Tuesday, May 31, 2011

History Channel's "Gettysburg" - I have survived

Last night (Monday) I was driving late home from Gettysburg, and arrived home about 1am. Consequently, I wasn't able to watch the new "Gettysburg" show on History until this evening from my DVR. Like many of you, I've been fascinated by the comments I've seen about it on social media such as Facebook, blogs, and especially on History's Facebook page. Nearly without exception, the show has been roundly panned by everyone who has seen it.
First, I think it's fair to state something that others have said amidst the specific criticisms of the show: I still prepared to watch it with a sense of anticipation and hope. Being a three-time production consultant myself, and currently advising on the upcoming To Appomattox series, I'm keenly aware of the need for good Civil War and historical programming to keep interest in our Nation's past alive. All of us - the casually interested to the most informed scholars - desperately yearn for good historical programming and anxiously await the announcement of anything new. When History's Memorial Day showing of "Gettysburg" was announced, all with the expected production qualities of the Scott Brothers, I and many felt that perhaps something great was on the horizon.
My critique of the show follows below. First I will state my criticisms (which run the gamut of the historical narration to details such as uniforms, equipment and terrain) followed by what I perceived as good about the show. And there is a lot of good despite my comments below. I've placed time markers in front of each comment to mark the point in the show to which I'm referring. I know that others have picked up on many things that I don't mention here, and I admittedly let some things off.
So here goes:

Opening: Despite the fact that the armies did not meet by accident at Gettysburg, it is described as starting as a minor skirmish purely by accident.
1 min: The battle began along Knoxlyn Ridge 4 miles to the west of Gettysburg, but is said to have begun 1 mile west of Gettysburg (presumably at McPherson Ridge). By the time McPherson Ridge is the site of the main fighting, the battle had already gone on for about 2 hours along the 3 miles to the west. John Buford is never mentioned in the show, nor the fact that Federal cavalry began the battle with Harry Heth's division. The 'crossed rifles' emblem is seen on most Union headgear, an emblem not used by any in the Army until 1875, 10 years after the war was over.
8 min: Historian Garry Adelman states that the battle started purely by accident.
10 min: Ewell is said to have replaced Jackson upon Stonewall's death. Actually, Jackson's Corps was broken into two corps - one commanded by Ewell, the other by A.P. Hill (who is never mentioned in the show). Ewell is said to be Robert E. Lee's second-in-command. That was actually James Longstreet (which is mentioned only a couple times in passing during the show).
11 min: After the repulse from west and north of town, the Union soldiers are said to have retreated from Gettysburg. Actually, they retreat to and through the town, in which there is more fighting, before forming on the heights to the east and south of town. It is also stated the the Federals "have nowhere to go." It is implied that they are directionless with no one leading. You can probably guess that Winfield Hancock is likewise never mentioned in the show.
16 min: By 4:30, it is said the battle has gone on for 10 hours. Actually by 4:30, it has gone on for a little over 8 1/2 hours.
21 min: Confederates, surgeons etc. are seen carrying those cheap, inaccurate wooden lanterns that are sold to tourists and unsuspecting reenactors.
24 min: Union soldiers are seen digging what appear to be 6 foot-deep trenches on Cemetery Hill. Nothing of the kind took place.
27 min: In an attached commercial spot, Gettysburg citizen John Burns is said that while he fought with the Union Army, he "acted as a sharpshooter."
30 min: Federals, seen digging those 6 foot-deep trenches now on Culp's Hill, are said to be armed with a "new weapon" - the shovel. They are long-handled shovels. Troops on Culp's Hill actually constructed breastworks. Trenches you dig; breastworks you build. On Culp's Hill, Union troops actually piled logs, rocks and earth under the direction of George Green (gee, never mentioned in the show) into breastworks.
31 min: Ewell is said to have received orders at 9pm (sigh) to take both Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill (sigh and sigh). At least they mentioned the "if practical" disclaimer.
32 min: Adelman states that had the Rebs taken Culp's Hill, the Union Army would have had no choice but to "leave" the field. The battle would have been fought somewhere else. I'll leave this one open for the obvious debate.
33 min: The hollow base and grooves on the minie ball are said to give it stability in flight. With all the nice graphics showing the ammunition, wounds, and operation of artillery, it would have been more complete and accurate to say that actually the hollow base would expand at ignition, expanding the lead into the rifling grooves in the gun barrel, imparting spin to the bullet - hence the spiraling flight to make it straighter and longer. The hollow base in and of itself doesn't just give the bullet stability, which the graphic implied.
36 min: It is shown that by midnight on July 1, Meade had put the Federal line into its well-known "fish hook" formation from Little Round Top to Culp's Hill. In reality, Meade arrived on the battlefield that night sometime after midnight, and throughout the night and early morning got the line into a shorter formation that had not yet reached to Little Round Top.
38 min: It is described that in order for their bodies to be identified in case of death, soldiers would sew their names into their uniforms. "Dog tags" it is said, had not yet been invented. As to the latter, it was already actually pretty common for soldiers to purchase a commercially-made disc with their name, unit, hometown, etc. imprinted on it, which they carried on their person or wore around their neck. As to the former, soldiers also indeed sewed little tags on their clothing with their names - however, some genius on the production took it to mean that soldiers actually used thread and sewed their names - the actual letters of their names in thread - on their hats and such. Several soldiers in the scene are shown sewing those big names in thick white thread on their kepis, i.e. "J O H N S M I T H" etc. in big letters on their hats. In my 30 years of studying the Civil War I have never once seen that.
43 min: Barksdale, who is throughout the July 2 portion basically portrayed as carrying Longstreet's Assault all by himself, appears with jet-black hair and strange side whiskers. Barksdale actually had nearly shoulder-length snow white hair. This Barksdale, however, bears a striking resemblance to an older and fatter Judson Kilpatrick. That, or a reject from a Planet of the Apes fan convention.
44 min: It is stated that the Federal position cannot be scouted because "Lee's cavalry is missing." I think we all know the answer to this one. Cavalry, which is never portrayed at the battle in this show (although nearly 20,000 horsemen of both sides are present and fight several pitched battles at Gettysburg) is blamed for Longstreet's countermarch of July 2. Lee's cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart, actually only took just over half the cavalry with him on his ride. Lee still have several thousand cavalry with him at Gettysburg. And, it is said that Lee's cavalry is, on July 1, "12 miles to the south raiding supplies." Stuart and his riders are actually about 24 miles to the northeast, heading for Carlisle PA. And they're doing much more than raiding for supplies - I could of course go on for hours - but you get the idea. The show is happy to say several times that "Lee is blind on the battlefield."
45 min: It is stated that in order to issue orders to the front, Meade uses a "new innovation" - wig-wagging of flags. Apparently, that sure eliminates the need to use couriers I guess. And, the wig-wagging is based on "Morris Code." No, that's not a typo. Morris Code. I replayed the part several times to make sure the narrator actually said that. He did. It is stated that Meade had to use the flags because he was 3 miles away from the front during the battle. I guess he spent the battle at one of those cool diners nears the Maryland border I like to frequent on my visits to Gettysburg.
48 min: It is stated that Daniel Sickles, commander of the Union III Corps, was "recently acquitted of murder." The trial was three years prior to the battle. But it does sound more intriguing their way.
50 min: Barksdale, it is said, "sees that Sickles' mistake (in moving his men too far forward) has left the Union line vulnerable." There are many interesting comments throughout the show which show the evident prescience of so many commanders. Wait, an even better one is coming.
52 min: The "Rebel Yell" scene. I'm not sure where to begin. It's stated that each Confederate regiment "had its own distinctive version of the Rebel Yell." No, actually it was rather universal among the Confederate armies in the East and West. It was a distinctive "ki-i" yell that would curdle your blood. Several of the "Rebel Yells" shown in the show, however, sound more like soundtracks of Arab women hollering about the price of fruit going up in the town market. Lots of people have commented about this segment, and to say it's completely, utterly, and absolutely ridiculous is being kind.
58 min: It is Barksdale's Brigade alone that overwhelms Sickles' entire corps. This thread runs throughout the show - since only a few are highlighted on either side, the grand enormity of the battle is brought down to a much smaller scale. Anyone with little knowledge of Gettysburg watching this show would get no idea of the grandness of the scale of the actual battle.
60 min: It is stated that a Rebel cannon shot "severed" Sickles' leg. Actually, it crushed the lower bones of his leg, and it was amputated later.
62 min: Solid artillery shot is shown exploding when it hits the ground - as it is throughout the show. The graphic showing how artillery operates is actually pretty good - but the footage is almost entirely wrong. I've seen the comments of several artillery experts about this show, and let's just say it ain't complimentary...
63 min: A Union infantryman is seen aiming and shooting a Sharps carbine. Possible, yes, but so highly unlikely that it's out of place.
65 min: Rebs are seen shooting enemy that are wounded and lying on the ground. Sure, this happened of course, but it was necessary here? And what is the point?
75 min: "Medicine was in its infancy." Patently untrue, as the medical experts will tell you. Because the only thing talked about during the show is amputation, it's implied that surgeons new little else.
81 min: It is said that Pickett's Division is the "only fresh troops" that Lee has on July 3. Okay, tell that to Mahone, or.... well, sigh. Because the only Reb prisoners that Meade hasn't interviewed are Pickett's, it is said that "Meade suspects that Pickett will lead" any possible attack on July 3. Remember when I warned you that a better example of prescience was coming?
98 min: "100 Union cannon" are arrayed against Pickett's Charge. The artillerists who commanded the other 50 cannon in addition to those 100 must feel pretty left out right now.
100 min: Talking head Sean Rich (of "Pawn Stars" fame) shows up here. Oh, this guy is good. He tells everyone that it was very common to see artillerists' faces starting to bleed as they fired their guns. You see, Sean says, the percussion of the guns would cause the artillerists' internal organs to be ripped apart. My, that sounds uncomfortable. And if that didn't kill them, Sean proceeds to explain, their ear drums would explode and blood would start running out of their ears. So if artillerists all over a battlefield suddenly internally combusted into a bloody, gooey mess without explanation, I guess we now have our answer. Thanks, Sean. I need to work that little factoid into a future book somehow...
101 min: Apparently, as portrayed here, artillery crews stacked their cannon balls into neat little pyramids on the tops of black powder barrels beside their guns. Well, okay, I guess that would eliminate the need to bend over and pick them up off the ground, where those limber guys would just lay them willy-nilly.
102 min: Joseph Davis, who pretty much commands Pickett's Charge by himself, got his cowboy hat from one of those tourist shops in Gettysburg. Probably went shopping with Barksdale.
103 min: As shown throughout the production, cannon projectiles are simply rolled into the cannon barrels. No need to ram them in - just pick up a ball, and roll it down into the barrel. You know it hits the back of the barrel when you hear a distinctive "klunk." Simple.
112 min: I never knew that the fence along the Emmitsburg Road was held together with 10-inch lag bolts. They apparently save all that wasted effort cutting holes in posts for rail fences like on other battlefields.

General criticisms: These are legion. But suffice it to say that besides the historical narrative inaccuracies, the set locations in South Africa just don't pass for Gettysburg. The town looked more like it was a set from a 1950's B-Movie western. The terrain was horrible (since when was Gettysburg forested with vast amounts of pine and even the occasional sandy desert here and there?). And there was absolutely no mention of the cavalry fighting, nor many important commanders - Buford, any Federal infantry corps commander other than Sickles, A.P. Hill, or even Chamberlain (thought many admit that was refreshing). Officers all rode heavy draft horses (maybe that's all that's available in South Africa), and much of the equipment was non-historical. And because so much of the production was on so small a scale, and even narrated in that vein, no one would get the idea that Gettysburg was actually the enormous conflict that it was and ranged over so much territory.

Okay, so that's the Bad and the Ugly, how about the Good? I'm not ashamed to say I was captivated by the actual production value - the dramatics, the woundings, etc. - as was my wife during the few minutes she watched. I thought most of the acting was actually superior and engrossing. The fellow who portrayed Amos Humiston (that's Amos, not Lewis as he was once called) nearly brought me to tears. The only unsettling portrayal, I thought, was Joseph Davis - during Pickett's Charge he seemed to be a Christ-like figure, standing in the midst of evil mayhem. Perhaps that wasn't all that unintentional. Many of the woundings made me wince - I could almost feel them and they seemed quite real (more real had they not shown the smoke coming from the squibs and the Hollywood-esque big spurts of blood coming from many of them).

So my general impression? For accuracy, an F. Teaching the historiography of the battle? If there's an F-, this gets it. But History is trying. This is an exciting week for us Civil War nuts, with promising Civil War themed American Pickers (with my good buddy Erik Dorr and his Gettysburg Museum of History) and Pawn Stars (another of my favorite shows). The Sesquicentennial is a good time to be an American Civil War nerd.

And if this show gets people interested, then that's fabulous. It's up to those of us who know better to help people learn the truth. Maybe this will spur more interest in reenacting, and even help living historians to affirm their correct impressions. And if it brings more related programming, then I'm all for it - but let's hope that future shows are made under the close direction of folks who are recognized specialists in their field. The commentators on this show were not able to view the rest of the production, hence they can't be held responsible for how lousy it turned out to be. Hopefully it doesn't reflect on them, as it shouldn't. They all know better, and they wouldn't have allowed all of the inaccuracy to have been both filmed and narrated had they had the ability to direct it.

Kudos to History for keeping interest alive. Yes, general public understanding of the Battle of Gettysburg has just been set back a few decades, but that's happened before. It leaves the door open for all of us to right the wrongs - to discuss it, debate it, write about it, and read about it. And even to film it all over - better is coming, I assure you. Patience.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Peter Seaborg Award" Honorable Mention for The Complete Gettysburg Guide

Co-author Steve Stanley and I were notified today by Dr. Mark Snell, Director of the George Tyler Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University, that The Complete Gettysburg Guide received Honorable Mention for the 2010 Peter Seaborg Award. We are quite humbled and grateful for this honor, received among 35 nominees for 2010. Information about past winners, and information about the award itself, can be found here.

Thank you to Dr. Snell and the award staff for this very nice honor!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Scott brothers' "Gettysburg" on History channel, May 30

Yep, there's been a good deal of banter about the premier of a 2-hour docudrama called "Gettysburg," produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, on History channel this Memorial Day, May 30. Known for their well-deserved successes on the big screen, the Scotts appear to have brought their talents and skills to bear on the July 1863 battle to kick off History's commitment to programming for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

Lots of talk about the production indeed. I, like many, are eagerly anticipating the show. For one, it's good to see History actually get back to programming about... uh... history. History other than Ancient Aliens that is. I'm aware that shows like Swamp People and Ice Road Truckers have been immensely popular, but don't such programs belong on a separate channel? For the past several years I have been but one of a legion of voices, seemingly crying from the proverbial desert, that History get back to what it always did best - present programs about events that actually took place beyond five minutes ago.

For another, having "big" names such as the Scotts producing such a show seems to guarantee that it will have high production qualities. Such qualities are already evident in the two (that I am aware of thus far) trailer teasers that have been released on the internet and the channel itself. You can see lots of CGI, lots of artillery going off in the soldiers' faces, and captivating camera work. The budget for this production had to be considerable.

There is a lot of other talk about the show going around, however. The trailers have been quickly scrutinized for the accuracy of the uniform, equipment and scenery portrayals - in such productions dealing with anything about the Civil War, it's inevitable that amateur and professional historians will look closely to see if any egregious historical inaccuracies are evident.
And boy, there are actually quite a few seen in just the couple minutes' worth of the trailers.

In the trailer that can be seen on History's page here, a number of historical whoopsies show up. In the first few seconds, the Union soldier seen marching in column, then getting hit with a blast of artillery, is carrying his musket at shoulder-arms - but with the hammer at full cock. Not good. Dangerous and not regulation by any means.

A moment after that scene, a Union soldier is prominently featured wearing what appears to be a Hardee-style hat. On the front of his hat is pinned a brass insignia. Is it the familiar bugle? Nope. Perhaps the "US" insignia? Wrong again. Maybe his unit designation? Nuh-uh. On the hat can be seen the crossed rifles insignia. Not bad, if you ignore the well-known fact that the Army didn't begin using that particular insignia until 1875, ten full years after the end of the Civil War. During the Civil War, such an insignia hadn't even been imagined yet.

Another scene that just about everyone has been mentioning is the scene in which a Confederate soldier is seen climbing over a post-and-rail fence (perhaps the Emmitsburg Road fence during Pickett's Charge?) carrying the iconic Rebel battle flag. It's flapping in the humid breeze in all of its rectangular-shaped glory. So what's wrong with that, you say. Nothing, except for the fact that just about everyone who is well-versed in Gettysburg fact knows that the rectangular version of the flag was not carried or used by the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. The square version, yes ("the" battle flag). The rectangular version is the Second Confederate Navy Jack.

In a different, first trailer released by History, Union soldiers are seen jumping over what appears to be a poured concrete wall. What, at the historical battle, such a wall is intended to portray I haven't a clue. Hardee-style hats can also been seen with the incorrect side pinned-up.

These obvious inaccuracies can be seen in just the couple minutes of trailers, leading one to wonder what will be noted during the two hours of the full showing. Granted, folks with little or only a casual interest/knowledge of the Civil War or Gettysburg in particular will never notice such boo-boos. But for those who have noticed them, and roundly criticized them, the inaccuracies are leading to a couple questions: first, what (if any) historical consultants have been used for the production; and second, were actual reenactors used for the show?

The production is advertised as being made "in cooperation" with "several prominent Gettysburg historians." Their names, however, don't seem to be listed anywhere, and my search for them has turned up nothing. We may not know who these "historians" are until the credits roll at the end of the show. To be fair to whomever they may be, it could be that such historians were not consulted in the scenes that show the listed historical inaccuracies. Any historian of the period would assumedly have picked them out and corrected them pretty quickly.

The question about actual reenactors perhaps gets more the heart of the controversy. Say what you will about them (I am a reenactor in addition to an author/historian), nearly any Confederate reenactor who has been in the "hobby" for any decent length of time would know that the rectangular, Navy Jack battle flag would never be carried during any depiction involving Gettysburg. And any Union reenactor worth his salt (salt pork?) would know in a millisecond that the crossed-rifles insignia is incorrect for the period. You only see such insignia on those Chinese-made crappy children's kepis that are sold in stores geared for tourists (the ones beside the plastic rifles with rubber bayonets). And even the least experienced reenactor knows better than to march in column, at shoulder arms, with his musket on full cock.

That is why everyone is assuming that very few or no actual reenactors were used during the filming. It is being assumed, because of what is seen in these trailers, that volunteers or actors with no reenacting experienced were dressed up in uniforms and given their respective roles.

Because of the high and impressive production values that a team like the Scotts obviously bring to the show, one hopes that the accuracy will also be high. Over the past few years, we buffs, historians, and afficianados have had to suffer through some really lousy Gettysburg and Civil War productions. One that quickly comes to mind is the Military Channel's absolute dog of a show Gettysburg: The Battle That Changed America. This hour-long, painfully and horribly inaccurate drivel pops up every now and again, forcing folks who know anything about Gettysburg to resist the temptation to draw a nice warm bath and open up their veins. During just the first couple minutes of this festering pile of ridiculousness, the battle of Gettysburg supposedly opened when a small Confederate unit, minding their own business as they walked along a road near the town, were ambushed and fired upon by Federal infantry. And the Confederate infantry that opened the battle is purported to be that of Richard Ewell's Corps. It actually gets worse after that. The principal historical consultant on the show was reportedly Tom Carhart, which actually explains a great deal. Carhart knows so little about the facts of Gettysburg, I'm not sure that he even knows in which state it took place. His fictional fantasy about Gettysburg Lost Triumph - Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg and Why It Failed tries to be a non-fiction work but does not rise to the challenge. Where there are no supporting facts, Carhart simply fabricates them, and apparently he did the same for the Military Channel show. I've always felt that if the CIA wanted to interrogate me, they needn't resort to waterboarding; just the mere threat of making me watch that show again would crack me like a songbird.

Back to History's Gettysburg. I join those who say that regardless of the obvious inaccuracies seen in the trailers, with the expectation of many more to be seen, if the high production values and captivating presentation brings many to want to study the battle, the war and the period, then it will have value. When inaccuracies are shown and become engrained in the audience's perceptions, however, it sets back the clock of teaching true history a couple decades or more. I don't think those silly crossed-rifles insignias will start showing up at reenactments, and soldiers won't begin thinking it's proper to march in formation at full-cock, but when these issues come up they will provide teaching moments. Sure, visitors to Little Round Top still ask rangers and Guides why Buster Kilrain's name isn't on the 20th Maine's monument, but in the grand scheme of things little harm is done by relatively minor historical boo-boos and dramatic license. If we can bring more folks to want to learn history - especially our children - then we work to explain the errors and move on to what's important. History. Real history.

I applaud the History channel for bringing this production to what promises to be a wide audience. Yes, I may be wincing every few minutes at something I see, and even watching with one eye closed at times, but unless we can ever actually take our cameras back in a time machine to 150 years ago, it'll never be perfect. Based on what we've seen lately, maybe for now it's just enough to hope that what we start seeing is better than what we've been getting.

Oh, did I address the modern rock music that accompanies the trailers? Let's leave that subject for my post-show review...

UPDATE: As seen in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, above is a screen shot of a soldier from the show. Note the Hardee hat with the wrong side pinned up. And the crossed rifles insignia on the front of it. Oy.