Lost on Cold Mountain: The Anti-Gods and Generals

Mackubin T. Owens

January 1, 2004

2003 was a big year for Civil War movies. Gods and Generals, based on Jeff Shaara’s novel of the same name hit theaters in the spring. Gods and Generals was a paean to the Old Confederacy, reflecting the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war. This school of Civil War historiography received its name from an 1867 book by Edward A. Pollard, who wrote that defeat on the battlefield left the south with nothing but “the war of ideas.”

I know from the Lost Cause school of the Civil War. I grew up in a Lost Cause household. I took it for gospel truth that the Civil War was a noble enterprise undertaken in defense of southern rights, not slavery, that accordingly the Confederates were the legitimate heirs of the American Revolutionaries and the spirit of ’76, and that resistance to the Lincoln government was no different than the Revolutionary generation’s resistance to the depredations of George III. The Lost Cause school 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.”

Cold Mountain, based on Charles Frazier’s historical novel, was released on Christmas Day. It too is about the Civil War but Cold Mountain is a far cry from Gods and Generals. This is the “other war,” one in which war has lost its nobility and those on the Confederate home front are in as much danger from other southerners as they are from Yankee marauders. Indeed, Cold Mountain can be viewed as the anti-Gods and Generals.

Although it is based on a novel, Gods and Generals focuses on well-known historical figures. The central character of Gods and Generals is the remarkable Confederate general, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. The historical accuracy of the movie’s portrayal of Jackson was ensured by the role of Jackson’s biographer, James I. Robertson, as a historical consultant. The central characters of Cold Mountain on the other hand, are the private soldier Inman, the sort of southern everyman who fought and died in the war, and the womenfolk who suffered on the home front. Inman is a 19th-century Odysseus who undertakes an epic trek from the hell of the Petersburg Crater to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in order to be reunited with his Penelope.

The battles portrayed in Gods and Generals are clashes of arms that look back to Napoleon and the quest for the decisive battle of annihilation. Indeed, Robert E. Lee was the most Napoleonic of Civil War generals and Jackson was his Marshall Davout. Together they fashioned an operational approach based on the strategic turning movement and open-field maneuvering by infantry and cavalry to neutralize the Union’s advantage in engineering, artillery, and naval power. This is what Lee attempted at Antietam and Gettysburg and what he achieved at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville. For Lee, maneuver was not an end in itself but only the means to attack the enemy and inflict heavy losses. Only in this manner, Lee believed, could the South convince the population of the North that a costly and interminable struggle lay ahead if the Confederacy were not granted its independence.

Cold Mountain, on the contrary, begins with the siege of Petersburg. By the end of July 1864, only a little over a year after Lee had divided his force on two occasions to defeat a Union army twice as large as his own at Chancellorsville and had came close to achieving victory at Gettysburg, the conflict had degenerated into a remorseless war of attrition adumbrating the Western Front of the Great War that would consume the world 50 years later.

The advantage now lay with the defense, which could be penetrated only by stratagems such as the detonation of the mine that led to the battle of the Crater, depicted at the beginning of Cold Mountain. The commanding officer of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, a unit composed of coal miners, convinced his superiors that a mine could be dug beneath the Confederate lines, filled with explosives, and then detonated. For the assault, the IX Corps commander, the unfortunate Ambrose Burnside, who had been responsible for the December 1862 Union debacle at Fredericksburg, chose as the assault unit his 4th Division, an all-black unit. The plan called for the attacking troops to go around the crater created by the blast, and to unhinge the Confederate defense.

In an early example of political correctness, only hours before the assault was to be launched, George Meade, the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, with the concurrence of general-in-chief Grant, ordered Burnside to substitute another unit for the 4th Division, out of fear that if the attack failed, the Union commanders would be accused of using black soldiers as cannon fodder. When the attack commenced, the substitute unit plunged directly into the crater instead of around it, where the Union soldiers were trapped and slaughtered by the Confederate defenders, enraged by what they considered to be a dishonorable method of warfare. There is no more powerful scene in Cold Mountain than the one that shows the teeming mass of doomed humanity trapped in the very hell of the Crater.

But the main reason to see Cold Mountain as the anti-Gods and Generals is that it describes a South at odds with the Lost Cause myth — a South divided against itself. In the Lost Cause telling, all southerners were loyal to the Confederacy. But that was not true even at the outset of the war, much less by the winter of 1864-65. In July 1861, the Richmond Examiner opined that the South was “more rife with treason to her own independence and honor than any community that ever engaged before in a struggle with an adversary.”

Unionists were dominant in many parts of the South, especially in the mountain and upcountry areas of western Virginia, east Tennessee, north Georgia, and western North Carolina (home to Cold Mountain’s Inman). Some Unionists opposed secession but went with their states when they left the Union. Many were cowed by fervent secessionists or were caught up in the rage militaire that swept the South after Fort Sumter, emerging in opposition only later as the war went against the Confederacy. Some tried to sit it out, but others took more active steps to resist the Confederate government. Indeed, the dirty little secret of the Confederacy—swept under the rug by the Lost Cause school—is that some 100,000 white southerners (along with 150,000 blacks)—at least one battalion of white troops from every Confederate state except South Carolina—served in Union armies during the course of the war.

Desertion was a constant problem for both sides but it was proportionately worse for the South. There was a great deal of resistance to the Conscription Act passed by the Confederate Congress in April 1862. Many southerners saw this act as an example of the very governmental abuse of power with which secessionists charged the Lincoln administration—extralegal actions and oppressive measures on the part of an illegitimate government. Exemptions favoring wealthy slave-holders, e.g. the “twenty-[slave] rule,” undermined morale further by reinforcing the belief that the conflict was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. Things only got worse as the Confederacy suffered reverses on the battlefield.

Many deserters simply went home in response to the entreaties of their wives describing the hardships they faced on the home front. Economic instability meant that many families could not get by in the absence of fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers. But others organized themselves into guerrilla bands to prey on Confederates and Yankees, soldiers and civilians alike.

While Confederate armies tried to hold the line against the legions of the Union, home guards, local militias, and Confederate officials tried to cope with Unionist guerrillas, deserters, and the possibility of servile insurrection. In many cases, law enforcement on the home front was left to local bullies who used power for their own ends and to settle old scores in the absence of the men who were off fighting with Lee in Virginia or Bragg in Tennessee. This describes Teague in Cold Mountain.

Advocates of the Lost Cause school are alive and well. I heard from many of them in response to my review of Gods and Generals. No doubt they will hate Cold Mountain as much as they loved Gods and Generals. But they cannot deny that Inman and Ada Monroe and Ruby and Teague are as much a part of the story of the Confederacy as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.