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.

25 thoughts on “The Monday Question: The History Channel’s Gettysburg

  1. Al Mackey May 30, 2011 / 9:00 pm

    I was pleasantly surprised. With a Hollywood/History Channel production I expected the worst. I don’t pay attention to who’s wearing what insignia on their hats and what their belt buckles look like. I thought the big stuff was pretty well done. Someone who didn’t know anything about Gettysburg before seeing the show will have learned something and may be motivated to learn more.

  2. Jeff Davis May 30, 2011 / 9:25 pm

    I was terribly disappointed in the show. Small errors that said to me no one checks for continuity. Barksdale’s aid, who looked about 35 was said to be 21 while waiting to advance, but when he returned afterwards and found Barksdale he had suddenly aged two years. That and other details screamed out for correction…like Barksdale at first commanding a regiment and finally a brigade.

    On the positive side, the explanation of the artillery was well done, the route through town was well done, but too many elements and people were left out.

    Perhaps it would have been better as a two night, four hour show, or better yet, a three night, six hour show that did one day each night.

    As an aside, the Caveman Reenactor commercial was hilariously the best they ever did.

  3. Jeff Davis May 30, 2011 / 9:26 pm

    One more thing…where in the world were all the fences!?!?!?!?

  4. Matt Gallman May 30, 2011 / 9:52 pm

    “I have altered the publicity people”

    Who knew that bloggers had such power?

    Having spent hundreds of hours on the battlefield, I feel pretty sure that I was not the target audience. Not really sure who was. That would seem to me key to assessing the success.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 30, 2011 / 9:57 pm

      Given what I saw on my FB feed, not everyone would object to “altering” them. 🙂 But I agree … that’s extreme. Next time, I’ll stop replying to private e-mails while engaged in preparing such momentous announcements, so as to avoid life-“altering” events.

  5. Ray O'Hara May 30, 2011 / 10:38 pm

    Mighty thin gruel. the quality {or lack thereof} of the story of the battle was what I expected from the History Channel. But I expected better action scenes from Ridley Scott, his movies might outrage the stories they are taken from but they are usually very exciting.

    I can’t comment on Day 1 as I missed the first 15 minutes and they managed to do one of the more important days of the war, 1/3rd of the battle, in 1/8th of the show.

    Day Two, the graphic they used showed the correct deployment of the ANV the morning of July 2nd but the Union was shown in the position they occupied later at the end of the day, after all the fighting. Sickles is shown as the center and not the left most formation in the morning when he moved up. and they later show Dan losing his leg, they might have at least mentioned he survived the war and many years after. no other Union organizations beyond III seemed worthy of mention.

    for the ANV only Barksdale gets covered, of Lonmgstreets 10 brigades but only one is mentioned? and the usual the Rebs always ‘almost succeeded” followed by all the dire results this would engender, Isn’t “almost succeeded” just a fancy way of saying failed? but then the Rebs never fail on the History Channel. Then they move on to the Rebs taking Culp’s Hill and again all the dire scenarios of disaster are mentioned that were sure to follow “if”…

    Day Three
    Pickett’s Charge
    Again only one brigade is mention, Davis’s Ms Brigade and we also find out the Rebs broke the Union line but some how never really mentioned they were forced to retreat. As to the Lee-Longstreet Controversy, not a word. the releationship of those two during the battle is one of the more important aspects of the event but it’s not even hinted at. A major tiff between the Commanding General and his senior subordinate is so,mething I’d think deserving of mention, they clearly didn’t.

    Culps Hill, here we find the Rebs again attacking the hill they had them capturing the night before, nice consistency of narration there.

    one of my favorite parts was a clip of one of thel talking head historians saying “The battle of Gettysburg was important on several different levels” and then they cut away never to revisit him, so we never do hear what those reason might have been. just rest assured “twas a famous victory” as the old saying goes, never mind why.

    the few bits they chose to follow were interesting, the dead soldier clutching the picture of his children especially. but never did they bother with a real overview of the battle nor really say what was going on around the field. Barksdale’s attack has no context in the rest of the attack, which was never mentioned at all.

    a lot to criticize, a little to praise, with two hours they, well maybe not them, but somebody, could have done so much more. The best single bit was the send up of the re-enactors in the Geico caveman ad. that got me laughing.

    History should stick to their standard fare, Hitler’s bodyguard-SS occult documentaries and UFO/Area 51 specials and leave real history to others.

  6. Ray B May 30, 2011 / 10:44 pm

    The production values were great. The artillery demonstrations and explanations were fantastic. However, I found myself disappointed. Although the History Channel advertised this as an unbiased look at the war through the eyes of the common soldier, they simply could not resist adding their bias. For example, although well over 90% of Confederate Soldiers did not own slaves, or even knew anyone who owned slaves (the majority were poor farmers), each of the Confederate examples in the movie were slave holders (which the narrator was sure to mention). Could the producers find no historical examples of Confederate soldiers that were not slave holders? Or was it more important to leave the false impression that all southern soldiers were slave holders? Also, I found it interesting that throughout the show, the participants were referred to by the narrator as Union and Rebels. Again, was this by design? If you are going to refer to Confederate troops as Rebels, then the narrator should refer to Union troops as Yanks, or Yankees. Frankly, I would like to see a production where ALL participants are presented as the heroes that they were. It took incredible bravery to enter battle during the civil war, regardless of side. No average soldier is charging into battle thinking about the political issues of the day; they are concerned only with duty, honor, and thoughts of their family. To present either side as any less brave or any less heroic does a disservice to all the participants, both north and south. Remember, Confederate troops were fighting for country too.

    • Tony Gunter May 31, 2011 / 6:02 am

      All Confederate soldiers were rebels, but not all Union soldiers were Yankees. In fact, a fairly large percentage of them were from the south.

      • Lyle Smith May 31, 2011 / 8:41 am

        Did soldiers describe themselves as Union soldiers back then? I thought they referred to themselves as Federals.

        A fairly large percentage of the Army of the Potomac was from the South?

        • Tony Gunter May 31, 2011 / 3:05 pm

          9 units in the Army of the Potomac were southern units. That’s not counting the regular army units that undoubtedly had some southerners fighting to defend the Union.

          • Jeff Davis May 31, 2011 / 4:51 pm

            It seems to me that 9 regiments is an extremely small percentage of the Union Army and those “southerners” who remained both loyal and members of US Regular Units were usually far in the minority, the bulk of them having left early on when they had a choice.

          • Tony Gunter May 31, 2011 / 5:41 pm

            9 regminents is small … but that’s after you shift the goalposts to the Army of the Potomac. The original post implied Unionists = Yankee, which is clearly not true. If you look at the war in the west, a much lager percentage of the troops fighting for the Union were southern troops.

            My wife’s civil war ancestor fought in an Illinois Cavalry unit, but he was from Tennessee … clearly not “a Yankee.”

            Even in the AotP, the existence of 9 regiments doesn’t mean that you can look at a soldier in blue at Gettysburg and necessarily call him “a Yankee.”

            You can, however, look at any Confederate and assume he’s a rebel, even if he’s a Yankee (Pemberton anyone?).

          • Jeff Davis May 31, 2011 / 5:55 pm

            I think if any Confederate at Gettysburg looked at a soldier in blue he would call him a Yankee no matter where he was from.

            Wesley Culp who was born on the farm from which Culp’s Hill derived its name, and died there is a Confederate Uniform, was a Rebel, no mater where he came from. I think its a matter of perspective however the one that counts the most is how the men on the other side viewed them. To one side, the opposition was all Johnnie Rebs, and to the other they were all Billy Yanks.

          • Ray O'Hara May 31, 2011 / 6:32 pm

            What exactly is a Yankee? in to a foreigner it’s any American, When you say “Yankee go home” they don’t mean people from Alabama are cool.

            in CW terms it’s anybody who fought for the Union.

            in American terms its a New Englander, in New England terms it’s the old English/Wasp money/power structure, G.H.W.Bush is an example as is anybody named Cabot or Lodge or Saltonstall, ie,the original money.

            It doesn’t include people like me, people of Irish Catholic ancestry or any of Catholic or Jewish heritage or any people of color.
            It’s not bigotry, people of non-English heritage aren’t Yankees the way Irish aren’t Italian, you are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t. so when reduced to it’s base there are very few people who might qualify as Yankees when you finally get to New England.

            It’s all a perspective issue, so when a Soujtherner calls all boys in Blue Yankees he’s not wrong from that perspective.

            Even though my first known ancestor arrived in Dedham Mass in 1800 I would never call myself a Yankee.

          • Ned Baldwin May 31, 2011 / 8:48 pm

            Ray, you must know that in New England terms a Yankee is a hated baseball player.

          • Ray O'Hara May 31, 2011 / 9:10 pm

            I was discussing people not ogres

          • Lyle Smith May 31, 2011 / 8:30 pm

            I totally get what are you are saying, there were a number of upper South units in the Federal armies, not to mention many of the color units drew from the South. And of course there were some Southerners enlisted in random Federal units. Then again there were Northerner Confederate as well.

            There just weren’t very many of them represented at Gettysburg, I think.

    • Al Mackey May 31, 2011 / 9:53 am

      ” well over 90% of Confederate Soldiers did not own slaves, or even knew anyone who owned slaves”

      This is not the case at all. Joseph Glathaar’s study of the Army of Northern Virginia has established that approximately 40% of the ANV consisted of either slaveowners or sons of slaveowners. I’d be interested in evidence concerning who soldiers didn’t know.

  7. Daniel Sauerwein May 30, 2011 / 11:04 pm

    Overall, given the goals outlined on the film’s site and the intended audience, I thought the production did a fairly good job. Having read some of the above comments, I do agree to a point and I was looking for more on Little Round Top, Buford’s role, and the death of Reynolds.

    I will say this, I thought the graphics used, coupled with the explanations were very good at conveying the harsh realities of war and the role of technology. I do hope that someone will produce a film on a battle in the Western Theater. All the observations above do give me some food for thought.

  8. TF Smith May 31, 2011 / 8:40 am

    Production values were very good, and – given the audience and venue – I think the experts interviewed did well. I agree, the program did well in regards to the real impact of battle on flesh and bone, and the focus – as the narrator said – on a few selected individuals in the course of a 2 hour (less commercials) program was a solid approach.

    I think they deserve an A for several points, including, most significantly, the section on AAs, the economic value of slavery to slaveholders in antebellum America, and the actions of the ANV in the Pennsylvania campaign regarding enslavement; that truly stood out for me.

    If anything, I think they underplayed it, but I appreciated the simple fact it was included. When have those facts ever shown up in a mass market program centered on Gettysburg before?

    I also really appreciated the sections focusing on Amos Humiston and Dawes and the Iron Brigade; nicely done. And the Geico commercial was a hoot.


  9. Gary Emerson May 31, 2011 / 8:50 am

    At first, I was glad that the History Channel was actually trying to broadcast some history for a change. However, I was very disappointed in their broadcast about Gettysburg. The film makes it appear that a handful of men led by Rufus Dawes took charge of and defended Culp’s Hill throughout the battle. What about the XII Corps? Pop Greene? Other aspects of the battle were completely ignored. What about the sacrifice of the 1st Minnesota? I am not sure I would want my students to even watch it, because it would not give them a good understanding of the battle.

  10. Al Mackey May 31, 2011 / 10:01 am

    I think we have to remember that the device they chose was to tell the story of the battle from the viewpoint of a few selected soldiers. So that meant you’re not going to get a full picture of the battle, but rather you’re going to get a view that is limited to the experiences of those soldiers. If you’re going to distill a 3-day battle into an hour-and-a-half of content, then you necessarily have to leave a great deal out. So we saw the experience of the 6th Wisconsin on the first day, leaving out the rest of the Iron Brigade, Baxter’s Brigade, Paul’s Brigade, Frank Barlow, and a host of other stories. You just aren’t going to be able to include all of that in the venue that was being presented. Given their time limitations, the device of showing the experiences of a few soldiers wasn’t a bad choice in my opinion. Their target wasn’t the person who has read every microhistory of the battle they could get their hands on. The target was the person who didn’t know much or anything about the battle.

    I don’t think they had the option to just decide on their own they would do a multipart, multievening presentation. That takes funding, and funding was most likely limited.

    • Ray O'Hara May 31, 2011 / 10:57 am

      Following a few individuals was fine but everything was shown in a vacuum. With no context how did anybody not familiar with the battle make any sense of it?

      If one knew nothing of the battle before watching this, they still knew nothing of the battle after watching it.

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