Distorting Gods and Generals

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In
a recent
review of Gods and Generals
, Mackubin Thomas Owens describes
Ronald Maxwell's prequel to Gettysburg as a "Blue-Gray
reconciliationist" and "Lost Cause" interpretation.
The reconciliationist interpretation involves "focus[ing] almost
exclusively on the sacrifices of the soldiers, avoiding questions
of culpability or the right and wrong of the causes." The Lost
Cause interpretation means "that the war was not about slavery,
but u2018states rights.'"

I
beg to differ.

Gods
and Generals is reconciliationist only insofar as Maxwell doesn't
demonize either side; this isn't a Noble North vs. Serpentine South
or Divine Dixie vs. Bluecoat Barbarians movie. The film's protagonists,
Union colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Confederate general
Thomas Jackson, are men of integrity who act on their convictions.

Maxwell
hardly ignores questions of culpability and justness of cause, however,
which are central to Gods and Generals. When a Union sergeant
tells Chamberlain of friends on the other side, he responds that
he too has friends among Confederates — "and enemies."
Chamberlain later justifies the war as an abolitionist cause.

On
the other side, Jackson prescribes no quarter for the Union soldiers
who would "desecrate our land." He tells his troops that
"we [will] never allow the armies of others to march into our
state and tyrannize our people."

Regarding
the loaded Lost Cause charge, yes, Maxwell dares to note Jackson
and Robert E. Lee's regional patriotism that motivated their choice
of sides. In another scene, Irish Confederates criticize their Union
peers for learning nothing from England's occupation of Ireland
— thus viewing themselves in an anti-imperial struggle.

Pro-Lincoln
historian James McPherson has noted this theme of self-determination
among Confederate soldiers
:

The
Confederate soldiers were basically fighting for the independence
of what they called their country, the Confederate States of
America, and they really harked back to the model of the American
Revolution in 1776. In 1776 Americans had declared their independence
of the British Empire – had seceded, if you will, from the British
Empire in the name of liberty, establishing independent, free,
government. The Confederate soldiers said they were doing the
same thing in 1861 – they were fighting for liberty, for self-government.
They were defending their country against invasion by what they
now considered to be an alien power that no longer represented
their interests.

But
Gods and Generals isn't mono-thematic in terms of "what
the war was about," and slavery figures just as importantly
as devotion to one's home. Would a Lost Cause movie include Chamberlain's
abolitionist monologue or a slave who blesses Union troops and states
her desire for freedom?

Owens
recognizes the anti-slavery dimension to Gods and Generals
but claims it's marginal. "While Jeff Daniels’s Joshua Chamberlain
is permitted to express the contrary idea that dismantling the Union
in order to protect the institution of slavery is wrong," he
writes, "his voice is largely drowned out [by Southerners such
as Jackson]."

On
the contrary, Maxwell films Chamberlain's monologue in such a way
that it almost drowns out those of Jackson and Lee. I believe most
viewers will agree this is one of the movie's central moments.

I
have different criticisms of Gods and Generals. Chiefly,
I think the battle scenes are too sanitized and have an ethereal
quality. There is carnage, but it's insufficiently awful.

As
a moral document, however, Gods and Generals is commendable.
Maxwell has illustrated the poly-thematic nature of this period,
recognizing a captive people's aspiration of deliverance as much
as the domestic allegiance fundamental to Confederate service.

Owens
refers to Gods and Generals being part of "popular history
and art [that] reflects a longing for some transplanted, heroic
place in the 19th century in which the troubling issues of race
and slavery are banished from the discussion." But Maxwell
hasn't banished these issues; he has included issues in addition
to race and slavery as part of his discussion.

Reasonable
people know inclusion isn't omission, but interpreters of 1861–1865
have a tendency to banish reason. Thankfully, Ronald Maxwell doesn't.

February
27, 2003

Myles
Kantor [send him mail]
is a columnist for FrontPageMagazine.com and president of the
Center for Free Emigration,
which agrees with Frederick Douglass that “It is a fundamental truth
that every man is the rightful owner of his own body.”

Myles
Kantor Archives


     

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