Entry 15 (Part 2): Is Gettysburg a Lost Cause Film?


“We should have freed the slaves, then fired on Fort Sumter.”

This is the line–spoken by Longstreet to Fremantle–that has haunted historians and fans of Gettysburg for 22 years. It’s built on so much faulty and potentially pro-Confederate history, some viewers see it as a clear sign Gettysburg is a Lost Cause film, plain and simple. Maxwell’s disastrous prequel, Gods and Generals, reinforced this view by depicting its Confederate characters through a clearly Lost Cause lens. It’s evident Gettysburg draws some of its inspiration from pro-Confederate myths, but I’ve always thought its overall approach to the Civil War is more nuanced. I kept this in mind during my recent viewing in an attempt to answer one of the central questions revolving around this movie: Is Gettysburg a Lost Cause film?

Clearly, one of the reasons Maxwell gave Gettysburg such a long running time was to ensure he had enough room to explore the stated causes of both sides. This is especially evident in the film’s first half, during which several characters openly debate or explain why they’re fighting. Maxwell appears to have decided to let both sides speak for themselves and not overtly endorse one interpretation or the other. I probably wouldn’t have done it this way but, for the purposes of this analysis, let’s take it at face value and assume the script’s sympathies never rise beyond subtext.

There are two significant aspects of the film that at least partially refute accusations of Lost Cause bias. The most obvious is that it depicts a major Union victory. Most writers seek to marry their setting with their thematic point of view, and the basic fact that the North wins the day–and gets the last live-action image, with Chamberlain and his brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell) embracing–ostensibly endorses the cause and point of view of those characters. This is especially significant because the script positions Chamberlain as the North’s primary spokesman, and Chamberlain’s point of view is decidedly emancipationist.

Indeed, the focal point of the film’s first quarter is Chamberlain’s speech defining what he thinks the war is about. He gives it to a group of “mutineers” he’s persuading to join the 20th Maine and it’s very moving. Some credit surely goes to Daniels’s excellent performance but the script (lifted almost verbatim from Shaara’s novel) also deserves praise. Chamberlain is partially an audience surrogate (compared to other characters, he speaks and acts much more like someone from the 20th century), so one could argue his point of view represents our own. In short, he states the Army of the Potomac is a historical anomaly because its purpose is solely to “set other men free.” He implies emancipation is the primary goal of the northern war effort and, in essence, the only cause worthy of his loyalty. “What we’re fighting for, in the end, is each other” Chamberlain concludes. This last sentence not only advocates racial equality but echoes the anti-aristocracy egalitarian subtext I noted in my last entry. The North’s second most prominent character, Kilrain, is even more opposed to class divisions, although he doesn’t care as much about race. When Chamberlain asks him about slavery, Kilrain admits he hasn’t thought about it much but then declares he is fighting for the right to be seen as the equal of any man. This accurately places both men well within the “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” ideology of 19th Century Republicanism, even if it undersells Union as a war aim.

However, once the film moves past these early statements by Chamberlain and Kilrain, the northern cause (although, not northerners themselves) largely disappears. Instead, we get several scenes inside the camps of Pickett’s Division that prominently feature debates over the causes of secession. James Kemper (Royce D. Applegate) does most of the heavy-lifting, lamenting to Fremantle that northerners can’t stop focusing on “the darkies, the darkies–always the darkies!” while the South only wants to free itself from a perceived “occupation by a foreign power.” In the most intense such scene, Pickett compares the Union to “a gentleman’s club” and justifies secession by insisting that any man would have the right to leave such a club if the other members starting prying into his personal affairs. The aristocratic overtones of the metaphor might undermine Pickett’s argument but the film’s inability to fully connect its anti-aristocracy message with its Confederate characters makes such an interpretation obscure.

Indeed, it’s Gettysburg‘s unapologetic focus on the officer class that, in the end, makes it so easy to align it with the Lost Cause. Part of the reason Maxwell dispenses with the ideology behind the war before the movie’s halfway point is because he wants to depict the war as a self-propelled engine–eating up everyone it encounters despite the efforts of those in command (Lee and Longstreet, especially) to end it. In this scenario, the cause no longer really matters because war becomes its own cause–one perfectly suited to Lee and Longstreet, who are depicted as existing outside of politics. Both overtly say so–admitting at different points that their only cause is victory. Indeed, one could argue Longstreet serves as a second audience surrogate: an apolitical figure who understands the futility of modern warfare and the apparent meaninglessness of political and ideological issues once the killing starts.

But the Civil War was an ideological war, as its end result proves. The North won, so slavery died and the Union survived. What’s more, Lee, Longstreet, and most of the Confederate officers depicted in the film were not simply societal outsiders called upon to defend a new nation they supported only through duty. They all owned slaves and were immersed in the social and economic system slavery created in the South. Chamberlain may well begin the movie by telling his men (and through them, us) that slavery was the primary cause of the war, but Maxwell’s Confederate characters repeatedly tell us this was not so and the film doesn’t do much to contradict them. By having Longstreet state the historical non-sequitur quoted at the top of this article, Maxwell tries to make his hero more sympathetic by removing him from the context of slavery, just as Point of Honor and Cold Mountain do with their protagonists. But it’s even more problematic here. Longstreet, Lee, and their comrades did believe in slavery, potentially just as much as the film’s version of Chamberlain believed in freedom. Indeed, many Confederates in the ranks and the officer corps paid the ultimate price to preserve the only system of labor and societal organization they had ever known. I understand every single Confederate soldier wasn’t constantly motivated to fight by a desire to keep African Americans enslaved, but it was certainly a motivating factor and this film largely ignores that fact. I’m not going to label Gettysburg a Lost Cause film, but I do think it may have been better if, instead of moving ideology to the background in favor of a narrative about the monstrous nature of war, the script took more time to explore how its characters reconciled their beliefs with the carnage those beliefs was creating around them.

Additional Additional Dispatches

  • I realize a lot of the aspects of the film I’ve written about in this entry come directly from The Killer Angels, so maybe it isn’t fair to judge the script by its source material. I do plan on re-reading Shaara’s book with similar questions in mind.
  • I could have done a whole other entry on Chamberlain and Longstreet as audience surrogates. You could easily argue that both represent the most sympathetic modern views of each side. Chamberlain is the courageous middle-class northerner fighting to end slavery and create an egalitarian America, while Longstreet is an almost supernaturally-gifted southern soldier who is fighting only for some vague sense of honor and duty with little concern for slavery.
  • So, did it mention slavery? As I said above, yes but in opposing ways that the script never fully reconciles. It also never gives us any sense of how African Americans felt about the war. Chamberlain takes in a runaway early in the film but the script doesn’t give the freedman any lines.

Next Entry: A bonus 3rd(!) post on Gettysburg.




  1. ursinuselectrus · August 30

    Hi folks! Seems I am very late to this party but I just finished watching Gettysburg and you seem to be the only one talking about this (congrats)

    You make a lot of good points and your analysis of the audience / character relationship is really astute but what do you think of the tone of the movie as a whole?

    It strikes me as overbearingly pro-Confederate; not judging by which side has the most admirable people delivering eloquent monologues (as the score swells triumphantly), but by an honest measure of screen time. We spend far more time with Lee, Longstreet, & Pickett than we do with Chamberlain or Sam Elliot. Maxwell is placing us in the Confederate camp. Literally. Compare the near 3/4 hour we spend with the Virginians before they charge to the five minutes we see of the American soldiers preparing for said charge.

    Interested to hear your thoughts

    • Christian McWhirter · August 30

      Thanks for the comment. I’m always glad to see people are still reading this blog.

      I think you’re right that the disproportionate amount of time we spend with Confederate characters gives the film a Lost Cause tone, but I’ll revive the same premise I applied when I wrote this post (holy crap, has it been 3 years already?) and assume Maxwell’s intention was to be impartial. With that in mind, I still think the issue is that the script assumes viewers adhere to Chamberlain’s belief system, thus making any further exploration of his motivation beyond his speech unnecessary. Maxwell spends more time with the Confederates because their motivations are more foreign to us and require further exploration. I’m not sure Maxwell comes to the right conclusions about Confederate motivation, but I think his desire to explore them at least answers your question about relative screen time and thereby unintentionally fosters a Lost Cause tone.

  2. Linda Rollins · May 31, 2016

    Lee was NOT pro slavery. He freed the ones he inherited albeit later on.

  3. kacinash · July 2, 2015

    I find your observation that Maxwell depicts the war as a “a self-propelled engine–eating up everyone it encounters despite the efforts of those in command” very apt! I had not really thought of it like that before. Longstreet even says, “This war comes as a nightmare. You pick your nightmare side, just put your head down and win.” At this point, cause doesn’t even matter.

    I think Shaara’s choice to make Chamberlain an emancipationist was an interesting one. From what I know of the man, his war aims were more on preserving the Union than freeing the slaves. The significance of emancipation, to him, was that it meant more men for the ranks.

    Despite Chamberlain’s speech, slavery is remarkably absent in the film, as you noted. We don’t see the Confederate army re-enslaving free blacks and self-emancipated slaves. Instead, we get Longstreet’s insistence that slavery is so incidental to the cause, they should have been freed before the war began. Even when we are shown a “John Henry,” he is given no voice. He is just used as a way to elevate the Union cause and the show that Chamberlain’s speech rang true. (I am glad for the fictional Kilrain, whose free soil outlook feels more in line with the views of the average Union soldier. It’s also interesting that he is the only main character who is not an officer.)

    Aside from the slavery/cause issue, there are a few more remnants of the Lost Cause myth, such as the saintlike depiction of Lee. This film definitely adheres to the elevation of Lee to a god-like figure, most especially shown in that infamous (and, I’ll admit, goosebump-inducing) scene where Lee’s men surround him and chant his name while someone waves the Confederate battle flag in the background.

    There is also a sense of the inevitability of the Confederate defeat with the depiction of the battle itself as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, from which point the Confederate Army was in route to nothing but its surrender. Even Union general Buford seems to allude to this in his brilliantly over-the-top and quotable speech: “It’s as if . . . it were already done and already a memory. An odd, set, stony quality to it. As if tomorrow has already happened, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The way you sometimes feel before an ill-considered attack knowing it will fail, but you cannot stop it. You must even take part and help it fail.” It seems like an allusion to the Lost Cause. Or maybe I am reading too much into things, as I often do.

    • Christian McWhirter · July 2, 2015

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’ll just offer one comment about Lee, because I’ve always been intrigued by the film’s (and book’s) depiction of him. You’re absolutely correct that it adopts a near-hagiographic characterization of him as a man, but it also completely subverts the popular image of him as a military genius. In order to explain how Lee lost the battle, Maxwell makes Lee almost seem like an absent-minded blunderer, leaving the viewer wondering how this guy was previously so successful. It’s so in love with Longstreet that he comes across as the true military genius of the Army of Northern Virginia, with Lee passively placing his fate and that of his army in the hands of God and outdated military theory. If I’m remembering correctly, the book goes even further on this score. It’s an interesting mix of Lost Cause myth-making and the growing anti-Lee camp among some 20th-century military historians.

      • Andy Hall · July 2, 2015

        Maxwell makes Lee almost seem like an absent-minded blunderer, leaving the viewer wondering how this guy was previously so successful. It’s so in love with Longstreet that he comes across as the true military genius of the Army of Northern Virginia, with Lee passively placing his fate and that of his army in the hands of God and outdated military theory.

        I’ve never thought this film made Lee look good or, for that matter, explain his troops’ love for him. It’s left to the viewer simply to accept that he’s a beloved military genius. As you say, this film makes him look like a passive milquetoast, swept along by events he does not actually control.

      • Christian McWhirter · July 2, 2015

        In the book, Lee’s potential heart attack has diminished his mind, but Maxwell cuts this in his script.

      • Andy Hall · July 2, 2015

        That makes more sense, and is not implausible.

  4. Andy Hall · July 2, 2015

    It’s a beautiful movie to watch, in many ways, and in some spots uses a fictional conversation to more concisely depict characters’ views and actions. But when the film gets into characters’ motivations, or their perception of causes of the war, it’s an ahistorical mess. Longstreet’s corps countenanced the seizure of African Americans in Maryland and Pennsylvania as “contrabands” during the campaign, among other things. While I’m not sure Michael Shaara and Ron Maxwell (who share credit for the screenplay) are properly thought of as Lost Causers, their certainly went out of their way to put arguments in the mouths of their Confederate characters that would resonate with the audience in the 1990s, rather than with southerners in the 1860s. Mildred Lewis Rutherford couldn’t have done a better job her own self.

    • Christian McWhirter · July 2, 2015

      Thanks for the comment, Andy. I agree with you on this but only hesitate to call it full-on Lost Cause because Chamberlain at least somewhat counterbalances Longstreet et al. I’m now re-reading Killer Angels and, so far, I think it adds a lot more nuance to its character’s political motivations but I’m not sure if I’ll feel the same way when I finish it.

      Agree the film is beautiful. I really haven’t mentioned that yet and it should certainly be said. Maxwell’s shots are often visually stunning, which is even more impressive when you consider this was supposed to be a TV movie.

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