Folks know that I rarely do much ranting against those "bad" history movies, books, etc. Of course, when I do, I come with both barrels blazing :) However, after the wife and I did some work around the house tonight, I settled down to watch a little TV and relax a bit. I channel surfed until coming to the Military Channel, on which a show called "Gettysburg: The Battle That Changed America" was about to begin at 9:00 p.m. Hhmm, I thought - something good to watch for an hour or so.
I literally just watched exactly the first 9 minutes of it and HAD to shut it off. Not just wanted to shut it off - HAD to. I was afraid I'd take that new LCD TV off the bedroom wall and throw it out the window, and the wife wouldn't have been amused. And I don't need to tear out what little is left of my hair.
One of the first talking heads to appear was Tom Carhart - no, however, he wasn't the reason. Never mind that Carhart has penned what is probably the worst historical book to waste good tree pulp ever printed on planet Earth. Even someone with such poor historical method as Carhart couldn't have made this show any worse.
After a minute or so of history behind the town of Gettysburg and the first two years of the war, the show stated that the battle of Gettysburg began about 10:30 am on July 1, 1863, when a small Federal infantry detail surprisingly stumbled upon a small Confederate infantry detail somewhere west of Gettyburg.
Wha? I continued watching, thinking that maybe the show was describing the start of some other battle or skirmish, maybe outside Gettysburg, Arizona Territory, or a town in China or Zimbabwe.
No such luck, however. That's how the show portrayed the Battle of Gettysburg beginning. After a reenactment showing a Confederate infantryman getting shot and killed by a Federal sniper, surprising the whole lot of a couple dozen Rebels, the battle was on. So immediately the few dozen soldiers face off against each other along a dirt road and start shooting at each other. This little scrap, says the show, drew in the 150,000 or so men of both armies into the battle. Robert E. Lee, whom the show said was 8 miles away, is immediately notified that "Ewell" is engaged at Gettysburg. Meade, whom the show said was 30 miles away, was also immediately notified and he commands his army to "find good ground and hold it!" Meade, purported the show, was in command of the Federal army because two other generals, also offered command, refused it because they felt they couldn't defeat the great Robert E. Lee. Then, that segment before the commercial ended by stating that as more troops were drawn in, the battle was "underway by 1:00 pm."
I'm sure, like me, you can see where the show was going. It probably couldn't get any worse, but I also suspected it wasn't going to get much better. After thinking better of chucking the TV out that window, I instead shut it off.
As I ask in the title of this post, how does "history" truly get this bad? We all know that there are a legion of books, articles, and movies that make mincemeat out of the truth of history. Fictionalized history deservedly gets a pass, but when a documentary such as this makes blatant errors in just about every single statement in just the opening 9 minutes, are the historical advisors behind these things that uninformed, that clueless?
Oh, and did I mention that the show, true to form, showed that little band of unsuspecting Confederates as simply wanting to go to Gettysburg to get the badly needed shoes they desired? I must have forgotten to mention that in all the haze.
Of course, even the most casual student of the battle knows that it did not begin late in the morning when a couple dozen opposing infantry stumbled upon one another as they sauntered toward each other down the same dirt road. The battle began a full 3 hours earlier (7:30 am) as Federal vedettes of Gen. John Buford's cavalry division fired upon Gen. Henry Heth's Confederate infantry division as the latter marched eastward on the Chambersburg Pike toward Gettysburg. And the Confederate corps of Gen. Richard Ewell didn't open the battle, instead fighting north of town in the early afternoon. By that 10:30 am mark, Heth's division was fully engaged with Buford's cavalry, and the Federal infantry corps of Gen. John Reynolds was just arriving on the field. Any "historical advisor" that came up with the show's portrayal of the start of what is inarguably the most famous battle of the entire American Civil War wouldn't have to just be a bit uninformed, he'd necessarily have to be an unabashed bozo. And I mean that the way it sounds - my, he'd really have to be clueless.
The rest of those 9 minutes, the gist of which I pointed out earlier, was just as bad. I can understand this sort of hooey appearing on some cartoon show, but the Military Channel? To boot, respected Gettysburg National Military Park ranger and historian D. Scott Hartwig appeared in the show - wouldn't the writers/producers of this silliness have allowed Scott to review the production? Apparently they didn't. I'm sure Scott would have insisted they scrap the whole thing and start over.
Save your TV. Be kind to it. Don't throw it out a window. If you see this show appearing on the Military Channel near you, flip to something else. Quickly.
Your electronic friends will thank you. And so will the history gods.
But don't ask me how the show ends - I don't have a clue. Maybe the great Robert E. Lee actually won at Gettysburg.