Gary W. Gallagher is a professor at the University of Virginia and a noted historian who has authored more than a dozen books, including Lee and His Generals in War and Memory, Chancellorsville and The Confederate War. He has been active in preserving Civil War sites and leads battlefield tours. Since childhood, Gallagher has focused his attention on the Confederacy, although he is quick to say he is glad the North won. His latest book, Causes Won, Lost and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War, excerpted in this issue, focuses on how movies have shaped our view of the war.
Your new book is very different from anything you’ve ever written. It’s about seeing the war through motion pictures, but you’re not a cultural historian. Why this form?
I’ve always been interested in films and their impact on people. I’ve watched films all my life and have been very interested in their take on historical events. I decided to write this book because I’m interested in why Americans feel as they do about the Civil War. How do they get their perceptions about the war? Why do they understand it the way they do? I decided some time ago that it’s not because of what historians write. They get it from popular culture. Partly from oral tradition, but often they get it from films.
What film do you think most accurately portrays the war?
I think Glory is the best Civil War movie. It gets a lot of little details wrong, but it gets the big things right. I think it has the most realistic combat scenes of any Civil War movie. Glory’s opening Antietam sequence is easily the best—it rivals the opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan. It’s very graphic. It doesn’t sugar-coat anything. It’s not a romantic view. It’s a very graphic view of what a Civil War battlefield looked like.
What film is the worst?
Just in terms of getting the most historical details wrong, it’s hard to beat Santa Fe Trail, with one howler after another. But I still love the film, and it’s a great teaching movie. I have my students watch it, and then they talk about what’s right and what’s wrong about it. I think both Gods and Generals and Cold Mountain are deeply flawed in very different ways. I think interpretatively they both are off, they get things just completely wrong.
Is it the sense of the way the war was fought that bothers you in those films?
Yes. Gods and Generals plays it pretty straight with the historical record in most ways. But the scenes between Stonewall Jackson and his black cook? I don’t know where those came from or why they’re in there, because they’re not based in historical fact. The conversation with Jackson saying, “You know, I hope slavery is over with the end of the war, and we’ll all just be working our way together,” and the black cook says he’s defending his home in Lexington just like Stonewall Jackson. What in the world does that mean? What threat does the United States pose to the cook? What gets left out that leaves a skewed perception is that most of the slaves in the Confederacy weren’t loyal in the way the slaves in this film are. Many of them ran away, and many of them were angry with their owners. It’s a very affirmative depiction of the Confederacy. If that’s all anyone knew of the Civil War, if Gods and Generals was all they saw, they would have no sense of the real story of slavery and the Confederacy, the real centrality of slavery to the coming of the war. Then Stonewall Jackson has a speech where he says, “Well, if the Yankees lose, they’ll just go home and continue making money, but if we lose, we lose everything.” Many people in the North would have said: “If we lose, we lose everything. We lose the democratic example to the world, we lose the Union, we lose the work of the founders.” It’s that kind of twist on things that doesn’t ring true.
Is a novel like Killer Angels trying to do the same thing a movie does?
Of course. The film Gettysburg is a very good adaptation of Michael Shaara’s novel, but that’s the problem. I’ve had countless people come up and say how terrible Martin Sheen was as Lee. Well, Sheen is great as Shaara’s Lee. If you’re going to get angry, don’t get angry at Sheen, get angry at Shaara, because he misses Lee by a mile in my view.
Could you argue that Killer Angels generated more interest in the war than anything else has in our lifetime?
Yes, but when it first came out, it wasn’t a bestseller. It was the coming together of Killer Angels and Ken Burns and the film Gettysburg. Burns had an epiphany when he read Killer Angels, so his documentary gives us Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, gives us much of the heart of Killer Angels. You know, Shelby Foote’s books didn’t sell that well before Burns’ Civil War came out either. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Burns to a resurgent interest in the war.
When you teach a class on the Civil War or lead a battlefield tour, is it difficult not to romanticize the war?
I’d turn that around—it’s very easy to romanticize it. So you have to be on your guard. It’s very easy to stand on Little Round Top and rhapsodize about Chamberlain. What’s hard is to stand on Little Round Top and try to put what happened there within the real context of the battle. That’s much harder. The art that I talk about in my book gives us Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain practically as the savior of the Union, he and his little band of men there. They did a good job on Little Round Top, but they didn’t do a better job than many other regiments and many other colonels in many other parts of the battlefield. We think they did because of the film Gettysburg and because of Burns and because of Killer Angels and because of what Chamberlain wrote. Colonel David Ireland and his New Yorkers on Culp’s Hill did exactly the same thing against longer odds, and almost nobody knows who they were. Almost nobody.
Do you wish that more people knew more about the war?
Sadly, I think too many Americans know little about the Civil War or most parts of U.S. history. I’m always depressed when I watch Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” and people don’t even know what century the Civil War took place in. If we were all more literate about the war, for example, we would understand why race is so important to the presidential campaign in 2008.
Could you explain that a little?
I think that some Americans of the Civil War generation grappled with not only whether or not there would be slavery but what the status of freed men and women would be. Much of the white North was willing to support emancipation. But how far would they go toward providing equal rights for black people after the war? The answer was they were interested in killing slavery for a variety of reasons, but they didn’t really care that much about what happened to black people. I think it’s sort of miraculous that we ended up with the 13th and 14th and 15th amendments, and without the Civil War we wouldn’t have.
Why is it still such a strange notion that the war was fought over slavery?
I think that people who love the Civil War have the ability to filter some things out. Literally every lecture I give—whether it’s a lecture on Porter Alexander at Gettysburg or presidential power or the Lost Cause, it doesn’t matter what it is—I always get a question at the end about states’ rights and slavery. Always.
When you say it was not about states’ rights, how does your audience react?
I don’t think I change anybody’s mind. The ones who agree with me will nod; the ones who don’t cross their arms.
You teach at a Southern college, the University of Virginia, that slavery was by and large the source of the war. Does that meet with much negativity?
It meets with some resistance. I have had many, many students over the years who come up and tell me how much they loved the class. Then they’ll pause and say, “But I still don’t think it was about slavery.”
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.