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.


  1. Thanks a bunch for posting this. It's pretty much, point-by-point, my grippe with it.

    Two things of note: 1) Gary Adelman and Tim Smith are *BIG* on the Baltimore Pike = winning the battle idea. They make some convincing arguments and, like stuff that Troy Harman says, is fun to think about. :)

    2) Joseph Davis, who lead the 30 or so men of Pickett's Charge, was incredibly filthy and covered in mud, which is astonishing for being the commander of the only fresh troops around. I mean, seriously, the guy was squalid.

    Also noticed the lag bolts. For some reason, it was *that* that made me yell "OH COME ON!" Yeah, lag bolts, of all things...

    However, the whole thing was worth it for the Geiko reenactors commercial.


  2. A very good, well-thought-out commentary. I, too was marveling at the inanity of describing the shovel as a "new invention" and the soldiers embroidering their names on their uniforms!

    But I think that at the end, you let the History Channel off the hook a bit. Sure, it's great that they're keeping an interest in history alive. But the fact remains that the History Channel has been around for a long time and really ought to be a whole lot better at its job than this.
    They couldn't cover everything, of course, but leaving out several key commanders and just about ALL of the cavalry is inexcusable, especially for a show that ran 2 hours long.
    They should really be ashamed to have put this on, no matter how much they had spent on it (which was probably the deciding factor).
    If you're going to have an outfit called the History Channel, you ought to have - oh, maybe a few historians on staff to oversee production?

  3. Well written. Nothing I can add....except "On To Appomattox!"


  4. The terrain was absolutely horrible.

    Outside of expecting to see a lion chase down a gazelle near the unfinished railroad cut with Elmer Bernstein's national geographic theme song playing as backround music, the terrain behind Seminary Ridge seemed exceptionally high.


  5. LOL Frank! Yes, I too felt that the terrain of South Africa was much better suited for an episode of "Wild Kingdom." The terrain behind both Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge was much too high. For instance, when the Federal cannon are shown firing against the infantry of Pickett's Charge, the cannon are up against a very high bank/hill. No such terrain on the battlefield there, of course.

  6. Terry, I am a bit kind here to History Channel, but I recognize they're a business. They have to make money to stay in business - that means advertisers and production revenue. Probably very few, if anyone, on the channel's staff are even historians themselves. They rely on the folks who create the programs to make it right. I truly doubt there are experts in many historical fields who actually work at the channel. So that's why I give them credit for trying. We want good programming - and hardly anyone else right now, during the Sesquicentennial, is even doing any CW programming. So, we have what we have. It stinks, but we have what we have :)
    Hopefully it gets folks interested to learn more - and learn what REALLY happened.

  7. Well...it's not like the History Channel is "error-free" on their other programs either. I watch a lot of their stuff and I'm usually sitting there saying, "Wait, that's not right. Is it?"

    And I'm not any kind of a historian, either.

    Thanks JD, for a great review. At least now I'll be able to say, "Yeah, someone else saw that too."

  8. Agree with most of your comments, but two sentences stand out: "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." Thousands of people probably saw this show with little or no prior knowledge of the battle and were fascinated by it, while we sit here and nit pick at the mistakes. Get out there an educate those interested and teach them the what really happened and the meaning of it all.

  9. Hi JD,
    I too sat through it... I have wrestled with my thoughts ever since then.. Even after I posted my thoughts on my Facebook page.. There has been something nagging at me about it... And I havent figured it out yet. Maybe its because the Battle of Gettysburg, that I know and still study is so far different then the one they portrayed.
    Thanks Bro for a spot on analysis..

  10. Great review!

    Thanks for posting,

  11. I also meant to mention that on the historian front I disagreed with Carmichael that Pickett's Charge was 'well thought out' and had a reasonable chance of success. I think it was one of Lee's worst planned out decisions since Malvern Hill. Maybe if all of Alexander's artillery had hit their targets something could have happened.

    But the whole Union 6th Corps would have swept the Confederates away at the Angle without any ample reserves to back them up once Armistead had broken through.

  12. Great article, JD. We haven't seen it yet on this side of the world but I can now watch it using the pause button and a print-out of your timefame above - all the more interesting & educational! Really, no Buford? #sigh#

  13. JD,
    Thanks for a great run-down of the show. I agree with your comment about those of us who have studied the various aspects of the Civil War being put into the position of giving accurate information to those that attend the various events. Unfortunately, I have been to many events where the re-enactors know less than those who are attending. I understand that not everything can be period correct at every event, but those of us who attend the re-enactments, living history events, school programs, etc, must be knowledgeable. I am hoping to take part in some of the living history during the Shenandoah Valley events next year -- primarily Port Republic and Cross Keys -- and I am already working on my impression. Yes, this is a great time for us, but maybe the event coordinators should do a bit of research about those that they allow the public to speak with.

  14. I enjoyed reading your review but strongly objected to you implying that Gary Adelman was wrong. He has been a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg National Military Park since 1995!!!!!! Do you realise that you have to pass an EXTREMELY tough 2-part exam to become a Licensed Battlefield Guide!!!!???? There is a reason why HE was on the show and not "somebody" else...

  15. I'm quite aware of the test - in fact, some of my work had led to questions on it, and one of my books is on the Recommended Reading List for the Guide Exam.
    I'm sure even you would agree that one being an LBG does not automatically make one infallible.
    Having said that, I respect Garry greatly. He is a friend. Of the things I've mentioned here, I am not alone - many others on blogs, Facebook, etc. have questioned many of the comments made by Garry and others on the show.
    If you feel that some folks are never wrong in anything they say, or that somehow a certain person's opinions are never up for debate, that's your choice. Me, I choose to continue learning and I don't think there's anyone alive who knows everything about everything.

  16. Additionally - I will also say that I am QUITE happy that I was not associated with this program, as is every single other historian I've spoken with, without exception.

    Please, also - anyone who wishes to make comments here must follow my one rule other than keeping it civil: post your real name. Alias will cause you to be deleted, and your ISP blocked. Thank you.

  17. I agree. Just because someone passes the Battlefield Guide test does not make them infallible. It is fun for people to have different opinions on the battle and to discuss them in an intelligent manner.

  18. Thanks a bunch for your input, Mr. Petruzzi!! I actually thought Barksdale looked like Wolverine from the X-Men. And during the rebel yell segment, I was waiting for Jeff Foxworthy to step out from behind some trees and tell some redneck jokes. Eric Wittenburg has some very interesting thoughts about this History Channel disaster on his website. Nice job on the Gettysburg Guide!

  19. Thank you Alex! Yes, I saw Eric's comments, and we spoke about the show after it aired. He only made it 45 minutes in, right when the narrator said that Lee had "no" cavalry and was completely blind :)
    I have also heard others say Barksdale looked like Wolverine (he did) and that Rebel Yell segment really made me wince and - in fact - I didn't post it here, but I thought it was actually quite insulting to Confederate soldiers and southerners in general. I guess when you employ British/South African reenactors to act as caricatures, that's exactly what you get.

  20. I was waiting for the "Saving Private Ryan" approach to this crapumentary. In addition, I was hoping the Scott Brothers would redeem Turner's sappy, sanitized version with Santa Claus as the Confederate picket at the beginning of the movie. Well, as Edmund Dantes says as the Count of Monte Cristo: "God will give me justice!"

  21. "Crapumentary" LOL - thanks Alex, I now have a new word in my vocabulary.

  22. There has been grumbling in some circles about folks who have mentioned LBG Garry Adelman's comments in this production. As can be plainly seen here, I only mention a couple of his comments, and then state that basically it's up to the viewer to make their own minds up about what he said. As for the "battle began by accident" comment, all I do here is state that he said it. That is a point, of course, that is roundly debatable. To explain: By the late evening of June 30, Buford was well aware of the positions of all three of Lee's corps, especially that of AP Hill only a short distance west of town. Buford suspected he would be attacked the next morning (which he was of course). Pettigrew found the force in Gettysburg to be an element of the AOP, and passed that on to Heth and Hill - who dismissed it, but was therefore aware of some force in town. Heth intended to brush it away the next day, and Hill approved. So, for decades to say that the battle began by "accident" and for some to imply (and I'm not saying that Garry intended this) that the armies simply bumbled and stumbled into each other on July 1 is most certainly open to debate. Such is the information you often find in those bad coffee table books we're all familiar with.
    As to the contention that the AOP must "leave" if Culp's Hill fell to the ANV, that also is roundly debatable. Same for Little Round Top. If either fell, would Meade pick up and leave? The point is not debatable? It most certainly is, and there are a multitude of variants and possibilities to consider.
    So in the end, I only mention such statements here and simply leave the answers up to the viewer. I've seen others on blogs, Facebook etc. be very stern in their comments about Garry's performance - some to the point of being insulting. I was nothing of the kind here and I never have been. If someone sees anything "wrong" with my statements here, they need to get a thicker skin. Over the years I have taken my share of criticisms - most all of them warranted. I've gotten many things wrong and have said some really stupid things when I was misinformed or had the incorrect information or research. I readily admit that. If anyone thinks they're infallible when it comes to history, or goes around thinking they know everything there is to know about, say, Gettysburg, I truly think they need a reality check.

  23. The History Channel has long since...in my mind...ceased being anything other than "just another cable channel."

    This program wouldn't pass a freshman American History class at the University of Hawai'i!

  24. Thank you for your detailed, measured, and thoughtful commentary. I am far from well-informed on the battle, but I was shocked at the absence of Buford and so many other major commanders. And while funny, the error in the Geico commercial was particularly annoying since an ancestor of mine gave the ultimate sacrifice in the first assault on Culp's Hill, not "Club's Hill." I agree that the overall impact of the History Channel's efforts will likely be positive. Hopefully, interested people will stumble on excellent blogs like yours to get an education on how Hollywood's rendering of historical matters needs to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

  25. It's sad though, especially for those of us who remember when the History Channel first started. I for one remember the "Movies Vs History" they used to do. Obviously I'm not sure how much the professors at the time actually knew, but it was great how they would stop the film, have someone point out the inaccuracies and tell the real history and return to the film. I guess the reason you can't do that today is that when Valkyrie (just picking the latest example that annoyed me, but you could insert King Arthur or Troy or Alexander or a number of movies) is giving you millions of advertising dollars, they don't want people questioning the history behind the movie.

    The only point I don't blame them too much for is the "battle started by accident" line, since it is one of the great myths that Heth was looking for shoes. Of course Heth was also the one who started that Myth.

  26. I saw that special, and although intriguing, I definitely see some of your points. I thought that a few things were described out of context. Cool blog!

  27. It was pretty terrible, I agree. Frankly, I was more angry about the baffling errors of omission than the things they got wrong. How can you talk about Gettysburg without mentioning Stuart, Hancock, A.P. Hill, Buford, Reynolds, etc.? Even Longstreet got a passing mention at best.