ECW welcomes guest author Tom McMillan
I was at a movie theatre in suburban Pittsburgh on an otherwise forgettable rainy Tuesday night in the fall of 1993.
“I left my spectacles over there,” General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army said to his ranking subordinate, James Longstreet, as they pored over a map of Pennsylvania, anxiously plotting strategy for their great invasion of the North. “What is the name of this town?”
I knew the answer but leaned forward anyway in anticipation.
“Gettysburg,” Longstreet said.
In each person’s life there are seemingly innocuous moments that affect you in ways you never imagined. That night – watching the movie Gettysburg in a darkened theater full of strangers – was one of those for me. I had always been a student of history and visited the Gettysburg battlefield with my parents when I was in grade school in the 1960s, but nothing had yet drawn me back to the small town in south-central Pennsylvania or plunged me more deeply into study of the Civil War. Until then. “We may have an opportunity here,” said the actor Martin Sheen, playing Lee, and it was if as though he were speaking directly to me.
I got in my car three days later and drove to Gettysburg, contracting a Civil War “illness” that remains to this day. I have attended the anniversary days of the battle every year for the past quarter century, served on the board of directors of the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, joined the marketing committee of the Gettysburg Foundation and recently wrote a book, Gettysburg Rebels, about five former residents who returned home as foreign invaders for the great battle. I was married in Gettysburg, and my wife and I even own a plot in the town’s famous Evergreen Cemetery. That’s about as all-in as you can be.
I dare say none that would have happened had I not been in the theater that night watching Sheen and Tom Berenger, as Lee and Longstreet, making final arrangements to plot their insurrection, and the Union Army’s heroic actions to repel them.
The movie was that compelling, that dramatic … that impactful.
In the 25 years since then, Director Ron Maxwell’s epic Gettysburg has earned its rightful place in the pantheon of outstanding American war films. Coupled with Ken Burns’ epic PBS series, The Civil War, it touched off an astonishing surge of battlefield visitation and attracted a new generation of scholars to the 19th century war that shaped the country’s future. Previously obscure figures such as Joshua Chamberlain and John Buford of the Union Army became as well-known to modern students as Lee, Longstreet and the star-crossed leader of Pickett’s Charge, George Pickett. Certain lines from the script – “We should have gone to the right” and “All they had to do was roll rocks down on us” – became such a part of the Civil War lexicon that they are repeated even today by visitors on the craggy slopes of Little Round Top.
I wasn’t the only one.
But I soon came to learn there was an unexpected “downside” to the public’s newfound interest in Gettysburg. Many thousands of viewers took the movie as unvarnished fact – when, in fact, it was based on a historic novel, Killer Angels, with many fictionalized scenes The novelist, Michael Shaara, altered certain details and created much of his own dialogue among soldiers to move the story along, doing it well enough to win a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished fiction. Maxwell, in adapting Shaara’s novel to the theatre, couldn’t possibly cover the entire three-day battle in four hours, so he picked and chose his heroes as a director must. He elevated Chamberlain, Lewis Armistead and John Bell Hood to icon status while virtually ignoring George Meade, the Union’s commanding general, who appears on screen for all of 60 seconds.
This all struck me for the first time in the summer of 1994 when a park ranger doing a tour of Little Round Top pronounced the site of the 20th Maine monument as “the place where the great Joshua Chamberlain saved the Union Army and the entire United States.” The words fairly dripped with sarcasm.
Students with the deepest knowledge of the battle seemed to struggle most with this new reality – appalled that such a complex battlefield narrative had been condensed to a few fascinating vignettes in the minds of many visitors. For instance, Chamberlain’s stand against the 15th Alabama had merited only six pages in Edwin Coddington’s 550-page Gettysburg Campaign, considered the best single-volume academic study of the battle, and yet it was hailed in the movie as the singular turning point of the second day’s action. Other scenes and speeches were so riveting and believable that viewers took them for fact.
I realized this early on and dove deep into study of the battle and its aftermath, trying to untangle the myths and legends of the movie. What I found, at first, surprised me.
Among other things:
- Two emotional conversations between Longstreet and Armistead on the eve of battle never happened. Such scenes served a clear purpose for the movie, personalizing the friendship between Armistead and General Winfield Hancock of the Union Army – which became a key subplot – but they simply are not based in fact. Battlefield guides Wayne Motts and James Hessler, writing in their recent book, Pickett’s Charge, note that while Armistead and Hancock certainly were friends from the antebellum army, “there are no contemporary accounts to indicate that the two men were emotionally pining for each other in the battle as they do in the popular novel and film.”
- Buster Kilrain, the crusty old sergeant of the 20th Maine, and one of the most popular characters in the movie, was a figment of Shaara’s imagination. Names of soldiers from the 20th who were killed at Gettysburg are listed on the side of the regimental monument on Little Round Top. Many modern-day visitors often wonder why Kilrain’s name does not appear.
- One tear-jerking line attributed to Armistead is especially misleading. In the movie version of a pre-war conversation with Hancock, he blurts out, “Win, so help me, if I ever lift a hand against you, may God strike my dead!” However, according to a book written by Hancock’s wife, who was present when the two men spoke, what Armistead actually said was, “I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil.” Using the correct (but far less emotional) quote would have changed the meaning of the entire scene.
- Joshua Chamberlain’s brother, Tom, wasn’t the Union officer who spoke with Armistead on Cemetery Ridge after he was wounded. It was actually Henry Bingham, a member of Hancock’s staff. This was done to keep the movie rolling along, rather than introducing a new character in its final moments – but it was another fabrication.
- Lee and Longstreet didn’t meet in Lee’s headquarters on the night of the second day – the compelling movie scene to that effect notwithstanding – and almost certainly didn’t sit around a campfire on the night of the third day, commiserating about their defeat in Pickett’s Charge.
And yet none of this takes away from the movie’s grandeur, its edge-of-the-seat combat action or its unprecedented impact on battlefield visitation. Shaara never said he was writing an academic history of the battle, and Maxwell never touted his film as a documentary. If viewers mistook the obvious drama for facts and footnotes, that was not the fault of the author or the director. The magnificence of Gettysburg lies in capturing this seminal battle in the most easily understandable of human terms. You left feeling you had seen Pickett’s Charge as it happened. You were exhausted.
I had the pleasure of attending the 25th anniversary celebration of the movie in October 2018 in Gettysburg. Eight hundred giddy movie buffs crammed themselves into the little town’s Majestic Theatre to hear Maxwell’s opening oratory and mingle with the actors who played Pickett, Hancock, Hood, Richard Garnett, A.P. Hill, and E.P. Alexander (a gracious Patrick Gorman, who played Hood, even told my wife she should have “gone to the right”). The film was almost five hours because it included several scenes that never made the final Hollywood version, but few in the audience fidgeted and no one complained
It is, I believe, the greatest war movie of all-time, unquestionably the greatest I’ve ever seen, outdoing even “Patton,” the previous champion. If it departed from actual history at some points, so be it. An entire generation of Civil War enthusiasts, me included, were drawn into a lifelong fascination with the epoch event of the 1800s because of Maxwell’s big-screen adaptation of Shaara’s award-winning novel. We could use a similar artistic effort to entice the scholars of the future.
Tom McMillan works in sports, but his passion is history. In addition to being the author of two books – Gettysburg Rebels and Flight 93 – he serves on the board of trustees of Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center, on the board of directors of the Friends of Flight 93 and on the marketing committee of the Gettysburg Foundation. Several of his ancestors served with the 62nd Pennsylvania Volunteers and fought in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg. He works as vice president of communications for the Pittsburgh Penguins and resides in Pittsburgh with his wife, Colleen.