Friday, March 12, 2010

The Enduring Attraction of the Civil War

I recently watched Gods and Generals, a 2003 Civil War movie based on the novel by Jeff Shaara. It attempts, in the span of 3 hours and 45 minutes, to cover the two years of fighting in Northern Virginia between April 1861 and April 1863.

It is an impossible task and the filmmakers fail. Impossible because those two years include First Bull Run, Second Bull Run, The Valley campaign, the 7 Days battle, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. These are some of the largest, most important battles in American history.  And oh, by the way, these two years saw some of the most momentous political events in American history, like the election of Abraham Lincoln, secession, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Maybe – maybe – you can capture the sweep of this period with a long miniseries, a la Band of Brothers*. But it is impossible in a theatrically-released film, even one as interminably long as Gods and Generals, to cover the period without unforgivable omissions. For example, the filmmakers simply pretend that George McClellan, the most important Union general of the period, and the battles he was in, simply didn’t exist.

* The mini-series is a highly underrated art form. In fact, two of my favorite “movies” of all time, Band of Brothers and Lonesome Dove, are miniseries. Miniseries are the only way to fully present a book on screen in all its richness. Also, to be fair, the filmmakers behind Gods & Generals also made Gettysburg, a fine Civil War film.

But still…I watched the whole damn thing. Yeah, some of it was painful, particularly the scenes that had, you know, dialogue. (in fact, some of the worst dialogue is uttered by Stonewall Jackson, played by the fine actor Stephen Lang, who you probably saw as Colonel Quaritch in a little flick called Avatar.)

But the battle scenes –it’s impossible to take your eyes away from the battle scenes, particularly if you’ve ever been captivated by the Civil War. The first clash at Bull Run. The Northern waves rolling up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. And most compellingly, the Confederates under Robert Rodes stealthily emerging from the woods to hit O.O. Howard’s troops at Chancellorsville, the high mark of the Confederacy.

The Civil War is the American Iliad, and seeing these scenes brought to life as realistically as it’s ever been done is extraordinary. And it’s a reminder of the enduring attraction of the Civil War.

A Dramatic Climax
Ken Burns, the brilliant documentarian who made The Civil War and many other extraordinary documentaries about America, recounted a conversation he had with Shelby Foote, the historian who became an unlikely star in Burns’ masterpiece. Burns mentioned that he had never been to Ford’s Theater, the site of Lincoln’s assassination, because he found the idea of being there too emotionally painful.

Foote exclaimed, “But Lincoln’s assassination was the best part of the Civil War!” (Or something to that effect; I’m going from memory on the quote).

Burns was shocked. He knew Foote to be a great admirer of Lincoln; in fact Foote believed Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest* to be the two authentic geniuses produced by The Civil War.

* Forrest is a fascinating individual, in many ways the epitome of the best and worst of America. He was a poor man who made a fortune, but the fortune was made at least in part as a slave trader. He was a brilliant, self-taught cavalry commander; a born genius on the battlefield, he was the only individual to enlist as a private and finish the war as a lieutenant general. He was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, but in 1875 gave a speech that recommended what was, for the time, an enlightened and radically aggressive agenda of equality for black Americans. The curious contradictory nature of Forrest made him a touchstone for many writers, notably Faulkner. Today he is mostly known as the guy who gave Mr. Gump his first name. It must pain the ghost of N.B. Forrest, one of the most aggressive military leaders in American history, that his name is most famously associated with the expression “Run, Forrest, run!!”

But Burns slowly realized what Foote meant. Shelby Foote was a novelist by training and a historian by accident. And as a novelist the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – days after Appomattox but before the final surrender of the South – was a dramatic climax to the story of the Civil War, a perfect finish to a beautifully constructed plot. (Burns, on the other hand, is the classic sensitive artist type, hence his reluctance to enter Ford’s).

That story stayed with me, and the more I thought about it the more I realized that Americans’ enduring interest in the Civil War can be partly explained by the unusually dramatic arc of the war. In fact, it all plays out rather nicely as a 3-act play.

Act I
The first act centers on the run-up to and start of the war.

It can start in many places – as early as the first slaves arriving in Virginia, or the compromises built into the Constitution, or the end of the Mexican War, which added new states to the Union and new controversy over whether those states would be free or not.

But I’d start it on May 22, 1856, when South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks beat Massachussets Senator Charles Sumner with a wooden cane on the floor of the Senate, in response to an anti-slavery speech made Sumner three days earlier. The beating was so savage that Sumner couldn’t return to the Senate for 3 years. *

* And people get worked up about Joe Wilson – also of South Carolina - shouting “You Lie!” during President Obama’s healthcare speech, or Rahm Emmanuel's bullying. Anyone who thinks Washington DC used to be more civil should get thee to a library.

From there we’d follow the story through Bleeding Kansas, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln’s election, Secession, and the Fort Sumter crisis. We’d be introduced to characters who’d become important later – like Robert E. Lee, a colonel in the United States Army, who ends John Brown’s siege of Harper’s Ferry.

Act I ends with the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War.

Act II
The story of Act II is the story of the underdog Confederacy. They are outnumbered, out gunned, out-allied, out-everything – and yet they win battle after battle. Robert E. Lee is the star of Act II, and a succession of bumbling Union generals provide the pathos and the comedy. But others rise too – the flamboyant Confederate cavalryman Jeb Stuart, an eloquent but unsure Abraham Lincoln learning his job, and just offstage, a stoic Union general named U.S. Grant providing foreshadowing out West.

Act II has no shortage of political drama, as Lincoln balances the demands of Radical Republicans who want abolition and Copperhead Democrats who want to let the South go. He demonstrates his political shrewdness through the timing and military justification for the Emancipation Proclamation.

Act II ends with the Southern invasion of Pennsylvania and the dramatic victory by the Union at Gettysburg, coupled with Grant’s victory at Vicksburg. With the end of the act, the tide has turned.

Here’s where Foote’s observation about Ford’s Theater comes into play. Act III would be a fairly boring act – a grinding series of battles between Lee and Grant leading to the inevitable Union victory. There is no drama and little poetry during the brutal final 9 months of the war. Then – pow! – John Wilkes Booth, who fittingly happens to be an accomplished dramatic actor*, kills Lincoln, leaps onto the stage and runs out of the theater. A despicable act, but as Foote says, from a dramatic standpoint the highlight of the war, and the one that destined Lincoln for the pantheon.

* Again...people who think actors and their political views are annoying now should recall the past...

Of course a great play requires more than just compelling characters and a well-structured plot. It needs dialogue, and boy does the CW deliver dialogue. Quotes from Lincoln alone fill books, but many other quotes from "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" to "War is hell" derive from the War Between the States.

One can argue, certainly, that the American Revolution is a more important war. The Revolution created America, whereas the Civil War merely maintained it. And we have been, since at least 1994's Saving Private Ryan, obsessed with the Second World War.

But the Civil War endures, and I suspect it will for a long time. The walls of Troy were stormed some 3000 years ago (or maybe not; who knows?) and many of us are still familiar with the feats of Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus.

Will the same be true of the American Civil War? I suspect so, and like the Iliad, it will be in part because of its dramatic structure.

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