Why Movies Are More Gooder Than Reality
My favorite scene in the 1993 film Gettysburg is this one, where Hood rides to General Longstreet, his corps commander, to protest the order to make a frontal assault on Little Round Top. It’s brief, direct, and poignant; the way the dialogue is framed, even someone who knows nothing about Gettysburg understands immediately that the attack is doomed to fail. It perfectly encapsulates the conflict between the generals; too bad that encounter never happened.
At least, it didn’t happen the way it’s depicted in the movie, which is widely heralded in some quarters as being particularly faithful to the historical record. There’s no question that Hood protested his orders to make a frontal assault on the Federal position, and reluctantly complied with his orders, but the details of how that exchange came about are considerably different, as reported by three officers who were there.
Here is Evander M. Law’s (1836-1920, right) account of the event, from his article, “‘Round Top’ and the Confederate Right at Gettysburg,” published in the December 1886 issue of The Century Magazine. At the time, Law commanded the Alabama Brigade in Hood’s Division, and succeeded to command of the division when Hood was wounded early in the action:
I found General Hood on the ridge where his line had been formed, communicated to him the information I had obtained, and pointed out the ease with which a movement by the right flank might be made. He coincided fully in my views, but said that his orders were positive to attack in front, as soon as the left of the corps should get into position. I therefore entered a formal protest against a direct attack. . . .
General Hood called up Captain Hamilton, of his staff, and requested me to repeat the protest to him, and the grounds on which it was made. He then directed Captain Hamilton to find General Longstreet as quickly as possible and deliver the protest, and to say to him that he (Hood) indorsed it fully. Hamilton rode off at once, but in about ten minutes returned, accompanied by a staff-officer of General Longstreet, who said to General Hood, in my hearing, ” General Longstreet orders that you begin the attack at once.” Hood turned to me and merely said, ” You hear the order ? ” I at once moved my brigade to the assault. I do not know whether the protest ever reached General Lee. From the brief interval that elapsed between the time it was sent to General Longstreet and the receipt of the order to begin the attack, I am inclined to think it did not. General Longstreet has since said that he repeatedly advised against a front attack and suggested a movement by our right flank. He may have thought, after the rejection of this advice by General Lee, that it was useless to press the matter further.
Just here the battle of Gettysburg was lost to the Confederate arms.
In his own account, James Longstreet (1821-1904) acknowledges Hood’s appeals not to go forward with the attack as planned, but also suggests that even when the matter was decided, Hood dragged his feet in executing it:
Hood’s division was in two lines, Law’s and Robertson’s brigades in front, G. T. Anderson’s and Benning’s in the second line. The batteries were with the divisions, four to the division. One of G. T. Anderson’s regiments was put on picket down the Emmitsburg road. General Hood appealed again and again for the move to the right, but, to give more confidence to his attack, he was reminded that the move to the right had been carefully considered by our chief and rejected in favor of his present orders. . . .
Prompt to the order the combat opened, followed by artillery of the other corps, and our artillerists measured up to the better metal of the enemy by vigilant work. Hood’s lines were not yet ready. After a little practice by the artillery, he was properly adjusted and ordered to bear down upon the enemy’s left, but he was not prompt, and the order was repeated before he would strike down.
In his usual gallant style he led his troops through the rocky fastnesses against the strong lines of his earnest adversary, and encountered battle that called for all of his power and skill. The enemy was tenacious of his strong ground ; his skilfully-handled batteries swept through the passes between the rocks ; the more deadly fire of infantry concentrated as our men bore upon the angle of the enemy’s line and stemmed the fiercest onset, until it became necessary to shorten their work by a desperate charge. This pressing struggle and the cross-fire of our batteries broke in the salient angle, but the thickening fire, as the angle was pressed back, hurt Hood’s left and held him in steady fight. His right brigade was drawn towards Round Top by the heavy fire pouring from that quarter, Benning’s brigade was pressed to the thickening line at the angle, and G. T. Anderson’s was put in support of the battle growing against Hood’s right.
There’s no mention in either Law’s or Longstreet’s accounts of the two men arguing the matter face-to-face.
Division commander John Bell Hood (1831-79), in his posthumously-published memoir, gave this version of events, recounted in a letter he’d written to Longstreet a decade after the conflict:
A third time I despatched one of my staff [to Longstreet] to explain fully in regard to the situation, and suggest that you had better come and look for yourself. I selected, in this instance, my adjutant-general, Colonel Harry Sellers, whom you know to be not only an officer of great courage, but also of marked ability. Colonel Sellers returned with the same message, ‘General Lee’s orders are to attack up the Emmetsburg road.’ Almost simultaneously. Colonel Fairfax, of your staff, rode up and repeated the above orders.
After this urgent protest against entering the battle at Gettysburg, according to instructions — which protest is the first and only one I ever made during my entire military career — I ordered my line to advance and make the assault.
As my troops were moving forward, you [Longstreet] rode up in person; a brief conversation passed between us, during which I again expressed the fears above mentioned, and regret at not being allowed to attack in flank around Round Top. You answered to this effect, ‘ We must obey the orders of General Lee.’ I then rode forward with my line under a heavy fire. In about twenty minutes, after reaching the peach orchard, I was severely wounded in the arm, and borne from the field.
Hood’s account is the earliest of the three, and closest to the scene in the film. But while it does recount a face-to-face meeting between him and Longstreet, it differs from the movie encounter in two critical aspects. First, Hood makes it clear that it was Longstreet who came to him, not the other way around. More important, when they did meet, the issue had already been decided, and Hood’s Division was already advancing. At this point, the decision to commit his troops to a frontal assault was final — “I again expressed the fears above mentioned, and regret at not being allowed to attack in flank around Round Top.” Like Law, Hood says his formal protest was made through staff officers earlier, not directly to Longstreet himself, and there’s no suggestion that when they did met, their exchange was anywhere near as heated as depicted in the movie.
So what really happened? All three accounts are pretty consistent, given the passage of years, and none has Hood riding over to his corps commander to make his plea in person. (Indeed, to have absented himself from his division to do so during a battle, in fact, might have been seen as dereliction; generals are surrounded by staff officers and couriers for just that purpose.) If the two discussed it at all in person, as Hood describes, it was after the matter had already been settled and his division’s regiments were on the move.
Kevin has mentioned before how another important Civil War film, Glory, both highlighted and badly over-simplified the “pay crisis” that enveloped the 54th Massachusetts and other early black regiments. Virtually all films of that sort have to simplify events, compress timelines and (sometimes) create composite characters to advance the story at a regular pace, and help the audience follow the plot. It’s just a fact of story-telling on film.
I don’t especially fault Ron Maxwell, who both directed Gettysburg and wrote the screenplay, for handling this part of the story, in this way. It neatly, and dramatically, encapsulates the real-life conflict between Old Pete and Sam Hood in a way that more-historically-accurate shots of staff officers galloping back and forth across the Pennsylvania countryside could never achieve. It’s more effective storytelling, and it accurately reflects the positions of the principals. But even when, as in this case, it speaks to a larger truth, one should never confuse it with the truth.
And I still love that scene.