History Gets a Drubbing on the History Channel

This blog is about how media impacts culture and society.  Television continues to exert an oversized influence on American life, and so its content — what it shows viewers — remains important, even as mobile and tablet technology become the media platforms of choice.

So, along with millions of Americans who possess an enduring interest in anything related to the Civil War,  I tuned in on Memorial Day evening to the History Channel’s highly ballyhooed, two hour docudrama on the iconic Battle of Gettysburg.  I wanted to see how the eponymous cable channel would treat this memorable military clash, especially against the backdrop of the meaning of the Civil War to contemporary audiences. I should have gone to bed.

The broadcast, produced by famous move director brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, was terribly disappointing.  Others — with far more knowledge of the details of Civil War uniforms, flags, formations and such — pretty much agree, and that was before they actually watched the show.  For myself, a rank amateur historian, the show overlooked or misinterpreted any number of points about the battle that needed to be told accurately and with perspective. The result was bad television.

The Wheatfield at Gettysburg, Viewed from Little Round Top

To begin with, the production very definitely was not taped at Gettysburg, or anywhere near Pennsylvania.  The Czech Republic or Belarus seem more likely.  (One blogger asserts that South Africa was the location). The cast — actors playing soldiers fighting and dying — was another red flag as to this production’s provenance.  I have the sneaking suspicion that most of the cast were eastern Europeans. How else to explain the fact that not one actor in the entire drama had a speaking part, other than a few of the Johnny Rebs who were required to perform a rendition of the supposedly fearful rebel yell.  As these actors stumbled their way across what was meant to be Gettysburg’s hallowed Wheat Field, they sounded like farmers flushing out wild boar or turkey.  Or something.

The hardy cast members, it should be noted, kept reappearing scene after scene.  Undoubtedly to save money, pivotal scenes were shot simultaneously by two or three cameras, and then repeatedly spliced together to make it seem that we viewers were seeing the full panoply of mortal combat.  But after viewing the same scene over and over of Confederate troopers taking aim at fleeing Union troops in the streets of Gettysburg on “Day One, I stopped counting the repetitions. Pickett’s famous “charge” across the Pennsylvania countryside was laughably ineffectual.  Rather than the 12,500 rebels who actually crossed to Cemetery Ridge, the charge in this show was rendered as a meager platoon of Confederates who kept being blown up by Union artillery, only to magically appear again, to be blown up several more times.  Some of the actors were killed at least a half-dozen times, yet later, you could pick them out in scenes of arm-to-arm fighting hours after they were killed off in the script. I’ve seen more realistic action on my son’s video games.

These are, except to Civil War buffs, minor, laughable blemishes.  But other parts of Gettysburg were downright embarrassing.  One example:  early on in the broadcast, a black woman was shown making her way by night through some woods.  The narrator used this scene (and a goofy map of the Underground Railroad) to summarize the entire issue of slavery, which was mentioned almost as an afterthought as a cause of the Civil War.  Bad enough that the escaping slave was identified as an “African American” — a contermporary term that is completely wrong for slaves in 1863.  Worse was the suggestion that Gettysburg was fought where it was because the town was an Underground Railroad stop. Lee’s army was in Pennsylvania to change the war’s increasingly static dynamic by taking the battle (and the carnage) to the Northern heartland. Gettysburg just happened to get in the way.

Making matters worse was the constant refrain by several historian talking heads that the fate of the United States hung in the balance at Gettysburg.  The three-day conflict was indeed a huge, bloody battle, rightfully honored in history.  But it was not the deciding battle of the war.  Most historians agree that Antietam, fought a year earlier not far away in western Maryland, was the far more crucial (and equally as bloody) battle because it ended Confederate hopes for recognition as a soverign nation by England and France. Besides, Antietam (or Sharpsburg) was largely a draw, with carnage aplenty, while Gettysburg is the better known because it contained not just a winner and a loser, but also all the elements needed — like Pickett’s Charge — for myth-making.

Little Round Top from Seminary Ridge (sketch by the author)

Worse, nowhere in the script was there a mention of the huge gamble of Lee’s thrust into Pennsylvania, or of the rift between the various Confederate commanders at Gettysburg.  James Longstreet, who bitterly opposed Lee’s strategy and went out of his way to delay Lee’s battle plans, was never mentioned — an astounding omission — equalled by the complete lack of any explanation of the folly of Pickett’s famous charge.  (Pickett survived the battle, and spent the rest of his life berating General Robert E. Lee for sending so many men to their doom). And the cause for which they died?  Better skip over that rather awkward reality.

But by far the most egregious historical error of History Channel’s Gettysburg was its almost complete — and intentional — disregard of the essential roles of commanding officers on the scene.  The afore mentioned Longstreet. Winfield Scott Hancock, whose fearless leadership held the Union lines strong.  John Bell Hood, a bold Texan short on strategic sense (but long on courage) who drove his men to certain death attempting to scale Little Round Top. Or G.K. Warren, a brilliant Army engineer whose knowledge of topography saved the Union’s left flank from destruction.  The HC’s marketing boasted that the docudrama was intended to promote the rank and file rather than the officer corps, proclaiming: “At its core, this is the story of the soldiers on the ground, not the generals who commanded from behind the frontlines.” Well and good, except that the facts argue otherwise.  More than a dozen generals died in the battle, while others, like Hancock and Sickles, were seriously wounded.  If you set out to recount a major moment in history, as the History Channel claims it was doing, you should at least get the details right.

Does any of this make any difference?  Perhaps not, as long as Americans are willing to accept an idealized and bowlderized history of their nation. I think it does make a difference, however.  Facts may be open to debate, but they are not fungible.  History is at once memory, tradition, cultural celebration (or shame), but all of it is premised on accepted agreement about what actually happened. This production falls far short of that standard by conflating fact with image and bloodshed with nobility.

Let’s hope the current and coming generations of eighth graders are not required to view this debacle of an historical video.  In fairness, the History Channel rebounded slightly with its second Civil War broadcast on Generals Lee and Grant.  At least this presentation appeared to get most of the salient facts right.

Students could benefit from watching Lee and Grant.  But anyone wanting to know about the life of Civil War soldiers should read “Faces of the Civil War, An Album of Union Soldiers and Their Stories.” Another book should be required reading:  David Blight’s masterly “Race and Reunion, the Civil War in American Memory.”

You can purchase both books in the gift shop at Gettysburg.

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