For The Love of Tender Kinship
A Filmmakers Journey Through The Civil War
The starry cross of the Confederacy remains America’s most controversial icon. The Saint Andrew’s cross embedded in this emblem can be seen as a symbol for the cross roads and cross currents of American history. For many Americans the flag is like a dagger to the heart, a painful reminder of the worst of America’s past injustices and persisting racial prejudices. To many others, the flag inspires pride in a heroic past, it stirs, even in Lincoln’s phrase, the “mystic chords of memory” for gallant and fearless warriors fighting for their independence. Each side finds it difficult to appreciate the genuine feelings of their counterparts or to reconcile the one viewpoint with the other.
The Civil War was a brutal episode in our history. More than a half million were killed and many more horribly wounded. Tens of thousands were made refugees. The suffering was beyond our reckoning. Individual heroism and courage, duty and honor, only make sense in the context of these trials and tribulations. There are more than a few in the academy, in the media, in politics, who tend to reduce the fearful agony of the Civil War to simplistic jargon. They insist on seeing the war in terms of the good guys and the bad guys. In their self-appointed roles as cultural commissars they will not hesitate to ridicule or vilify those who deviate from their orthodoxy.
In his insightful essay, “The Legacy of the Civil War,” Robert Penn Warren posits the notions of two great myths persisting in the American consciousness – for the South, the Great Alibi and for the North, the Treasury of Virtue. “Once the War was over,” says Warren, “the Confederacy became a City of the Soul… Only at the moment when Lee handed Grant his sword was the Confederacy born; or to state matters another way, in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.” In the Great Alibi, in the attempt to recall and enshrine the best motives for Southern Independence, the most repugnant factor is sometimes overlooked or de-emphasized – the issue of slavery.
“If the Southerner, with his Great Alibi, feels trapped by history, the Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history, automatically redeemed,” Warren continues. “He has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner in the Middle Ages, but a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future, freely given by the hand of history.” Or, as Brook Adams once noted, “The Yankees went to war animated by the highest ideals of the nineteenth century middle classes? But what the Yankees achieved – for their generation at least – was a triumph not of middle-class ideals but of middle-class vices. The most striking products of their crusade were the shoddy aristocracy of the North and the ragged children of the South. Among the masses of Americans there were no victors, only the vanquished.”
More than a few film critics were miffed that Gods and Generals did not perpetuate the victor’s myth of a war waged against an evil Confederacy. They cling to their simplistic received wisdom as if it were holy writ. In Hermanos, William Herrick’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, a character responds to the conforming pressures of his Bolshevik party leaders in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade by saying, “They will hurt you the first time you tell them a truth they don’t want to hear.”
It is not the job of the filmmaker to reinforce the prejudices and tastes of the critics, the prevailing elites or even the general public. The filmmaker must resist, in advance, the pressure to say the right thing, utter the expected phrase. It may be a good career move and it may seduce a critic or two, but it will only invite contempt in the long run. One only has to look back over the last hundred years of filmmaking to separate the panderers from the iconoclasts, to distinguish those who offered up the easy answers from those who posed the hard questions.
Warren offers a cautionary note to future novelists, historians and yes, even filmmakers. “Moral narcissism is a peculiarly unlovely and unloveable trait, even when the narcissist happens to possess the virtues which he devotes his time congratulating himself upon.” It would be taking the easy path, seeking the approbation of those who guard the Treasury of Virtue, to present the Civil War as a contest between good and evil. Conversely, it would be all too tempting to strike the pose of the outrageous provocateur – to indulge in the perpetuation of the Great Alibi.
What has interested me as a filmmaker and chronicler of the Civil War are the hard choices that real people had to make, riven by divided loyalties and conflicting affections. Each historical character embodies their own internal struggle – their own personal civil war. Gods and Generals begins with a quote from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, referring to the importance of place, of the local, of the particular. It sets the stage for the central dilemma. Humans by their very nature are attached to place and home. These attachments can be powerful in both constructive and destructive ways. People are also attached to family and to group. They can be motivated by ideas and ideals. The characters in Gods and Generals are not immune to these forces. They are all, to a man and a woman, pulled and pushed by these conflicting allegiances.
In the film “patriotism” metamorphoses from a philosophical abstraction to an organic life force. For many nineteenth-century southerners patriotism expressed a love of state and locality that seems strange if not incomprehensible to inhabitants of the new global community. For nineteenth-century unionists, who found themselves on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, patriotism constituted a love of the entire country, from Penobscot Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. For African-Americans patriotism could mean all of the above, further influenced by the group identity and allegiance fostered by slavery in the South and prejudice in the North.
Some critics objected to the absence of scenes depicting the most violent excesses of slavery. Such scenes are not in the movie for two reasons. One, the film’s main Southern characters, Jackson and Lee, were opposed to slavery, and although products of their time, believed the peculiar institution‘s days were numbered. For them the War was not about the defense of slavery. Two, this film, perhaps for the first time, captures the perniciousness of the institution of slavery. That is to say that slavery was not perpetuated by and did not depend on sadists. It persisted in America, as in other countries in the 19th century, due to deeply embedded economic systems involved with global trade, unjustly rationalized by a corrosive dehumanization of the very victims who made these systems function.
In Gods and Generals we meet two Afro-Virginians who despite being treated with respect and even love have no confusion whatsoever about their condition and their desire to be free. Who among us would want to live in slavery no matter how benign the immediate situation? The unusual cinematic treatment of these relationships, though widespread among whites and blacks during the War, was misinterpreted by these critics as “glossing over” slavery. They obviously missed the point. In the simplistic moral outrage of their reviews they also deprive African-Americans of their full humanity and in their own unintended way reveal a bigotry of appearances. They expect 19th century blacks to be portrayed exclusively in one dimension. In reality, research shows that blacks, just like their white neighbors, experienced conflicting allegiances. Yes, a powerful solidarity with others held in servitude, but also an affection for the white families with whom their lives were intertwined, and yes, patriotism – a love for the places in which they lived as the only homes they ever knew.
Martha, the domestic slave in the Beale family (played by Donzaleigh Abernathy (daughter of the great Civil Rights leader), has a genuine affection for the white children she has helped rear alongside her own. She is also tied by emotion, tradition and circumstance to the larger community of blacks, whose fate she shares. When Yankee looters come to ransack her home in Fredericksburg she will not let them pass. A few days later, when Yankee soldiers seek to requisition the same home as a hospital, she opens the door and attends to the wounded.
As a Presbyterian and Calvinist, Jackson is shown in the film as accepting God’s will. He says, following First Manassas, “I am as safe in battle as in bed. God has selected the time of my death. I must be always ready, whenever it will overtake me.” Slavery, an abomination, will be abolished in God’s time.
Of course Jackson can see Jim Lewis as an equal in the eyes of God, even if fallen human society does not view him or accept him in this way. This is precisely why their praying scene is in the movie. Not as an apology for Jackson’s indifference to the conditions of Afro-Virginians , but as an insight into how he perceived the injustice would be cured. He might have been wrong, and in light of the horror of the Civil War and the actual cost in blood to achieve emancipation he is shown to have been wrong. But in the moment he might have been right. Emancipation of millions of slaves throughout the Western Hemisphere occurred without similar cataclysmic wars.
Each and every day on the set the actors were reminded that the characters they portrayed did not know and could not know what would happen in the future, or even the next day or the next hour. Anymore than we do in our own lives at this very moment. Nor could I write dialogue that would place any of the characters outside of their own lives or in a place beyond their own time.
Chamberlain’s view of Christianity is different than Jackson’s. He sees himself fulfilling a Christian calling for social change, what might have been called in a later century “Liberation Theology.” He tells his brother Tom, “War is a scourge, but so is slavery…If my life or yours, is the price to pay for ending this curse and freeing the negro, then let God’s will be done.” Both Jackson and Chamberlain are listening for God’s guidance. They both want to do His will.
Who cannot appreciate Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain for what he was? We understand and respect everything he fought for. When I was writing the part and directing Jeff Daniels in both films, it was my solemn responsibility to portray the man as authentically and honestly as possible. To give him his full throated reason for being and acting in the war. I did not set up a straw man to later take down at some convenient dramatic moment. The same can be said of Jackson. How irresponsible it would be to write a part and make a movie about a man whose motives you could not or would not understand and respect. Was I expected to set up a straw man to later take down at the convenient dramatic moment? Is Jackson less a man, were his motivations of a lesser order of integrity than Chamberlain’s?
Of course Jackson and Lee strongly articulate the Southern cause in the film. How could it be otherwise? But some in the academy want the memory of the Civil War to be their approved memory, and only their approved memory. Woe be the writer of history or the maker of films who dares deviate from this doctrine. If and when we get to produce the final film in the trilogy, neither Ulysses S. Grant nor William Tecumseh Sherman will be set up as straw men to be manipulated for political effect. They too were real men who lived real lives, who put themselves in harm’s way and emerged victorious in the most brutal and costliest of America’s wars. It would be shameful to portray them in anything less than their full humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Other critics protested that we put Stonewall Jackson on a pedestal. They could not have seen the film, or at least not the scene where Jackson tells his aides following the Battle of Fredericksburg, referring to the Yankees, “We must kill them, sir. We must kill them all.” Or perhaps they missed the earlier meeting with General Stuart where Jackson argues for the Black Flag, which meant that no prisoners would be taken alive. Or perhaps they left the theater before Jackson condemns three deserters to the firing squad. No, we didn’t make a bronze man out of the real man. We showed him as he was, a fiercely devout, eccentric, courageous, tactically brilliant, daring warrior who believed completely in his cause and in his men – who could order subordinates into the face of cannon fire as quickly as he could break down in tears over the untimely death of a little girl.
In The Gulag Archipelago Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
A school of historians write about the forces of history, about ideology and determinism. Whatever truth there is in such analysis, it is not the place where individuals live out their lives. Ordinary people like you and me and the characters who inhabit my two Civil War films live their lives day by day, hoping to make the best of it with dignity, hoping to get by, simply to survive. They in their time, like we today, have bonds of affection across racial, religious, sexual, and political divides.
Warren provides a kind of credo for the filmmaker with the audacity to venture into these waters.
“Historians, and readers of history too, should look twice at themselves when the (Civil War) is mentioned. It means that we should seek to end the obscene gratifications of history, and try to learn what the contemplation of the past, conducted with psychological depth and humane breadth, can do for us. What happens if, by the act of historical imagination – the historian’s and our own – we are transported into the documented, re-created moment of the past and, in a double vision, see the problems and values of that moment and those of our own, set against each other in mutual criticism and clarification? What happens if, in innocence, we can accept this process without trying to justify the present by the past or the past by the present?”
“(T)here is a discipline of the mind and heart, a discipline both humbling and enlarging, in the imaginative consideration of possibilities in the face of the unique facts of the irrevocable past. History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”
The release of the Extended Director’s Cut edition of Gods and Generals, coinciding as it does with the 150th anniversary of the conflict, refocuses our attention on the central event of 19th century America and perhaps of our entire history – which took place after all, in our own backyards. Eight years after its theatrical release, this is the complete, unabridged film we set out to make. With its added sequences, restored sub-plots and re-editing it is almost an entirely different film. Time and those yet unborn will be its final judge.
“To experience the full imaginative appeal of the Civil War,” says Robert Penn Warren, “…may be, in fact, the very ritual of being American.”
-Ronald F. Maxwell
“Poetic License” in Historical Films
Poetic license is the art of what might have been, of what could have been. Not a snapshot, it is more like a retrieved memory, an illumination. It is a window opened to reality, not closed to it. When we read Hugo or Tolstoy, we know it is fiction we are reading, not history, but we are convinced of its authenticity, its honesty, its rigorous conception of what might have been, what could have been. Poetic license is not an excuse for sloppiness and slip-shod research, it does not provide authorization to make itall up, to distort or to falsify. Poetic license is not cover for propaganda.It is not a hunting license to kill truth.
Filmmakers, playwrights and novelists, no different than historians, are fiercely preoccupied with the truth – poetic, dramatic and historical truth. When it rings true it is believed. When truth is rendered with artistry, and sometimes genius, it yields War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, Ninety Three, The Gods Must Have Blood. By these novels we know the French Revolution as well or better than we know it from the historical works of Jules Michelet or Simon Schama.
Audio tapes of conversations between Harriet Beecher Stowe and her brother Henry Ward Beecher are not available. But there are letters and speeches and diaries and novels written by one or the other. This suggests that their dialogue be derived, inspired and freely created from what they actually thought and wrote, not imposed on them with a sensibility that is not their own. Poetic License demands a recreation of what Harriet and Henry might have said,could have said, within the context of their own times and their own moral universe.
Obviously, this still leaves an immense range of possibilities. Defining and patrolling the border line between what is possible and what isn’t, is the responsibility of the artist who enters the realm of historical fiction, or at least, the artist who cares anything at all about the truth of the matter.
The Civil War was a brutal episode in our history. More than a half million were killed or wounded. Tens of thousands were made refugees. The suffering was beyond our reckoning. Individual heroism and courage, duty and honor, only make sense in the context of these trials and tribulations. I have not shied away from either in this screenplay. The last thing the world needs is a mindless, glossy entertainment on the Civil War. None of us wants that, so it is important to accept the seriousness of this challenge: to keep our eyes wide open, to be relentlessly honest, to refrain from perpetuating myth and folklore – to get to the truth of the matter. Nothing will be more dramatic and nothing will be more worthwhile.
-Ronald F. Maxwell
Remembering First Manassas
By James Robertson
Shortly after the battle, a soldier informed the home folk: “Our men fought well and stood the fire like heroes.” He was from Maine. At the same time, another infantryman stated: “Our brave men fell in great numbers, but they died … fighting in the holy cause of liberty.” That soldier was from Alabama.
Both of them were giving new meaning to the word “patriotism.” However, they were fighting each other in the most traumatic and the most transformational event in American history. The killing process began in productive fields and quiet woods near a railroad junction known as Manassas and along an innocent stream misnamed Bull Run. It was the starting-point for the nation’s largest war.
Many Americans find the Civil War inspiring; others find it embarrassing. Whatever the case, that struggle earned undying remembrance—for what it was, and for what it gave us.
History is never simple. To say that slavery per se caused the Civil War does not imply that every soldier had slavery on his mind when he marched away to war. The great majority of Southerners fought and died without owning slaves or intending to do so. Thousands of Billy Yanks surged forth in battle with no intention to free anybody. (Freedom for blacks did not become a Northern war aim until the midway point of the conflict.)
Yet slavery had shattered the spirit of compromise that holds democracy together. It had broken the nation into two parts and doomed its people to fight over whether America would come back together again. The truth in Civil War history is not an account of heroes on one side or villains on the other. Few true stories are so uncomplicated.
This one began in December, 1860, when South Carolina began a freedom movement. Six other states followed suit, created the Confederate States of America, and asked only to be left alone. Newly inaugurated president Abraham Lincoln had no intention to allowing such a situation. The nation that would stand passively by and watch itself disintegrate, Lincoln believed, was unworthy of the name.
In the spring of 1861, North and South prepared for a physical contest. Only a few individuals saw the nightmare that lay ahead. Robert E. Lee observed sadly: “There is a terrible war coming, and these young men who have never seen war wait for it to happen.” On the other side, a former, unimpressive soldier named William T. Sherman predicted: “This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end.”
The struggle of the 1860s abides deep in the soul of America in general and Virginia in particular. As long as there is a United States, that war will not go away. Nor should it. The war is not some closed chapter in our dusty past. It is the high-water mark of our national history: the starting point from which we measure the dimensions of just about everything that has happened to us since.
Some writers dismiss Virginia as merely the headland of the Confederacy. The Old Dominion had the natural resources, the manpower, the foodstuffs, as no other Southern state did. It was not just the headland of the Confederacy; it was the heartland—literally the head and heart of the Southern nation. A body cannot function without both. To lose Virginia, therefore, was to lose the war.
The state mobilized quickly. Prince William County sent 100-man companies into the 4th Virginia Cavalry, 17th and 49th Virginia Infantry regiments. Yet its greatest manpower contributions were to the 8th Virginia, initially a unit numbering near 1,000 men. The regiment fought in every major battle of the war in the East save one. At Appomattox the “Bloody Eighth” consisted of 11 soldiers.
One Prince William County family certainly made its mark in the war. Four Berkeley brothers entered service together. Norbonne Berkeley became colonel of the 8th Virginia; brother Edmund was the lieutenant colonel; William served as regimental major; Charles was a senior captain. All were wounded at some point in the war. Three of the four were captured and held as prisoners of war.
Prince William County did not expect to be the site of the opening battle. However, in mid-July, 1861, two armed mobs posing as armies crept toward battle south of Centerville. A New York officer passing through that village thought Centerville to be “the coldest picture conceivable of municipal smallness and decrepitude. It looks for all the world as though it had done its business, whatever it was … full eighty years ago, and since then had bolted its doors, put out its fires and gone to sleep.”
Confederate Gens. Beauregard and Johnston waited with their forces aligned along the Warrenton Turnpike and Bull Run. In time the Union host made its appearance. Federal Gen. McDowell then sought to make a sweeping, circular attack around the Confederate left flank. It might have worked a year later, when his uniformed recruits had become seasoned soldiers. Yet everything about the Battle of First Manassas was disjointed except the killing, the maiming, and the exhaustion from hours of disorganized combat.
Boys that morning were adults by nightfall. The progress of the engagement has been told too often to be repeated here. Little things that Sunday bore unforgettable meaning.
An Alabama officer rode across the field to deliver a dispatch. His horse was struck and knocked down by eight bullets. Before the horse could pick itself up from the ground, five other bullets slammed into the dead animal.
Virginia soldier Frank Potts never forgot the first human being he killed. Potts recorded in his diary how he watched the blueclad soldier moving slowly toward him. “I steadied my piece,” Potts wrote, “and aiming at his breast, I fired. I saw him no more. God have mercy on him.” Potts then added: “I was fighting for my home, and he had no business being there.”
In many respects, the real First Manassas for the soldiers came in the aftermath.
Edwin Osborne, a Georgia soldier, walked over the field a couple of days after the fighting. “The marks of the struggle were still plainly visible,” he noted. “Houses deserted, fields and crops trampled to ruin, and fragments of war … were scattered here and there, while portions of the bodies of the men who had been covered with earth in ditches and ravines were exposed in many places. It was a scene of sickening desolation and I was soon glad to return to camp.”
Another Georgian came upon a Confederate “weeping bitterly and wringing his hands over the stiff and blackened corpse of his brother, who fell on the other side.” A third soldier looked at the battlefield and informed his parents: “I came to the conclusion that it was the most foolish thing imaginable for two civilized nations to meet and slaughter one another like [animals].”
This “most foolish thing” at Manassas was, tragically, just the overture for a four-year killing time that would consume more American soldiers than have died in all of the nation’s other wars combined. It had to be that way. Each side was fighting for an absolute: the North for union, the South for independence. No middle ground existed. One side had to conquer; the other side had to be conquered.
For Virginia, the war exacted a horrible toll. A third of the state was torn from the Old Dominion and given a statehood of its own. Over 60% of Civil War battles tore across Virginia soil. No area of the Western hemisphere has ever suffered more man-made destruction. Only 16 months after the opening battle at Manassas, a Connecticut regiment arrived at Manassas Junction. One of its members described the sight: “This is one of the most wretched God forsaken places I ever saw. Nearly every building has been burned and not a living soul to be seen except soldiers. The country around has been stripped of everything by both armies and a man would almost as soon starve there as he would in the center of the Arabian desert.”
The slaughter at major battles like Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor were stunning and sickening. Families North and South were devastated. Economic losses were immeasurable. Most Southern states were left a wasteland. Worst of all, 700,000 young men—a generation of Americans—were dead. So were all of the achievements that each one might have made had it been otherwise.
That brings us to the Sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the great war that made us whole. Union victory in 1865 was decisive but not complete. Winners usually write the history. Yet in the postwar South, the losers proudly wrote their story of the war—through historical markers, statues, customs, events, and mementoes. Some groups today are attempting to remove those symbols from the landscape. Others interpret such actions as attacks on their heritage.
How would the soldiers of blue and gray react today to such divisions of spirit? Johnny Rebs did not express regrets for what they had done, and Billy Yanks never asked them to do so. I have never apologized for being a Southerner. At no time have I ever heard an intelligent reason why I should.
Continuing our grievances with the past is a dead-end street. The past is the past. We may not like it, but we cannot change it. We learn from it. History is the greatest teacher we have for the present and the future. However, we must be careful of the educational tools we use.
One of the greatest resources devised by mankind is also one of the most dangerous. I refer to the World Wide Web. It is not the last word. In fact, it is an intellectual sewer where one can easily find fact, fiction, concoction, propaganda—all hidden under the guise of truth. Punching a computer is easy. Taking more time to go to the original sources bears greater rewards (and less catcalls). Genuine research into primary sources separates truth from mythology as it does fact from advocacy. Punching into Google is like joining Alice for a journey into wonderland.
That is one reason why knowledge of history is sadly lacking in our nation. The Civil War is the biggest event in national history, but our children and grandchildren do not know it. In fact, American youth have unbelievably little knowledge of the country that Lincoln termed “the last great hope of earth.”
The past decade has seen so much emphasis placed on math and computer science that it has created an embarrassing lag in subjects such as history. The 2010 National Assessment of Education Programs (known to educators as the National Report Card) was released last month. It contains statistics for 12,000 high school graduates from all across the nation. The report showed that 87% of graduating seniors failed the American history portion of the exam.
Of seven different categories on the national test, students performed worst in the field of American history. In short, our national heritage is the subject about which our younger generations know the least.
This is not shocking; it is frightening. This is not an indictment of our children. It should be a wake-up call for us all. We are endangering our country by overlooking the past. How can you face tomorrow if you have no recollection of yesterday? How can our children write the next chapter of a story they do not know?
The Civil War is an event that must be remembered, for many reasons. It brought an end to slavery in a land that had long held people in bondage while proclaiming freedom for all.
From that war came one of history’s greatest figures in Abraham Lincoln. A product of the American frontier, limited in education, ugly in appearance, Lincoln nevertheless had a love of country, a dream of nationhood, and the ability to communicate both to posterity.
Also high among the war’s heroes remains Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The most esteemed soldier in the world when mortally wounded by his own men, Jackson fought war with Old Testament fury in his quest for the peace of New Testament love.
Further, although there was bitterness at the end of the war, there was also compassion. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis could well have been hanged for treason. Instead, they were allowed to rebuild their lives. Civil wars do not normally end that way.
It is well that the South lost the struggle. Otherwise, we would have become a balkanized continent without the strength of a great nation. Global democracy today would surely be less secure without the United States having paved the way.
The Civil War must be remembered if for no other cause than to acknowledge 700,000 farmers and clerks, students and laborers who, for various reasons, put on their region’s uniforms, marched off to battle, and never came back. And we need also to hold dear in memory the grief-stricken mothers, the heartbroken wives and sweethearts, who did not lose life but lost the love that gives meaning to life.
If only every one of those men and women could know that their sacrifices would, once and for all, unite the states. If only they could know that the world would be better because of what they gave. They do not know these things, but we do. That is what Americans of all ages need to learn and to honor during these Sesquicentennial years.
Let us remember with deserved reverence. As human beings, we cannot do more. As Americans, we must never do less.