Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog


Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on December 23, 2010

The new Coen Brothers’ film True Grit opened today, and it looks to be worth the wait. The film is not a remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic, but a new telling of the story that is reportedly closer to the 1968 Charles Portis novel (read: darker). I saw the original film as a kid, but it doesn’t especially wear well; given the Coen Brothers’ track record of creating worlds populated by vivid — if not entirely likable — characters, this is a movie to see.

Last month Jennifer Bouldin, who lives and works in Fort Smith, Arkansas, posted a great article about the fact and fiction of that town as depicted in the film. The Coens and their production team seem to have taken considerable liberties with their depiction, but Dr. Bouldin nonetheless is excited about the film, as it’s likely to be a significant driver of local tourism just as its predecessor was. In the process of separating myth from truth, Bouldin corrects some misconceptions about both Fort Smith and its most infamous 19th century resident, Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge of Indian Territory:”

Parker is infamously known as “The Hangin’ Judge” because he sentenced 160 men and women to hang during his 21 years on the bench. Of those, 79 men were indeed executed in Fort Smith, more than by any other judge in American history.

Despite his moniker, Parker personally was against the death penalty. Instead he favored sending prisoners for rehabilitation back into society to a progressive detention center in Detroit. Considering that he heard 13,490 cases in 21 years, holding court six days a week for up to 10 hours a day, 160 death sentences is a small percentage of the total. His original jurisdiction was larger than the entirety of New England. Parker also did not decide the criminals’ fate—the jury decided the verdict and federal law determined the penalty, yet his is the name associated with the 79 men who were hanged in Fort Smith.

Bum rap.

Seventy-nine executed over the space of 21 years is about four per year, a rate that doesn’t quite justify Judge Parker’s morbid reputation. Go read the whole thing.


War So Terrible: A Civil War Combat Film

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on July 17, 2010

Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory recently highlighted a short film produced by Pamplin Park (Virginia) and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, War So Terrible: A Civil War Combat Film. It’s a most unusual piece of film-making, and now that I’ve seen it, I can second Kevin’s endorsement.

War So Terrible follows two fictional soldiers, one Union and one Confederate, who both enlist early in the war as enthusiastic recruits. They each survive a bloody encounter between their units early in the war, and then come face-to-face in a Federal assault on Confederate earthworks in the closing days of the war, when both men have become older, wiser, more jaded. The Civil War sequences are told as flashbacks in the memory of these two men, who are meeting for a third and final time in 1895 at a commemoration ceremony led by an unctuous local official determined on warm reconciliation and treacly sentiment. Neither of the old soldiers have any use for those notions; after three decades, the bitterness still remains.

Aside from presenting a much more realistic view of soldiers’ attitudes — both as young men and old — War So Terrible is far more honest than anything I’ve seen in its depiction of the carnage on the battlefield and the psychological trauma these men endured. The footage is, an many places, as explicit as any image by Brady or Gardner, but in color and live-action. It’s not fun to watch. Documentaries, aiming for as wide an audience as possible, generally avoid recreating such scenes; feature films like Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, for all the effort that went into historical verisimilitude and sweeping battle scenes, are almost entirely sanitized for the same reason.

There are two versions of War So Terrible on the disk; the full (and fully graphic) 48-minute version, and an edited, 23-minute educational version more appropriate for students.

The film is not perfect. The plot is a bit contrived and the acting is stiff. But it’s a brave departure from the norm in both concept and execution, and should be required viewing for anyone prone to romanticizing this country’s most horrific conflict.

War So Terrible can be ordered through the Civil War Store at Pamplin Park (US$9.95 plus shipping).

Not for Megan Fox, Not Even for the CGI Ironclad. . . .

Posted in Media by Andy Hall on June 22, 2010

I do like those double, horse-mounted Gatling guns, though. Anybody know if Dixie Gun Works will be carrying them? H/t Blood of My Kindred.