“I Threw Down My Sword!”

I’m a fan of the movie Gettysburg. There, I said it. Why? Well, it’s a long treatment of the battle, many parts were filmed on the battlefield, and in some cases it’s fun to critique its treatment of the Civil War and the battle. One thing we need to remember, though, is that it’s awful history, from the overly well-fed confederate pickets to its lost cause view of what the confederacy was about, to this event, which purports to depict confederate general Isaac Trimble complaining to R. E. Lee about Richard S. Ewell’s failure to “take that hill.”

Trimble himself claimed, in his questionable reminiscences, to have said the words to Ewell, “Give me a division and I will take that hill,” etc. So why am I complaining about this? Because if the viewer isn’t careful, they will become confused about what hill he’s talking about. Lee’s original orders to Ewell were to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable” and “without bringing on a general engagement.” Trimble here is not talking about Cemetery Hill. He’s talking about Culp’s Hill. In his inspection of Cemetery Hill, Ewell judged it to be impracticable to attack and instead Ewell himself hit on the idea of taking Culp’s Hill. It was Ewell who first raised this with Lee and received Lee’s permission to pursue that line of attack if he could do so. “A blind man should have seen it” sounds good on the screen when one is looking for a villain to blame for confederate defeat, but anyone who’s seen the terrain knows Culp’s Hill was wooded and a blind man could not have seen much about it, since a sighted man couldn’t see much in the way of whether or not troops were up there. And in fact, the Iron Brigade was there. That’s why Ewell sent a scouting party up there and. when Early protested his division was fought out and was too exhausted and disorganized to move on the hill, why he wanted Allegheny Johnson to assault the hill with his division.

While some folks believe what Trimble wrote, most historians discount his special pleading as a desperate attempt to lay blame for the loss of Gettysburg on Dick Ewell’s shoulders. Based on what Ewell actually did, I side with the latter group. So when you watch the movie, don’t fall into the “the man is a disgrace” trap about Richard S. Ewell.

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15 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    This is both timely and sagacious advice, as I will be watching Gettysburg for the first time this weekend (in order to commemorate the battle) Then, in September, I can see for myself how practicable that ‘ol hill really was 🙂

    1. Spoiler alert. It wasn’t. 🙂

    2. bob carey · · Reply

      Shoshana Bee,
      I also like the movie, not because of the faults but because the actors give life to historical figures that I have read about for a long time. Once you get past the bad make-up and the obvious mistakes (my favorite is the way the Confederate guns fire in sequence from left to right during the bombardment preceding Pickett’s Charge) the movie is enjoyable as a story.
      Please be careful when you’re exploring Culps’ Hill, the paths leading down from the summit are steep and uneven I know because I twisted my ankle a couple of years ago on the path leading to the Palmer memorial, I’m not as flexible as I use to be.

      1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

        Thank you Mr. Carey for the nice remarks and even MORE sagacious advice regarding the potential treachery of the Culps’ Hill paths. It is my good fortune to have a willing tour leader who will forge the way, and if he becomes a casualty in the process, I will definitely choose another path! 😉

        1. bob carey · · Reply

          You are entirely welcome. Have a great time in Gettysburg.

  2. I too am a fan, for the reasons you mention and another. After seeing it back in the 90’s, I had an insatiable need to read more about how Ewell should have taken that hill, and how Chamberlain saved the entire army with his stand at LRT. 😉 Seriously, that was a personal turning point from casual interest to serious interest in the ACW.

    The Directors Cut Bluray edition does have a “deleted scene” that further deals with the Ewell issue (have you seen it?). It’s silly and almost certainly never happened as shown. But Lee does follow up on Trimble’s claims and has Ewell and his officers come in to discuss if the hill could/should have been taken.

    BTW, I thought Gallagher’s Great Courses Lecture on Lee and his high command was a great overview with some depth about all those guys. It was a good choice for someone who doesn’t have the time to get through Freeman’s weighty tome.

    1. If it leads to more learning, it’s a good thing. I have the Director’s Cut on standard DVD and I do believe I’ve seen that scene. I have Gallagher’s Civil War course but not the course on Lee. However, I made up for it by having read all four volumes of Freeman’s biography of Lee. 🙂

  3. I also love this movie, and gods and generals for that matter. It has its issues but still a great movie.

    1. Well, I have to disagree there. GAG’s best version is the Director’s Cut, and it’s barely watchable. Stephen Lang’s Jackson was well done, but Duvall was way too old to play Lee, Jeff Daniels too overweight to reprise Chamberlain, and the lost cause nonsense is over the top.

      1. In GAG, the scene where Jackson and his cook pray together like equals made me gag. 😉

        1. I can see Jackson praying with Jim Lewis as an equal because Jackson would have believed all were equal in their need to worship God, but I can’t really see him praying that particular prayer, and I can’t really see him having that conversation outside the prayer.

          1. Agreed – it was the scene as a whole, not just the prayer, that I found gag-worthy. I only own the theatrical version of GAG, but if you think the Director’s Cut makes it go from unwatchable to barely watchable, I might have to consider it.

          2. Yes, for one thing the theatrical version was butchered, not edited. The Director’s Cut has a lot more material and you’re able to follow the story, whereas forget trying to follow the theatrical version.

  4. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    I finally saw Gettysburg, today. I had a good time chronicling the times in which “take that hill” was used.

    1. Lee makes a general reference to “taking that hill” early on
    2. Trimble could have “taken that hill”
    3. Longstreet to Hood: “take that hill”

    I was wondering if nobody knew the name of those hills, so they kept it generic 🙂

    BTW, every time Longstreet took off his hat, I thought that he had an uncanny resemblance to the old timey 60’s DJ Wolfman Jack!

    I enjoyed the movie and I am glad that I saved it for the commemorative weekend

    1. Three different hills.

      1. Cemetery Hill
      2. Culp’s Hill
      3. Little Round Top

      We can assume they didn’t know the names of the hills, though we do have evidence the confederates had some pretty detailed maps of the area, so they could have found out their names.

      Longstreet didn’t tell Hood to “take that hill” in real life. Hood was supposed to attack down the Emmitsburg Road and not attack Little Round Top. The confederates thought the Union left flank was somewhere around several yards in front of where the Pennsylvania Monument is now. They thought that in moving north with their left anchored on the Emmitsburg Road they would hit the Union flank and roll up the line. Little Round Top was never a target until well after Hood was wounded and out of action.

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