Gods and Generals: The Early Years of the American Civil War
by Jake Bickham
The recent film Gods and Generals is based upon Jeff Shaara's book of the same title, and it was directed by Ron Maxwell and produced by Ted Turner Pictures. The film is the prequel of Gettysburg, an excellent picture released in 1993 that is notable for its heart stopping renditions of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain's defense of "Little Round Top" and General Robert E. Lee's unsuccessful assault known as "Pickett's Charge." The final installment of the Civil War trilogy is The Last Full Measure, which will supposedly be produced on film at a future date. Gods and Generals covers the outbreak of the Civil War and concludes with the Battle of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg appropriately focuses upon General Lee's second invasion of the North, (his first was deflected by the Union army at Antietam) and The Last Full Measure will portray the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg until the end of the "War Between the States."
Gods and Generals' principal actors include Stephen Lang as Thomas Jackson, Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain, and Robert Duvall as Robert E. Lee. These three men play their parts well, but many of the film's minor actors could use improvement. Furthermore, audiences will probably be amused by some of the performers' incredibly deep accents. As for the hordes of Civil War re-enactors who participated in making the picture, they did an outstanding job in recreating key events of the battles of First Manassas (Bull Run), Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Tastefully, the movie does not show an excessive amount of blood and gore; thus Gods and Generals is a film suitable for the entire family to watch. Of course, the result of these omissions is that the bloody reality of the war (thousands of mangled bodies that were the unlucky victims of musketry, bayonets, and artillery shrapnel) has been somewhat downplayed.
Gods and Generals focuses primarily upon the life, death, and war-deeds of Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Major subplots include General Lee's rise to prominence in the Confederate army, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain's decision to join the Union army, his early service in the 20th Maine Regiment, and how the war affected the lives of a white Southern family and its African-American slaves. As might be guessed from the movie's title, one of the main themes that Gods and Generals seeks to portray is that 19th century Americans were generally deeply religious in their outlook and that faith helped them to cope with the horrors witnessed during the "War for Southern Independence." Examples of this religious fundamentalism abound throughout the movie, and General Jackson is accurately seen as being a particularly pious individual.
Gods and Generals recreates the naive, overconfident, and idealistic attitudes of both the Union and the Confederacy at the beginning of the "War of the Rebellion," and it seeks to outline the controversial causes of the terrible conflict. Maxwell spends considerable time depicting the idea that each side strongly felt that their reasons for fighting were righteous and that the opposing faction's were flawed. For instance, the film begins with Colonel Robert E. Lee's heart wrenching decision to turn down President Abraham Lincoln's offer to command the Federal army that was amassing to crush the rebellion. Lee was placed in a position where he either had to give up an honorable, lifelong career or face the almost certain possibility that he would be leading an army against his home state, Virginia, which was at that time holding a secession convention. Like many Southerners during this era, Lee arrived at the conclusion that allegiance to one's state was more important than loyalty to the Union. His reluctant choice to side against the federal government undoubtedly changed the course of history by dramatically increasing the Confederacy's chances for survival.
After his portrayal of Lee's fateful decision, Maxwell moves on to introduce Thomas Jackson, an eccentric professor at the Virginia Military Institute. Jackson and a northern colleague witness the cadets hauling down the "Stars and Stripes" and replacing it with the "Stars and Bars" (the first national flag of the Confederacy). The two men express very different points of view as to whether or not the United States was a single, indivisible nation. Jackson, of course, decides to join the Confederacy, and his friend moves back to the North, minus the son who remained to fight for the South (and who was later executed for desertion). Throughout the movie, Jackson explains what he believes the war is all about. In one scene (while addressing his troops), he argues that the Northern states were attempting to tyrannize the South and that the latter was only defending itself against the depredations of the Lincoln administration. Later, (while talking with General J.E.B. Stuart) Jackson contends that if the Confederacy lost the war, then northern business and commerce would come to dominate the entire nation. In another scene, (while discussing the fates of the deserters) he asserts that if the North faltered, then the Republican Party would merely be voted out of office. However, Jackson then argues that if the South fell to its knees, then its people would lose everything they held dear. Interestingly, Jackson, as did many Southerners, compares the Civil War to the American Revolution against the British Empire. The General emotionally refers to the struggle as the "Second War of Independence."
Maxwell expresses what he believes to be the Union soldiers' reasons for fighting through the character of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. The North's premier Civil War hero is first seen in Gods and Generals as a professor of philosophy at Bowdoin College, Maine. After accepting a commission in the newly formed 20th Maine Regiment, (much to the chagrin of his concerned wife, Fanny) he discovers that his brother, Tom, will be accompanying him to the war. The Chamberlain duo narrowly escape death during the Battle of Fredericksburg; many of their comrades were not so lucky. After reading a newspaper that was reporting reactions to President Lincoln's recently issued Emancipation Proclamation, the brothers engage in an important discussion about why they are fighting for the Union. Joshua wholeheartedly supports the Proclamation, but Tom, like many Northern soldiers, is somewhat wary. Joshua claims that he joined the Federal army primarily because he wanted the Union to be preserved. However, he contends that the ongoing war has brought the issue of African slavery increasingly to the forefront. Joshua questions the contradictory nature of the enemy by pointing out that Southern whites were claiming to fight for freedom even while they were holding large numbers of slaves in bondage. At the end of the discussion, Joshua asserts that he would give both of their lives if the sacrifice meant that slavery would be permanently exterminated. For those interested in seeing more about the wartime career of this remarkable Northern leader, Chamberlain plays a prominent role in Gettysburg .
In the opening scenes of Gods and Generals, white Southern men from all walks of life are shown leaving their homes to enlist in the Confederate army. It is here that Maxwell first introduces the Beales, a white family residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. As the two young sons prepare to head off to the war, they kiss and embrace Martha, the mother of an enslaved African family belonging to the Beales. Martha returns the affection, and wishes the boys well. Later in the film when the Union army is busy occupying Fredericksburg, Martha and her mistress, Jane, argue about whether or not Martha and her children should accompany the Beales to the Confederate army's defensive position atop Marye's Heights. Jane, concerned for her slaves' welfare, insists that Martha should go, but Martha successfully convinces her master that the Union soldiers would not bother slaves. When the Federal army begins looting the town, Northern soldiers approach the Beale home and are stopped by Martha, who claims that the property is her own, and the perplexed Northerners move on. Maxwell's inclusion of the Beale family in Gods and Generals apparently serves a dual purpose: to show how the Civil War affected people living on the home front and to interject the controversial notion that some historical Southern families and their slaves enjoyed a loving relationship. Notably absent from the film, however, are masters who mistreated their slaves and slaves who openly or subtly resisted servitude. When the Union army commandeers the Beale home to transform it into a hospital for the wounded, Martha lovingly comforts a dying Northern officer while discussing the Beale family with General Winfield Hancock. Martha emotionally tells the General that her masters are kind but that she dreamed of the day when she and her family would be freed. Unfortunately, Gods and Generals does not show what became of Martha and her children in the aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Soon after re-creating the Battle of Manassas, Maxwell introduces Jim Lewis, a free African-American who became General Jackson's personal cook. Lewis comes into Jackson's office for a job interview and argues that he wants to do his part for the Confederate war effort because Virginia was his home too. Later in the film, Lewis and Jackson are shown traveling together on a cold night. Jackson, always religious, spontaneously begins to pray, and Lewis joins the prayer and asks God why his fellow African-Americans were enslaved. Jackson then asks Lewis about his family, and the latter responds that many were slaves and that many were free. Jackson tells Lewis that many officers in the Confederate army had proposed enlisting African-Americans in the Southern army in exchange for their freedom. He contends that the war will destroy slavery in one way or another and tells Lewis that he hopes the Confederate government would be smart enough to do so on its own. Once again, Maxwell seems to be portraying the controversial idea that at least some Southern blacks supported the Confederate government despite the abuses inflicted by the "peculiar institution." The drowning rebels actually did begin incorporating African-Americans into their armies extremely late in the war but far too tardily to make any difference in the struggle. Of course, thousands of African-Americans proved their bravery while fighting for the Union against the slaveholding Confederacy; the 54th Massachusetts was one of the most famous regiments to emerge during the "War for Abolition." The period of the war that Gods and Generals covers is too early for the appearance of black combat soldiers; thus, the film is accurate in that no such troops are to be seen.
Overall, Gods and Generals is a historically accurate but narrow film. Every petty detail in the movie may not be historic gospel but especially all of the major military developments are authentic. Nevertheless, the movie focuses only upon the "Eastern Theater" of the war, it does not show the Northern home front, and it does not give equal attention to Union characters. The rather long film finds no time to portray the major battles in the Eastern Theater that occurred in between the battles of Manassas and Fredericksburg (such as the Seven Days Battles, Second Manassas, and Antietam). Furthermore, Southern slavery seems to be somewhat downplayed and its worst aspects ignored. Despite these faults, Maxwell did do an excellent job depicting that soldiers on both sides of the conflict strongly believed in what they were fighting for and that both Northern and Southern soldiers were incredibly brave and worth remembering. All fans of "the late unpleasantness" should eagerly await the final installment of the Civil War trilogy, The Last Full Measure.
McPherson, James, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
_______. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Shaara, Jeff. Gods and Generals (New York: Signet, 1996).
_______. The Last Full Measure (New York: McKay, 1998).
Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels (New York: McKay, 1987).
Clio's Short Takes