War and Memory: "Gods And Generals" As History

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 2003

Writing in The New Republic several years ago about the movie Glory, James McPherson cited a 1995 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein entitled “Can Movies Teach History?” Bernstein noted that “more people are getting their history, or what they think is history, from the movies these days than from the standard history books.” Then he asked: Does “the filmmaker, like the novelist, have license to use the material of history selectively and partially in the goal of entertaining, creating a good dramatic product, even forging what is the sometime called the poetic truth, a truth truer than the literal truth?” In other words, “does it matter if the details are wrong if the underlying meaning of events is accurate?”

The magnificent new movie Gods and Generals raises a related issue. Can the filmmaker adhere to the historical details and still miss the greater truth? Gods and Generals has the details down pat. Indeed, although the movie is based on the historical novel of the same name by Jeff Shaara, it seems clear that Ron Maxwell, the producer and director has consulted the appropriate scholarly works. For instance, every scene involving Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson in Gods and Generals can be found in James I. Robertson’s definitive biography, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. The attention to detail — the realistic battle scenes; the fidelity to the language of the time; the role of religious faith; the complicated nature of race relations in the south — is extraordinary. But does this attention to the details obscure a deeper truth?

To get to the answer, it is useful to compare Gods and Generals to another Civil War movie from a few years ago, Glory. The latter, which recounts the exploits of one of the first black regiments (54th Massachusetts) in the Civil War, contains numerous historical inaccuracies. Some of them are minor. For instance, the regiment’s climactic assault against Battery Wagner, the Confederate stronghold guarding Charleston harbor, actually took place from south to north, rather than north to south as depicted in the movie.

But many of the inaccuracies are major. Robert Gould Shaw, played in the movie by Matthew Broderick, was not Governor John Andrew’s first choice to command the regiment. When the command was offered him, he hesitated before deciding to accept. More seriously from the standpoint of historical accuracy, the 54th, portrayed in the movie as made up largely of runaway slaves like John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) or Private Trip (Denzel Washington in a role for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor) was in fact, a regiment of freedmen, like Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), recruited not only from Massachusetts but New York and Pennsylvania as well. Two of Frederick Douglass’s sons were among the first to volunteer for the 54th and Lewis Douglass, the elder son, served from the outset as the regiment’s sergeant-major.

But historical inaccuracies aside, Glory contains a deeper truth. This deeper truth is illustrated by the contrast between the movie’s view of slavery and that of a story recounted by the Greek historian Herodotus. At the beginning of Book Four of The History, Herodotus tells of the return of the nomadic Scythians from their long war against the Medes, during which time the Scythian women had taken up with their slaves. The Scythians warriors now find a race of slaves arrayed against them.

Having been repulsed repeatedly by the slaves, one of the Scythians admonishes his fellows to set aside their weapons and take up horsewhips. “As long as they are used to seeing us with arms, they think that they are our equals and that their fathers are likewise our equals. Let them see us with whips instead of arms, and they will learn that they are our slaves; and, once they have realized that, they will not stand their ground against us.”

The tactic works. The slaves are bewildered by the whip-wielding Scythians, lose their fighting spirit, and flee in terror. The implication of Herodotus’s story is clear. There are natural masters and natural slaves. A slave has the soul of a slave and lacks the manliness to fight for his freedom, especially if a master never deigns to treat him as a man.

At the time of the Civil War, most southerners believed that blacks were naturally servile. But there was doubt about their manly spirit in the north as well. In the movie, a reporter from Harpers Weekly says to Matthew Broderick’s Col. Shaw, “will they fight? A million readers want to know.” Shaw replies, “a million and one,” illustrating the fact that in 1863, even elite New England abolitionists had their doubts about the manliness of blacks.

By inaccurately depicting the 54th as a regiment of former slaves, Glory reveals the deeper truth that blacks in general were not the natural slaves that southerners believed them to be and that abolitionists feared that they might be. “Who asks now in doubt and derision, ’Will the Negro fight?’” observed one abolitionist after the assault of the 54th against Battery Wagner. “The answer is spoken from the cannon’s mouth…it comes to us from…those graves beneath Fort Wagner’s walls, which the American people will never forget.”

The deeper truth of Glory was articulated in a different way by Abraham Lincoln. “The expression of [the principle that all men are created equal], in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.”

The deeper truth of Gods and Generals seems to be that the war was the south’s “second war of independence,” as Robert Duvall’s Robert E. Lee describes the forthcoming conflict as he accepts command of Virginia’s forces in 1861. Both Lee and Stephen Lang’s “Stonewall” Jackson give voice to certain clear views: that the cause of the war was not slavery but the oppressive power of the central government, which wished to tyrannize over the southern states; that the south only wished to exercise its constitutional right to secede, but was thwarted by a power-hungry Lincoln; that southern patriots were the true heirs of the American Revolutionary generation, who embodied the true “Spirit of ’76” in their attempt to vindicate their rights against northern aggression; and that the Confederate cause was noble. While Jeff Daniels’s Joshua Chamberlain is permitted to express the contrary idea that dismantling the Union in order to protect the institution of slavery is wrong, his voice is largely drowned out.

Glory conveys what David W. Blight in his 2001 book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, called the “emancipationist” view of the Civil War. Arising out of the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the emancipationist view remembered the war as a struggle for freedom, a rebirth of the republic that led to the liberation of blacks and their elevation to citizenship and constitutional equality.

Gods and Generals on the other hand reflects both what Blight called the “Blue-Gray reconciliationist” view and the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war. The first developed out of the necessity for both sides to deal with the immense human cost of the war. It focused almost exclusively on the sacrifices of the soldiers, avoiding questions of culpability or the right and wrong of the causes. In this view, the war was the nation’s test of manhood. There was nobility on both sides. The essence of this view was captured by Lew Wallace, a Union general who wrote Ben Hur: “Remembrance! Of what? Not the cause, but the heroism it evoked.”

The second got its name from a book written in 1867 by Edward A. Pollard, who wrote that all the south has left “is the war of ideas.” The Lost Cause interpretation was neatly summarized in an 1893 speech by a former Confederate officer, Col. Richard Henry Lee. “As a Confederate soldier and as a Virginian, I deny the charge [that the Confederates were rebels] and denounce it as a calumny. We were not rebels, we did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes.”

The Lost Cause thesis comprises two parts. The first was (and remains) that the war was not about slavery, but “states rights.” The second was (and remains) that the noblest soldier of the war was Robert E. Lee, ably aided by his “right arm,” Stonewall Jackson, until the latter’s death at Chancellorsville in May 1863. For three years, Lee and his army provided the backbone of the Confederate cause. But though his adversaries were far less skillful than he, they were able to bring to bear superior resources, which ultimately overwhelmed the Confederacy. In defeat, Lee and his soldiers could look back on a record of selfless regard for duty and magnificent accomplishment.

Almost from the instant the conflict ended, the Lost Cause school towered like a colossus over Civil War historiography. Lost Cause authors such as the former Confederate general Jubal Early were instrumental in shaping perceptions of the war, in the north as well as in the south. Gaining wide currency in the 19th century, the Lost Cause interpretation remains remarkably persistent even today — as Gods and Generals illustrates.

The problem for Gods and Generals as history is that the first part of the Lost Cause argument is demonstrably false. Slavery, not states right, was both the proximate and deep cause of the war. There was no constitutional right to dissolve the Union. Southerners could have invoked the natural right of revolution, but they didn’t because of the implications for a slave-holding society, so they were hardly the heirs of the Revolutionary generation.

It was an article of faith among advocates of the Lost Cause school that southern secession was a legitimate constitutional act and that the North had no right to prevent the southern states from leaving the Union. But as Charles B. Dew has shown in his remarkable book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, the seceding states justified their action primarily upon a starkly white supremacist ideology, arguing that Lincoln’s election would lead to racial equality, race war, and most importantly, “racial amalgamation.”

Perhaps the clearest case of Lost Cause revisionism is Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy. After the war, he produced a two-volume work entitled A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States in which he argued that southern secession was constitutional. But on March 21, 1861, after seven states had formed the southern Confederacy but before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Stephens delivered a speech in Savannah in which he made the argument that African slavery lay at the very foundation of southern society. “Our new government,” he said, “is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [from the claim that ’all men are created equal’]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

In fact, what the southern protagonists in Gods and Generals claim to be a second war of independence was the interruption of the constitutional operation of republican government that substituted the rule of the minority for that of the majority. As Lincoln said in his July 4, 1861 address to Congress in special session, ballots were “the rightful and peaceful successors to bullets” and that “when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets.”

Thus the alleged right to break up the government when the minority did not get its way was really nothing but political blackmail. The attempted dissolution of the Union in 1860 and 1861 was the final act in a drama that had been under way since the 1830s, only this time the blackmailers’ bluff was called.

In 1833, the minority threatened secession over the tariff. The majority gave in. In 1835, it threatened secession if Congress did not prohibit discussions of slavery during its own proceedings. The majority gave in and passed a “Gag Rule.” In 1850, the minority threatened secession unless Congress forced the return of fugitive slaves without a prior jury trial. The majority agreed to pass a Fugitive Slave Act. In 1854 the minority threatened secession unless the Missouri Compromise was repealed, opening Kansas to slavery. Again, the majority acquiesced rather than see the Union smashed.

But the majority could only go so far in permitting minority blackmail to override the constitutional will of the majority. At the Democratic Convention in Charleston, held in April 1860, the majority finally refused the blackmailers’ demand — for a federal guarantee of slave property in all US territories. The delegates from the deep south walked out, splitting the Democratic party and ensuring that Lincoln would be elected by a plurality.

The 1860 Democratic Convention gives the lie to an important part of the Lost Cause school. First, the real “secession” was that of the south from the Democratic Party. The resulting split in the Democratic Party was instrumental in bringing about the election of Lincoln, which the south then used as the excuse for smashing the Union. Second and most important, the south’s demand at Charleston, far from having anything to do with states’ rights, was instead a call for an unprecedented expansion of federal power.

While the first part of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war — that having to do with slavery and secession — is false, the second part is true. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were remarkable soldiers. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia did accomplish prodigious feats on the battlefield. The Confederacy was badly overmatched in terms of manpower and industrial capacity. This meant that eventually, the Confederacy would succumb to a war of attrition.

The real problem of treating Gods and Generals as history arises from its failure to separate the true and false parts of the Lost Cause interpretation, which will permit critics to dismiss is as one more instance of a dissembling effort by slaveholders who lost on the battlefield. This failure is most acute in the movie’s treatment of Jackson’s relationship to his black cook, “Big Jim” Lewis.

In the movie, Jackson treats Lewis almost as an equal, something that may strike some viewers as fanciful. But their relationship merely illustrates the complexity of race relations in the antebellum south. In his biography of Jackson, James Robertson points out that Lewis’s status was uncertain. He may have been a freedman or he may have been a slave that Jackson hired from Lewis’s master.

It should be noted that Jackson, a man of God, accepted slavery as the will of God, but he did everything in his power to ameliorate the condition of his own slaves. While God may have ordained the institution of human slavery, Jackson believed, the souls of slaves were nonetheless worthy of salvation. In his hometown of Lexington before the war, Jackson established a very successful Sunday School for blacks, both slave and free. So Jackson’s treatment of Lewis is what one would expect from a man who believed that the souls of black folk were equal in the eyes of God to his own.

But Gods and Generals goes too far when it has Jackson telling Lewis in December of 1862 that some, including General Lee, advocate making soldiers of the slaves as a condition of freedom. There is no evidence to support this assertion. The Confederate Congress did authorize such a step when the Confederacy was on the verge of collapse in March of 1865, and Lee did support it then. But before those last days, the only Confederate general officer to propose such a step was Pat Cleburne, sometimes called the “Stonewall of the West,” a division commander in the Army of Tennessee, and by far the finest officer in that unfortunate organization. Cleburne’s 1864 proposal caused scandal, both among his fellow general officers in the Army of Tennessee and politicians in Richmond when they got wind of it. As Howell Cobb of Georgia remarked, “The day you make soldiers of [Negroes] is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong/” Cleburne’s proposal also effectively killed his prospects for further promotion.

When all is said and done, Gods and Generals reflects what Blight calls the “collective victory narrative.” According to this vision, the Civil War was a noble test of national vigor between two adversaries who believed firmly in their respective causes. The war was followed by an interlude of bitterness and wrongheaded policy during Reconstruction. The war was an heroic crisis that the United States survived and a source of pride that Americans could solve their own problems and redeem themselves in unity. In this view, the Civil War was the original “good war,” a necessary sacrifice, a noble mutual experience that in the long run solidified the nation.

Of course, this is the view that prevails for the most part among Americans today. It is visible in such popular Civil War magazines as Civil War Times Illustrated and Blue and Gray. It is visible in Civil War art by such artist as Morton Kunstler and Don Troiani. Such popular history and art reflects a longing for some transplanted, heroic place in the 19th century in which the troubling issues of race and slavery are banished from the discussion.

But such a vision is myth, the purpose of which, according to Roland Barthes, is to “organize a world which is without contradiction, because it is without depth, a world…[of] blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.” But myth should never be confused with history. The Civil War was a moral drama. As Fredrick Douglass remarked, “there was a right and a wrong side in the late war that no sentiment ought to cause us to forget.” Nor should we forget it as we watch Gods and Generals.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.