'Gettysburg' Review: History Channel's Hit and Miss

Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the opening hostilities of the Civil War, the History Channel is offering up a bevy of programming which kicked off Sunday with the two-hour documentary Gettysburg. Executive produced by brothers Ridely and Tony Scott, it offers a very personal account of the war taken from the perspective of the "boots on the ground" so to speak who fought (and died) during those terrible first three days in July 1863. As an unapologetic Civil War “buff” I was looking forward to this episode. I was especially psyched as the Gettysburg campaign is my focus of study and I’ve walked the battlefield many times. I was not disappointed with the Scotts’ program…and yet I was at the same time.



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First of all, about the show itself: Gettysburg takes us through the three-day battle starting us at around 9:00am on July 1, 1863 and then focuses on several key moments throughout the see-saw fighting that would ravage the town and the surrounding countryside, leaving 55,000 casualties in its wake. It follows several men on the front lines, from foot soldiers to generals. Some live, some die. Each has a story to tell and we see the raw terror mixed with unimaginable bravery that such battles summoned. It also shows the ghastly wounds that were a horrible consequence of modern weapons meeting outdated line tactics of the day. The program is also quite effective at showing this to be a savage affair (including a graphic depiction of a Union soldier splitting a rebel’s skull with his rifle butt that had me cringing.) If Gettysburg’s purpose was, as the History Channel’s website announces, to “strip away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light—a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience” then it does the job.

There were, however, disappointments that I really didn’t expect. First is the heavy reliance on re-enactors despite the liberating aspect of modern CGI. (Perhaps budgetary constraints were in play here). Re-enactors are great for replaying tiny segments of the battle, and the consultants must have paid particular attention to the grime and filth, even the tattered uniforms, so prevalent among un-bathed Civil War soldiers in the field. But like the Turner feature film of the same name almost two decades earlier, the numerical limits of available play-actors means that these depictions are hopelessly under-populated. According to the June 30 rolls, a combined 185,000 soldiers (105,000 Union, 80,000 Confederate) were in the area. This means that massive infantry formations and rows of artillery lined hub-to-hub were engaged. For example, the Confederate line of battle that assaulted the Union position on Herr’s Ridge at the very beginning of the still-developing fight was almost a mile wide. (And that was just two brigades. Three to five brigades made up a Confederate division, three divisions a corps, three corps made up the Army of Northern Virginia). Indeed, Gettysburg was one of the few open field battles where entire mass formations were in plain view at once creating what one Alabama soldier described as “a grand panorama with the sounds of conflict added.”



Considering the Scotts’ involvement I was expecting more CGI to be employed so we could actually see, for instance, what the rebel force of 12,000 men arrayed for battle in their doomed July 3 assault must have looked like from the Union lines a mile away. Union Lieutenant Frank Haskel stood in awe on Cemetery Ridge as the enemy approached, describing it as “an overwhelming, resistless tide of an ocean of armed men sweeping upon us!” The personal angle of the documentary does create intense drama and poignant emotion, but it fails to impress upon the viewer the sheer enormity of this titanic battle that was the greatest ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.

I also tried to imagine watching Gettysburg from the perspective of one unfamiliar with the battle and I think I would have found it confusing. For instance, there was little back-story explaining why Lee invaded the North in the first place, what the stakes were (other than they were “high”), or why they ended up fighting at Gettysburg despite the fact that neither Lee nor Meade chose the field (other than a brief allusion to the roads coming together there). Why were Lee’s plans upset? Why had Meade only been in command for four days? What caused the Union retreat on day one when it starts off depicting the victorious charge to the railroad cut by Rufus Dawes’ 6th Wisconsin? Also why focus just on Mississippi brigadier William Barksdale on the southern flank on July 2 (the bloodiest of the three days) without better explaining where he fit into the plan of attack? Brave as he was, Barksdale was one brigade commander in an assault that employed twelve brigades. Honestly, if I didn’t know the battle, I would have been at a loss as to the big picture. It‘s almost as if the producers and historians, so caught up in enthusiasm for the project, forgot that most people don’t know the story of the battle in depth and could have used a general tutorial to go along with the individual experiences. (They might have taken a page from the 1970s British WW2 television series The World At War which perfectly balances strategic/tactical overviews with personal narratives).

Finally, the music really annoyed me after a while. It was the same sort of soundtrack one hears in those cable channel ghost story documentaries. Really.

Yeah, yeah maybe I’m nit-picking. And who I am to second-guess such noted historian contributors as James McPherson (Battle Cry Of Freedom) and others? But I call ‘em like I see ‘em. Gettysburg certainly does a remarkable job giving us a front row seat at North America's biggest clash of arms and kudos on that score. But if I didn’t already know the details of the battle, I would have come away thoroughly entertained but not necessarily educated.

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