Shelby Foote, Hollywood, and History

Cinema is a powerful medium.  Objectively, we know we’re watching a movie, but what we see and hear can make us believe.  Movies, though, are made primarily for entertainment and not for information.  Movies are made by people who are experts at entertaining us, not by people who are experts in history.  In many cases they’ll do research and hire historical advisors, but not being experts in history they are captives of whatever sources they’ve found.  They don’t have time to become acquainted with all the current scholarship, nor do they have time to survey all the available literature on the subject.

Movie makers strive for accuracy, but only so much accuracy and only for a purpose.  That purpose is to create verisimilitude, which is a fancy word for making us feel like we’re there at the time watching events unfold.  So they’ll try to get uniform details right, and they’ll try to get the big facts right, but when it comes to telling the story, they’ll sacrifice accuracy for the sake of the story.  They’ll invent characters.  They’ll invent dialogue.  They’ll invent events.  They’ll compress time and delete things that actually happened.  They’ll make all sorts of changes in order to make the story better.  Then they’ll make a documentary that makes you believe they’re experts in history as well as experts in entertainment.

Such is the case with the movie, Gettysburg.  If you’re a student of the Civil War, you’ve probably seen this movie many, many times.  The movie is based not on a history book but on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara.  It’s fairly true to the novel, but there are some definite departures from accurate history.

The producers also filmed a “Making of” documentary for the movie in which they tried to show how historically accurate they were.  Unfortunately, the two commenters they chose to tell us the history weren’t historians.  They chose to use the film maker Ken Burns and the novelist Shelby Foote.

I’ve previously posted about Shelby Foote (see here, here, and here), and this documentary shows more of the same.

In the first excerpt we see a lost cause view of the war.  The narrator, Martin Sheen, tells us, “The South was defending the states’ rights to self-govern.  The North sought to preserve the Union of States and a strong Federal government.”  As we know, that’s complete hogwash.  Shelby Foote tells us, “This country was really in its adolescence at the time of the Civil War.  It was 80-odd years old but that’s very young for a country.  The war was caused by growing pains.  The North was coming to dominate the country through its industrial development.  The South resented that so they, they thought they had the absolute right to secede.”  Foote here is deeply steeped in the lost cause myth.  Notice he doesn’t say a word about slavery.

In this second excerpt, Foote says, “The Army of the Potomac had been through some dreadful experiences.  You should remember they’d had six commanders by then, uh, and, and whipped pretty badly often, had never really won.”  Well, they only had six commanders if we count John Pope as a commander of the Army of the Potomac, which he was not.

James Longstreet is one of the heroes of The Killer Angels, and it’s not surprising he comes off very well in Gettysburg.  But while he was treated poorly by the lost cause mythmakers, the novel and movie push the pendulum a bit far the other way.  We see Tom Berenger, made up as Longstreet, saying of the general, “He was extremely scientific about it,” and we see Shelby Foote saying “I maintain Longstreet is about as Southern as you can get, but he doesn’t conform to the romantic view of the Southerner.  Uh, he’s uh he was slightly deaf, which made him appear somewhat stolid at times.  His wife and children died of fever early in the war.  He remarried, but uh he had that terrible loss. … As I say Longstreet to me is completely admirable as a soldier. He knew what could be done and he knew what could not be done.”  The Longstreets lost three of four children to Scarlet Fever in January, 1862, but Louise Longstreet, his first wife, didn’t die until 1889.

The film makers adhere to the myth that Henry Heth’s men were after shoes in Gettysburg.  Narrator Sheen tells us, “Though the town of Gettysburg had no strategic significance it was a convenient source of supplies for Lee’s advancing army.  Lee, unaware that the Federal army was on a parallel course with his Confederates north towards Gettysburg, approved an expedition into the town.  This led to an unexpected encounter with Federal general John Buford’s lone cavalry advance.”  With a major road network (ten roads) going through it, Gettysburg did have strategic significance.  Lee didn’t approve an expedition into town.  A. P. Hill approved it.  Foote says, “In war, many things are accidents.  Napoleon said when two groups of men get lined up opposing each other a dogfight can start a battle.”  A quote from Napoleon makes things sound good, whether he actually said it or not.  I’ve yet to find the source in which he said this.

Foote also says, “the Army of the Potomac had one great advantage.  Uh, they were fighting on their home ground an advantage the Southerners had had through most of the war up to that.  Uh, one Confederate said, ‘I believe the damn Yankees shoot straighter in the North than they do when they’re down South.’ ”  Since a very small percentage of the Army of the Potomac hailed from South Central Pennsylvania and from Adams County in particular, the “home ground” theory doesn’t hold water.

The movie makers also buy into the idea that Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell made a grave error by not attacking Cemetery Hill, though they aren’t sure which hill was in question.  Narrator Sheen says, “While the Confederates drove the Federals out of town, Lee’s Second Corps Commander, General Richard Ewell, made a tactical error that would soon prove fatal.  His forces failed to take the high ground beyond Gettysburg much to Lee’s and General Isaac Trimble’s frustration.”  They don’t understand the situation Ewell faced or the orders he was given.

They also opine on the casualties in the Civil War.  Sheen’s narration says, “Unfortunately for the average infantryman, advances in weaponry far outpaced advances in the tactical use of the foot soldier.”  Foote joins in, “The reason for the large casualties in Civil War battles is that the weapons were ahead of the tactics.  Uh, the rifled musket, uh, had an effective range of a couple hundred yards.  Very effective range.  But when they got these new weapons they kept the old tactics, and the worst thing they believed was that to mass your fire against your opponent you had to mass your men.  So you advanced shoulder-to-shoulder across an open field against this deadly fire.”  Foote’s wrong.  They recognized the increased range of the rifled musket.  Their solution was that the soldiers moved faster in their charges to close the distance faster, which would account for the increased range of the muskets.  The thing that really mattered was the increased use of fortifications.

In this excerpt we see more Longstreet love:  “General Longstreet was tactically ahead of his time, favoring defensive maneuvers.  But Lee was adamant about taking the offensive.  Like his troops, Lee was eager for a fight, perhaps the decisive battle to win the war.”  While this is true to Michael Shaara’s novel, it’s not quite true to the actual history.  I like Longstreet as much as the next guy, but let’s be real here.  The guy wasn’t a tactical genius, as evidenced by his poor performance against Ambrose Burnside in Tennessee.  And Lee didn’t let his emotions rule his battlefield decisions, even at Gettysburg.

We also get the Shaara/Chamberlain view of Little Round Top.  Foote tells us, “Longstreet’s whole corps, uh, went in on the second day, minus Pickett, of course, who hadn’t come up yet.  But they all went in and they attacked around on Culp’s Hill around on the other side was a heavy attack. … The comparison is often made of the Union position as being a fish hook.  Uh, Culp’s Hill is the barb, it makes a bend around Cemetery Hill and then comes down Cemetery Ridge as the shank.  And Little Round Top is the eye of the hook and, uh, it’s the highest ground.  It’s where Chamberlain and the 20th Maine did, did their part in saving Little Round Top.”  Foote obviously misspoke, calling Little Round Top “Culp’s Hill” in the first part.  Narrator Sheen calls Little Round Top “Key to the Federal position.”  It wasn’t.  Cemetery Hill was the key to the Federal position.  Foote says, “He managed to stop the Alabamians who were going to take Little Round Top.  That’s what he did.  And, uh, it was a terrific, uh, touch and go thing.  And if it had been anybody less resolute than Chamberlain they would have lost Little Round Top ’cause there was no shortcoming of resolution on the other side.  Those Alabamians and Texans were coming.”  Ken Burns says Chamberlain used “an obscure textbook maneuver that changes the course of the battle.”  That’s overblown hyperbole.  Certainly Chamberlain and the 20th Maine did a fantastic job on July 2, but so did Patrick O’Rourke and the 140th New York.  So did the rest of Vincent’s Brigade.  so did all the soldiers who fought on Little Round Top.  There were many heroes of Little Round Top, without whom Little Round Top would have been lost, at least temporarily.  To focus on Chamberlain and the 20th Maine necessarily diminishes the contributions by everyone else.  And a bayonet charge isn’t an obscure maneuver.  The 137th New York on Culp’s Hill executed two bayonet charges.  The idea that it changed the course of the battle is also hyperbole.

Later in this excerpt, Foote claims, “Lee already had a tremendous reputation so high that Winfield Scott, I believe under instructions from Lincoln, had offered command of the Union Army to Lee.  And Lee even considered it.  The army was his career, he loved the army, but he reached the decision he was bound to reach.  He said I could not draw my sword against my native state, or as he put it, against my country, meaning Virginia.”  Lee never called Virginia his country.  He always referred to Virginia as his native state.  Foote made this error before.

In this excerpt, Foote tells us, “But when Lee really got going on this thing his hopes were very high, and his hopes were heightened by the great success he had on the First Day’s battle and the near success he’d had on the second day of battle so he thought he was going to crown it on the third day.  And that’s what led him.  It’s as if, uh, the fates were plotting against him.  It’s as if, uh, like, uh, the stars in their courses fought against him.  But they drew him in and drew him in and drew him in until he committed the great, the greatest expense that and possibly the greatest mistake that any general on either side had ever made was to stage Pickett’s Charge.”  That’s great drama, but hardly great history.  Foote paints a picture of Lee guided by his emotions instead of his intellect.  Sorry, but that’s not General Robert E. Lee.

Foote says of Pickett’s Charge, “If I had been in one of Pickett’s regiments and they had told me what we were going to do and I had had a look at that field and have seen that ridge nearly a mile across the way and all those guns and all those soldiers I would have said I don’t think we ought to do that, do this, general.  And I might have had nerve enough to say I ain’t gonna do it.  Of course I wouldn’t; nobody would have that much nerve.  You couldn’t say, ‘Marse Robert, I ain’t going.’  Uh, noboday had that much nerve but, uh, it’s an undertaking that many people knew was apt to fail and was a desperate thing.  The word desperate occurs over and over again among the men talking about it.”  I’ll take his word that he’s read accounts using the term, “desperate,” but it’s quite obvious Foote has never seen where the men of Pickett’s division were when they lined up for that charge.  All they saw in front of them was terrain, because they were hidden behind the terrain.  They couldn’t see Cemetery Ridge, and the Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge couldn’t see them.  The claim that “many people knew” the charge “was apt to fail” is again, quite a bit overblown.  Foote would have us believe these folks knew much more about warfare than Robert E. Lee knew.  Perhaps they had an opinion that it would fail, perhaps not.  But Lee calculated it had a reasonable chance for success, and he was right.  His plan of attack wasn’t brilliant, but given what he knew at the time, which was surely more than the average man in the ranks, the plan was reasonable.

Foote continues, “Uh, Meade had 375 guns, sixteen batteries up on Cemetery Hill and down on Little Round Top he had I don’t know how many batteries but a lot and guns all along the ridge between them so that as Pickett and Pettigrew advanced across that nearly mile-wide valley they were met not only by fire from directly ahead but as they got closer the guns on Cemetery Hill … ” [the excerpt ends at that point to be picked up in the next excerpt]

Here Foote shows only a superficial knowledge of things.  The Federals certainly had a lot of artillery on Cemetery Hill, but not all of it was pointed to the west.  A significant portion was pointed to the east and to the north, because the confederates were in the town and also still posed a threat to Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill.  Also, there was one battery, Hazlett’s Battery, on the crest of Little Round Top, and it’s astounding that Foote doesn’t know this because if he had set foot on Little Round Top he would have seen there’s only room for one battery.  There was a second battery, Gibbs’ Battery, posted on the northern slope of Little Round Top.  That’s it.  That’s certainly not “a lot” of batteries.

In the penultimate excerpt, Foote continues from the last excerpt:  ” … and Little Round Top were firing in on them at an angle like this and they were taking out men down the files, uh, terrific destruction so that the artillery, the Northern artillery was at its very best at Gettysburg.  They were superb.”  Most of this is true, though instead of “files” he means “ranks,” “rows,” or “lines.”

Later in this excerpt, Foote claims, “There were two survivors as a matter of fact.  The man carrying the flag and the man next to him made it up to the wall and the Northern soldiers held their fire and one of them held his hand out and said to the Confederate flag bearer ‘Come over on this side of the Lord’ and helped him over the wall as a prisoner of course.  The two of them, the only survivors.”  He’s speaking of the 26th North Carolina and flag bearer Private Daniel Thomas and Sergeant James Brooks.  They weren’t the only survivors.  Several survivors of the regiment hung back and retreated safely.  Others were taken prisoner around the Emmitsburg Road.

Lest we think that I’m going to argue with everything Shelby Foote says, he also has a few items in this excerpt with which I agree.  He says, “Nobody criticizes Pickett’s action during the charge.  He was very much out there.  It’s, it was, somebody tried to start rumors that he hung back.  It’s not true.  Pickett is, uh, where a division commander is supposed to be during that charge, uh, and nobody ever, ever questioned Pickett’s courage.  That would be absurd, uh, he was as brave as any man on that field.”  He also tells us, “Retreating in the case of Pickett’s Charge was simply, uh, seeing the impossibility of something and falling back.  There were a lot of men, it makes me almost want to cry for them, uh, a lot of men on that retreat didn’t want to get shot in the back so they turned around and retreated backwards so if they got killed it would be from the front.  They had an innocence.  It’s wonderful.”

In this final excerpt, Foote tells us, “The main loss at Gettysburg, it’s funny how little difference the loss of men makes.  That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s really true, um, these losses are replaced and people go on.  What happened at Gettysburg on both sides was they lost some very promising junior generals, uh, brigade commanders regimental commanders, young West Pointers on their way up like Paddy O’Rourke and so on and the rest of them, uh, Latimore the confederate artilleryman.  Those are losses that could not be made up–you just don’t find men like that.”  Here Foote is, I think, self-contradictory.  On the one hand he says there was little difference, and on the other hand he says both sides lost men who, in his opinion, were irreplaceable.  I think this goes directly to what we might call the “bench strength,” to use a sports term, for both armies.  The Federals had a “deeper bench” than the confederates and could replace combat losses better than the confederates could.  Attrition on the Federal side made room for smart young officers like Emory Upton to move up and have an impact on the war.  Attrition on the confederate side thinned the leadership ranks and with some exceptions generally led to less effective leadership.

My point in all this is to stress that we simply cannot take our history from Hollywood in any form.  Certainly we can go to the movies and enjoy the entertainment, but we all need to be careful not to mistake what we see on the screen as being an accurate representation of what happened, and when you see a documentary that doesn’t depend on historians to tell you what happened, be very, very careful about accepting it.  And my final point is that Shelby Foote was a wonderful writer, but he was not a historian.



  1. I just like the way Shelby says “See-Cede.”

  2. jfepperson · · Reply

    Sharra wrote an outstanding book which captures much of the feel of the battle and is a fine, if overly romantic, character study. Good stuff, no doubt. He was trying to do a prose version for our Civil War of what Shakespeare did for the English Wars of the Roses. And in that he largely succeeds, I think. But no one cites Shakespeare as history—it is literature, with an historical flavor. So is “Killer Angels.” And, almost by definition, the movie version is going to be *less* historical than the book. But I still like the movie.

    A good way to get drunk fast: Watch the movie, and every time there is an historical error, take a drink.

    1. Alternatively, watch the Ken Burns series and take a drink every time Shelby Foote makes a historical error. 😉

      1. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

        Try using the DVDs for a class. I was using segments interwoven in my lectures and had to go through all of them with Foote in them carefully. Several were discarded due to the Foote errors.

    2. “A good way to get drunk fast: Watch the movie, and every time there is an historical error, take a drink.”

      I had a friend who tried that. He died of alcohol poisoning during the scene where Longstreet tells Fremantle, “we should have freed the slaves, then seceded.”

  3. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    On the otherside, were the movies “Django Unchained” and “twelve Years a Slave” an accurate portrayal of slave life in the antebellum South?

    1. “Twelve Years a Slave” was a fairly accurate portrayal, so far as Hollywood goes, of what Solomon Northup wrote in his book. “Django Unchained” wasn’t a true story, but what was true about it was that slavery was a violent, abhorrent system.

  4. Pat Young · · Reply

    Interesting article Al. Last week my new girlfriend told me she started reading Killer Angels. I feel responsible.

    1. It is all your fault, Pat. Next thing you know she will want to see the movie, “Gettysburg.” Then she will want to visit battlefields. You are doomed. 😉

      1. “You are doomed.”

        Or maybe engaged. Possibly both.

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