THC’s Gettysburg: Reviewed Upon Reflection

One of the keys to a good presentation is deciding what story you want to tell.  That, in the end, was the problem with THC’s Gettysburg: it could not decide what story it wanted to tell, and it had only two hours in which to tell it all.

Yes, there were mistakes.  Some involved detail, some involved botching simple facts, and some showed sloppiness.  Most atrocious was the issue of terrain: few scenes got that correct.  But, in the end, there were several approaches here, and they were all collapsed together into a single mess.

One approach, and the one with most promise, was an exploration of the battle as certain individuals experienced it.  Built up in a more dramatic sense, we could have learned more about several important actors.  Some people have complained about the lack of Buford, Chamberlain, and Longstreet.  I direct you to Ted Turner’s rendition of this battle.  This holy trinity of Killer Angels has already gotten its due (and more): these three were not the only individuals of interest during the battle.  Yes, the usual high points received short shift, but that did not bother me, although I can well understand how those expecting a rendering of the entire battle would have found all this troubling.  That goes to the issue of expectations, of which more in a moment.

Another approach was the attempt to explore certain back stories about technology, weaponry, African Americans, civilians, medical practices, and the like.  This could have been an interesting hour in itself, instead of the snippets that were rarely developed.  Instead, it was as if the knowledge was snuck in during the pauses between stories, and rarely was it developed to leave a more developed impression.

Finally, there was the traditional documentary narrative, talking heads and all, with maps and so on, in what turned out to be a meager effort to tell the story of the battle.  There was potential here for an interesting story as well.  The talking heads did their jobs with the usual skill in explaining the obvious in dramatic and enthusiastic fashion.  Maybe there was a lot of coffee consumed between takes.  But I missed the bookcases and ties.

THC’s Gettysburg could not make up its mind which story it wanted to tell.  As gory as the images of combat were, I rarely got the sense that I was watching a large-scale battle.  Commanders were treated in sketchy style: there were better ways to link the individual stories to a larger narrative, and perhaps telling fewer of those stories in more depth was the way to go.  Even the nods in the right direction remained underdeveloped, and as for the combat scenes, I still prefer the opening minutes of Glory.  I had no idea why we were watching this movie, or what the film makers wanted us to learn.

And this, in the end, brings me to my other serious criticism: the publicity for the film was sorely lacking.  A viewer simply did not know what to anticipate, and so much of the criticism I’ve seen is grounded in the end upon various expectations of what people thought they were going to see.  Oh, bloggers were offered trinkets for posting about the movie (I have yet to hear back from THC on that issue), but this is a case where previews and giving viewers a more directed sense of what they were about to see would have helped tremendously.  That said, given the collision of approaches here, perhaps an effort to educate expectations and anticipate anticipations would have simply added to the confusion.

Yes, there were many little things wrong here: my favorite remains the insignia for infantry, which was represented as the crossed rifles of kiddie kepis.  And there were bigger things wrong here, with terrain leading the way visually along with the occasional factual gaffe.  But the real problem was that the Scotts could not decide the story they wanted to tell, and the publicity for the show left audience members anticipating all sorts of things.  It’s a sign of the erratic nature of the PR machine that while they contacted me about Gettysburg, I’ve heard not a word about tonight’s Lee & Grant … so I await that production with interest.

THC’s Gettysburg: Running Reflections and Responses

Note: I had not originally planned to watch this cable television presentation when it aired last night.  I had other things to do.  However, I saw many people posting about the show, and the response was mixed, leaning toward the negative.  So I sat down to watch the show.  What follows are my notes taken as I watched: I have some reflections on the enterprise, which I’ll share later. Continue reading

The Monday Question: The History Channel’s Gettysburg

I knew that as of Monday evening many of you would have something to talk about: the History Channel’s show on Gettysburg.

Now that it’s aired, what did you think?  I have altered alerted the publicity people for the movie that I would be asking this question, and I will forward the link to this discussion to them.  I’ll share my views Tuesday evening.

The comments section is open.

One Person’s Reflections on Memorial Day

In May I paid a visit to several Civil War battlefields in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.  Among my activities was walking through the national cemeteries at Gettysburg and Fredericksburg (there was not enough time this visit to visit the one at Antietam).  I find it a useful counterpoint to visiting other parts of the battlefield, a place where I can pause and reflect on what happened that day in history so long ago.

Continue reading

Debating Reenacting

Over the past several weeks there’s been a lively debate going on about reenacting in the blogosphere sparked by a commentary offered by Glenn LaFantaise, who is no stranger to stirring up controversy.  As one might guess, it was not long before various folks here and there responded to this provocative (and provoking) essay.  Among the more thoughtful responses is that presented by Dr. Timothy Orr, a history professor at Old Dominion University (in turn the comments section makes for equally good reading).  As Orr has also reenacted, he has a somewhat different perspective on the activity.

It’s always a little disappointing when these discussions fall back on the creations of various stereotypes, bearing in this instance the label of “academic historian” and “reenactor.”  The comments that come from constructing such strawmen tend to embitter the conversation.

I’ve never reenacted, and I don’t have any interest in doing so.  I know of some academic historians who have reenacted, and I’ve seen a diversity of reenactors whose attitudes on issues that tend to be hot button ones with academic historians vary, so it would be hard to generalize about the activity.  Personally, I’m always a little leery of those “living historian” labels, as there is wide variation in the quality of the information imparted by reenactors to the general public (as reenactors themselves admit).  Then again, the same is true among some of my colleagues.  Maybe this is another one of those stone soup discussions.

The Sunday Question: What if Jefferson Davis Had Died in 1864?

The Dahlgren Raid remains one of the most interesting incidents of the Civil War, in large part because people still debate whether Ulric Dahlgren was on a mission to capture or kill Jefferson Davis.  We always talk about what if Lincoln had lived … but what if Dahlgren and his men had penetrated the Richmond defenses and gotten to the Confederate White House, encountered Davis, and in the resulting effort to capture him, killed him?  How would history have changed?

Matt Gallman’s Stone Soup Discussions

Over at Civil War Memory Matt Gallman has made another appearance in the comments section.  This time he’s responding to a post by Kevin Levin concerning the process of emancipation sparked by another post (you know how this works) from Don Shaffer at Civil War Emancipation about how Benjamin F. Butler chose to treat the arrival of several fugitive slaves who sought protection (and freedom).  The cagey Butler eventually responded to the situation in front of him by classifying the blacks in question as contraband of war, thus effectively transferring their ownership to the United States of America (which is not the same thing as granting them freedom).  Butler’s solution provided the legal rationale for the First Confiscation Act, passed by Congress in August 1861, only a few weeks after Congress had declared that the sole object of the war was reunion.

That in itself is an interesting story, but Continue reading

Thomas, Sheridan, or Meade?

When it comes to ranking Union generals, one ordinarily finds Grant and Sherman ranked at the top, and in the vast majority of cases Grant claims the top spot.  When it comes to ranking the top five Union generals, Grant and Sherman are joined by George H. Thomas, Philip H. Sheridan, and George G. Meade.  Traditionally the ranking seems to be Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas, and Meade, but there are arguments to be made for alternative rankings, and there’s a small minority who would go so far as to place Thomas #2 or even #1.  For purposes of this discussion, however, how would you rank George H. Thomas, Philip H. Sheridan, and George G. Meade?  Why?

The comments section awaits.

Longstreet or Jackson?

This morning on ESPN’s First and Ten Jay Crawford, Skip Bayliss, and Rob Parker debated which Yankee, Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera, was more essential to the Yankees’ success over the last sixteen years (as much as I think highly of Jeter, I think Rivera’s virtually irreplaceable).  We do the same thing when it comes to Civil War generals, and so I ask: as part of the Army of Northern Virginia, who was more essential to the success of that army: Thomas J. Jackson or James Longstreet?

Note the important qualifier: as a part of that army.  Yes, Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862 receives its plaudits, and one can say that indirectly it helped the Army of Northern Virginia stave off what might have been disaster in the spring of 1862, but I’m not asking who was the better general (and by framing the question in this fashion, I also avoid discussions of Longstreet’s own adventures in Georgia and Tennessee).  However, between Lee’s right arm and his old war horse, which one was more indispensable to the success of that army?  Which one could Lee less afford to lose? 

Yes, he lost Jackson, but what if Jackson had survived Chancellorsville and Longstreet not made it back to join Lee?  Would we be asking  “what if Longstreet had been at Gettysburg?” Surely Lee missed Longstreet during the Overland Campaign.

The comments section awaits.