Sitting through a showing of the recent film Gettysburg in a multiplex theater amid the abstract sprawl of suburban Yankeedom was somehow an unnerving experience. I don’t mean to say that the movie itself was off-putting or unsuccessful, though come to think of it, there were a few awkward moments here and there. No, the hard part was being in the presence of other Americans as the movie was shown. There seemed to be more at stake in that representation of history than the field where it was fought and filmed.
Gettysburg is a good movie as such, and as a movie about the Civil War, one of the best ever made, if not the best. It represents the contribution of many hundreds of reenactors; it is in effect a sort of pageant, a filmed reenactment. The figure of 30 million dollars has been cited as Ted Turner’s investment in the project, and as you might expect, the footage (even longer than the four-plus hours of the theatrical release) is supposed to become a cable TV extravaganza and video release later on. It’s fine with me if Ted Turner gets his money back. After all, Gettysburg is no ignoble undertaking, especially when compared with 90 percent of the trash that’s released today. It’s graphically striking and well worth seeing.
Jeff Daniels has been widely praised for his portrayal of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, “the Hero of Little Round Top,” and rightly so. The heroic presentation of such a man, however, suggests numerous contemporary ironies that are part of the problematic “success” of the film. Moreover, the emphasis on Chamberlain and on the extreme left of the Union position skews our perspective of the battle. I suppose that Chamberlain is to a degree overemphasized for dramatic reasons, as a counterweight to the striking personalities of the Confederate brass; that problem is presented to us as much by history as by the screenplay. Still, much more could have been done with Winfield Scott Hancock, and nothing was made of Dan Sickles and his famous blunder, or the consequential loss of his leg.
The dominant presence in the film is a passive one: Tom Berenger as James Longstreet spends a lot of screen time dragging on a cigar and listening to the expostulations of others. His hair and beard are so false and heavy that he looks like a transgalactic alien from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and his immaculate uniform seems to say, “General Lee, I’ve come straight from the dry cleaner’s.” Though the battle was fought in the heat of early July, this Longstreet never removes a jacket, opens a collar button, or loosens a tie in that blistering sunlight. The thought of just how much anti-perspirant Longstreet used at Gettysburg had never crossed my mind before (a great deal, apparently), but then we all have much to learn from the reenactors.
As Robert E. Lee, Martin Sheen is an effective surprise. He conveys Lee’s achieved simplicity and intimidating perfection of manner, a composure somehow innate, willed, mild, severe, aristocratic, military, and Virginian all at once. My complaint about Sheen is his lack not only of a waist but also of much else needed to evoke Lee’s physical grace. Perhaps elevator shoes and fewer peanuts with those Heinekens would have helped.
But I don’t really mean to carp. Gettysburg is good enough so that its flaws—an unbalanced screenplay, little blood, no sweat, few tears—are actually apparent. I suppose that it just doesn’t matter much whether I or anyone else particularly liked the representation, say, of J.E.B. Stuart or A.P. Hill or John Bell Hood or Lewis Armistead or Richard Garnett or George Pickett. No indeed, because apart from its quite considerable cinematic virtues, Gettysburg is significant not as a movie but as a rather astounding phenomenon on the cultural scene. We behold Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg, but outside that focus there’s the mind-numbing juxtaposition with all that has replaced them in the national consciousness, such as Senators Kennedy and Biden, Beavis and Butt-head, and what have you. So the representation of the Civil War as something very like “the last war fought between gentlemen” is surprising in our ahistorical, absurdist context. Nineteenth-century eloquence is all the more striking for the implied contrast with the dumbed-down discourse of the contemporary standard, whether in the multiplex or on cable. It is actually shocking to see the Civil War represented in historically sound language, ideas, and motives, rather than in some rigidly ideological reduction. Precious little in American culture since the 60’s has prepared us for the incredible truths presented by Gettysburg—a vision that comes as a slap in the face and a wake-up call to the national memory. Thanks, director Ronald F. Maxwell—we needed that.
Maxwell’s screenplay was developed from Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, and it is both appropriate and necessary to say here that Shaara’s vision was developed from history. What shock is there for us in thinking that Longstreet might have been more right than Lee 130 years ago? The shock of Gettysburg is not the rehash of strategy or the experience of the battle—it is the reminder of a lost world and a betrayed culture. It is a measure of what we have lost, of what too many of us have never known we had, of the price we pay for induced amnesia, and of the alienation and mendacity required to maintain the present regime of inversion.
Not all of us needed such a reminder, of course. Some are like Elvis Presley in one of his early songs: we forgot to remember to forget. Civil War buffs, muzzle-loading enthusiasts, and historically minded people are some of those who, in various ways, remember and commemorate authentic America. But by and large, a cultural hegemony preoccupied with radically restructuring the nation’s laws and lobotomizing our treasury of memory by promulgating a repotted history; a masscult obsessed with extracting money from consumers who are habituated to pornographic and other fantasies accompanied by the druggy shake, rattle, and roll of electronic “music”; and enforcers of politically correct substitutes for knowledge and thought who police the academic world—none of these have prepared us for the experience of a film that in 1993 largely deals with Confederate anxieties and presents without irony extollments of the virtues of the families of Virginia.
The seeming novelty of such assertions, and the sight of so many freshly laundered Confederate battle flags (no bullet holes or bloodstains on those banners), seems incongruous in a larger context so distorted that only just this past summer, the U.S. Senate actually voted to refuse a patent to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, endorsing the view of Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois that the sight of that same flag was “painful.” The Senate joined her in “putting a stake through the heart of this Dracula”—the something that kept rising from the grave that apparently is American history itself. Ms. Moseley-Braun’s ineptly rehearsed hissy-fit was so stultifying in its moronism that no one thought to ask whether the Stars and Stripes might also evoke painful memories, since it denoted (among other painful things) a slaveholding nation for many more years than the Confederate flag represented anything. Neither was anyone heard to inquire whether a painful memory for some justified a rule of censorship for others; for if it did, then perhaps even the cross—whether painfully representing for some the crucifixion of the perfect man or painfully constituting for others an object of resentment—might also be rejected by our sensitive senators. (One implication of the movie Gettysburg is to remind us that men, even senators in some cases, used to be made of sterner stuff.)
Well, no sooner was the tantrum concluded than Senators Boxer and Feinstein of California, Metzenbaum of Ohio, and Heflin of Alabama were with improbable spontaneity hugging the senator from Illinois in front of the television cameras, congratulating her for her historic contribution, which was—they got quite worked up on this point—one only a woman could have made. Strictly speaking, of course, that was a remarkable thing to say about a deliberate insult to a ladies’ service organization—one that had been respected by the Senate for nearly a century.
Perhaps some senator should not only view Gettysburg but also study the extent of national, not sectional, involvement in commemorating the virtues of certain Confederates, if not the “Rebellion” itself. Such a leader might also examine how Jefferson Davis (who declared, “Sovereigns never rebel”) and Robert E. Lee got their citizenship back during the Carter administration—the late Robert Penn Warren wrote a good study of Davis as an American. That solon should note the names of the U.S.S. Robert E. Lee, the U.S.S. Stonewall Jackson, Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, Fort A.P. Hill, etc., as well as certain U.S. stamps and coins like the Old Stone Mountain half-dollar, and so on. Such a lawgiver might then understand that such acknowledgments were more than political payoffs—they were recognitions of notable American soldiers. West Point graduates all, some veterans of the Mexican War (of painful memory, the NAFTA and the immigration policy of its day), who somehow served in the grim period before the Army’s appalling sexism and homophobia were chastened. And the flag that these men fought for was, during the War Between the States, often that transfixing image which I hesitate to mention lest the citation of reality cause offense to anyone, especially to the junior senator from the great state of Illinois.
Some may wonder why it is so important to the Senate now to undo the reunification sealed by the Senate 90-odd years ago. President McKinley pointedly paid homage to Confederate heroism, as a capstone to the victory in the Spanish-American War, and offered federal help in caring for Confederate graves on Northern soil. Two Confederate generals, Fitzhugh Lee and Joseph Wheeler, served in blue in that war—a point that was nationally noted. When Congress voted to return captured Confederate flags in 1905, it thereby acknowledged Southern honor. Other indicators of a gentlemanly reconciliation in that day included the celebration of Lee conducted by the younger Charles Francis Adams, brother of Henry and Brooks Adams, son of Lincoln’s minister to England, grandson of John Quincy Adams, and great-grandson of John and Abigail Adams. In a related gesture, Charles E. Stowe, son of “the little lady who started the big war,” repudiated abolitionism in a speech in 1911.
Confederate Memorial Day, complete with painful flags, was observed at Arlington National Cemetery beginning in 1903—appropriately so when you consider in whose front yard that burial ground is located, and how it was acquired. In 1913, over 50,000 veterans—mostly Union, of course—gathered at Gettysburg for their 50th anniversary and a rather authentic if enfeebled reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. They also heard a speech by a Southern-born President—one who, like many another citizen, was later to admire the film Birth of a Nation.
The powerful medium of the movies was used to promote the myth of American unity. Owen Wister in The Virginian (1902) instituted in the popular mind an acknowledgment of Southern virtue that had many echoes in popular culture, particularly in Hollywood films. John Ford had the most powerful and inclusive vision of the American past (in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Horse Soldiers and elsewhere), but he was far from alone. The North/South conflict is played out in many a Western. In George Stevens’s Shane, for example, the blowhard Southerner “Stonewall” Torrey is done in by the hired killer, Wilson. When the eponymous hero wants a settlement, he calls Wilson the worst thing he can think of: a lowdown lying Yankee. After such words, one of them must die. As far back as we can conceive of our country (and even for Yankees like Herman Melville, Henry James, and Henry Adams, as C. Vanu Woodward reminded us), the Southerner has been a necessary part of the American imagination.
Now between you, me, and the newel post, I’d hate to bring up the point that the Confederate battle flag was just that: the banner of an army, and not the only one. (A vexillary excursus would assert that the cross of St. Andrew, the heraldic ordinarily known as a saltire, has been or is found on the flags of Ireland, Scotland, Great Britain, Spain, Jersey, Biscay, South Africa, Russia, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi.) The flag is not to be confused with “the Bonnie Blue Flag” or “the Stars and Bars”—flags of the nation. And if that’s too demanding, then you didn’t hear it from me. Yet for that reason and others, the recent flap about the Georgia state flag was quite absurd: the revisionists unknowingly wanted to change the part of the flag that repeated the motif of the battle flag with a pre-1956 version alluding to the Stars and Bars! The people of that state, ignoring the posturing of their governor, preferred to let things be. There have been, of course, similar controversies about Civil War memorials and flags, in attempts to rewrite or efface history in the name of some heightened consciousness or other.
But just as even in our country it is not absolutely necessary to choose our national leaders because of manifest lack of appropriate character, neither is it even in a postindustrial mass democracy necessarily impossible to make distinctions or maintain informed awareness—Gettysburg suggests that much. Similarly, the series Civil War Journal that runs on the Arts and Entertainment cable channel has in one recent episode devoted to “Banners of Glory” shown just how well a contemporary medium can serve the public interest and even present in context the Forbidden Image for which so many died. Even on television, 1861-65 is not to be confused with its own centennial, during which cheap copies of the Confederate battle flag were waved by unlettered and angry people resisting the civil rights movement and the federal enforcement of unwelcome laws.
The late Walker Percy, in his The Last Gentleman, wrote definitively of the déjà vu caused by the degrading replication of the Civil War as a farce, not a tragedy. He also indicated elsewhere that when the flag was furied at Appomattox, no flag had ever been defended by better men—yet when the same flag was picked up by unworthy people or reproduced as a tourist’s trinket, the icon had to be let go. He had much truth on his side—but his truth depended on his personal virtue and ironic intelligence, his extensive knowledge of the South, his aristocratic heritage, and his Christian conviction. I low many Americans or senators are now fortified by such a combination? Even repudiation must rest on a proper foundation. In any case, Perev’s irony today might well suggest that much harm as well as good has come from the civil rights movement and that a final demonstration of the probity and wisdom of the federal enforcement of anything was recently shown to those sinister Branch Davidian women and children. Attorney General Reno’s claim of “full responsibility” was—perhaps by some bureaucratic oversight?—unaccompanied by her resignation, but then again life without honor must today be our constant study. Janet Reno, as notable a “role model” as she is an Attorney General, often came to mind during mv viewing of Gettysburg (as did other members of the Clinton administration), because what life with honor was like in our country was demonstrated not so much in that movie as in that battle by the federal Colonel Chamberlain of the 20th Maine and by Buford and Reynolds and Hancock, not to mention their Confederate counterparts.
Yet those Confederates and their flags were more than a presence in Gettysburg—they dominated the movie as they failed to dominate that field. Somehow the story is theirs—a salient part of American history is theirs. The movie, like the battle, challenges and stimulates our imagination, showing our country to have been more wonderful and terrible, beautiful and mysterious, tender and cruel, idealistic and violent, selfish and sacrificing than anyone can ever fully know, yet which not to know is not to know ourselves. Because Lee lost the battle and Lincoln gave his address there, Gettysburg has been a synecdoche for the Civil War, and for the fate of the nation, since the smoke cleared—but it remains a deeply ambivalent symbol. The movie implies the tantalizing might-have-been that gives the battle its significance: if a mysterious dispensation had gone the other way . . . and why did it not? The film captures the freely determined fatedness (Longstreet a Starbuck, Lee an Ahab), the creation of a future that is now our past. “The stars in their courses fought against Sisera” (Judges V: 20).
Even the triumphalist view of that war, not to mention the tragic one, requires the Confederate presence. The South is a necessary part of the American story; a precipitating generator of our polity, our national mythology, our cuisine, our humor; a disproportionate share of our finest literature—even as “The Lost Cause.” Massachusetts and Minnesota need South Carolina and Mississippi; the North requires the South (as it does the West); the Union literally absorbed unto itself the Secession by an epic violence as mental as it was physical. Who says “the U.S.A.” says “the Revolution” and the Second Revolution, “the Civil War” (for our Revolution was a Civil War and our Civil War was a Revolution). Who says “the Civil War” necessarily conjures its imagery and notables. There can be no Grant without a Lee, no Sherman without a Johnston, no Lincoln without a Davis, no Custer or Sheridan without Stuart and Shelby, and no Gettysburg without Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. There can be no monuments at the courthouse squares of towns in Ohio and Rhode Island without those other northern-facing monuments in Georgia and Alabama. There is no history without conflict, no honor without pain, no courage without fear, no victory without bloodshed, no contest without cruelty, no glory without sorrow, no irony without consciousness, and no memory without substance.
Gettysburg and Civil War Journal remind us that in spite of political grandstanding, commercialism, and public relations, though a Confederate soldier was not a federal one, he was still, after all, an American. He was sometimes quite memorably the best soldier in the history of our country, often the most pious, and usually the least destructive of private property. Though his battle flags were mostly surrendered, they were images of fidelity and independence and are not to be treated as images of opprobrium or as the moral equivalent of the swastika. That flag is no more to be shunned than is the old “Spirit of 76” flag, the flag of the Republic of Texas, or my own favorite, the rattlesnake with the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.” Anyway, I certainly hope that no senator of whatever race, gender, or orientation will suggest that nowadays something more like a red flag with perhaps a gold hammer and sickle or maybe even a lavender flag with a purple charge card and a pink condom would be a more appropriate national banner than the one whose history and resonance—because of pain and cognitive difficulty—we arc presently arranging to forget. Or that the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames, the Order of the Cincinnati, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, or the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites might be singled out for stoning.
As the Disney empire proceeds with its 3,000-acre historical theme park six miles from Manassas, I’m sure that the nation’s youth arc, like other Americans, keenly aware that General Joshua L. Chamberlain, who won a Congressional Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, was himself asked to receive on behalf of Grant the formal surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 12, 1865. The Confederates stacked their arms and folded their flags in tears—some of their decimated regiments seemed composed of flags, not men. Chamberlain, later governor of Maine, president of Bowdoin College, and an accomplished rhetorician, composed a set piece called The Passing of the Armies in which he paid handsome tribute to the men whom he had fought for years and by whom he had been gravely wounded. The nation’s youth used to read and recite the piece, written by a Yankee gentleman of the old school. He never scorned those men or their flags, but read the roll call of their units and their history as they passed by, assuming that everyone knew or should know the names of A.P. Hill and James Longstreet and John Bell Hood, as well as what they did. The more glory that was accorded to the gallant defeated, then how much more to the victors!
The North won Gettysburg and the war, but somehow the history as living memory was let go along with the values that made it worth remembering. If Farnsworth’s Charge at Gettysburg had been a Southern disaster, it would not have been forgotten—it does not appear in the movie. Neither docs the astounding mutual destruction of Pettigrew’s 26th North Carolina and the 24th Michigan, at the climax of the first day on McPherson’s Ridge. The Yankees lost over 80 percent of their men; the Secesh even more. One of Pettigrew’s companies lost 100 percent; another had two unhit out of 83. Pettigrew’s adjutant found the wounded howling in the woods and foaming at the mouth. Those were the kind of men who contested the battle of Gettysburg—on both sides. Today in Mogadishu, Colonel Aidid does not seem to be worried that he will have to tangle with such determination. Is he wrong?
In Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, there is (or was, if any demagogues heard about it) an impressively painful memorial to the hard-luck Army of Tennessee in the form of a wounded lion, modeled on “the Lion of Lucerne,” which commemorates the Swiss Guard that died for the Bourbons of France. Such an acknowledgment, if no more, is still appropriate in Atlanta and in Lucerne. When the French attempted to celebrate the bicentennial of their Revolution, many in the Vendée and elsewhere begged to differ, and for good reason. William Faulkner, who entitled one of the stories that make up The Unvanquished “Vendée,” also let us know that the past is not dead. It’s not even past.
The startling images of Gettysburg reaffirm that assertion, even though the library of Congress recently withheld Birth of a Nation from an exhibition of great American films for the usual pained reasons. Such national folly says perhaps less about our country than it does about our leadership, but we can hardly hope to come to terms with our history if we cannot bear to behold even the history of our movies.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy will doubtless continue their service toward sustaining the memory of courage and devotion, in spite of the insult directed at them. The South, or what’s left of it, may continue to cultivate the rituals of memory. But one larger question is whether, in the national mythology, the South will be accorded the place it receives in history and in Gettysburg, or whether it will instead be confined to the role of scapegoat—and recyclable comic relief, as in the latest version of The Beverly Hillbillies. Jed and Jethro can sure help you forget a lot of things in a hurry, but somehow they just don’t have the style of Lee and Longstreet and the potent yeomanry that the Yankees weren’t so afraid of—then. It’s reassuring to believe that all Southerners are as coarse and stupid as Senator Heflin appears to be, rather than to wonder why a man of Lee’s stature and rectitude would. . . . But good heavens, we hardly have time for such disturbing thoughts while we are busy insisting that the Constitution guarantees so many things it unaccountably doesn’t state and that so many things it does say are unconstitutional.
The larger question is whether our nation can have an honest account of its past, and retain it. Henry Steele Commager entitled his indispensable two-volume anthology The Blue and the Gray, not The Blue and the Unmentionable. Refusing the chance to trivialize his own life, Booker T. Washington did not entitle his famous autobiography Up From a Painful Condition. Yet today there is pressure to change the names of schools and other institutions that have been called after those vile Southern slaveholders—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—as though we were learning to will the destruction of the national memory rather than its maintenance and to exclude the Southern roots of our freedom from acknowledgment rather than to honor them. Ignorance of history and terror of truth do not preserve liberty or national coherence any more than they represent sound education or public policy. After all, if we need Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony in the national pantheon (and we do), there must also be room in the multicultural amplitude for Lee and Longstreet—and their flag as well.
The kind of future we are liable to get without much sense of a past is rapidly coalescing. It will be determined by the college sophomores and juniors I have encountered who have never heard of John Brown, of his raid on Harpers Ferry, or of the song about his body moldering in the grave. Since neither the government nor the educational establishment seems interested in promoting awareness of American history without anachronism, private interests and contemporary technology of the kind that produced Gettysburg may restore to those quaint people who identify with this country and speak English what formerly was considered to be their heritage—a vision of their past heroic enough to be memorable, outrageous enough to be glorious, conflicted enough to be tragic, and particular enough to be theirs.