Yessiree – films have a powerful affect on us all. I am going to wager that pretty much everyone with an interest in Civil War history has had a look at Ron Maxwell’s 1993 film, Gettysburg. I will also wager that pretty much everyone has something to say about it – good…bad…or somewhere in between.
For starters, I have to say that I enjoyed the film (I can’t say the same about Maxwell’s follow up prequel, Gods and Generals – but that is a story for another day). I saw Gettysburg as a student, and I have shown it to my own students as part of an on-going effort to get at how Americans understand the history of their greatest national conflict.
I am particularly interested in how this film has helped catapult Joshua “don’t call me Lawrence” Chamberlain to the upper echelon of Union heroes. As we all know, Chamberlain’s unit, the 20th Maine, was positioned on the extreme left of the Union line at Gettysburg on July 2nd, 1863: Little Round Top. Their orders: hold the position at all costs.
Admittedly – this was a precarious situation. While they held the high ground (and thus a tactical advantage) the 20th was up against an Alabama regiment of Confederate General Longstreet’s Second Corps (some ass-kicking Rebels) and their left flank was exposed…hanging out in the breeze, really. Failure to hold this position could have essentially threatened the entire Union line – and everybody knew it. Anyone who has been to Little Round Top can plainly see that properly deployed Confederate guns would have been in a perfect position to roll up the Union left flank. The film suggests that this was the pivotal moment in the battle and the war. “If we lose this fight,” declares Chamberlain in the film, “we lose the war.”
Bummer. So the whole enchilada hinged on the commanding prowess of one man – and a college professor to boot. No worries – Chamberlain and the 20th won the day. A bayonet charge just when all seemed lost pushed the final Rebel advance off the hill and voila – the UNION WAS SAVED!!!
Not so fast. Now I am not trying to retrospectively kick Chamberlain in the nuts here, but let’s have a look at the bigger picture. I think, and most would agree, that Chamberlain and the 20th did a splendid job at Gettysburg (and Jeff Daniels did some bang-up work in the film, too). But did one man save the Union? I think not.
So why does this one soldier have such a hold on the American imagination? Well, it works a little like this. No one had heard much about Chamberlain until 1974, when Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels, a novel about the Battle of Gettysburg on which the film Gettysburg is based. Apparently Shaara was taken with Chamberlain’s story. A thoughtful college professor of rhetoric with a keen sense of right and wrong and an uncanny ability to master the art of warfare seemingly made for an excellent central character and a wonderful narrator of the Union cause. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and elevated Chamberlain in the eyes of Civil War enthusiasts.
But things really took off in 1990. Ken Burns, the self-proclaimed future of documentary film making, brought the Civil War into the living rooms of millions of Americans with his epic multi-part film, The Civil War. According to Burns, The Killer Angels was a “remarkable book that changed my life.” So it stands to reason, then, that Chamberlain and the 20th Maine would hold such a prominent position in the documentary. And if Burns’s film didn’t prove once and for all that Chamberlain essentially saved the Union, Gettysburg sealed the deal. Historians virtually ignored Chamberlain for the longest time, it took popular culture to shed light on this intrepid savior.
Okay Chamberlain fans…you can just relax. I love me some 20th, and Chamberlain was the real deal. Hell, he won the medal of honor for his gallantry on Little Round Top – and deservedly so. Let’s just be clear on a few things. He did not win the Battle of Gettysburg and save the Union all by himself.
For one, the 20th held only one end of the line. On the Union far right – Culp’s Hill – Colonel David Ireland commanded the 137th New York and held his position against an entire Confederate division. A loss here could have been equally catastrophic for the Union cause. But he is not mentioned in Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Burns’s The Civil War, or Maxwell’s Gettysburg. Too bad for Ireland. His cultural resonance is merely a blip against the Chamberlain juggernaut – even though his work was equally daunting, equally crucial, and was executed with equal fortitude and gallantry as Chamberlain’s.
But my quibbling with Chamberlain’s role in Gettysburg really leads me to my bigger point. The film has helped instill the idea in the greater American narrative that the war all came down to one battle. It did not. The Gettysburg as “high tide” of the Confederacy story really did not take hold until after the war, when analysts and historians looked retrospectively for the moment when the Confederacy had its greatest chance to secure independence. From this perspective, things went steadily downhill for the Rebels from July, 1863 to Appomattox. This is a powerful idea in many ways – but believe me, very few (if any) people in 1863 saw Gettysburg as deciding things one way or the other. Citizens of the Union were thrilled by the news of victory, citizens of the Confederacy were devastated by defeat. But the war went on for nearly two more years – and the people from both republics looked to the armies in the field for news of victory that would bring them closer to securing their respective causes.
The film suggests otherwise – and no one understands this better than our hero, the sagacious Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Gettysburg leaves the viewer with the knowledge that Gettysburg would have been the decisive battle for Confederate victory and, thanks to Chamberlain, this victory would not take place. Thank goodness that one colonel had the cajones to make the crucial decision to order a last ditch bayonet charge at the most critical moment in the battle. The film thus falls in line with one of the greatest misconceptions regarding the war: that Gettysburg was the war’s turning point. And this is ultimately what the Chamberlain story tells us. But misconception or not – Chamberlain is today among the top ten Civil War cultural icons…right up there with Lee and Lincoln. After all, you can’t find a David Ireland t-shirt for sale at any Gettysburg gift shop. This may be the most devastating fact of all.
Of course, that’s just my opinion – judge for yourself…