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The Cruelest War

Ron Maxwell’s epic depicts the bitterest years of America’s history in shades of complexity and truth.

Recent events in the U.S. Senate remind us that some of the cannon balls fired in the War Between the States have not yet exploded but still lie in America’s soil waiting to blow up when kicked. Writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell has never been afraid of walking this hazardous ground. He trod it in his first Civil War epic, “Gettysburg” (1994), a massive four-hour retelling of the most decisive days in our country’s history, filmed on the original battlefield, and he does so again in his new release, “Gods & Generals” (Turner Studios/ Warner Bros. 2003). The films were based on the novels The Killer Angels by Stephen Shaara and Gods & Generals by Jeff Shaara. For all their length and epic scale, there is not a dull scene in either film—nor a moment’s compromise with stark historical truth. Each shows in intimate detail the awful sacrifices men made in that grinding war and the idealism, misguided or not, that drove both sides. Each uses the careful lessons of historians to place the deeds of men in accurate context.

Maxwell is a brave director. (Full disclosure: he is also a friend and sometime collaborator.) As Pat Buchanan recently noted, the very battlefield at Gettysburg will soon see its visitor center and museum renovated to remove reminders of the courage of Southern soldiers and “emphasize the horrors of slavery.” Indeed, Gettysburg Park Superintendent John Latschathe wishes to atone for the former presentation of the site: “For the past 100 years,” he said, “we’ve been presenting this battlefield as the high watermark of the Confederacy and focusing on the personal valor of the soldiers who fought here. … We want to get away from the traditional descriptions of who shot whom, where and into discussions of why they were shooting one another.” The “why” as newly depicted will center on slavery—in accord with the monolithic official narrative of the Civil War, which casts the conflict between the slave states and the sweatshop states not as a human tragedy but a Manichaean struggle of good against evil.

What is so surprising, even shocking about Maxwell’s work, is that he does show both sides. While he’s neither a southerner—Maxwell grew up in the New York area and attended NYU Film School—nor a Confederate nostalgist, this writer/director is too committed to historical truth to adopt contemporary prejudices, which transform the losing soldiers into inhuman monsters motivated by hatred and bigotry. Instead, Maxwell shows that most Southerners, like most Northerners, were fighting for reasons that had little or nothing to do with slavery or white supremacy. (In fact, the survival of both, whoever won the war, was taken for granted by the leaders of both sides when war began. Radical abolitionists who wished to wipe out both by force were considered, even in the North, a disreputable fringe element, akin to today’s abortion clinic bombers.)

Of course, the divisions between North and South centered on the issue of free states versus slave states, and the war was made likely by the increasingly obvious incompatibility of slavery with the Christian and Enlightenment principles that had jointly been used to justify America’s independence from Britain. This single fact blocked Great Britain and France from following their sympathies and economic self-interest and recognizing the Confederate government: they did not wish to be seen as endorsing slavery.

It is interesting to note that by 1865, slavery had been successfully abolished without civil strife throughout the British Empire and most of Latin America; likewise, serfdom would die in Eastern Europe without a war. Only in the U.S. did the interests of slaveholders piggyback on profound regional differences to create a widespread coalition in favor of secession that invoked a plausible constitutional justification for it. The horror of the Civil War must first be blamed on the “fire-eaters” of the South who demanded independence rather than accept the election of Abraham Lincoln—who won without a single Southern electoral vote. The prospect they faced under a Lincoln administration was, at worst, one of gradual erosion of Southern privileges and the slow strangulation of slavery, whose economic utility was already drying up. It is not surprising to learn that Generals Lee and Jackson each deeply doubted the wisdom of secession and personally opposed slavery.

When President Lincoln seized the ideological initiative midway through the war with the Emancipation Proclamation, his stroke of statecraft transformed what had been a losing fight for national cohesion into a crusade to liberate millions of slaves. In doing so, he tapped into a profound strain in Christian thought and feeling—one deeply grounded in popular hymns, stories, and prayers that hearken back to the Book of Exodus. As his troops seized the high ground at Gettysburg, Lincoln took the moral high ground in the eyes of the world—isolating the Confederacy as a band of holdouts fighting for a doomed, unjust way of life. That moral isolation continues today. It was deepened during the Civil Rights movement, as segregationists employed the symbols of the historic South in defense of Jim Crow legislation. That isolation explains the taboos that have arisen around discussions of the war and display of its emblems and monuments. As Garry Wills explained admiringly in Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lincoln’s rhetoric in that address, along with the Emancipation Proclamation, transformed the battle for the Union into an ideological war against a section of the country that imperfectly embodied the nation’s founding principle. This was no longer conceived as self-determination or self-government—the rallying cries of the Confederates—but rather as equality. The Declaration of Independence replaced the Constitution as the focal point of American self-definition.

Slavery may have caused the war, but it was not why most men fought—any more than most Vietnamese fought against France or America in order to advance international communism. Lincoln’s Proclamation was a piece of brilliant political theater, which freed few slaves directly and left the slaves in Union states in legal bondage until the passage of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln had not run on an abolitionist platform, and throughout the war he still favored deporting freed slaves to Africa —a prospect that horrified fervent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and former slaves like Frederick Douglass.

Comparatively few Southern soldiers owned slaves, and few Northern soldiers signed up in order to free them. Certainly the conscripts later pressed into service of the Union cared little for Southern slaves—as gangs of Irish immigrants made clear in New York City by lynching native-born free blacks, whom they blamed for the wartime draft. (It did not help that rich men could buy exemption from service for $400, while Irishmen were drafted virtually right off the boat at Ellis Island.) This awful event is whitewashed in Martin Scorcese’s otherwise powerful “Gangs of New York.”

“Gods & Generals,” in its gripping depiction of the outbreak and early battles of the Civil War, shows what actually did drive men North and South to enlist in the massive armies that ground each other into carnage across the once- united states. The film follows the careers of three great military leaders: General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall), General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The director’s cut—containing six hours of gripping footage which will be available on DVD next year—also paints a grimly fascinating portrait of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, exploring how a promising young Shakespearean actor turned himself into a terrorist.

In a series of poignantly acted and beautifully photographed scenes, we watch men of principle struggle with competing loyalties—much as they did at the outset of the American Revolution. Robert E. Lee rides into Washington, D.C., just before Virginia’s secession, and is shocked when the War Department offers him command of the U.S. Army for the purpose of crushing the rebellion. As he explains in carefully measured tones—Duvall’s performance is superb—for all his love of the U.S. Army, he cannot participate in the invasion of his home state. Lee concludes, “My first loyalty, sir, is to Virginia.”

This theme repeats itself, in scene after stirring scene, as we watch the awakening of a Virginian political identity. It is easy for us to forget that only 12 years before, in 1848, all Europe had been convulsed by upsurges of nationalism, of regions struggling to separate themselves from the domination of larger, stronger neighbors. The Romanticism that pervaded Europe in the 19th century had spread to the South through Sir Walter Scott’s novels, encouraging a myth of chivalric resistance by feudal lords to the onslaught of modern values and industrial capitalism. All of this must be added to the mix when we try to understand why Southerners made the disastrous decision to secede—and fire the first shot against a vastly stronger, more populous, and mechanized Union.

Stephen Lang plays another Virginian, General Jackson with a humanity and tenderness that will surprise the casual reader of history—who only knows of Stonewall, the Old Testament warrior let loose on a modern battlefield, almost a Confederate John Brown. When he is not commanding troops, Jackson’s prophetic ferocity melts away; Lang portrays a Jackson who tenderly loves and cares for his wife Anna (Kali Rocha) and newborn daughter; who discusses the evil of slavery with a freed black he befriends; and who cultivates a personal prayer life, meditating on nature and speaking intimately with God in a manner that recalls St. Francis. The same Jackson on the battlefield seeks no quarter and offers none, walking fearlessly before the guns, in blissful confidence that God will carry him to victory over the enemies of his homeland—Virginia. Lang portrays each side of the man with perfect conviction, making the contradiction between them all the more stunning—recalling Kirk Douglas’ achievement in another great war epic, “Spartacus.”

Perhaps the most memorable performance in the film is Jeff Daniels’s as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the humble and idealistic Bowdoin College classics teacher who leaves his comfortable lectern to answer President Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Later the Union hero of Gettysburg—his astonishing tactical maneuvers and coolness under fire kept the Confederates from outflanking the Union army and winning the battle, perhaps the war—Chamberlain begins the fight with no military experience. He leaves his beloved wife (Mira Sorvino) and embarks on the dangerous adventure of war out of love for the Union, leading men from his home state, Maine. (Maxwell nicely depicts the regional loyalties of Northern soldiers as well—an often neglected subject.) In the course of the battles he endures, Chamberlain begins to expand his vision of the fighting and its purpose to include the issue of slavery—as he explains in a stirring speech delivered to his brother (C. Thomas Howell), who serves alongside him. The war was not begun to end slavery or endorse a basic equality, Chamberlain admits, but “war changes things.” The massive sacrifices made on both sides had raised the stakes, and the aims of the war must be expanded to justify its heavy price: from all this blood spilled a greater good must emerge, and it must include the end of slavery. The gradual evolution of Chamberlain’s motivation for fighting, and the peace terms he will accept, depicts in microcosm the evolution of popular feeling in the North as the war continued.

Just how bitter a price men paid this film depicts more powerfully than virtually any war movie I have seen—and much more subtly than most. The most memorable battle scene—and all are powerfully done—occurs in the film’s depiction of Fredericksburg, an assault by Union forces bungled by the incompetence of Northern generals. The brave, doomed ranks of Federals march forward into the guns of an entrenched Confederate position, and thousands are slaughtered. A company of Southern soldiers of Irish descent, whose Georgia banner bears a harp, espy amidst their enemies another band of Irishmen, recruits from New York marching under a shamrock flag. The Southerners literally weep and gnash their teeth as they grimly mow down soldiers twice over their countrymen. The scene drives home as nothing else the ugly ironies that make civil wars the cruelest.

By depicting the bitterest years of America’s history in shades of complexity and truth—and making the result so entertaining and accessible—Maxwell has done a great service for the cause of historical memory in America. Countless high school students will skip their politically sanitized textbooks and instead rent Maxwell’s movies to learn about the Civil War. Homeschoolers and attentive parents will buy the DVDs and watch them alongside their schoolchildren for lessons about history and the human heart.


J.P. Zmirak is author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist.

The third in Maxwell’s Civil War series, “Last Full Measure,” also based on a novel by Jeff Shaara, is slated for production in 2003-2004.