Distorting Gods and Generals

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


Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts