Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.
It is fitting that Memorial Day arose out of our bloodiest war, our war without an enemy. Films to watch over the weekend:
10. Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)-The showcase of this film biopic of Lincoln is the above depiction of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The debate portrayed has remarks culled from all the debates, is an excellent recreation of the main arguments made by each of the men, and is evocative of their speaking styles.
Ironically neither of the actors portraying Lincoln and Douglas were Americans. The actor portraying Douglas was Gene Lockhart, a Canadian. If his voice sounds vaguely familiar to you, it is probably because you recall him as the judge in Miracle on 34th Street. His daughter June Lockhart, of Lassie and Lost in Space fame, carried on the thespian tradition of the family.
Lincoln was portrayed by Raymond Massey, also a Canadian. Massey was one of the great actors of his day and bore a strong physical resemblance to Lincoln. Massey served in the Canadian Army in both World War I, where he saw combat on the Western Front as an artillery officer, and World War II, becoming a naturalized American citizen after World War II. Like Lincoln he was a Republican and made a TV ad for Goldwater in the 1964 campaign.
The film helps explain why the Civil War happened. A nation like America could not endure forever denying freedom to millions of Americans on the basis of race. That we did not free the slaves peacefully led to the most terrible war in our history.
9. Friendly Persuasion (1956)-Starring Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell, the head of a Quaker family in southern Indiana during the Civil War, the film is a superb mix of drama and comedy as the Quakers have to determine whether to continue to embrace their pacifist beliefs or to take up arms against General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry during his Great Raid of the North in June-July of 1863. When the oldest son of the Birdwell family, portrayed by Anthony Perkins in his pre-Psycho days, takes up arms, his mother, played by Dorothy McGuire is aghast, but Cooper, as Jess Birdwell, defends him. Although he remains true to his pacifist convictions, Birdwell understands that his son is acting in obedience to his conscience, and, as he tells his wife, “A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.”
8. Major Dundee (1965)-Sam Pekinpah’s flawed, unfinished masterpiece, the film tells the fictional account of a mixed force of Union soldiers, and Confederate prisoners, who join forces to hunt and ultimately defeat an Apache raider, Sierra Charriba, in 1864-65. Charlton Heston gives an outstanding performance as Major Amos Dundee, a man battling his own personal demons of a failed military career, as he commands this Union-Confederate force through northern Mexico on the trail of the Apache, with fighting often threatening to break out between the Union and Confederate soldiers. Use of Confederate prisoners as Union soldiers in the West was not uncommon. Six Union infantry regiments of Confederate prisoners, called “Galvanized Yankees”, served in the West. The final section of the film involving a battle between Major Dundee’s force and French Lancers, the French occupying Mexico at the time, has always struck me as one of the best filmed combat sequences in any movie.
7. The Horse Soldiers (1959)-In 1959 John Ford and John Wayne, in the last of their “cavalry collaborations”, made The Horse Soldiers, a film based on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name published in 1956, which is a wonderful fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid.
Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher and band leader from Jacksonville, Illinois, who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led from April 17-May 2, 1863 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge in Louisiana. Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg.
John Wayne gives a fine, if surly, performance as Colonel Marlowe, the leader of the Union cavalry brigade. William Holden as a Union surgeon serves as a foil for Wayne. Constance Towers, as a captured Southern belle, supplies the obligatory Hollywood love interest.
Overall the film isn’t a bad treatment of the raid, and the period. I especially appreciated two scenes. John Wayne refers to his pre-war activities as “Before this present insanity” and Constance Towers gives the following impassioned speech:
“Well, you Yankees and your holy principle about savin’ the Union. You’re plunderin’ pirates that’s what. Well, you think there’s no Confederate army where you’re goin’? You think our boys are asleep down here? Well, they’ll catch up to you and they’ll cut you to pieces you, you nameless, fatherless scum. I wish I could be there to see it.”
6. Gone With the Wind (1939)-In many ways Gone With the Wind is simply a soap opera and not a very good one in my opinion. However, the sequences that focus in on the War are masterful, as in the scene in the video above in which Rhett Butler explains succinctly the disadvantages the South will encounter in any war with the North. Gone With the Wind is proof that even a fairly fluffy piece of entertainment can still have sections that convey powerful historical messages.
5. The Red Badge of Courage (1951)-It was a stroke of genius for director John Huston to have as star of his film Audie Murphy, as the youth who, in Stephen Crane’s unforgettable novel, has his first taste of combat in the Civil War. Murphy looked like a typical Hollywood “pretty boy” but he was anything but. From a family of 12 in Texas, Murphy had dropped out of school in the Fifth grade to support his family after his father ran off. His mother died in 1941. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army at 17, lying about his birthday, partially to support his family and partially because he dreamed of a military career. By the end of the war, before his 19th birthday, he was a second lieutenant and had earned in hellish combat, a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, a French Legion of Honor, a French Croix de Guerre, a Belgian Croix de Guerre, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. He was the most decorated soldier of the US Army in World War 2. Here is his Medal of Honor Citation and which helps explain why Murphy entitled his war memoir, To Hell and Back:
Second Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire, which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad that was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued his single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way back to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack, which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective.
Due to his physical injuries, some of which never healed, Murphy had to turn down an appointment to West Point. He remained in the Texas National Guard, serving in the 36th Infantry Division, retiring as a Major in 1966. Along with his physical injuries, Murphy also had a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder from his years in combat, and would be haunted by frequent nightmares of his wartime experiences for the rest of his life. After a career in Hollywood he died, fittingly enough, in a plane crash during Memorial Day weekend in 1971. ( I apologize for this digression, but I have always found Audie Murphy to be a remarkable figure.)
Murphy’s co-star in the film was also an Army combat veteran, Bill Mauldin, the famed cartoonist who drew the Willie and Joe cartoons in Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, during World War II.
The Red Badge of Courage is a forgotten masterpiece. Huston I think comes closer than any film director in capturing what Civil War combat was like in his film. One reviewer said that it was like seeing a Matthew Brady photograph come to life, and I think that is an accurate assessment.
4. Gods and Generals (2003)-A prequel to the film Gettysburg, this film follows Stonewall Jackson through the Civil War up to his death from wounds received at Chancellorsville, where he and General Lee defeated the Army of the Potomac that had a two to one advantage over the Army of Northern Virginia. An extended directors cut has been recently released on Blue-Ray and that is the version to pick up. The film was butchered in its theatrical release to cut it down to a size that could be tolerated in one setting. That was a mistake. The film needs to be viewed in its entirety. My family treated it as a mini-series watching it over four nights, and we greatly enjoyed it.
3. Glory (1989)-The tale of the 54th Massachusetts in the Civil War, and a long overdue salute to the black troops who fought for the Union. A superb film in every regard, and a model of how history should be recreated on film. Robert Gould Shaw, the white colonel who led the 54th Massachusetts, died at Fort Wagner in the assault of the 54th. He was buried by the Confederates with his black troops. His parents were given an opportunity to have his body exhumed and returned to Boston for burial. Their reply was immortal: We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers….We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company – what a body-guard he has!
2. Gettysburg (1993)-This is a superb recreation of the battle of Gettysburg with endless good performances. One of my favorite is given by Sam Elliot who portrays Brigadier General John Buford, a Virginian who fought for the Union, and who, probably more than any one man, won the battle of Gettysburg by holding off Lee’s army long enough for the Union army to arrive and seize the high ground. Buford died of typhoid fever in Washington DC on December 16, 1863, his well earned promotion to Major General of Volunteers being given to him on his death bed.
1. Lincoln (2012)-A stunning evocation of Lincoln and the ending of the Civil War. A film for the ages. It’s ending sums up the War and why it remains central in the memory of this nation:
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
As we honor our war dead on Memorial Day, and enjoy the unofficial start of summer, let us ponder the phrase “the jugments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” as it applies to us in our individual lives and collectively as Americans.