The Power of Hollywood

3412585481_cf3245787aThe highlight of my trip to Richmond this past weekend was the tour of Virginia’ State Capitol.  Although I’ve walked by it many times, for one reason or another I never had the time to actually walk through it.  Michaela and I decided to tag along with one of their tour guides.  We had a nice elderly woman guide us.  I have to admit that I anticipated the standard tour that barely scratches the surface of the place, but I was pleasantly surprised within a few minutes of the tour.

Our guide did an excellent job of interpreting the Jean-Antoine Houdon statue of George Washington which sits at the very center of the Rotunda, but it was her knowledge of Rudulph Evans’s famous Robert E. Lee statue in the Old Hall of the House of Delegates that really impressed me. The statue is located at the spot where Lee accepted command of Virginia forces on April 23, 1861.  I inquired into the choice of uniform that Evans utilized.  In an attempt to impress our guide I noted that Lee would not have been wearing his Confederate uniform at this time since he was only accepting command of Virginia state forces.  First, our guide informed me that the likeness was based on a wartime photograph of Matthew Brady, which makes sense after looking at it, but then she asked if I knew what he was, in fact, wearing on that day.  With little delay and an apparent knack for putting my own foot in my mouth I said that he would have been wearing his blue U.S. army uniform.  How did I know this?  I clearly remember the scene in Ron Maxwell’s Gods and Generals.  Lee, played by Robert Duvall, is wearing a uniform.  Well, it turns out that Lee wasn’t wearing a uniform at all.  He was wearing civilian clothing.

Innocent mistake, no doubt, but it does reflect the influence of popular culture on our understanding of the past.  What’s funny is that I’ve criticized this movie over and over and I still went to it as a reliable source on this issue.  I should know by now that the only reason to reference it is in the context of Civil War memory/mythology and bad film making.  Here is the scene:

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9 comments… add one
  • Frank Apr 15, 2009 @ 10:06

    Ok, so big deal they got the uniform wrong in the movie. While you are “instructing” us how “incorrect” God’s and Generals is, please don’t fail to also mention how bogus Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary, Glory, Andersonville, and Cold Mountain are. And that just names a few. I mean come on, you want to be “fair and impartial” don’t you?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 15, 2009 @ 10:21


      Calm down. Before you choose to lash out like a madman take a few minutes and read what I’ve written about those other films and documentaries. I’ve offered detailed critiques of all of them. I’ve been blogging for over three years, which means there is a huge archive to consider.

  • Sara Bearss Apr 7, 2009 @ 10:06

    The Evans statue is based on the Julian Vannerson photographs of Lee, taken early in 1864. You might be interested in checking out Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr.’s “The Fabric of Command: R. E. Lee, Confederate Insignia, and the Perception of Rank,” in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98 (April 1990): 261-290, on what the uniform (or lack thereof), insignia, and military accoutrements Lee chose or did not choose to be photographed in may tell us.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009 @ 10:08


      Thanks for providing us with the relevant information. I still feel kind of silly for suggesting that Brady was responsible for the photograph. I wonder if the broken tree branch and cannon ball at the base of the statue has anything to do with the Wilderness given the photograph’s date.

  • Bill Bergen Apr 6, 2009 @ 11:56


    This is the Brady photograph taken in April 1865 at his house in Richmond after the surrender:

    If I am not mistaken, as Brooks hints, there is no way Brady could have taken the 1863 photograph.


    • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2009 @ 12:35

      Thanks Bill. I knew the 1865 was Brady, but feel like an idiot in thinking that Brady could somehow have tracked Lee down to take a photograph. Now that would have been something.

  • Brooks Simpson Apr 6, 2009 @ 8:27

    That’s not a Simpson’s moment. 🙂

    When did Lee pose for Brady? 🙂

  • Robert Moore Apr 6, 2009 @ 7:45

    Sounds like a Simpson’s moment… Doh! 🙂 Happens to us all…

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