Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Way Around to the Right: Lee and Longstreet in the Film, Gettysburg

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I write often about Ron Maxwell's 1993 film, Gettysburg. Based on Michael Shaara's novel, Killer Angels, the story follows the paths of a number of Confederate and Union commanders as they fight it out for three days in Southern Pennsylvania. My interest in the film is twofold. One, I am fascinated by the power of the medium to act as teacher - establishing for many the final word on what actually happened, what should have happened, who deserves blame for defeat and praise for victory. You can read an example of my previous writing on this subject HERE. Second, I never get enough of how utterly ridiculous various recreations of historical actors' persona and appearance can be when translated to the screen. HERE is a healthy dose of good-natured ribbing leveled at the Gettysburg make-up team.

Today I speak of the former fascination: specifically, the contention in the film between Robert E. Lee and his senior commander, James Longstreet. From the onset of the engagement, Longstreet argues that Lee should maneuver his army around the Federal right, get between the Union army and Washington City, and draw the Yankees into a fight on ground of their choosing.

Seems simple enough - and if you ignore everything that was going on, it even makes sense. The problem is that there were a number of factors that the film (not to mention Longstreet) gives either short shrift or does not consider at all. First, The fight had commenced in the Confederates' favor - it is a bad idea to disengage when victory is within an army's grasp (keep in mind...Lee left his crystal ball back in Virginia, so he had no idea what was coming next) Second, who was going to screen any movement around the entire Federal army? The Union II, V, and XII corps were still on the move on July 1 - the exact location unknown. Further, Jeb Stuart's Confederate cavalry was missing in action and not available for screening duty anyway. Third, Lee's army had wagons trains and a supply line stretching all the way back to South Mountain. What would he have done with that? The Rebels attacked initially from the north, Longstreet's proposed movement would have cut loose a vital part of the Army of Northern Virginia.

These points (admittedly offered with only brief explanation) have been debated and clarified in any number of excellent treatments on the battle (Coddington and Pfanz come immediately to mind). But my point is not to prove Longstreet wrong or Lee right, but to offer an example of a film persuading a viewing public without the consideration of analysis.

Where did the modern popular Pete Longstreet appeal come from, anyway? Back in the 1880s, Longstreet got in a lot of hot water with the Confederate unreconstructed types for voicing his Gettysburg beef with Lee in print. A great controversy ensued leaving Longstreet something of a hated figure in the South. Instead of people jumping on Old Pete's bandwagon and agreeing that Lee should have gone along with his lieutenant's voice of reason, they condemned him for failing to execute Lee's plan as ordered. In this scenario, Longstreet lost the battle...and the war.

Well, Longstreet may have moped around the battlefield for a few days in July, but solely to blame one man for defeat is something a shade more than problematic. But Longstreet, despite his lot as Confederate pariah in the decades following the war, need not have worried too much about his reputation in the long run. Thanks to Shaara and Maxwell, there has been a great resurgence in Longstreetists, who...owing at least partly to his projection on a bigger than life screen, can see as clear as day that Longstreet was the wiser of the two commanders. His disciples number much greater than in decades past. There is even a post-film Longstreet statue on the Gettysburg battlefield (bearing a remarkable resemblance to Tom Berenger, just in case you missed the whole power of media point).

So, whether you agree with me or not, see Gettysburg. Then I suggest you think carefully about Longstreet's plan before you dismiss Lee's as folly, misguided, or whatever. Lee had every reason to believe that he would win in Pennsylvania - his army had more than once done the seemingly impossible against staggering odds. They were on a roll, so to speak, and had momentum to their advantage.




  1. I have not seen the film but the recent novel " Cain at Gettysburg" uses the " Longstreet vs. Lee" theme throughout it using Longstreet's doubts to make him seem like a sympathetic figure

  2. Thanks for the comment, Richard. I have not yet read that novel but I am not surprised that a recent work would sympathize with the Longstreet argument.

  3. I actually plan on picking "Cain at Gettysburg" up in the coming week. I agree with your post. People can be so influenced by a movie. A few years back I was standing in front of the "Friend to Friend" monument in Gettysburg. A couple came up and said "that doesn't look like Tom Chamberlain... Sculptor did a bad job there" and then they walked away. A film will always be the most known and fact taken medium for most people. Whether it is factual or not that does not matter. IE: the tons of people by the 20th Maine monument who talk about Buster Kilrain's actions during the 2nd day..