“Telling History” vs “Making Art”: Richard Ewell on July 1

gettysburg_xlgMy favorite scene in the movie Gettysburg comes when a fiery Isaac Trimble, taught as an over-coiled spring, appears before Robert E. Lee to recount the events of July 1. Frustrated by Richard Ewell’s inaction in front of Cemetery Hill late in the day, Trimble pleads for another assignment rather than be forced to continue to serve under Ewell.

It is a short but masterful performance by William Morgan Sheppard, who mixes fury, frustration, and a jigger full of heartbreak into a mix. It’s easy to drink Trimble’s Kool-Aid when it’s served up that well. I love the scene so much that it’s hard for me to be frustrated by it—yet frustrated I am.

I have been writing about Richard Ewell lately as part of Fight Like the Devil, the book I’m co-authoring with Dan Davis about the first day at Gettysburg. Ewell’s decision not to attack Cemetery Hill on July 1 still remains, after more than 151 years, one of the most controversial aspects of the entire battle—indeed, of the entire war. (For a full run-down, see the cover story that Kris White and I wrote for the August 2010 issue of Civil War Times.)

I can never think about Ewell on July 1, though, without thinking of Trimble’s exchange with Lee and, in particular, Sheppard’s performance.

KillerAngels-coverThe scene comes from Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, later adapted into Gettysburg.

In the novel, Lee, trying to assess the accuracy of several confusing reports about the July 1 battle, comes to the conclusion that Ewell missed a vital opportunity. He had ordered second corps commander to attack Cemetery Hill if practicable, but Ewell—according to Trimble—just stood there.

Trimble is an immediately likeable character, “a marvelous old man,” as Shaara describes him. His impotent rage is nearly palpable, and so it gives his perspective tremendous weight. Readers sympathize with him; they want to believe his character.

So does Lee, whose character seems to endorse Trimble’s conclusion: “[Lee] sensed, among the anger, the bitter breath of truth.” 

The scene is as powerfully written in the novel as it’s acted in the movie. Shaara uses it to ratchet up the stakes for Lee. Should the commanding general stay and fight or should he listen to the advice of his top lieutenant, James Longstreet, and seek more favorable ground? By coming so close to victory on July 1, it’s easier for Lee to stay and try again. From a dramatic point of view, it’s not so suspenseful if there isn’t much question about the outcome.

But therein lies the rub: Shaara is writing fiction, not history.

He needs to create tension and suspense. As a result, he completely excludes Ewell’s side of the story from the novel, just as director Ron Maxwell, drunk with Lost Cause-ism, excludes it from the movie. (I’ve discussed Shaara’s approach as an artist in more detail here and here.)

The truth is, Lee spent considerable time with Ewell on the late afternoon and evening of July 1—a fact that gets glossed over in the novel and skipped entirely in the movie. As a result, Ewell never gets the opportunity to respond to Trimble’s accusations. Instead, Shaara contrives to have Ewell practically corroborate it. “I think I was too slow today, sir,” Ewell says to Lee. “I regret that very much. I was trying to be . . . . careful. I may have been too careful.” [ellipses in the original]

That’s a convenient interpretation of events from the novelist’s point of view, but it’s problematic from a historical point of view. Ewell had plenty of good reasons to decide it wasn’t “practicable” to attack Cemetery Hill, so he made the prudent military decision not to attack. However, his reasons have largely been dismissed wholesale, first in the postwar years by Jubal Early—who had reason to divert blame from himself for a lack of activity on July 1—and in modern times because of Shaara’s novel and Maxwell’s film (which Old Jube couldn’t have scripted better).

As an artist, Shaara’s choice makes complete sense. To explore Ewell’s perspective in any depth would have killed the momentum of his novel at that point and diffused the building tension. Shaara has to exclude Ewell’s side of the story in order to make stronger art. The strength of that art comes to its fullest culmination in Sheppard’s wonderful onscreen performance.

The frustration is that so many people continue to accept that art as history.

But I can’t be too frustrated. I admire the writing too much, for many reasons, and I admire the performance too much, too. In the end, I can only repeat Lee’s words from the novel, astounded as I am by the ferocity of Trimble’s outburst: “Thank you, General. You will be of great service, thank you.”

3 Responses to “Telling History” vs “Making Art”: Richard Ewell on July 1

  1. Very interesting how powerful historical fiction can be…something writers and readers must always remember. I agree, we don’t get to hear General Ewell’s side of the story very often in fiction or the history books. He made a prudent military decision, but with the advantage of modern knowledge I have to echo A.S.Pendleton’s supposed comment, “Oh, that General Jackson was here!” (not exact quote, my paraphrase).

    Ewell is a fascinating general. Flawed (like all the others) and sometimes indecisive, but I think he had it pretty rough commanding most of Jackson’s troops and following “Stonewall” in the history books.

  2. Chris,
    You’re not alone in respect to the power of that scene and the memory it imposes. However, especially given it is an interpretation from a novel and related movie, I agree that it’s best we accept it as art and be a bit more inquisitive about both sides of the story. In any event it was a dramatic day in history and one that influenced the remainder of the war in equally dramatic ways.

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