Keeping It Civil
Written by Denis Faye

(April 8, 2013) 


The Civil War is surprisingly well documented, so your best bet is to go right to the source. “Some memoirs are much more reliable than others,” concedes Gallagher, “but Lincoln’s chief secretaries (and biographers), John G. Nicolay and John M. Hay, they both bequeathed a lot of first-hand testimony to people. And you can never go wrong with picking one of the small selections of Lincoln’s writings, they are just quite incredible to read.”  

With that in mind, the Abraham Lincoln Association has been so kind as to put The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln online, along with a nifty search engine. It’s required browsing for any Civil War researcher.  

Maybe you’re looking for a first-hand account from, you know, the other side. Gallagher suggests Fighting for the Confederacy, a memoir by Edward Porter Alexander (full disclosure: the good professor edited this volume). “He was the most famous artillerist in the Confederate Army,” says Gallagher. “He was at every battle from the very beginning of the war all the way through Appomattox. He tells very colorful stories; has wonderful assessments of famous personalities such as Lee and Stonewall Jackson and all of the others; and writes in a very acceptable, almost conversational, way. But he’s very much pro-Confederate. He’s pro-secession. He has no problem with slavery.”  

The Civil War Web site is also a fairly fascinating place to look. Created by Civil War geeks for Civil War geeks, the site is a clearinghouse of minutia featuring weapons, battles, ships – you name it – accompanied by official records.  

Finally, perusing some Gallagher’s writing wouldn’t be a bad idea. Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War might be a good read for those who want to break through the cinematic clichés. From there, pick your topic, and he’s probably written about it. The Union War covers one side. The Confederate War covers the other. The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 covers… well, take a guess. For a complete list of his books, check out his University of Virginia page.  

The history of the United States of America shouldn’t be secret knowledge. Yet, to Gary W. Gallagher, it feels that way sometimes. As a professor at the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History, he’s often amazed by what his students don’t know – and how Hollywood exacerbates that. “My students come up to me and say, ‘I never understood the Kennedy assassination, but I saw the movie JFK [Screenplay by Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar] and now I do!’” Gallagher muses. “I tell them, ‘You still don’t. In fact, you probably know less than you did before you saw JFK.’"

This holds especially true for Gallagher’s area of expertise, the Civil War. As the author and/or editor of countless books on the subject, including The Union War, The Confederate War, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About The Civil War, and his latest, Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Loyalty, Gallagher feels the best yarns, the ones yet to be told, are the ones that adhere to a strange concept known as what actually happened.

“Explore the actual stories,” he suggests. “If writers could be pointed in the direction of some of the best contemporary sources from the mid-19th century, they would avoid some kind of nutty things that sometimes come out in movies.”

Abraham Lincoln in February 1865, photographed by Alexander Gardner. 

Gallagher spoke recently with Technically Speaking about the intricacies of this bloody part of U.S. history, giving kudos to recent films such as Lincoln [Screenplay by Tony Kushner], that get it reasonably right. (Keep it up, Tony. Next time Oliver rings, for the good of America’s youth, please take the call.)

What does Hollywood get right about the Civil War?  

Some movies basically don’t get anything right, other movies get a fair amount right. Glory [Screenplay by Kevin Jarre], for example, got most of the big things right about the service of black men in the Union Army, the United States Colored Troops, as they were called. It got the fact that they were often used as laborers rather than as combat soldiers, that they, for much of their service, earned less per month than white soldiers did and were subject to a lot of the pervasive racism in the mid-19th century. So it got a lot of things right.

Lincoln, to pick the most obvious recent example, gets a lot of things right as well, and I think that Daniel Day Lewis’ performance is far and away the best that anyone has ever put into a film. He did a wonderful job with Lincoln.

However, that movie leaves the impression that the war, for most people in the loyal states, was about emancipation. In that regard, it’s not accurate because most of the white people in the loyal states would have said that it was preeminently a war for union and that emancipation was necessary to defeat the rebels and achieve union.

I guess you have to choose a perspective.  

You do. They can’t do everything in a movie, but they could give some sense of what union meant, and they don’t really give much of that, primarily because I don’t think Hollywood has ever understood what union meant in the mid-19th century, what the whole concept meant and how powerful it was – what an absolutely politically loaded word that was in the mid-19th century.

Why do you think Hollywood never really understood that?  

Because it’s complicated. It’s easy for us to understand now why someone would put on a uniform to end an institution as monstrous as slavery, that makes sense to us, and on some level, why white Southerners would put on uniforms to sort of defend their homes against invading armies, that’s understandable. But why some guy from Maine or Wisconsin or Iowa would put on a uniform and risk his life to save the union, that’s much more difficult to explain, much, much more difficult.

I don’t suppose you could explain it to me right now without making me read a hundred books, could you?  

What union meant to them was liberty as they would have defined it, and freedom. They would have said that meant what was bequeathed to Americans by the founding generation and what made the United States absolutely unique in the world – that citizens, basically white men in the mid-19th century – had a voice in their own government, and they had the opportunity to rise economically. They weren’t doomed to be what their father was. They could improve. And Abraham Lincoln was the poster boy for that; born very, very poor, almost no education, became a very successful lawyer and then president. They would say, “Look, that right there is what is worth fighting about. You can’t do that anywhere else in the world, you can do it here.”

What about the details? How does Hollywood do there?  

Every movie gets lots of little things wrong. In Lincoln there are three soldiers in very early scenes who recite the Gettysburg Address from memory to Lincoln. Nobody paid any attention to the Gettysburg Address during the Civil War. I doubt that Lincoln could have recited the Gettysburg Address in 1865. That absolutely is something that happened later. So that was a real howler, but I know why they used it. It works as a cinematic device, but it’s absolutely preposterous within a historical context.

But I loved the way they portrayed the scenes on the floor of the House of Representatives. They did a really first-rate job with that. It makes your heart break to think that members of Congress actually looked at each other and debated, as opposed to what we have now when watching C-SPAN. Watching those scenes from Lincoln provides quite a contrast.

That brings up something I’ve always wondered about. Say, for example, there’s a movie about World War II. For research, you’d have footage, and there are people still alive who can explain how to make that authentic. But how do they get that level of authenticity from an era without that kind of coverage?  

There’s just a vast amount of evidence from the Civil War; written evidence, diaries, letters, official records. I mean we know a great deal about the mid-19th century and one thing we know that Hollywood’s never quite paid attention to – or chosen not to – is that Abraham Lincoln had a sort of high voice and that he had a backwoods, Midwestern accent. He would have sounded like a hick to a lot of people in the East. Sometimes he used incorrect grammar. I think he did it deliberately a lot of times because he was well read. Those are all things that Daniel Day Lewis captures in this performance.

What would you like to see in a movie about the Civil War that you’ve never seen before?  

I would love to see someone do for a group of soldiers from the Civil War what Band of Brothers and The Pacific have done for soldiers from World War II. Spielberg and Hanks just absolutely hit home runs with both of those series, and there is nothing like that from the Civil War.

The sources are certainly there to do it, but no one’s ever done it. No one’s ever even come close to doing it. That would be riveting, something that really got at the small unit dynamic.

There’s never even been a movie like that?  

There’s a little movie that almost no one has heard of that is beautifully done. It’s called Pharaoh’s Army [Written by Robby Henson] from the 1990s, and it’s a very small slice of the war film. Chris Cooper is the principal actor in it. Kris Kristofferson had a smaller role in it. It’s just an encounter between a Confederate woman and her son and a small patrol of Union soldiers, and it’s my second favorite Civil War movie. Glory would be first.

There’s a trope in Westerns of the Confederate soldier whose life is gone, and so he’s come to the West to either run from something or redeem himself.  

Yeah, John Ford sticks that in everything.

Does that guy really exist?  

That guy existed; people certainly went west. Former Confederates went west and former Union soldiers went west. So it does exist, maybe not quite the way Hollywood has always shown it. Hollywood’s always been in love with Confederate guerillas too, people like the James Brothers who were nasty, little, vicious guerillas during the Civil War, but are turned into these Robin Hood figures by Hollywood after the war. That’s another trope, that’s a very powerful one that goes from early on through The Long Riders [Written by Bill Bryden & Steven Smith & Stacy Keach & James Keach].

What advice would you give writers starting a script on the Civil War?  

They should spend two or three hours with a historian. I don’t think a historian should tell them what to write, but you don’t have to improve on the story of the Civil War. The characters, the dramatic possibilities are virtually endless and incredibly compelling from the Civil War, whether you’re going to deal with some military event or you’re going to deal with the process of emancipation or the process of black people coping with this incredible disruption that was going on all around them. You don’t have to improve on those stories.

On the other hand, I’m realistic. Most Americans don’t know anything about history and so they have no clue… But the little mistakes are vexing to people like me. Most filmgoers are completely oblivious to them, so there’s no harm, no foul as far as Hollywood’s concerned. As long as it moves the dramatic action forward, that’s what matters – not whether it’s realistic, plausible, or tied to what actually happened in history.

And that’s a source of frustration for you?  

I lose no sleep about it. I’m just aware of it. It’s something that I like to write about and lecture about, but I’m not confused about the degree to which Hollywood will ever rely on historians to put together their films. They do consult with them sometimes. Spielberg took care with Lincoln and Zwick took care with Glory, although even he said that, “This is a movie, it’s not a work of history, and I’m most interested in putting together a compelling, dramatic story that people will be interested in watching.”

Well, people have to watch it…  

There are stories that you don’t have to do anything to. Just get the right actors and get a good screenplay. Glory comes very close to that and Lincoln does too. Others don’t come anywhere near it but these two. There have been a lot of bad Civil War movies.

For example?  

The Horse Soldiers [Screenplay by John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin]. I love John Ford as a director, but The Horse Soldiers is a terrible movie as a Civil War movie. Shenandoah [Written by James Lee Barrett], which got a decent audience because it had Jimmy Stewart, was a wretched Civil War film. There are lots of them.