U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008

Archive for November, 2008


I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neigther given nor received any unauthorized help on this work. – JT Newcomb

The Confederate Army was arguably winning two years into the American Civil War. A long sequence of Southern victories in major battles corresponded to a long sequence of command changes in the Northern army. General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was especially strong in the early summer of 1863, following decisive victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson describes the state of the Union Army as being at a “low ebb” at that time.[i] Federal efforts in the Western theater were characterized by a continuing and costly lack of success at Vicksburg in addition to the major defeats in the east.

General Lee seized the opportunity in 1863 to take the fight into enemy territory. He saw that summer as a good time to gather resources on Northern soil, taking the war out of Virginia. He believed more importantly that a major victory in the North could provide a basis for peace talks with the United States. Peace Democrats, commonly referred to as “Copperheads”, were gaining strength in the United States government and might soon be in a position to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy, namely allowing for the independence of Southern states. A stunning victory on Union ground might also draw the recognition of European powers sought by the Confederacy.[ii] Foreign assistance would be incredibly helpful in breaking the naval blockade that had been restricting the resources of the Southern war effort, but even simple foreign recognition would effectively justify the existence of the Confederacy as an independent nation.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had favored a generally defensive strategy until this point in the war. A course of attrition seemed most reliable for wearing down Northern resolve to continue fighting. A stalemate or truce would have been as good as outright victory for the South, since all it sought was independence. Lee was, however, able to convince Davis to approve his plan to campaign north of the Potomac River.[iii]

Lee then marched approximately 75,000 men north along the Shenandoah Valley out of Virginia. He endeavored to use the Blue Ridge Mountains as a screen to mask his troop movements. Military intelligence was primarily acquired at that time by means of cavalry patrols. An army might have been able to gain information from enemy newspapers, civilians, or prisoners, but cavalry reconnaissance was the reliable, “professional” means of gaining intelligence.[iv] Lee would therefore avoid detection moving behind the mountains, where it was much harder for federal cavalry to get to his army.

Lee’s own cavalry was separated from the main army during this movement. The cavalry, under the command of J.E.B. Stuart, moved behind the Federal army to conduct raids. Stuart sought Lee’s permission to do so after his recent embarrassment at the Battle of Brandy Station, where Federal cavalry surprised him and nearly defeated his own.[v] Stuart became cut off behind enemy lines on his raid and lost contact with Lee for nearly two weeks during the campaign northward.

The Confederate army was therefore operating with an incredible lack of information when it collided with Union troops outside of Gettysburg on July 1 of that summer. It was by pure chance that Confederate infantry and Union cavalry found each other on that day. The Union detachment was one of many send in every direction away from the main body of the army on its own information gathering mission.

Lee found himself in an unfamiliar position as the fighting took shape at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Southerners had been advantaged until that time by fighting in their own territory. They had known the roads and terrain better, civilians had been much more cooperative with them, their spies were much more effective near home, and their cavalry had been far more helpful.[vi] All of these details reversed when the Confederate army marched into Pennsylvania. Lee faced completely new disadvantages.

Please see “pages” to the right for additional information on the battle and film.

[i] James M. McPherson, “Commentary Track,” Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993).

[ii]Terry L. Jones, Cemetery Hill: The Struggle for the High Ground (Cambridge, MA: Da Capro Press, 2003), 9-14.

[iii] G. Moxley Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer (Jackson, TN: McCowat-Mercer Press, 1958), 150-156.

[iv] Craig Symonds, “Commentary Track,” Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993).

[v] Jones, 15-21.

[vi] McPherson.

Best Years of Our Lives

Best Years of Our Lives is a great movie with a lot of truth to it. I noticed on one of the countdowns on AOL it is #7 on the greatest inspirational movies list which I found pretty neat. It is a very historically accurate movie, almost on the same lines as Glory. It accurately depicts the arrival of WWII veterans back home and the hardships they faced trying to acclimate back into their hometowns. It was a very trying time for soldiers and it was not an easy task for them to return to civilian life. This movie shows the struggles they faced trying to leave their war life behind. It was a very entertaining movie and definitely one of the best movies we’ve watched so far.


Although slow at times, Matewan is one of the more historically accurate films we’ve watched this semester. The movie accurately portrayed the company stores and poor conditions in which the miners worked and lived. The movie also depicted the harsh brutality between the workers and the bosses (bosses holding guns as workers walked out of the mine) and also between the workers themselves. A great example of this brutal competition is when the train first arrives in Matewan and a group of men ambush those who are coming off the train. The characters in the film are fictional but the skepticism concerning joining the union was real. For the most part Matewan was pretty boring but it gave great insight into a very interesting part of history.

In the End….

In the end, I decided to go ahead and post my project today.  I was leaving for the weekend and wont have much of a chance to work on this project after today.  I have spent many days writing up the history of the event and then coparing the movie to that history.  Every day I added something new and took away other stuff.  I’ve grown very tired and decided that enough is enough, I will go ahead and publish the project.  Besides, now Booger (my kitty) and I can take a snooze together. ;-)

I feel I put a lot of good hard work into the project, and even though I’m not all that creative I tried to spice it up to the best of my ability.  Hopefully I’m not in error in posting the project already, but I feel it is the best I will be able to do for now.

Its Been Fun and Stressful,

Ashley Wilkins

Best Years of Our Lives

I wanted to start my post on “Best Years” before the discussion, partially to have time to round out my thoughts and partly because I wanted to write my initial thoughts before hearing the thoughts of the class. Not that I think that my thoughts are really different than anyone else’s, it is just easier to identify mine at this point.

I have to say that I think the movie being made in the time of its subject was very effective. It is harder to judge it as representing ‘history’, as it wasn’t exactly considered history at the time. However, it seemed more realistically emotionally affecting and honest than a good deal of the movies that we’ve watched this semester. Of course, a lot of this could be the fact that we have grown up with many of the recurring faces in the movies that we’ve seen, whereas there is a further distance between us and the stars of this movie and even the subject matter of the movie itself.

Unfortunately, as representative as it seems of a general feeling of the time, it is restricted to a general white, relatively well-off feeling of the time. Its small town setting is not uncommon in movies from any period and is a handy way to represent the entire country by example (is it synecdoche? one of those fancy English major words describes this, I believe). However, it is also a handy way to leave out African-Americans, Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans. This, I believe, is where the movie and subject matter suffer the most from coming out of its own time period.

I’ll write more about this after class tomorrow.

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