Martin Sheen’s Civil War

I had a few minutes to kill this morning and noticed the companion volume to the movie Gettysburg, which includes paintings by Mort Kunstler and text by James McPherson.  The foreword is written by Martin Sheen who played R.E. Lee in the movie.  Here is a brief passage from Sheen that beautifully captures popular perception of the war:

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.

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5 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Sep 20, 2007 @ 7:14

    Matthew, — You make some good points, but I think you simplify things when you draw such a sharp distinction between movies and history. Of course, “Killer Angels” is fiction, but for many people it is interpreted as history. I never show sections of Gettysburg to give students a sense of what battle was like, but I do use it to give them a sense of popular perceptions of the war. The fact that Lee is portrayed as non-ideological is significant and can be used as a basis for a class discussion. What do we gain by simplifying Lee in this regard? If I remember Armistead also lays it on pretty thick before the final charge.

    Thanks again Matthew.

  • matthew mckeon Sep 19, 2007 @ 17:28

    Movies are movies and history is history. I might show a section of “Gettysburg” to give the kids an idea of what a Civil War battle looks like, I don’t look for an analysis of the issues on film.

    “Killer Angels” the novel, is a study of character, not of history, and the pleasure of the book is the author getting you under the skin of people you thought you knew. People like Lee or Longstreet struggle with sickness, fatigue, jealousy, fear and rage, and in Sharra’s vision they’re professionals, and aren’t ideological in the least. One reb dismisses “the Cause” as a bore. “My cause is victory.” Chamberlain, of all the characters, is the only one to formulate an ideological reason for joining the war.
    It’s better to understand “Killer Angels” as a Greek tragedy. Lee, the tragic hero, brings himself and his country low through his own flaw, that being hubris.
    I’m not saying its Shakespeare, but its better to understand the book like Shakespeare’s history plays, a work of fiction.

    Also, what is the fascination with prints by Gallon, Kunstler and the like? To me it looks like Soviet era social realism.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2007 @ 12:04

    I completely agree with you. My survey course has viewed scenes from the movie The New World which is about Jamestown and the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas. We’ve watched it as interpretation and have compared it with the book we are currently reading.

    I’ve shown parts of Gods and Generals to my Civil War class, but the last time I did so it was late in the semester and my students knew too much. Their laughter was a reflection of the movie’s simplicity and its failure to engage in a more critical evaluation of the events covered.

  • Tim Lacy Sep 19, 2007 @ 11:57

    Kevin: I’m with you, with regard to your last paragraph. But this is the kind of story we get when we leave history to the industrial-entertainment complex. To counter it, however, we have to engage it, do battle with it. These movies—both good and bad—need to be viewed ~in~ our survey courses AND discussed thoroughly. A straight up comparison with one’s survey textbook often does the trick. We do public memory a disservice when we ignore middle and low-brow history in our courses. – TL

  • Tim Abbott Sep 18, 2007 @ 16:57

    Ah, but perhaps he does only too well. It is the same argument that is made today to embrace the soldiers while at odds over the policies and tactics that brought them to war. It is a post Vietnam, rather than post World War II understanding of military people (as opposed to the military industrial complex)and it allows those on the left to voice support for the troops while opposing the war.

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