Let me admit that I am no fan of the Civil War industry. For one thing, I was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and spent the better part of the 50’s and 60’s watching the place fill up with everything from a gigantic commercial viewing tower to a Jesus wax museum. For another, as a former armored cavalry platoon leader in Vietnam, I recoil against any attempt to render war attractive—the Civil War, the Vietnamese war, any war; and particularly as regards the perverse spectacle called re-enactment, I remain absolutely clueless as to why grown people, all their attestations about “living history” notwithstanding, would want to dress up in period uniforms and go out for weekends of mock-battle where. between bouts of sleeping in soggy bedrolls and grim repasts of sowbelly and hardtack, they pretend to maim and slaughter each other. It is an perplexity hardly assuaged, I should add, by my recent reading in Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic of a much-admired re-enactor whose battlefield star turns include the ability to puff and blow himself into the semblance of a bloated corpse.
Still, I do not plan to spend an essay here arguing that Ted Turner made the movie Gettysburg just so he could dress up like a Confederate general and get killed leading a brigade during Pickett’s Charge—although by all accounts his passion for Civil War history does seem to have had much to do with his decision to bankroll the project. Neither despite my less than reverent title, do I wish to speak here merely of the current re-enactment mania, whether played out, as with Turner, at the tip of the production pyramid, or among the ranks of the thousands of costumed hobbyists known to have provided his project and others like it with its cinematic cannon fodder. What I do want to talk about is the packaging and marketing of the Civil War as part of a larger commodification of cultural desire in which the making of Turner’s film and his participation in it become exemplary. I wish to speak, that is, about the matter of Gettysburg as a case study in the ongoing manufacture of the Civil War as the quintessential American item—a product, I will propose, not unlike its cousin, the sport utility vehicle, as dangerous as it is big and handsome, a shining exterior fabricated around the killing power of the machine.
Here, the property that reached Turner was one that already came trailing a production history stretching back nearly two decades, to the publication of Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel of the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels. Considered at the time something of a quirky anachronism—a historically compendious and wide ranging account of most of the significant action during the three-day engagement, simultaneously recreated through the eyes of major participants on both the Union and Confederate sides—it had nonetheless won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And over the years, it gained the reputation of a cult classic among military history and historical fiction enthusiasts.
The big picture was contained in the novel’s imposing overall structure. A foreward outlined Lee’s 1863 plan of Northern invasion and, in the vein of the breathless dramatis personae technique made famous by Douglas Southall Freeman in Lee’s Lieutenants, sketched out present-tense biographies of major figures soon to be involved. After detailed scene-setting, separate battle chapters were then devoted to the three days of major action: the Union route of July 1 and withdrawal to fortified high ground; the furious Confederate attempts of July 2 at the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard, the Devil’s Den, and finally Little Round Top, to destroy the Union left; and the powerful July 3 denouement of Pickett’s Charge. A brief afterword detailed the later lives of surviving participants.
Apace, Shaara’s novel found an ingenious expedient for conveying the human dimension of the battle by shifting back and forth among the points of view of selected, mainly well-known historical players. For the South, these tended to be major command figures, notably Lee and Longstreet, largely superintending Confederate decision-making during the battle. Also included more briefly were “Harrison,” a Confederate spy in Longstreet’s employ; General Lewis Armistead, shortly to die at the forefront of Pickett’s Charge; and Colonel Arthur Fremantle, a British observer traveling with the Confederate command. For the North, focal figures were General John Buford, the cavalry commander largely responsible for the first day’s holding action allowing Meade’s army to assume the commanding positions of the second and third; and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, along with his regiment, the Twentieth Maine, the hero of the afternoon of July 2 during the crucial Union defense of Little Round Top.
Looking back, one sees why the book so attracted the movie director Ron Maxwell, who saw the opportunity at once to make a faithful re-creation of historical spectacle while forming the human drama of the event around the development of a fascinating ensemble cast of major characters. According to C.Peter Jorgenson’s account, Maxwell first read the book in 1978 and bought the film rights in 1980.He then spent most of the ensuing decade trying to market the enormous concept, completing co-authorship of a script with Shaara before the latter’s death in 1988 and going so far as to sell his house to keep the project solvent. Fortunately, in 1990, amid the phenomenal success of Ken Bums’ 11-hour PBS series The Civil War, Maxwell met Burns, who averred that a reading of The Killer Angels had inspired his own efforts. Bums next ran into Turner at an awards ceremony and mentioned the novel in the same connection, lamenting that Turner did not have the rights to the property, which he thought would make a fine television series. Negotiations were begun between the independent production company holding the rights to the Maxwell project and executives at TNT: and with Turner, on the basis of his discussion with Bums and his personal interest in the Civil War, already hospitable to the project, corporate funding of ten million dollars was finally secured. Casting of major roles ensued, including Tom Berenger as Longstreet. Martin Sheen as Lee, Sam Elliott as Buford, and Jeff Daniels as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The script was in the meantime thrice rewritten.
With the solution of what seemed Maxwell’s biggest money, personnel, and script troubles, however, new problems in getting cinematic armies to fight again at Gettysburg arose in the rank-and-file. Here, his trump card, following on the success of Marshall Zwick in the 1990 film Glory, had been his belief that he could recruit hordes of re-enactors. People with this kind of investment in the Civil War, he reasoned, authorized to re-enact something really big with all the gaudy trimmings and given the additional promise of having their participation immortalized in a major movie, would flock to the project, performing with minimal compensation. The unforeseen difficulty was that by now large numbers of individual hobbyists and the larger re-enactor units of which they were a part were veterans of a number of such movie wars, with sufficient previous action having occurred to support a small sub-industry specializing in the brokerage of re-enactor casts. This market in turn had been cornered by an enterprising couple named Massengill, whom Maxwell was now counting on to deliver for the new enterprise. Unfortunately, they had worn out their good standing among major re-enactor constituencies, with new groups of such weighty entitling as the Civil War Reenactors Liaison Committee, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and the National Regiment demanding to be brought into complex negotiations. To make a Civil War analogy, the re-enactors were no longer eager militia volunteers, willing to work for the typical offer of “a baseball cap, a T-shirt, a video, a booklet and a Civil War print, nominal mileage for infantry and double mileage plus $25 for cannon and crews.” Having served out earlier hitches, they now demanded re-enlistment bounty. Event registration fees, devoted to battlefield preservation, would be paid by the studio; units mustering one hundred participants or more would get an special fee, with an additional bonus for each man over the minimum; an on-site historian acceptable to the negotiators would be engaged to insure historical “accuracy” and to take over “re-enactor coordination” activities from the despised Massengills.
Meanwhile, disputes arose with the local Teamsters and International Alliance of Theater and Stage Employees. Lawyers had to get an injunction against a low-flying plane with a banner reading “Union Yes” that disrupted filming for the day. The “Liaison Committee” historian weighed in with 40 single-spaced pages of script changes.
Then there was the battlefield. While preserving intact the sites of the major actions, Gettysburg was a forest of concrete memorials, many of them building size, not to mention the aforementioned viewing tower, dominating the scene of the third day’s action. These had to be covered with camouflage netting or edited out of the final print. Also, because of government safety regulations, combat sequences involving musketry and cannonry had to be moved off-location to nearby sites chosen or rebuilt to resemble their historical analogues.
Amidst all this, it must have seemed minor to Maxwell that the president of TNT wanted to play a general. And so it turned out to be, as far as evolving dramatic chemistry was concerned, especially among the featured players. As Longstreet, Tom Berenger proved suitably underplayed, laconic, grumpy. On the other side, as Chamberlain, Jeff Daniels took the mildly fuddled professorial type perfected in Terms of Endearment and elevated the same qualities into a sturdily convincing model of the heroism of the average man called to higher duty.
A source of critical dismay, on the other hand, was the casting of Martin Sheen as Robert E.Lee, who seemed too youthful in appearance and manner, even beneath the steel-grey beard and flowing silver hair, to be persuasive. Equally negative was comment on Sam Elliott’s over-acting in the role of John Buford, full of Lonesome Dove snarl and bark and diminishing the opportunity to create a neglected character of major historical import.
There were also more cheering byblows of casting. Foremost was the performance of Richard Jordan, himself dying of a brain tumor, playing the doomed, romantic Confederate Brigadier Lewis Armistead, facing across the line an old, beloved friend. Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. Indeed, as with the book, this was one of the features of production that actually came closest to capturing the spirit of soldiering and of male comradeship in an age when men North and South did often talk about their feelings in windy, romantic phrasings out of Shakespeare and Walter Scott.
Similarly, Stephen Lang, as Pickett, played a better George Pickett than George Pickett himself probably ever was. Legendary for graduating last in his class at West Point, he is played by Lang with a kind of bully obtuseness, making a fool out of himself with blustering good humor in political discussions and reveling in the taunts of his fellows about his playing the perfumed dandy.
The re-enactors, as noted particularly by observers with knowledge of Civil War combat, were commensurately good, especially in scenes involving complicated battlefield drill and maneuver, where their work far exceeded that which might have been expected of paid extras. The problem is that in many ways they were excessively good. Uniforms were authentic to a fault. The Union officers were replete with the requisite Second Empire goatees and moustachios. Southern officers and men alike became models of a studied idiosyncracy. The former went for dashing decoration: the braided jacket, the sash, the colorful kepi. The latter, with their bedrolls, slouch hats, and jangling kit, became studies in unreconstructed rebel personality.
In their total authenticity, then, they could have hardly been surpassed as figures in a re-enactment. The problem was that precisely the qualities that made them star re-enactors—their highly choreographed drill and maneuver, for instance, however “authentic;” and their tendency in costume and gesture to strike attitudes of the picturesque—were not so happily married to a movie, with its intense visual impressionism and its related qualities of sweeping movement and symbolic action. The result was a tableau vivant quality of overdetermined detail.
As shooting was completed, evolutions were taking place in marketing concept. Originally conceived of and filmed to meet the production format of a TV mini-series, the resulting artifact persuaded its creators that it should also be offered as a theater release in carefully selected locations. This was done with considerable success, attracting largely favorable publicity which also continued to attach to multiple showings in Spring 1994 as a three-night TNT mini-series. It was then released in video.
Meanwhile, spinoff properties from the filming began to be advertised in popular history publications. A video was offered on the making of the film. A companion promised costumed participants doing period music.
Elaborate advertising was also made of a coffee table book, with art by Mort Kunstler, the dean of popular Civil War illustrators, and parallel text by Pulitzer-Prize winning historian James McPherson. with preface by Martin Sheen. Illustrations reproduced images of major characters, scenes, and incidents from battle. Some were recyclings of earlier Kunstler “classics,” and others derived from the film, with many of the worthies depicted thus oscillating in resemblance between their historical originals and the actors who played them. Overall, the effect was something akin to visiting your lawyer’s or dentist’s office when your lawyer or dentist is a Civil War history buff—as opposed, say, to a collector of fox-hunting lithographs or limited edition college football prints. Both posed arrangements and “action” scenes look exactly like re-enactments. The commanders exercise picturesque individual variations on uniform: some braid, a sash, a plume, a neck scarf. Men wear wire-rimmed glasses and jaunty little hats. Even the smears of sweat and gunpowder residue on the cheeks look painted on. A single figure in the entire book, picturesquely draped over a cannon amidst furious action in “The High Water Mark,” seems to have some blood on his uniform sleeve; there is not a disassembled body part in sight.
In the audio market, a soundtrack album appeared in record stores, reproducing the Randy Edelman score in dramatic vignettes and interspersing it with period music also part of the film. Individual sections were given titles ranging from the functional to the heavily atmospheric. “The Battle of Little Round Top” jostled with “From History to Legend;” “Over the Fence” with “March to Mortality.” Interwoven were a tenor solo of “Kathleen Mavourneen” and a soulful reprise of “Dixie.”
Meanwhile, Shaara’s book also got new life in a handsome hardback reissue by Random House. A trade paperbound was issued by Ballantine, a leading publisher of popular war narrative. Visibly an upscale item in the Ballantine/Ivy lineup, it featured full size pages and elaborate maps. The cover reproduced the depiction of the third day’s climax at the Bloody Angle from the vast cyclorama painting by Paul Philoppoteanx. Heralding the text as “The Pulitzer-Prize Winning Civil War Novel,” with “2. 5 Million Copies in Print,” it also carried blurbs from James McPherson, Ken Burns, and Norman Schwarzkopf.
Further, in a compounding of familial and literary genealogies, The Killer Angels eventually came to spawn its own novelistic spinoffs, with Jeff Shaara, Michael Shaara’s son, publishing a 1996 companion volume from Ballantine, Gods and Generals, and following it in 1998 with another, The Last Full Measure. Both continued the formula of The Killer Angels. The first, known in the trade as a “prequel,” attempted to elaborate the prior histories of many of the same figures Michael Shaara had depicted as meeting their fates at Gettysburg. Also included, however, were narrative segments from the perspective of such other worthies as Stonewall Jackson, killed six weeks before Gettysburg at Chancellorsville, and Winfield Scott Hancock, the Union commander responsible for the repulse of Pickett’s Charge but not given much of a role in the original novel. The second, picking up amidst Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg, followed the deadly endgame of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac culminating in the Confederate surrender at Appomatox. Again, Joshua Chamberlain is a featured character, sharing point of view this time with Lee and Grant. But most eye-catching in both cases, from a design and marketing standpoint, was the degree to which the son’s novels were in every way presented as companion pieces to that of the father, even down to title-author design and jacket art in Philoppoteaux-like period style. Inside, the sense of replication was reinforced in print format. Naturally, the collection was immediately dubbed a “trilogy.”
Thus did the business of Gettysburg come full circle. A Pulitzer-Prize winning novel became an epic film. The film appeared in theater release, then as a television mini-series, then in video. The film spawned a sound-track album. It also inspired a coffee table book of popular illustration, with text by a famous historian. The video inspired other videos. Meanwhile, the book that inspired the film came out in newly elaborate hardbound and paperback reissue.
It in turn inspired new books by the author’s son, artfully designed as companion volumes. What they call in Hollywood a “concept” had become a “property” beyond any marketer’s dream.
Apace, along its entire production trajectory, the project had enacted with nearly seamless perfection the regnant popular culture aesthetic of Civil War memory. To appropriate the military argot of the era depicted, it is all handsomely done. Or, to enlarge the metaphor, war itself at every point has been made lovely and moving by being made handsome, with the handsomeness now exactly that of the glossy “enthusiast” magazine, the limited-edition print, the re-enactor’s impeccably authentic getup, the immaculately preserved and manicured battlefield. And it is through this same handsomeness that it conceals almost to perfection the brilliantly ironic secret of its success: that it manages to arrive at a final product purporting to represent war by having virtually nothing to do with combat—with the killing and wounding, that is, the being on the giving or receiving end in the inflicting of death or disabling injury that supplies war’s essential content. To be sure, in the movie, the most immediately lifelike of the representations, individual soldiers fall, they flop, they fold, and they fly. Indeed, substantial numbers of them do it over and over again. That is just the problem. As a Commonweal reviewer put it, the wounded “always seem to be taking the same forward dive or sideways crumple,” a land of “grisly recycling effort” or “the same bodies going through the same deathly acrobatics over and over.”
The bigger problem here is that they always do the deathly acrobatics so described with all major surfaces and parts of their bodies intact. They certainly don’t disintegrate. They don’t even explode a little, the way bodies do when a bullet hits them. Oh, to be sure, we see state-of-the-art Hollywood bullet wounds, those little electro-percussive things, along with a grunt; maybe a moan; a sinking to the dirt. And in fact, as Peter Svenson has reminded us in Battlefield, bullet wounds accounted for 90% of the war’s casualties. A more compelling fact, however, was that, aside from grazes and flesh wounds, they were also notably big and notably ugly, doing a lot of damage coming and going. For in fact the Minie Ball, as is known to persons familiar with the history of infantry weapons, was anything but mini- and nothing like a ball. Rather it was a conical lead projectile, with three additional metal rings cast into its waist for rifling, of an extremely large .58 caliber, emerging from the barrel of the weapon that fired it as a solid ounce of deformed, unstable, flesh ripping, bone-shattering soft metal, big and heavy and slow. Like the slug from the .45 caliber pistol or submachine gun, which it really resembles more closely than the high-velocity round in the .20-.30 caliber range of the modern infantry rifle, it was a stopper if ever there was one. An astonishingly big round—comparable, for instance, to that fired from the modern heavy .50 caliber machine gun—it was also invariably a maimer. The first aid of choice in an arm or leg wound was frequently amputation simply because, as to bone, muscle, nerve, or artery and vein damage, there was not much really left to fix. Head wounds were frequently skull-penetrating, causing massive facial destruction or brain injury. And wounds to the chest and abdomen were comparably messy and invariably septic. All in all, bullet wounding almost made desirable injuries delivered from close quarters, things like saber cuts, bayonet punctures, blows to the head, neck, and body, albeit frequently crushing ones, from huge, heavy rifles and muskets used as clubs, with their heavy metal butt plates.
But even more notable an avoidance here in the representation of wounds, particularly given the technicolor scale of the noise and the action and the astonishing special-effects ingenuities frequently employed to insure other forms of authenticity, is the film’s lack of any serious attempt to represent the dismemberment and evisceration frequently resulting from the war’s most appalling technological innovation, the advanced use of artillery, new and improved in maiming and killing power both at long and short range. In its more traditional role as a long-distance weapon, it now mixed traditional solid shot, already known as easily decapitating bodies and cutting them in half, with explosive shell that tore and cratered them with huge, incredibly destructive shrapnel wounds, or, in the case of a direct hit, simply disintegrated them. At close range, improved grape shot and cannister rounds, with the latter amounting to huge-bore shotgun ammunition, commanded astonishing new killing power, in repeated accounts simply vaporizing entire masses of charging men.
By contrast, amidst all the action and spectacle of Gettysburg, not a single body part in sight is separated from its companions. There are no exploding skulls. Bodies do not instantly become headless, legless, armless torsos. And those are just the human packages. As visibly missing is the stuff that is on the inside: brains, lungs, hearts, livers, intestines. There is some blood spatter. But even that is nothing on the scale required, nothing like the astonishing volume that a human body contains, quarts and quarts of the stuff, flooding from veins, spurting from arteries, flying and splashing all over tin-place. There is no red mist of human disintegration, no sticky mess in the grass, no collecting on the ground in puddles and gouts.
Close up in Gettysburg, there is blood quietly pooling from the hole a sniper has just put behind John Reynolds’ ear, dreamily incongruous and appropriate to the strangeness and suddenness of his death; a dying sergeant’s white uniform shirt is literally sopping with it as it pours from wounds in the armpit and shoulder. And if you look closely during a scene at a field hospital, an orderly works on what looks like the stump of a knee, very red. What we don’t see. even there, is the thing many veterans remembered, the piles and piles of amputated arms and legs, the blood all gone out of them, so incredibly pale and white.
Does one go for the standard reflex and blame the movies? In general perhaps, although in terms of combat realism Gettysburg certainly takes us far beyond the ludicrous sanitizations of the guts and glory tradition, extending from Sands of Iwo jima to Patton, that for so long has served as the standard of the American war film industry. It is surely at least as “realistic,” for instance, as widely applauded films about the Vietnam war such as Platoon or Full Metal Jacket.
Blame the books? Certainly, likewise, there is no more sanitization in Shaara the novelist than in the long tradition of literary war in novel, history, memoir. If anything, here we find at least an advance on a long Civil War tradition of “handsome” history by Bruce Catton. Shelby Foote, and the like, where an engaging unit receives “a galling fire,” is “roughly handled” or suffers “a sharp repulse.”
Blame the material culture of re-enactment, the hobby magazines. the marketing of memorabilia? Well, yes, to a certain extent. Why do they do Gettysburg or Antietam or Manassas, one begs to ask, and why don’t they do Tarawa or Belleau Wood, the Chosin Reservoir or Hue City? The most obvious answer is probably the truest one: that the Civil War battle sites are American and they’re there. And then there is also the point that participants on both sides at Gettysburg would have claimed they were trying to make: it is, after all, a free country. As one re-enactor put it when questioned on his dedication to the hobby, “Why do people ski or collect coins?”
In all these respects, one might do as well, at the level of mythic symbology, to blame war itself as among the most highly evasionary of all “body” forms of cultural narrative. As Elaine Scarry writes, this has always been the case, with even so direct a medium as documentary evading any “acknowledgment that the purpose of the event described is to alter (to burn, to blast, to shell, to cut) human tissue, as well as to alter the surface, shape, and deep entirety of the objects that human beings recognize as extensions of themselves.” Indeed, she goes on, as a kind of cultural “narrative,” war “requires both the reciprocal infliction of massive injury and the eventual disowning of the injury so that its attributes can be transferred elsewhere, as they cannot if they are permitted to cling to the original site of the wound, the human body.”
And surely in the present case we must blame this war—or at least our traditional understandings of it, both popular and official—for persistently inviting us to step outside of the obscene figurations of the mutilated and dying body. For it was, truly, the last pageant war, a war in which bravery and butchery actually coexisted in a way that the culture found psychologically manageable. This was the dreadful conjunction persistently expressed, for instance, in the words and understandings of the participants. In the personal dimension, high flown concepts of romantic chivalry and Victorian spiritual steadfastness fed themselves into military extensions of the ethos of embattled courage and comradeship that defined 19th-century male identity in word and deed. And in the political, participants on both sides testified with poignant eloquence at the time and long afterward to the perceived loftiness of their motivations.
It thus all truly does have the cachet of national tragedy, with the old cliches possessing the customary problem of cliches—”the crossroads of our being,” “the war of brothers,” etc. , etc. : that they begin by being true in the first place. More than a hundred years after Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous 1885 Decoration Day speech, whether in celebration of the glorious Union, or in honored memory of the Lost Cause, the overwhelming sense of the war remains that of Holmes’ sentiments: that it must have been an almost holy thing to have been in it.
The re-enactors certainly make this point with their near religious devotion to authenticity, their frequent testimonies to have somehow actually visited for a moment in the past, in a world where uniforms weren’t really uniforms, belief was really belief, and it was still actually possible to talk about giving one’s last full measure of devotion. “The material appurtenances of re-enacting,” as Rory Turner has written, do actually “become deeply treasured emblems of identity” and drills and battles “extraordinary pieces of collective choreography,” a kind of dance of hallowed celebration. But in the dance is also the danger, the mentalized reprise without the terrible body consequences: “bloodless battle,” one commentator calls it: another patriotic “gore,” with heavy emphasis on the quotation marks. “It is this feeling re-enactors look for,” remarks a third: “to revise history, bind up the wounds, and efface the scars of the great slaughter. It is, perhaps, all part of the effort to know ourselves by knowing our past and, if the past is painful beyond comprehension, to put it into a framework more bearable and apprehensible.” Fair enough. But it also remains the playacting of an incredible, massed-weaponry, meat-grinder violence that the word carnage just doesn’t comprehend: the stew-beef that any soldier knows—the hamburger, the brains, the liver and pancreas and intestines, the blood in buckets slopped all over the grass and other people; the bodies and parts of bodies lying around everywhere or still in flight killing and maiming other people. Real body mathematics are in order. One and a half gallons is a lot of blood. One hundred fifty or so pounds is a lot of meat. Then there is all that bone. And this doesn’t even begin to take in the ear-shattering, brain-rending noise and concussion.
In recent film, I would propose, there has been at least one creditable attempt at a solution of this problem concerning the realistic representation of Civil War combat and combat injury. This is the one arrived at in the opening of the 1990 Civil War film Glory, where 55 seconds of Matthew Broderick as the young Captain Robert Gould Shaw at Antietam somehow supply the thing that is missing in four hours of Gettysburg. Further, it is achieved precisely through the unique capacity of film to combine spectacle with horrific concentration of focus.
Here, as if on parade, a union regiment advances across open ground toward Confederates behind a fence line. The boy-officers walk out in front of the formation, Broderick as Shaw among them, pointing with drawn swords. Their swords are very big and very heavy. The Confederates open up with artillery first, gouging large holes in the advancing ranks. Then, at close range, the riflemen let go with volley fire. The young Union officers lean into the flying lead as if in a storm. Their legs continue to take them in the direction their swords are pointing while, with their heads and shoulders, they cannot help turning involuntarily away, cringing at the danger ahead. Just in front of Broderick, another officer’s skull explodes. Broderick is hit by some of the bloody spatter. Then he too is knocked to the ground by an exploding shell. Reaching for a sharp cut on his neck, he draws back his hand and finds blood. He collapses in fatigue and horror. As he lies there, another wounded soldier tries to scuttle crablike off the field on the stumps of his legs, which have been taken off just above the ankles.
At the dressing station, the young officer has the shell fragments removed by a gossipy orderly while watching another man having his leg sawn off and listening to his bellowing and shrieking for mercy. But even now, we realize, the hospital suffering is anticlimactic. Broderick has been, as they say, to see the elephant. The rest of the movie will be a study of character indelibly shaped by a memory of those images of horror at Antietam.
It is the absence of horror in any such palpable dimension that remains the most striking and disturbing thing about Gettysburg; for it so immeasurably reduces those countless moments, conflating the big view with the human dimension, in which one does sense the grand, mysterious, awful presence of history. Who could not be moved by Colonel Chamberlain’s speech to his mutineers? By Armistead’s tears at having to face his old friend Hancock? By the mad grin, the moment’s rictus of insane bravery that flashes across Pickett’s face? It is epic. Texans, Virginians, Georgians, Alabamians, the doomed, gaudy Trojans, break themselves against the stolid. Greeklike resolve of New Yorkers, Pennsylvanias, Massachusetts and Maine men. The authentic and, in its way, sincere handsomeness of Gettysburg is that it does crank the American Civil War and its greatest battle down to the human scale. Amidst all the din and spectacle and, yes, even glow, these were people, it tells us. But just then where it is most moving and lovely, as with so many of the productions of the Civil War history industry, it is also most pernicious. These were people, it needs to tell us, but they were also meat. And it was slaughter: mass slaughter; indiscriminate slaughter: factory-style slaughter, the way pigs or chickens or cattle are slaughtered, except with far less delicacy as far as damage to the meat is concerned. To further the corporate mathematics, at Gettysburg alone around 53,000 of the people involved wound up in the basic-condition of meat, killed or injured, by the time the three days were concluded. Those too badly hurt to leave with the departing armies suffered in field hospitals hastily erected by the Sanitary Commission, precursor of the Red Cross. Others rode out on wagons screaming things like “God, why can’t I die,” and “My God, have mercy and kill me,” and “Stop, for God’s sake take me out and let me die by the road.”
But, as with wars and rumors of war, so with re-enactments and rumors of re-enactments. A handsomely packaged property and some good marketing can usually take care of the meat problem. Or certainly at least it seemed so, according to an item in an early 1998 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated, in which the business of doing battle at Gettysburg announced itself as continuing in full flourish. There, in a lavish, full-page ad, with artwork by popular illustrator Don Troiani, “Civil War Heritage, Inc.” of “P.O.Box 1292, Fort Washington, PA,” trumpeted its sponsorship of “the Civil War Event of the decade.” The occasion so heralded was the 135th anniversary of the battle. The title: “Gettysburg, from Start to Finish.” Scheduled for July 3—4—5, 1998, it was described as “A Stirring, Living History Experience featuring Five Battles:” “First Contact; The Wheat field; Little Round Top; Gulp’s Hill;” and of course. “Pickett’s Charge.”
Prominently billed as being in charge were “Confederate Commander Chuck Hillsman and Union Commander Dana Heim.”
Advertised coordinating events included both Federal and Confederate Cavalry Competitions—with separate events listed for Pistols, Sabers, and Carbines. Somewhere in between the two was also promised a Civil War Wedding. As prominently featured, however, were the attractions of an interactive media tent featuring “your favorite artists, authors, music, and Talonsoft CD-ROM gaming.” Talonsoft CD-ROM gaming. Pace, Bruce Catton. Gettysburg had truly become The Final Fury. Or, as a competing manufacturer put it in their advertisement in Civil War Times Illustrated, “War May be Hell, but with the right software, it can be kind of fun.”
Meanwhile, for anyone who had worked up an appetite after all the fun and make-believe slaughter, there now existed a nearby addition to the local culinary scene. Conveniently located where the Emmitsburg Road meets Steinwehr Avenue, just a half mile north of the Bloody Angle, was General Pickett’s Buffet. His truth is marching on.