If we look at this horrific conflict in the conventional retelling, the truisms of Northern industrialism attempting to impose an egalitarian ideal upon Southern agrarianism, of plantation feudalism protecting its privilege, of the test whether or not a voluntary political marriage of states could end in divorce–all these apply.
But Gettysburg leaves those questions to the history books: right and wrong, good and evil, are not the concern here, nor are the political distinctions. The focus is on the people who faced each other on the battlefield for three long days of brutal combat in July 1863. From generals to infantry volunteers, the human beings who fought loyally and valiantly for Union and Confederacy–this is their story. How the great battle that consumed thousands of American lives was won, and lost, because of chance, and the skill or ineptitude of men, not causes. Gettysburg is the human story behind the great battle.
Sheen’s Civil War and his understanding of the battle of Gettysburg in particular reflects the influence of the legacy of reunion that allowed white Northerners and Southerners to transcend or bridge their differences by the turn of the twentieth century. It’s no accident that battlefields proved to be so attractive for reunions between one-time enemies;they provided a space in which the broader questions of cause could be set aside.
The problem with Sheen’s characterization is that the movie does present the battle as an ideological struggle, albeit a rather simple one. Characters on both sides are given plenty of time to present their justification for the war and instill meaning into the very ground that they are fighting over. Chamberlain does this before the engagement at Little Round Top and Armistead does so before “Pickett’s Charge.” Yes, their respective views are presented in the broadest of terms and have a tendency to cloud more specific political and ideological differences, but they are there included in the film. It gives the movie a certain level of sappiness that is exacerbated by Ron Maxwell in Gods and Generals.
Sheen is correct that the movie ignores the political views of the enlisted men. The problem is that leaving those questions to the history books distorts the very history that the movie attempts to conveys. We have little trouble assuming that ordinary Americans during the Revolution could be motivated to enlist and persevere because of the broadest of political principles, but for some reason we find it difficult to interpret the Civil War as a political contest that was fought out on various battlefields. This is not an isolated oversight on the part of the general public; the historian Bell I. Wiley also downplayed politics when writing about Civil War soldiers during the period following WWII. In the last few years, however, historians such as Earl Hess, James McPherson, and Chandra Manning have added a great deal to our understanding of the political views of the common soldier. It is unlikely, however, that these interpretations will be embraced by the general public to any great extent. I believe the difficulty has everything to do with our own tendency to want to steer clear of the issues of race and slavery.
It seems strange to even suggest that any understanding of a Civil War battle is possible by ignoring “right and wrong”, “good and bad” and other “political distinctions.” Of course, it is the historian’s responsibility to flesh out what these terms mean in all of their complexity. We are taught in our history survey courses that the 1830s involved a dramatic shift on the local and state levels in the involvement of average Americans in their political system. Americans no longer deferred to their betters and everyone was now a gentleman. If we accept some version of this story it seems reasonable to expect that ordinary Americans on both the home front and in the ranks would have taken a great interest in the political events of the day.
Given Martin Sheen’s political activism one has to wonder if he really understands what he is saying.