I just finished watching Gettysburg the other day, and it was both inspiring and sobering.
It’s one of the Civil War battles that I think we hear the most about superficially, but I realized in watching the movie that I really didn’t know any of the details of what happened over the course of those few days and why. The casualties on both sides totaled 53,000 men, making it the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. But that number is even more sobering when you realize that if General Lee had actually paid attention to good strategy, the battle would never have happened at all. The Confederate Army was in a perfect position to turn and head towards Washington D.C., which would have forced the Union Army to follow, and would have given the Confederates time to find good, high ground to dig into and meet the Union forces from a stronger position. Instead, Lee decided that since they had already had a run-in with the Union forces at Gettysburg, it would be “cowardly” and “weaken the morale” of his men to turn and leave at that point. There was more “glory” and “honor” to be found in fighting from a weaker, downhill position…and on top of that, refusing to listen to the advice of his other generals (especially James Longstreet) to attack the sides and flanks of the Union forces, but instead sending 15,000 men directly up a wide, open slope against the center of the Union lines, where they could be slaughtered en masse by Union artillery fire.
There was a great deal of courage and bravery as well, and some very good leadership and decisions by some of the Union officers, but the staggering loss of life, and the sickening lack of necessity for it, is the thing that has really stuck with me. Writing a story about a war as I am, it’s an interesting topic, and I’m glad that I watched the movie. It helps to keep me aware, as a writer, about how the ideas and beliefs of leaders in a conflict have direct, life-or-death consequences for the people who must follow their orders. 53,000 is not just a number – it means that 53,000 individual, living, breathing human beings died at Gettysburg. I think that, in writing about war, that is the sort of thing that it is very good to keep in mind.
To go back to the movie itself, it is long (a bit more than 4 hours), but it is well done and I would definitely recommend it. A lot of Civil War reenactors were brought in for the battle scenes, which seemed realistic to me, and I liked the acting of all the major characters as well; one gets a good sense of their personalities. It is based on The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which is a fictional but (as I understand it) historically accurate account of the Battle of Gettysburg.