip them and get them ready for an invasion in total secret. Surely, the thinking goes, Stalin wasn’t that dense, nor that gullible. Maybe he judged incorrectly that Hitler wouldn’t attack based on political calculations. Stalin was not infallible. If you accept that he was genuinely surprised by the invasion, the “breakdown” story is much easier to believe.

Another train of thought holds that Stalin was planning to attack Germany, and that Hitler’s invasion was, perhaps unwittingly, pre-emptive. I recall Edvard Radzinsky making this argument in his controversial 1996 biography Stalin, which was the first biography written with the benefit of Soviet-era documents released after the fall of the USSR in 1991. If this is true, it’s unclear to what degree Stalin’s plans had progressed by June 22. But if one buys what you might call the “preemption” argument, it’s harder to envision Stalin being laid low by a sudden sneak attack, when he was planning to do the same thing himself. Personally I had some problems believing some of the things Radzinsky wrote in 1996, but he could well be right. Stalin was quite calculating. It does seem kind of far-fetched that the thought Hitler might stab him in the back never once entered his mind. Even the timing of the invasion might not necessarily have been a surprise; Hitler’s previous campaigns, against Poland and France, were over in about 6 weeks. Add some margin for error and count backwards from the likely beginning of the rainy season in Russia and Ukraine, and it’s not hard to predict that, if Hitler was going to attack at all in 1941, late June would have been about his last chance to do so. (Napoleon also attacked Russia in the second half of June, in 1812).

Stalin looks on as Soviet and German representatives sign the (mostly) phony nonaggression pact of August 23, 1939. This treaty figures large in gauging Stalin’s reaction to the invasion.

There could, however, be another explanation for the “breakdown” that doesn’t depend on Stalin’s degree of surprise. He may simply have been exhausted. The breakdown does not seem to have occurred immediately. Stalin was up and about, and receiving reports of the situation, on June 22. (He usually worked very late; evidently he went to bed at 3AM that morning, and the invasion began the next hour). He did not make the initial statement on Moscow radio reporting the invasion–Molotov did it–but Stalin seems to have written it. According to some reports he worked feverishly over the next few days to staunch disaster and make what military and political decisions were possible. Naturally this would have been a trying time, and with so much information coming in there would be little chance to sleep. He may have finally reached a point where he simply couldn’t go on. Stalin was 62 in 1941. I’d like to see any other 62-year-old man work for several days with no sleep under the most stressful conditions imaginable and not collapse. I could also see helping himself to a bottle of vodka, or three. None of this is inconsistent either with being genuinely surprised by the invasion, or not being surprised.

Personally, I believe the “breakdown” did happen. Even if the fact and timing of Hitler’s attack turned out not to be that surprising, Stalin had plenty to agonize over on June 22, such as the fact that he now had to fight a world war with an army whose experienced leadership he’d spent most of the late 1930s massacring to a man. He might also have been chagrined at what the distraction of the war would do to the cause of world Communist revolution. It’s difficult to know what went on in the mind of Joseph Stalin, one of the most hard-to-figure men of the entire 20th century. Even if he’d left an account of his own behind, I doubt we could trust it. Stalin lied to himself as much as to the world.

All images in this article are in the public domain.

Today in history: the siege of the International Legations, Boxer Rebellion, China, 1900.

Today is the 118th anniversary of the death of a man named Clemens von Ketteler, a minor German diplomat. You probably haven’t heard of him, but his murder, on June 20, 1900, was the opening act in an epic drama that took place in Beijing, China, known as the siege of the Legations. Although this siege was only part of the event called the Boxer Rebellion, in popular memory the terms have come to be conflated. The painting above depicts a climactic moment of the siege.

In 1900 China, then under the rule of the decaying Manchu empress Tzu Xi (the Dowager Empress), had largely been carved up into spheres of influence by European imperialism. A religious sect called the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, nicknamed “the Boxers” by Westerners, had been rampaging through China, harassing and sometimes killing Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians, and calling for the expulsion of all foreigners from China. The foreign diplomats and families were required to live and work in a specific walled-off quarter of Beijing called the Legations. After von Ketteler’s murder by a Manchu army officer, the Chinese government, in desperation, threw its lot in with the Boxers and laid siege to the Legations for 55 days during the sweltering summer of 1900. The siege was finally broken by a coalition of Western forces that fought their way to Beijing from the coast.

The siege of the Legations was a major milestone on China’s descent into revolution. Eleven years later the dynasty was overthrown, initiating a period of unrest that would claim millions of lives and last until the 1940s–or the 1970s, if you count the Cultural Revolution as part of the broader Chinese revolution.

Incidentally, the site of the Legations, which was torn down decades ago, later became one of the main sports complexes for China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics. The modern Chinese government is not eager to relive this episode in the history of its country.

The header image is in the public domain.

Cribs of the Chiefs: let’s visit some Presidential Places. (Part 1) [videos]

So, you may know that I have a YouTube channel, and I’ve been trying to use it to full effect lately. In the classes that I teach online, I have developed a technique called “Geohistory,” where I not only tell you the history of a place, but I show you the actual place–on Google Maps, usually–where it happened. I’ve found this technique to be really illuminating not just for students, but for me. If you can see where something happened, you gain a greater appreciation of the event itself or the person that a place is associated with. It’s also a uniquely visual, entertaining and tech-savvy way, I think, to leverage modern Internet technology to advance the cause of history.

One of the series of videos I’m doing is called Presidential Places, and in it I mean to show you many, many different locations in the U.S.–and around the world, in fact–that have been associated with our Chief Executives. Though Presidential “cribs” are necessarily included in this category, the series isn’t limited to that; the U.S. Presidents have slept, worked, lived, loved and sinned in a lot of different places in the past 230 years, and many of them are really interesting to see. Thus, I’ve begun this ambitious project with the very first President, George Washington, and his palatial home Mount Vernon in Virginia. Here are the videos I’ve completed so far, taking you through the first five Presidents. Each one is only about five minutes long.

Presidential Places #1, Mt. Vernon (George Washington)

Presidential Places #2, Peacefield (John Adams)

Presidential Places #3, Graff House (Thomas Jefferson)

Presidential Places #4: Monticello, Part 1 (Thomas Jefferson)

Presidential Places #5: Monticello Part 2 (Thomas Jefferson)

Presidential Places #6: Poplar Forest (Thomas Jefferson)

Presidential Places #7: Independence Hall (George Washington, James Madison)

Presidential Places #8: Dolley Todd House (James Madison)

Presidential Places #9: Montpelier (James Madison)

Presidential Places #10: Octagon House (James Madison)

Presidential Places #11: Ash Lawn-Highland (James Monroe)

I will be continuing this series as I add more videos. It may take a long ways to get through all the Presidents, but there are still numerous interesting places to come!

If you watch the videos, please like, consider subscribing to my channel, and share.

The image of Mt. Vernon at the header of this article is in the public domain.