Gettysburg on History—Love It, Hate It, Here it Comes Again.

The following guest post is from Garry Adelman.  Garry is the author, co-author or editor of more than 30 Civil War books and articles including his latest work, Manassas Battlefields Then & Now. He has been a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg for 16 years. He is vice president of the Center for Civil War Photography and works full time as Director of History and Education for the Civil War Trust.

With the History Channel’s Gettysburg show scheduled to re-air on Wednesday August 31, I thought Civil War Memory the perfect place to post an insider’s perspective about the creation, production and reactions to the docudrama. Thanks to my friend Kevin for allowing me to be a guest blogger.

I first became involved in the project at its outset in June 2010. History asked the Civil War Trust for help with its proposed Gettysburg docudrama, but: they did not want to try to include the entire battle; they did not want to focus on the usual characters and; they wanted to make it highly personal. I was tapped for the job. I said I would help in any way I could and added that my personal goal was to help them make “something that didn’t suck.”

For eleven months, I was closely involved thereafter in suggesting possible characters, recommending books to their research team, reviewing scripts and rough cuts and, on literally hundreds of occasions, answering questions about the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War.

Just before the scripts got under way, the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Supervisory Historian, Scott Hartwig, came on board. Scott and I served as the primary historical consultants thereafter. We reviewed three versions of the script and watched rough cuts of the production as it emerged. Together, we made no fewer than 400 specific comments and requests for changes, and, to History’s great credit, almost every single one of these comments was addressed in the final show. Scott and I have both worked with other production companies before and we agree that none were so dedicated to trying to get it right as was History and Herzog & Co. In the first scripts, there were scores of significant errors and I mean significant.  Click here [pdf file] for some examples of my comments.

Since this was a narrated piece and on a tight timeline, and even tighter budget, the filming in L.A. and South Africa was done even before the script was completed. While Scott and I reviewed the rough cuts in detail, neither of us focused upon things that were absolutely unchangeable. The sets were what they were. The uniforms were what they were. The way the soldiers moved was set. We did help them to remove the most egregious of errors. Their weapons guy inexcusably told them that Civil War cannons were fired with linstocks… LINSTOCKS!  The result was that every cannon in the rough cut and in the computer graphics was fired with a linstock.  Their General Meade had three stars on his uniform. Check out these pictures [pdf file] (as well as these bonus screencaps of some of the deleted scenes including Carl Schurz and Jeremiah Gage). Again, to History’s credit they corrected these most egregious errors, at least mostly. To be clear there are scores of things that bug me about the show—I think it’s impossible to make a Gettysburg production that would even largely please the real Gettysburg nerds like me. This is why my personal goal was to help make something that “didn’t suck.” It certainly could have been better–the terrain and tactics especially kill me, many uniforms and accoutrements are wrong, the limited number of soldiers is hard to get past, and I would like to replace some of the actors.  There are many other things as well.

After it aired, many in the Civil War community suggested that even my limited goal was not achieved. This production, however, was not made for people like me, or most of the people who read this blog–it was made for the general public.  Some of the blogs were particularly harsh, (including Civil War Memory) and the associated comments were often downright hostile.  Two of the bloggers who were particularly disappointed, Eric Wittenberg and J.D. Petruzzi, were especially kind to me personally, which I appreciate, and further suggested that I must have been saddened by the final production.  Some of my fellow battlefield guides and even my best Civil War pal, Tim Smith, assumed I must have been ashamed after it aired.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I am exceedingly proud to have been involved. The show accomplished precisely what it was designed to do—gain the general interest of the public. The Civil War Trust and I personally received numerous comments like this:

The film was tremendous and awe-inspiring, and even managed to get this old school academic on the edge of his seat. Even my wife, who politely appeases my great and enduring love of learning about and experiencing the War kept her eyes glued, and for the first time probably ever, used the commercial breaks to ask poignant questions, which I happily answered.

I met a family at Gettysburg last month who made their first trip there as a result of the show (and I bet they went to Culp’s Hill as well as Little Round Top!).  This is the key. Blogger John Rudy’s blog post in the wake of the airing gets at this point very well.

Whether it be Ken Burns, the Turner Movie, or this latest production, people see a Gettysburg program, come to the battlefield and interpreters like me have to clean up the historical mess these productions can cause.  Still, the people came and that, to me, is the important part.  It is not at all my goal to try to convince anyone to like the production and I am MOST CERTAINLY not interested in engaging in a debate about the show on this blog.  Rather, I hope to place into context, and via this blog into historical memory, the collective goals of the production. Love it, hate it, wish it was something else; we can cheer or cringe as it wins or loses the nine Emmys for which it is nominated.

27 responses... add one

The History/Military Channels, where else could we learn about the German’s bombing Pearl Harbor.
Military is running a show now that claims the Fence along the Emmitsburg Road caused Pickett’s charge to fail and thus lost the war for the South.
great stuff :-/

I gotta tell you, I completely agree with Garry on this. Yes, the uniforms and tactical depictions were atrocious, but it brought untold new people to Gettysburg. I saw it every week at work. In the National Cemetery, people came up to me asking where Amos Humiston was buried because they learned of his story on this show. I received multiple phone calls from others who inquired about the memoirs of Rufus Dawes. For months following the airing of this show, I saw nothing but beneficial results on the battlefield. Yes, people had a few misconceptions that needed corrected, but they were THERE. They cared. They wanted to learn more. In the end, is that not what matters most?

Most films and Doc. have mistakes. Too many buttons. Wrong shoe laces. A 1970 car in the background of a 50′s film. The point of the movie still comes through as it does in this film. Even though Garry is my son, my knowledge of the CW is limited. But when i watched the film, questions poped up that i would ask Garry about. His interest in the CW also peaked my interest. All through the many years of his involvment, i have learned a lot. That is what this film will do for the average person who does not have the time or interest for every detail. I will end by saying Nominated for 9 Emmys.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Mr. Adelman. I am a big fan of your son. I’ve worked with Garry on two occasions through the Civil War Trust. I can’t think of too many people who are more passionate about history and historic preservation.

Garry, I must say that involving you and Scott in this was the best decision made by the producers, and your (collective) commentary was easily my favorite part of the show.

I have to disagree with your use of the phrase “Gettysburg nerds” however. I think we are more properly termed geeks.

You could make a film about any battle or historical event that has a museum and or park and people will always have questions. It would be great to see a program that is not only informative but visually pleasing as well. It’s sad that low quality programs (my opinion) are found to be acceptable because they get folks asking questions. sad sad sad.

Garry, let not your heart be troubled. No matter how good or how accurate the production is, there will always be those who will feel the need to knock it down. And it usually is those that were not asked to participate in the show and feel slighted. You will always get a handful of “experts” that critique everything down to the last detail and whine if the buttons on the coats are not accurate.

The purpose of this film was to revive interest in the Battle of Gettysburg and to make it such that a younger audience would find it appealing. This I think was done. Let the critics make their own film and then it can be perfect, true to the last detail, and the world will sigh in amazement. NOT!

Ric,

Given your argument, is there any situation in which a critical review is appropriate?

There is a difference between critical and just nit-picking. It seems that the “critics” are usually people that never produce movies themselves, they just pick and poke at the work of others. It is easy to armchair quarterback a movie and say what you would have done, and how much more accurate you would have made it if you were in charge. And in that case, I say go get the locations, permits, cast the actors, get a crew, sponsorship, props, costumes, etc… and make your own movie so we can compare results.

Being a critic is often sour grapes, especially when I hear people whining about the buttons on a coat not being accurate. I think the show did what it set out to do and those that made it deserve praise.

Whether or not the documentary succeeded in its goals does not preclude a well-reasoned critique. I agree that reviews can often nit-pick, but some of them raise legitimate concerns. The visuals of this particular documentary were awful on a number of levels as well as the editing of a coherent narrative. I don’t have to produce a movie of my own to offer such an observation. Does every book reviewer necessarily need to have written a book before he/she can offer feedback?

Critique is one thing, laceration is another. The critics always tend to be people that could not create a movie if their kids lives depended on it. But they love to pick out the failings of someone else.

If you do not like the movie…great! It takes all kinds to make a world. But some of the visceral hate I have seen coming out against this film online is over-the-top. And it is against all films like this. Until we see bodies exploding, men disintegrated by canister fire, soldiers hacking off the limbs of others with swords or bashing their brains out with rocks…all of these movies are BS. There is no way to make it “real” and not get it pulled due to graphic content. But I really don’t have to defend this flick. It seems it is up for some awards and that is proof enough it was well done. The “critics” can pound salt.

Again, I agree that some of the reviews were just a bit over the top, but I still fail to see how having to make your own movie to justify a response gets us anywhere. Whether it receives awards is irrelevant to how any individual responds. I bet you can easily find examples of award winners that you find difficult to believe.

You are right Kevin. There are many award winning movies that give me anal glaucoma because I cannot see my arse watching them. But that is my individual tastes. I don’t watch them to critique how accurate they are. I either like them or I don’t. Simple.

We live in America where (at least for now) we sort of have freedom of expression and I am always glad to see people so engaged in exercising that right. People critiqued the movie, and I critiqued the people. See? And I have caught as much flack for taking a different view. There we have it, democracy in action!

I’m not sure what your point is. No one ever denied your right to voice your opinion about anything.

No point. Just pontificating a bit. I have no beef with the movie, or those that didn’t like it. In the grand scheme of things it will not impact my life one way or the other. I always enjoy a good discussion and this was fun. Thanks for letting me participate.

Pointing out sloppy history is quite legitimate and using the excuse “it’s not easy” is a cop out.
it’s just as easy to put out correct info as it is to put out bad,
Take the part of using the linstock/slow match to discharge the cannon.
they could have gone to and re-enactor group and hired a cannon and crew for low bucks and gotten a very accurate gun crew.
Most re-enactors are so willing to be in such productions you can get them for free.

Well Ray, I am waiting for your movie to come out so we can see how it is REALLY done.

Ric, bad history is bad history and you have just endoesed bad history.
this isn’t youth soccer where everybody get’s a trophy just for participating.
they are professionals and as such they are held accountable.

Endorsed? I said the show did what it set out to do. They attracted an audience and got folks talking. For entertainment, it was good. If you were looking at the details of historical accuracy, it left much to be desired. Me, I like entertainment and that is really what I expect when I watch TV. Historical accuracy will ALWAYS take a backseat to sensationalism because at the end of the day TV producers are out to make money…and if they educate a few folks in the process all the better.

With the lousy public school system we have I am quite sure if most kids have even HEARD of Gettysburg we are doing well, much less understanding the terrain of the area. Kids are indoctrinated with “self-esteem building” and other tripe instead of understanding the fabric of the American Civil War. So if a sensational movie gets some kids to think, “Hey! That Civil War stuff looks neat!” then the movie did have an effect. Nine out of ten people would not know or could care less what terrain features were wrong, what tools were wrong, what uniform buttons and buckles were wrong…people just want to be entertained for a couple of hours. These movies are not made just for the edification of the historical community. If so, the ratings would be dismal. They make them for a broader audience and that involves taking liberties. It is what it is. Whining about it will not change this film or the next one down the pike. But I guess it makes people feel as if they “had their say.” Whatever.

It isn’t the filmmakers’ competency at producing television that’s at issue here, but their competency at producing good historical content. It doesn’t take a shelf lined with Emmys to qualify somebody to point out that the terrain in California and South Africa doesn’t match southern Pennsylvania, that linstocks weren’t the standard tools to fire Civil War artillery, that nineteenth-century soldiers didn’t fight in modern formations, and so on. I agree that it was a slick, professional-looking production; I just thought the interpretation was lousy.

I don’t think anybody’s blaming Mr. Adelman for that, since it’s clear that many of those decisions had already been made. That in itself, I think, deserves criticism. The reenacted sequences could have benefited greatly from a consultant’s expertise; it’s a shame they filmed the battle scenes before bringing in the folks who really understood said battle.

Anyway, if it got people to the field and into the library, then it wasn’t a total loss. I expect documentaries to get the facts straight, but if they at least open a door, that’s something.

–ML

I don’t think anybody’s blaming Mr. Adelman for that, since it’s clear that many of those decisions had already been made. That in itself, I think, deserves criticism. The reenacted sequences could have benefited greatly from a consultant’s expertise; it’s a shame they filmed the battle scenes before bringing in the folks who really understood said battle.

That’s a critical point. The best consultants in the world aren’t much use if you either (a) don’t listen to them, or (b) don’t engage them at a point in the process where they might make a difference.

Way back when the trailer first appeared, my first thought was, “wow, gritty” (good) and my second thought, “that has the look of a 19th century Black Hawk Down. Both those turned out to be correct. The thing that rattled me was that, presumably for budget constraints and lack of extras, all the actions shown (including the charge formerly known as Pickett’s) looked like small-unit skirmishing. It really didn’t capture the scope and sweep of the action necessary. (I understand the intent was to focus on little-known, individual stories.) I wondered then and still do, whether the CGI work so evident throughout the piece might have been used to multiply a small number of uniformed reenactors into a mass that had the right visual heft of the actual event. It can be done.

(Full disclosure: I’ve never produced a historical documentary myself.)

I could really kick myself.After reading so many negative comments on various forums I had decided not to watch this,then last night it appeared on the History Channel and I could not resist.I don’t class it as bad,that wouldn’t do it justice.It really is the most boring,inaccurate,badly scripted,appallingly researched piece of utter garbage that I have ever seen!From the opening shots of the Army of Northern Virgina on the march without a hint of a uniformity,hardly any visible weaponry and a sprinking of grinning women in the ranks,all marching under an inaccurate rectangular Army of Tennessee flag to 8 reenactors trying their best to represent 1800 Iron Brigade infantrymen.I’d had enough after 20 minutes.
All the directors,producers,researchers and anyone else involved in this pile of garbage should hang their heads in shame.

So many of my friends and people I talk to don’t know anything about the Civil War and other than President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, don’t know much about Gettysburg. Some of my friends watched it and started asking me questions and reading more about it. I didn’t tell them about all the things I noticed that were not accurate, I was just glad they were excited to learn more. I think that it is a bigger problem that kids can go to school and not learn about Gettysburg and our history. While I wish it was perfectly accurate, I am just glad there are people like Mr. Adelman and others that at least try to help people learn about the Civil War. If one kid saw that show, then went to Gettysburg and had a great tour like Mr. Adelman gave us at Petersburg and then he or she decides to help save our history, that works for me. Andrew

Hi Andrew,

Nice to hear from you. If I am not mistaken you recently won an award in recognition of your preservation work. If so, congratulations. I completely agree with your comment. Often times what we need is something that at least opens the door to history. Enjoy your summer.

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