Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Why Movies Are More Gooder Than Reality

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on May 3, 2012

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.


13 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Robert Baker said, on May 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks Andy. A fresh outlook.

  2. Will Hickox said, on May 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Hood was a brave man indeed to argue with that beard.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 5, 2012 at 11:26 pm

      The Yankees trembled in fear before The Beard.

      • Keith Harris said, on May 10, 2012 at 3:09 pm

        Yes….the Beard. Oh my.
        But in all seriousness….(as hard as it is to be serious when the Beard is involved) you are right on this one. Film is a great way to convey the attitudes of two people in a few minutes that actually took place over a longer period of time and involved any number of people. I enjoyed the scene as well.

        • Andy Hall said, on May 10, 2012 at 4:04 pm

          Did you notice that at the beginning of the scene, Hood and his staff ride in front of the artillery, but at end ride behind the guns as they’re about to fire?

  3. Bryan Cheeseboro said, on May 21, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    I enjoyed the movie “Gettysburg” when I saw it in 1993. But from what I’ve learned nearly 20 years later, it’s so interesting that many of the scenes in the film appear to be more fiction than fact.

    One scene, or at least one line, I take issue with is where Longstreet confides to British observer Arthur Fremantle that “we should have freed the slaves, THEN fired on Fort Sumter.” IN 1863, Longstreet was not a postwar Republican- not yet. As I have learned more about the war and why Confederates seceded and fought, that line by that actor seems so ridiculous… especially considering that James Longstreet went to war with his own body servant/slave in tow!

    • Andy Hall said, on May 21, 2012 at 2:54 pm

      In the movie, Colonel Fremantle serves mainly as an opportunity for expository dialogue, for the characters to have a reason to explain in detail their views and positions, which seem mostly transcribed from the Confederate Veteran magazine, c. 1905. In the actual historical record, Old Pete is implicated in much worse.

      • kacinash said, on May 28, 2013 at 12:53 pm

        I’m curious as to your thoughts regarding that line as well as others.

        Gettysburg has been my favorite movie since I was ten years old, but here I am twenty years later with considerable more knowledge about the Civil War and its causes, and I find it harder and harder not to find problems with much of the dialogue. The one that makes my skin crawl the most is that “we should have freed the slaves, then fired on Fort Sumter” line. Yes, Pete, you should have. But then what would the politicians have used to justify secession? It bothers me how much the film tries to distance the Confederate cause from slavery. Sure, most of the men in the ranks did not own slaves, but they were part of and fighting for the continuation a society that profited from the labor of four million men, women, and children. Their elected politicians thought that the continuation of that economic institution was worth severing ties with the nation. Slavery may not have been a personal reality for every Southern soldier, but it was a political reality in the states that they hailed from.

        In that same vein, my childhood hero, Chamberlain, is infused with emancipationist ideology. He has that wonderful speech to the boys of the 2nd Maine about how America should be free ground, from here to the Pacific Ocean. The expansion of a free America is what this cinematic Chamberlain is fighting for, but what about the five states in the Union in which slavery still resides? For all the character’s speeches on freedom and the touching scene with the “John Henry,” the realities of slavery in America are entirely absent.

        What are you thoughts on some of the fuzzy historicities of this epic movie?

        • Andy Hall said, on May 28, 2013 at 1:55 pm

          Kaci, thanks for your comment, and an interesting question.

          There are a number of things I like about Gettysburg, including the scene I highlight in the post above. But it has a lot of failings, too. For a start, it’s more of a “chronicle” film along the lines of The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far, that appeals to folks who have a keen interest in the topic and don’t want the film to skip anything, rather than appealing to “normal” movie goers who aren’t looking for either a history lesson or a cameo by their favorite division commander. Gods and Generals is even worse in that regard, although (again) there are a few things I like about the 2003 film.

          Ron Maxwell has never made any secret of his affinity for the Confederacy, and it shows in both Gettysburg and G&G. I think that explains in part — but only in part — the absence of any particular reference to slavery or even the thousands of slaves that accompanied the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Any realistic discussion of that subject would necessarily reflect badly on the characters that the film needs the audience to be sympathetic with. You cannot, for example, be very sympathetic with Old Pete Longstreet, if you also know that his chief of staff, Moxley Sorrel, was sending out instructions to his division commanders regarding the disposition of African Americans taken on Pennsylvania soil, “for further disposition.”

          (You can, BTW, still have sympathy for Tom Berenger having to wear that awful yak-hair beard. “Sorry, Tom. It’s in the contract.”)

          I think the only way to deal with the issue of slavery at all in the movies is to make it the central element of the picture, as with Glory or Amistad (or in a more recent setting, Red Tails), where emancipation/empowerment is the ultimate objective. It’s the nature of hard, historical reality that you cannot simultaneously do a film that deals with slavery in any sort of depth, that also makes the Confederacy look good. You either deal with slavery realistically, or shunt it off to the side and sing “Bonny Blue Flag” — you can’t really do both.

          You wrote:

          Sure, most of the men in the ranks did not own slaves, but they were part of and fighting for the continuation a society that profited from the labor of four million men, women, and children. Their elected politicians thought that the continuation of that economic institution was worth severing ties with the nation. Slavery may not have been a personal reality for every Southern soldier, but it was a political reality in the states that they hailed from.

          I’m letting you know right now, I’m going to be quoting that in the future.

          Finally, let me congratulate you on your blog, The Past in Progress. I look forward to following it.

          • kacinash said, on May 28, 2013 at 2:39 pm

            I guess I’m still holding out hope for a movie that can deal with race and slavery in the war and not have it be the central element of the film. Imagine a film where the characters are as complex as their human counterparts. It might make us sick to our stomach to see the abduction and (re)enslavement of African Americans carried out by the likes of Longstreet, just as it might be horrifying to see enacted the degree to which racism and bigotry infiltrated the Union that we find in their letters or diaries. It’s ugly, sure. But it’s the reality of nineteenth-century American thought and action. You might not longer be able to sympathize with such actions, but is it possible to learn to understand the people who committed them? Could we still feel for Berenger’s Longstreet as a thoughtful, cautious commander (with an enormous hat), still suffering over the premature loss of his children? I think so. I guess what I am looking for is a movie that gives slavery its rightful place in the story of the war without having to hit people over the head with it. Present, not presented, if that makes sense? But as you said, “you cannot simultaneously do a film that deals with slavery in any sort of depth, that also makes the Confederacy look good.” When are filmmakers going to stop worrying about making the Confederacy look “good” and instead just tell their story?

            Thanks for talking this out with me. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile things like my lifelong favorite movie, or popular memory of the war for that matter, with what history–historical records, &c.– tell us is true. It’s what makes studying the Civil War so challenging for me. You run into so many people with blinders on, who are unreceptive to any information that taints their idea/understanding/memory of the war.

            Oh, and did you see the re-edit of Gods & Generals that came out with the Blu-ray a few years back? It’s a completely different film, and actually rather wonderful, if not overly sentimental and reconciliatory in tone, just like Gettysburg. But it is less Stonewall-centric and tells a bit broader story. I’m actually not ashamed to say that I enjoy that film now, so long as I specify it’s the new cut of the movie. 🙂

            My blog is kind of non-existant. I always intended on maintaining it weekly or bi-weekly, but that is proving to be a difficult task! Not enough time or ideas to write.

            • Andy Hall said, on May 28, 2013 at 2:42 pm

              I haven’t seen the new cut of G&G, although I think I shall have to now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: