Battle Cry: The Civil War on Page and Screen
This essay originally appeared in Critics at Large in December 2013.
The flurry of commentary last month on the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination just about drowned out all voices noting the sesquicentennial, in the same week, of another seminal presidential moment: Lincoln's delivery of a certain address at the dedication of the national cemetery in Gettysburg. One and a half centuries have passed since that two-minute speech, one and a half centuries since the battle that shares its name. And yet, as we roll into 2014 and begin the fourth of a five-year-long anniversary, Americans still face the imponderable question of the meaning of the Civil War. It demands an answer because the Civil War is the defining event of American identity—how we understand it determines how we understand our national character and purpose. It demands an answer from more than just Americans, too, for the question bears on the broader subjects of the viability of democracy, the ethics of war, and the meaning of human life and effort.
The answer, though, is hard to come by. As with all historical facts, yet more than most, a sea of competing meanings surges down from the original participants through subsequent generations. Historian Barbara Wineapple cast the question in methodological terms at a Boston book festival in October: How would we remember the three days at Gettysburg without Lincoln's address? Or journalists' accounts? A century ago, at the fiftieth anniversary, participants remembered the conflict as a familial struggle now healed. The unity of North and South was celebrated; slavery conspicuously unmentioned. Such an approach, with the first black president in the White House, would be unthinkable today. So the battle of the Civil War continues, less bloody than others but perhaps more dire. For its outcome decides whether the war served some kind of higher purpose, or if the dead—contrary to Lincoln—really have died in vain. I've fought this battle internally since I first became enamored of the war as boy. It began when my third-grade teacher had me memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address before class, those words beyond my grasp etching themselves forever in my mind. And it blazed as I scoured over old photographs in history books and scampered across the battlefields my family visited on vacations. In Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner exemplifies the singularity of time—the past's enduring presence in the now—with a famous glance to Pickett's doomed charge at Gettysburg:
Chick Mallison, the teenage boy at the center of the novel, hears these words from his uncle—a lawyer who fancies himself above the racism of the mob forming in their town of Jefferson and bent on lynching a black man named Lucas Beauchamp for the accused murder of a white. But he’s got an air of paternalistic liberalism about him, and—as he comes-of-age during a desperate gamble to save Lucas—Chick grows to see such pronouncements as a pseudo enlightenment: one that masks injustice under a blanket of self-contented philosophical contortions. His uncle holds forth at length on how the South must resist the North's attempts to eradicate Jim Crow, since only southerners can end it “if Lucas's equality is to be anything more than its own prisoner inside an impregnable barricade of the direct heirs of the victory of 1861-1865 which probably did more than even John Brown to stalemate Lucas's freedom which still seems to be in check going on a hundred years after Lee surrendered to Grant,” he states. History's shown us otherwise, and Faulkner would have us look on these declamations with Chick's increasingly skeptical eye. His uncle's a comforting presence (in the book and as he's played endearingly onscreen by David Brian in the lovely 1949 movie adaptation) but the boy finally grows into a voice that, with fear and trembling, calls bullshit.
How strange, then, that people cite Faulkner's conjuring of Pickett's charge as part of their nostalgic musings on the Lost Cause and the glories of the South's Civil War. Many commentators did last summer during the Gettysburg anniversary. I've always found such southern bias—sympathetic at the least, revisionist at the worst—disturbing, and felt compelled to reject their claim on the war's memory. Because it's equally true that for every Northern boy there is that same instant on that same field at that same sweltering hour—but with men clad in blue, not gray, lying behind the stone wall with their own guns laid and their own flag already proudly unfurled and each time they hold to glorious triumph after so many humiliating defeats, just as they really did that first time. I was that boy, and my imagination ran as wild with the thrill of the scene as any southerner's. The pitch and smell, concussion and undulation of battle flashed with vividness in me. Tramping through the creeks of Antietam, scampering up the hills of Fredericksburg, gliding through the grass in Gettysburg, my young self communed with the presence of the men who'd walked that ground so long ago. Men who moved in vast formations I could scarcely ponder. Who'd engaged in the surge of life to an extremity I've never tasted. Who'd fallen and become part of the ground itself, their spirits binding with the spirit of the place. I could see them moving up those hills, flitting between the trees. The battlefields were my portal to a mythic past—the last days of the American pastoral, when men from sleepy villages like my own marched over the hills toward distant adventure, and found themselves engulfed by awesome maelstroms on those fields with names now etched in eternity. And it was all right here, in my own backyard.
I was young then and the world seemed simple and answers clear: the right side had won the war, my side, and they'd won it because their cause was just and their leader divine. The boys in blue had fought and died to set millions free from bondage, making their war perhaps the only just one ever waged. That Lincoln rose above even this idealistic view to see the war as a national punishment for slavery—and extend charity toward the defeated South—only added to his and his soldiers' greatness in my eyes. But like Chick Mallison, I inevitably grew out of my schoolboy fantasy and the easy moral calculus it afforded. Reality and the complications of history bore down on me at college, and my deepening Christian faith cast the Civil War in new light. I never bought the distortion, fashionable among my liberal-minded friends, that the conflict wasn't about slavery. But the horrors of the combat struck me as never before: the stupidity of the tactics, the savagery of its violence, the wanton disregard for thousands of human lives. My idealistic embrace of the North withered in the face of America's stained record—from the genocide against the continent's indigenous peoples to the invasion of Iraq to the evils of rapacious capitalism, the United States, it seemed to me, had betrayed its own promise at so many turns. I aspired to an unambiguous pacifism, and so the war went down as a massive catastrophe in my book. My former obsession I chalked up to impressionable naivete.
But you can't entirely bury the passions of youth, and as time's gone on my heart's battled with my head. The former still found in the war something noble, the latter only evidence of human sin. And so I've come to see the choice between one or the other as false. As Virginia Woolf puts it in To the Lighthouse, nothing is simply one thing. The Civil War was a singularly human drama, and like all such dramas it encompasses the range of life's complexes—base and proud, inspired and meaningless, tragic and redemptive. Any artistic and literary responses must do justice to this complexity, and I'm always on the lookout for them: for works that, like Lincoln's writing, capture the transcendent while staring unflinchingly into the abyss.
To this day, Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage stands as the greatest. Crane wrote his novel in 1895, thirty years after Appomattox. He was just twenty-one and had never witnessed combat, but his work has set the standard for American war writing ever since. Its terse, declarative sentences; employment of personification and metaphor; and ironic, unsentimental tone have influenced writers from Hemingway to Tim O’Brien, on wars from the Spanish Civil to Vietnam. The narrative possesses a simple contour: a young private in the Union Army, Henry Fleming, flees from the lines during his first engagement, struggles with himself over the course of a day and night, and rejoins his regiment to reverse his station on the field of battle the next day. But underneath this arc, Crane burrows deep into core existential matters—in a forest glen enclosed like a cathedral, Henry touches the hem of Death’s garment in the form of a slain comrade. He comes face to face with his personal mortality, and it sends him back into the mass of man changed. Such scenes excavate the immense emotional terrain one soul traverses in a few hours, illuminating how the briefest of moments can contain an ocean of subjective time and import. Crane’s vocabulary is overpowering in its expressiveness, awesome in its range. He does on page what the Impressionists do on canvas, heightening and transmitting the consciousness of felt experience. The descriptions of battle paint fogged scenes out of Whistler in your mind:
Such prose presents a clear challenge to anyone attempting a cinematic adaptation, as it requires translating Fleming’s interior impressions into screen images and dramatic exchanges. By many accounts, John Huston succeeded with his 1951 movie, but you’d never know it watching the movie today. His original cut, starring Audie Murphy and filmed on his California ranch, knocked the socks of the first group of friends who saw it; William Wyler, a master film craftsman himself, told Huston it was one of the greatest movies he'd ever seen. Huston maintained fidelity to the novel, including the scene of Fleming's death encounter, while simultaneously reworking it for the movie medium. But almost immediately, and especially after he left for Africa to direct The African Queen, the producers and studio execs at MGM gave it a death by a thousand cuts. Negative responses from many preview audience members further alarmed them, and rather than stand by the film as a class above what the average American moviegoer expected, they killed it in a vain attempt to appeal to baser taste. (All of this is rendered in satirical detail in Picture, Lillian Ross's 1952 journalistic account of the film's production).
The result is a frustrating experience of what might have been. Some scenes—like the death of the Tall Soldier and the regiment sleeping around the campfire after the first day's affair—begin to convey Crane's combination of beauty, rawness, and archetypal force. But other scenes are out of sequence, and some of the best (the Tattered Soldier's death) discarded entirely. The film is spotty, hokey in places and rushed. The solemn, random voice-over narration from the book (added by producer Gottfried Reinhardt) makes you feel like someone's beating you on the face with a plank. A great opportunity was lost—imagine if Huston had been allowed to do with Crane's work what he later did with James Joyce's The Dead? No better opportunities to film the Civil War have presented themselves since. Michael Shaara wrote a decent fictional account of the three days at Gettysburg in 1974's The Killer Angels, clearly in Crane's debt. He sticks to a lean style out of Hemingway; his characters seem at once contemporary and true to their time, and their conscious experience has both depth and an organic quality. But the book doesn't approach Crane's intelligence and descriptive mastery, and then it was made into the turgid 1993 movie Gettysburg. Ted Turner financed the project and shamelessly jacked up its glorification of the South. I drove all through the night with my father to see it as a kid and it wasn't until much later that I saw it for the bloated, overwrought beast that it is. But I've always had a soft spot for Jeff Daniels's performance as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who's 20th Maine regiment saved the Union on the second day at Little Round Top. Unlike the other actors, he doesn't seem mummified under his mustache and keeps a sense of humor; he never grandstands and his Chamberlain contains a mix of integrity, humility, and seriousness of purpose.
That kind of acting stands out even more so in Edward Zwick's battle movie Glory, from 1989. Not based on a novel, this film comes from the true story of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the first African American combat unit commissioned in the North. I think of the 54th and their white commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, often in Boston, where the great relief of Augustus Saint-Gaudens memorializes them in bronze on the Common. They go forward in their own doomed assault (on Fort Wagner in Charleston) their bodies and guns churning in motion, their faces impassive and serene. Shaw came from a prominent, abolitionist family of Boston Brahmins, and after the war they exhumed his body from the mass grave the Confederates threw him and his men into and reinterred it at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. I came upon it one spring afternoon when a falcon swooped onto the headstone in majesty, as if to guard the hallowed place. Matthew Broderick portrays Shaw in the movie, where he tries perhaps too much at regal self-control—after the opening scenes of Antietam, where his Shaw's both emotionally and physically vulnerable, Broderick stiffens and goes affectless, the burden of his task sitting too heavily on his shoulders.
The movie really belongs to the foot soldiers in the unit and the black actors playing them—chiefly Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher, and Morgan Freeman. Washington, in particular, is riveting. His Pvt. Trip has an animal quality to him, with all kinds of scars firing a tightly-coiled rage against the world. Shaw has Trip whipped for desertion, and a single tear traces a canal on the black man's face, despite all attempts to stay composed. The scene does a number on you, as does the final battle, when most of the regiment is wiped out. The music is too florid and Zwick builds the Holywood tear-jerk moment to excess, but I'll be damned if it all doesn't get me every time. The colors and images of the fight have a torrid, apocalyptic quality to them, deep reds and blues and fire everywhere—for a moment, it captures the universe of battle. But it still doesn't bring your mind to the heightened state Crane does. The movie's more lasting impact comes in moments that capture the humanity of the men and the dignity of their sacrifice—as when, on the eve of battle, they sing spirituals around a campfire with the glassy-eyed commitment of the already-dead.
The best narrative Civil War movie is one you'd least expect—Gillian Armstrong's 1994 film of Little Women, the classic novel from Louisa May Alcott. The war doesn't appear at all in the picture, but its shadow overhangs the whole story, a backdrop that lends it a heartfelt, bittersweet mood. Alcott gives a consciously didactic quality to her tale, shaping the narrative along the lines of the progress of the Christian soul. Each of the four March sisters goes through a series of episodes in which they learn to overcome respective character defects and grow in virtue, all played out under the watchful eye of Marmee, their mother (Susan Sarandon in the film). The book’s second half charts their movements away from home into marriage and adulthood. Mr. March is serving with the Union army at the front, and his absence casts a sad longing over the family that conveys the experience of the home front during the war—and, especially after Beth's sickness and death (played to heartbreaking effect by Claire Danes in the movie), intimates the grief that overwhelmed so many homes. Jo, the second eldest, confides in Marmee one night and nearly brings her mother to tears in speaking of her father. When she wonders at how her mother never bemoans her loss, the latter answers with soft acceptance: “I gave my best to the country I love, and kept my tears till he was gone. Why should I complain, when we both have merely done our duty and will surely be the happier for it in the end?” With language like this, you begin to appreciate the passionate devotion to ideals that marked the people of that time, the height of the Romantic era. As when I read Whitman on the war, it puts a check on the scoffing irony my own era's lent me.
Armstrong's movie tones down the book’s explicitly Christian structure, but in a way that sacrifices none of its heart, humor, and richness of character. She sets up her shots with floral, natural frames, highlighting the change of seasons around the March home. The effect is to feel a sense of place, and the closeness of the people of that time to the land. In this case it's Concord, Massachusetts, and the film also conveys the spirit of American Transcendentalism flowing from nearby Walden Pond into the veins of the March daughters. This is especially true of Jo, the favorite of American girls everywhere and played by Winona Ryder. She’s intrepid, free-spirited, and fiery, and she leads her sisters around the village with endless imagination and adventure. The movie subtly immerses you in the zeitgeist of the region and time, and you see how the insistence on personal freedom and self-creation that marked the thought of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne (all neighbors to the Alcotts) would give birth to the abolitionist movement there. Armstrong peppers in a few shots of wounded veterans in the background wearing faded blue caps, but the tone isn't somber. Rather, as the March girls run laughing into life, you have an elegiac sense of promise—the hope of youth measures the worth of victory. And when Marmee leaves for Washington to tend to her wounded husband, the image of these strong women embracing in strife hits you with the feeling of how much that victory cost these families. Armstrong’s film, and the March women at the center, is a human hearth that radiates warmth through the coldest of war-torn days.
The most important American film in the last thirty years to deal directly with the war is Ken Burns’s The Civil War from 1990. Almost equaling Little Women in popularity, the nine-episode documentary was something like a national event when it first aired and remains unquestionably Burns’s masterpiece. Its scope and sweep are ambitious, covering all aspects of the war from its cause through its conclusion—which has never felt more in doubt or more important. With his patented technique of filming period photographs and paintings, and casting screen actors as the voices of eyewitnesses, Burns makes the history pop alive with immediacy and drama. In recounting Pickett’s charge, for example, he combines sound editing of battle explosions and soldiers’ reports with crisp cuts between visual details from Paul Philippoteaux’s massive cyclorama painting. These few tools spark your imagination to fill in the rest, in a manner more exciting than most action blockbusters. Burns is unabashedly in love with his subject, and his romantic idealism gets caught up in the passions of the age. This emotional marriage to and respect for the story leads to many deeply felt, moving sequences. The recounting of Walt Whitman’s experience as a hospital orderly in Washington—Garrison Keillor’s inimitable cadence reading the poet’s lines—always devastates me, as do his words about Lincoln and the assassination. Near the end of one episode, Burns offers a shot of the Capitol dome at night, with a full moon hovering behind. It’s Christmas time, but the text tells of a weary Lincoln contemplating disastrous news into the wee hours alone. A plaintive piano rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” softly underscores the moment, and as Burns pans over snow-covered roofs of wintry villages, you realize the great torment those people lived.
Shelby Foote—one of the historians Burns interviews for the film and its principle historical guide—rightly calls the Civil War a family tragedy at the documentary’s outset. Foote is the star of the piece, and he’s a commanding presence onscreen. With a baritone drawl and a face that resembles Robert E. Lee’s, he lends Burns a gravitas and authenticity that combine factual adroitness with rhetorical vigor. His stream of anecdotes add color and telling detail to the historical figures, major and minor alike. These homespun pronouncements buttress Geoffrey Ward’s screenplay, narrated with stentorian affect by David McCullough. But if any criticism can be laid against the movie, it lies here. Burns gives himself over too much to Foote, in the end, and finds himself slipping into a southern bias without realizing it. He’s determined not to have any villains in the picture (only slavery and John Wilkes Booth) but that means he glosses over the fact that the South’s generals and their victories aimed at the perpetuation of the evil he condemns. His romantic infatuation of the war prevents him from keeping a critical detachment at times, except in the occasional weird instance. He keeps in Foote’s odd assessment of Lincoln, whose intelligence he calls “strange,” “curious,” and “calculating.” Foote tries to intend these attributions positively, but they betray a southern suspicion of the man and the tone leads you to conclude that Lincoln’s calculations were self-aggrandizing. Meantime, Burns goes easy on the South’s heroes, which de facto adds to their luster. He adopts the southern view of John Brown as a militant religious zealot, for example, but paints Stonewall Jackson’s own Christian fanaticism as harmlessly endearing. (This even though Jackson sowed many times more violence and with a near-pathological love of killing.) Foote speaks as though he were at the scene in 1863, which is highly entertaining and nearly convincing—you feel yourself giving over to him, too. But he wasn’t, and by making him the voice of authority Burns lets the interpretation of the war drift below the Mason-Dixon line, instead of above all lines entirely.
These criticisms are the voice of my head—my heart still loves the film. Its passions are well placed when all is said and done, because you can’t help but be moved by the convictions of the ordinary people it describes. They thought and wrote at a plane above us, and when they said they were willing to give up everything for the cause of liberty and emancipation, they were in earnest. But I also know that too much sentimentality can distort and cheapen those ideals, and that they justified the worst human behavior between 1861-1865. In Little Women, Jo finally comes-of-age at the bedside of her dying sister, and it gives her the wisdom to chuck the sensational stories she’s penned and to write from the heart. She writes about her own experience, about the people she knows, and the result is the story of her family—a tale in which the universal infuses in the everyday. I still wait for the Civil War drama that does the same, that captures all the tonal complexities of the event—both its heartache and its meaningful purpose. Maybe it hasn’t been made because the Civil War, as historian Barbara Fields puts it at the close of Burns’s film, isn’t over:
Yes, the battle within our country continues, 150 years on. It’s fought in the heart of each of us. And it deserves a movie that, to borrow from Whitman, conveys the vast similitude interlocking it all. Perhaps when we’ve learned to hold the whole of the Civil War together, the film that does so will appear