Friday, April 10, 2009

How does "history" get this bad?

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.

Oh boy.

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.


  1. You weren't the only one suffering through this. I should have turned it off myself.

    I sometimes find the generalizations in shows like this annoying, but this went way beyond the pale. I thought I had misunderstood something in the show about the beginning of the battle, but I see I was mistaken.

    Looking forward to your upcoming guide. It ought to serve as a useful tonic for this travesty.

  2. LOL Steven, I'm glad to see I wasn't the only victim of that travesty :)

    Truly, I thought I was watching a show about some battle that I hadn't heard of. In those 9 minutes, I don't think I recognized a single thing the show said about Gettysburg. As you said, it indeed went way beyond the pale - not just a repeat of popular myths or even possible interpretations of certain facets of the battle, but one blatant screwup after another.

    The Military Channel would do well to delete any files of this show and try to forget it ever existed.

    Please do let Steve and I know what you think of the book!


  3. I just checked a CW chat board I often look at, and a great post was just put up that said this:


    "The Program That Changed the battle" might have been a better title.

    This was one of those shows you watch not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
    If I had to come up with a short description, the words "horrifyingly awful" come to mind. Or maybe, just plain sad. Not to mention, all to predictable.

    I counted at least one howler every three to five minutes. There were probably more, but I started to loose count. Just as a sample of the ones I can remember, as I recover from the waves of nausea:

    1. The battle starts when Union infantry comes running around a bend in the road and start shooting up Confederate troops sitting by the roadside, writing letters to Mother and talking about how they need those shoes in town.

    2. News of the battle is delivered to Meade by a Brigadeer General (didn't say which one), who immediately asks "Do you want to fall back toward Washington?"

    3. Lee learns of the battle while he's eight miles away. First thing he does is pull out his binoculars and start looking that way.

    4. The second day consisted of the Confederate attack on Culp's Hill, followed by the Confederate attack on Little Round Top.

    5. By the end of the fighting on the second day, there were 25,000 dead.

    6. Meade pointed to the Copse of Trees, and said that's where the attack would be.

    7. Stuart's mission on the third day was to ride into the rear of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, at the same time Pickett Charge hit it from the front. The two big arrows on the diagram showing how this was supposed to take place meet perfectly.

    8. Custer and a small band of Michigan cavalry (or words to that effect) are patrolling off the Union flank, and spot Stuart's column riding down the road toward the Union rear.

    9. Custer shouts "Come on, you Wolverines!", and they go charging into the front of Stuart's column, which gets backed up along the road like a train (or words to that effect), after which Stuart retreats. Computer graphics show exactly how it happened. Them poor rebels never stood a change, all stacked up on the road like that.

    (This nonsense in numbers 7, 8, and 9, BTW, is straight from the Tom Carhart playbook, not surprising since Tom Carhart himself is there to explain it all in person. Thanks Tom.)

    10. Lee personally orders the cannonade to start, while, in fact, the fighting at Culp's Hill is still going strong.

    11. Wesley Culp is killed on Culp's hill.

    12. The Union troops on Cemetery Ridge all flee in a panic when Pickett's men break through.

    13. The Confederates are forced to retreat when Stuart doesn't show up, like the diagram referred to in # 7 says he was supposed to. Thanks again Tom. Also for pointing out that Meade was scared during the entire battle.

    14. Despite 25,000 men being dead by the end of the second day, by the end of the third day the death toll is down to 10,000. Maybe the other 15,000 got better.

    The program itself was built around what might for lack of a better term be called "reenactor based dramatization", which I've become convinced is a very mixed blessing. Good, in that people show up in realistic looking uniforms, with proper weapons and equipment. Bad, in that too many of them are middle aged, overweight, and have gray hair. But I suppose they work cheap. This is supplemented by computer annimation, of such things as Cuters's patrolling band waylaying Stuart's maurauding column along that road to the Union rear - it's just shocking how old Jeb let himself be surprised out in the open like that - and Picket's troops breaking through and driving off the panic stricken Yankees.

    There was one special effect that was worth the price of admission all by itself, though. Some poor Reb is standing there on Culp's Hill on the morning of July 3, chatting with the soon to be dearly departed Wesley while they get ready to storm the hill again. Which shouldn't have been too much of a chore, since as I recall from Carhart's book (it got left out of the program somehow, maybe he didn't have time to explain that part of the plan), part of Stuart's job was to drop off some men to help capture the hill while he was on the way to help Pickett. Since they would have had "Enfield rifles with sword bayonets", it would have bene practically a done deal. But anyway, they're just standing there BS'ing with each other, just minding there own business, when the Union artillery opens up and blows poor Wesley's friend away. And I mean, literally! Damm shell comes flying in looking like one of those special effects meteors from "Deep Impact" or "Armageddon" that take out the Chrysler Building, or half of Paris, catches the guy right about in the belt buckle, and he's just gone. Looked like he was standing in front of an 18" shell from the Yamato or something. All they needed to really do it up right was to have just his shoes sitting there, with some wisps of smoke coming out of them.

    Frank Haskell was featured in the program, with a number of "quotations" from his account of the battle. I say "quotations", because the program writers alter and embellish what he wrote, when and where needed, to fit the plot.

    All in all, about as poor, and unfortunately, about as typical, as anything I've seen lately.

    The frightening part is, this sort of thing makes you wonder how much mis-information and nonsense you're being fed, without even realizing it, when the program is about a battle or event you may not have as much personal knowledge of.


    Now, I thank God I didn't watch beyond the 9 minutes!


  4. J.D.,

    It was kinda inspirational for me. I watched that crap for about 10 minutes, got up and proceeded to go take one. :)


  5. Wow, I couldn't keep track of all the inaccuracies in that- and I only know a fraction of what most of you know. For as good as the special affects and cinematography were, its a shame there were otherwise poor production values.

    What the heck was up with those opening battle scenes? No Buford whatsoever? Oh, and those God awful shoes...again...

    Ewell commanding the first CSA troops in Gettysburg? Really? I guess Henry Heth and A.P. Hill were killed by the Union sniper who really didn't exist. Plus, the "if practicable" moment in this show was talking about Culp's Hill and not Cemetery Hill.

    By the way, that "fall back to Washington" guy was supposed to be Hancock. How ridiculous. Later, it was Hancock (with a Brig. Gen. star on his shoulders) who was personally commanding the artillery during Pickett's Charge. Even my 14 year old brother laughed at that one.

    The program quickly skimmed over Little Round Top saying only that it was "saved by a desperate bayonet charge." No mention of the Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Devil's Den- just misconceptions of fighting on Culps Hill. And Wesley Culp fighting on Culp's Hill when he was actually killed near modern Neill Avenue.

    And where the heck was this Custer battle suppose to be taking place? It never said. From the imagination of Tom Carhart? It was like an odd concoction of East Cavalry Field, Hunterstown, and Brinkerhoff Ridge all mixed into one confusing, incomprehensible melee. Geez!

    Then they go off into how Stuart was suppose to attack the rear of the stonewall on Cemetery Ridge as Pickett's men came from the west. (Wouldn't they be firing into each other under that scenario? More Carhart fiction in my view.)

    Pickett marches out of the woods with his men, sword raised in air. It gave the impression that he marched with them.

    Right before a commercial break, they tried to leave you hanging on the edge of your seat by making the impression that Armistead and his men actually had a chance once they breached the wall. "The fate of the nation hung in the balance." How cheezy...

    Most interesting of all, the program concluded by saying that countless structures were destroyed or set ablaze. We then view a CGI shot of parts of the town ablaze! REALLY! Besides the Bliss Farm and perhaps one or two other buildings, was anything set on fire?

    The narration concluded by stating that it was very useful that the government put up those monuments when the war began. Otherwise, none of the regiments would have known where to form up. Amazingly, none of these monuments were damaged in the battle. The fate of a nation could have been very different had it not been for the strategic locations of these stone sentinels... (Okay, that wasn't in there.)

    The only consolation to this program is what followed it. There was a pretty good program on the Gettysburg Address which also featured stories of David Wills, Basil Biggs, and the aftermath. The only really major problem in that was all the trees were green in November.

    But wow, that first show truly was something...

  6. Thank you - I appreciate this information.
    It's so important that we all get the word out about this sort of BS, especially to the schoolkids.
    I must admit, though, that if I ever do get a chance, I will record this program and use it when a group of us gather one evening for a fun night of "spot the revision."

  7. Gee, I'm so glad I taped it. I only saw a couple minutes of it while it was taping and was able to pick out a few errors. I can overlook the one about Wesley Culp dying on Culp's hill because that is a pretty common mistake, but some of the mistakes are outrageous. I sensed it was going to be bad when I saw the birds eye view of Pickett's Charge - 20 or so Union Infantry running like hell from the 50 Rebs, all spread out, charging toward them. No artillery and no other infantry support. It was like watching a opening kick-off at a football game. It'd lead one to believe that the 69th, 71st and 72nd PA totaled about 30 men. On the good side, at least you could see a reb with a hat on his sword.

    I'm glad I read this post. I won't waste my time watching it.

  8. I might have to watch this just for some fun. I didn't know it was even coming on. Maybe it would help the show to get a Mystery Science Theater 3000 style mocking treatment.
    Thanks for the heads up,

  9. Sounds horrendous! In these frugal times, it is almost criminal that good money was wasted on this rubbish when such noble causes like the Civil War Preservation Trust seeks funding. Personally annoying is the fact that Buford and, consequently Myles Keogh, were whitewashed from Gettysburg.

  10. Would love to hear a comment from Scott Hartwig
    on how he got involved in this..

  11. JD,
    I'd Tivo'ed the program. After watching it once, while doing other things in the office, I was struck by several points in the "they can't possibly be serious" category. I'd even planned to replay it and go through section by section.

    You've saved me the trouble!

    I started rolling in the floor with the graphical depiction of Custer's charge. The script leads one to believe Custer was out there all by himself, with no support, and just waded into the unsuspecting Confederate column. Hum....

    Looking close at the graphics, it looks like to save some dollars, the animators just reused a depiction from a previous documentary on the Crusades. Richard the Lion Hearted vs. Saladin? Or Hampton vs. Custer? You decide.

  12. I couldn't sleep, so I was channel surfing among the late night ball games and movies when I stumbled onto this Friday night shortly after midnight. I was sound asleep within minutes...

    good cure for insomnia

  13. JD, I was complaining to Eric about this last night. He was smart enough not to watch it. Now I'm far from a G'burg expert and that show actually made me angry. I found myself telling the TV "No that is wrong!" I will say the overhead computer animations (a God’s-eye view of troops nearing the stone wall) were cool and could add a lot to depict engagements, but the fake explosion overlays and animated Lincoln was terrible. Clearly one of the worst documentaries I've seen and VERY disappointing to say the least.

  14. I actually thought the CGI Lincoln was kinda neat...

  15. JD,
    Finally got to see the documentary in its entirety today. It was truly horrible ,just horrible. It is one of the worst I have ever seen on the Civil War. The acting was truly horrendous which makes one appreciate the competent acting in 'Gettysburg' by Berenger, Ellott, Daniels etc. The battle depiction was almost entirely fictional. It really was as bad as you said it was. This gives people a totally distorted picture of the battle. I can't believe some of the historians they managed to wrangle in and how embarassed most of them must have been when they so the finished product. Carhart might have liked it. But his depiction of Stuart and Pickett's Charge is wrong, wrong, and wrong. What an absurd premise. No mention of the psition of the 6th Corps in relation to stopping Pickett's Charge! No mention of Longstreet by name! No mention of Sickles! Where was Buford? That documentary is really almost insane.

  16. I watched as much of this program as you did and had the same reaction. These are errors that a third-grader skimming a history textbook wouldn't make. And it looked like the show had pretty good production values too, so what gives?