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Gods and Generals (DVD) (WS)
Gods and Generals (DVD) (WS)
Jeffrey M. Shaara
Studio Distribution Services, 2024

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Mark Noll

Getting It Half-Right

What's worth celebrating in Gods and Generals—and what's not

Ron Maxwell's Gods and Generals is a film with much to praise and much to bemoan. On the religious beliefs and practices of leading figures in the American Civil War, it is the best popular movie ever made. By contrast, on what these beliefs and practices meant in broader compass, the movie, sadly, makes almost no contribution at all. And with its stylized, mannered depictions of battle, it also contributes dangerously to the fantasizing of warfare that has been such a plague in all of human history. The movie—along with the companion volume by Ted Baehr and Susan Wales, and especially the historical novel by Jeff Shaara on which it is based—deserves to be treated with respect. But much remains to be done in order to integrate Christianity into historical treatments of the war and even more to define reliably Christian interpretations of its course.

The great contribution of these three related works is to put religion back into the center of the Civil War, where it actually existed. Far too many modern accounts have treated the conflict as a modern event, with religion absent or decorously tucked away into a private sphere. Even some truly splendid works have been guilty of this strange partiality—including Bruce Catton's never-bettered accounts from the 1950s and '60s of the military campaigns in the Eastern theater, Shelby Foote's spellbinding narratives in the three volumes of his The Civil War (1958-1973), James McPherson's brilliantly textured Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), and Ken Burns' evocative video series on the war.

In light of the indefensible neglect of religious themes in so many of the main accounts of the Civil War era, it is indeed gratifying that scholars have begun to right the balance. But as with many other subjects, energetic scholarship has not yet begun to inform the major works aimed at popular audiences.

Precisely for this reason, Gods and Generals represents a breakthrough. Without embarrassment it portrays Robert E. Lee as a man of deeply rooted Christian conviction who after Stonewall Jackson was shot by his own troops at Chancellorsville and hung between life and death prayed "for him last night, as I have never prayed, I believe, for myself." The movie risks the scorn of modern cynics as it lingers over Jackson and his wife reading from 2 Corinthians as he departs to take up his commission: "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." Similarly, it shows Joshua Chamberlain leaving his wife in Maine for service in the Union army with a Christian faith that, though expressed somewhat differently, was no less sincere.

Although in such depictions the film sometimes seems to be thrusting religion awkwardly into the face of contemporary viewers, if anything, it understates the centrality of Christian convictions, assumptions, instincts, rituals, teachings, and encouragements during the conflict. Jackson, for example, was so intense in his practice of prayer that even comrades in arms, who loved him for his character as well as for his success in battle, wondered if he might be deranged. They also wondered about the solicitude he showed to the Sunday School for black children he had founded, instructed, financed, and indeed continued to look after during the war.

Faith in God and Generals, the companion volume, is even more helpful than the movie in documenting the serious Christian faith of Jackson, Lee, Chamberlain, and many other central figures. But more clearly than the film, this companion volume also reveals the tremendous problems when accounts of the war do not go further and ask what a widely shared and often intense Christian faith meant beyond the strictly private sphere.

A scene in the movie where Jackson prays with the slave George Jenkins is indicative. Jackson thanks God for his sovereignty over all events and prays feelingly for absent families, including George's. George's prayer begins in much the same way, but then broadens into an appeal that God would provide liberating justice for those who labor as chattel in bondage. After the prayers are over, Jackson is silent. The film rolls on.

Because there is more space in the companion volume, the unanswered queries press even more sharply there. This volume, for example, provides solid documentation about the many revivals that were experienced in the army camps, both North and South, but especially in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. So powerful were these revivals that it leads one contributor to conclude that their long-term effects ingrained a deeper, purer Christianity in the defeated South than in the victorious North: "The hardship of their loss taught the Southerners forbearance and Christian humility."

But we turn over only a few pages in this same book and read about what happened in Mississippi soon after the war ended, when freed slaves tried to take up the duties of citizenship. "Tragically in 1874 three hundred blacks were killed by white vigilante groups in Vicksburg." What, then, is the connection between the powerful revivals in the Southern camps, which did in fact play a part in making the South more thoroughly evangelical than the North, and the vicious Southern assault upon liberated slaves, which in the two generations after the end of Reconstruction turned the South into a crucible of lynching, mayhem, and exclusion for blacks? This is a serious question deeply rooted in the religiosity of the war, but for answers the movie and the companion volume are silent.

It is the same with the frequent evocations of providence that both movie and book accurately record. Depiction, however, is not enough, as the story of the Huntley family reveals. The Huntleys were "a devoutly religious Baptist family in North Carolina who owned no slaves." When their son George was called to war, they were deeply troubled by the fact that he had not yet professed faith in Christ. In their desperation, the family made a "bargain with God" that if George would receive Christ, "they would accept the death of another family member who was already saved or that of a young child presumed to heaven at death." George Huntley was wounded at the Battle of Manassas in 1862 and returned to North Carolina to recuperate. At home, "George made his profession of faith, and his younger sister Martha Catherine Huntley, aged seven, died on December 9, 1862." Without pausing, the narration then quotes from an impressively pious letter that George wrote home in April 1863 shortly before he was killed at Gettysburg. In Faith in God and Generals, this story is presented as if it were edifying, when in fact it looks like a species of Moloch worship.

Simply drawing attention to religion is not enough. There are better and worse, more orthodox and more heterodox, ways of understanding and applying Christianity. Manipulative trust in providence is an offense against the God of the Bible. Praising the piety of the Civil War armies, while not addressing the racism that was endemic on both sides, and that festered into gross evil in the postbellum South, is as indefensible as not paying attention to religion at all.

There is a problem of similar magnitude with the battles depicted by the film. On this score, Jeff Shaara's novel is far more satisfying than the movie. Part of the reason is proportion: the novel devotes much more attention to what happened in preparation for battle (and so is usefully insightful about questions of motivation, purpose, meaning), while the movie shows much longer battle scenes (and so is less helpful about such questions). Even more of the problem concerns realism.

In the movie, there is a long scene depicting the night of December 13-14, 1862. Throughout the previous day, and shown at much greater length, Union troops had stormed well-entrenched Confederates in the heights above Fredericksburg, Maryland. Now in the moonlit darkness, unwounded Federals, including Col. Joshua Chamberlain, linger among the dead, seek cover behind hillocks and under corpses, and pray for relief at dawn. As filmed, the night is preternaturally still, mournful music whispers in the background, and a very occasional rifle shot sounds in the distance. It is a scene of majestic tragedy.

But of course it was not anything like that at all. The movie does well in showing how many troops went down, but there are no gaping wounds in the dead, no mangled body parts, no splattered brains and bone and blood, nothing to re-create the horror described by Harry Stout elsewhere in this issue as the barely alive crept among the frozen dead. What Joshua Chamberlain himself wrote about the scene at Little Round Top after Gettysburg was no doubt true in much the same way for the night after Fredericksburg: "everywhere men torn and broken, staggering, creeping, quivering on the earth. … Things which cannot be told—nor dreamed."

Especially troubling in the movie is the substitution of evocative music for the sounds of after-battle, which Jeff Shaara in the novel evokes with excruciating force:

It had been dark for about an hour, and he began to hear new sounds, the numbness of the shock, the natural anesthetic of the wounded giving way to the raw pain. The sounds began to grow, spreading out over the entire field, soft cries broken by short screams, words and meaningless noises, curses and prayers. … There were other voices now as well, the men who were not wounded, who were scattered through the others, through the lifeless forms, as he was, and they began to shout, some of them yelling at the wounded to stop, to be quiet. Some were angry, loud hostile screams, others begged, pleaded. He kept staring up, distracting himself, trying not to hear, but the sounds were now filling every space, and his head began to throb.

In much of the movie, but especially in its battles, style prevails over chaos, majesty over carnage, valor over panic (which could be overcome, but was everywhere present), mannerism over authenticity, and lies over truth. This is a shame, because the movie, the companion volume, and especially Jeff Shaara's novel make very important contributions to recovering the role of religion in the Civil War. But recovery is not enough. We need to see as well what it meant, and to see with as much realism as possible. And we need these things not only for the sake of getting the Civil War "right" but also for assimilating the meaning of warfare in our own time.

Mark Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford Univ. Press).

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