Monday, September 20, 2010
The Movie "Gettysburg" Compared to General Longstreet's Memoirs
The movie Gettysburg and the Longstreet memoir are very similar in most respects. There are some minor differences, but overall the movie and the primary resource about the battle action match well. In the beginning of the movie, the scout Harrison reports on the location of the Federal Army, directly to General Longstreet who passes the information to Lee. In the book Harrison attempts to see Lee first and Lee refuses, but the information Harrison provides is deemed accurate because the positions of the Federal forces are the same as Longstreet’s assumptions. The movie portrays Harrison as the source of the information. Longstreet’s book assumes that he and Harrison knew the same thing. Minor again, but Longstreet in his retrospect probably didn’t want to admit that the scout knew more than he.
The movie does a good job of portraying Buford’s gallant holding action on the first day of the battle. At the end of the day, of course the Federals retreated to the strong position atop Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet describes Lee’s failure to pursue as a lack of information about the enemy strength—mainly due to the absence of his Cavalry under Stuart. In the book Longstreet arrives as Lee is studying the scene—the Federals rallying and establishing their position on the high ground. Longstreet recollects that this is where he encourages Lee to “…file around his left and secure good ground between him and the capital.” According to the memoir Lee impatiently replies that “If he is there to-morrow I will attack him.” Longstreet’s response is “If he is there to-morrow it will be because he wants you to attack.” He also encouraged Lee to attack the heights now, while he had the enemy outnumbered. Lee left that to the discretion of the commander on the field who neglected to do so. In the movie the scene plays out pretty much the same way. Lee asks Longstreet “How can we retreat in the face of the enemy General?” Longstreet’s response—“Not retreat General—re-deploy.” sums up the recommendations made by Longstreet fairly well. The movie does not depict Longstreet urging Lee to attack now however. In the movie this is done by Lee before Longstreet arrives on the scene.
On the second day In Longstreet’s memoirs, General Hood appeals twice to Longstreet to allow him to work around the enemy’s left flank. Longstreet response is no, because the idea had already been proposed to Lee and was disapproved. Longstreet comments that if Lee had seen the lay of the land himself, he would have probably agreed. In the movie there is a discussion between Hood and Longstreet as illustrated in the book, this discussions contains more detail but seems the natural interaction that would occur under the circumstances. In the movie Hood says “…I do this under protest” knowing that his force will be decimated. In the movie there is a meeting between Lee and Longstreet at the end of the second day where Longstreet again urges Lee to go around the Federal left flank. There is no mention of this in the book.
In the movie the third and final day starts with Lee and Longstreet discussing the battle plan. Lee orders Longstreet to take the heights in the center and split the Federal line. Longstreet exclaims “They are well entrenched up there and they aim to fight—they got good artillery and plenty of it.” After Longstreet tries to convince Lee not to attempt the attack, Lee’s simple response is, “in the center, they will break.” “Retreat is no longer an option.” “The weak point is in the center…he is vulnerable in the middle.” “We will prevail.” Lee gives the point of attack as the clump of trees in the center of the line. Longstreet pleads again. “This attack will fail…no fifteen thousand men made can take that ridge…they have the stone wall like we did at Fredericksburg.” Lee simply responds “We do our duty sir.” In the movie Longstreet recommends that General Hill should be the one to lead the attack. “There is no one I trust more [than Longstreet]” This is Longstreet’s final plea to reconsider the attack as shown in the movie.
In the memoir there is some confusion between Lee and Longstreet as to when the orders were given—that morning, or the night before. Longstreet’s version matches that as portrayed in the movie. In the memoir Longstreet gives his reasons for not believing in the attack. “The point had been fully tested the day before…the column would have to march a mile under…fire.” As in the movie, in his memoir Longstreet said “…no fifteen thousand men who could successfully assault over that field have ever been arrayed for battle.” In the memoir Longstreet also writes of the recommendation for Hill to lead the attack, “ He knew that I did not believe success was possible…and he should have put an officer in charge who had more confidence in his plan.”
In the movie Longstreet forcefully gives his orders to his three commanders, and at the end says “Gentlemen I do believe the attack today will decide the fate of our country. All the men who died in the past are with you here today.” There is no direct mention of this in the memoir but the book description of Longstreet’s giving the final attack order to Pickett matches the movie interpretation. “Pickett said ‘General shall I advance?’ The effort to speak the order failed, and I could only indicate it by an affirmative bow.”
Once the commanders depart, Longstreet’s true feelings about the attack come out when Harrison approaches him about joining the attack. “Enemy long range fire will hit the men with more than a mile to walk, then they will come in range of musket, the formation will come apart, then canister fire wiping holes in the lines, there won’t be many left when the reach the wall. We will suffer over 50% casualties…I don’t believe my boys will reach that wall.” This of course is purely fictional but sums up well Longstreet’s feelings about the suicide attack called Pickett’s Charge—and sums up the position against the attack that he describes in detail in the last part of the chapter about the third day.
In the movie, after the attack has failed, that night Lee and Longstreet are mourning the loss of the battle by a campfire Lee exclaims, “What else can we do but go on you and I? We must fight with them.” No such discussion is described in the book, but again, the movie intends this scene to display the feelings that the Generals had towards each other and towards their men.
The movie Gettysburg, and the Longstreet memoir are not an exact match but they are close. While any movie requires a certain amount of melodrama to be successful, this movie uses that melodrama to tell the story of the events leading up to the battle as well as the stories behind the men who fought it. While the Longstreet memoir is matter-of-factly written, often without emotion, the true emotions of the soldiers is well portrayed in the movie. The movie Gettysburg brings the battle to life. The Longstreet memoir gives it credibility.
As to the question of which is more historically accurate, it is hard to say. While the Longstreet memoir uses its own primary resources-- these where resources selected by the author, who was trying to defend himself against history. The memoir is somewhat tainted towards Longstreet’s own defense. Still though, a primary resource, even one written years later by the participant is a solid source. I would imagine that the movie used the Longstreet memoir for much of the script on the Southern side—and many other sources as well. The bottom line as to which is more historically accurate—for the historian, the Longstreet work, for the Civil War enthusiast—the movie.