James McPherson’s Favorite Civil War Movies

May 22, 2007

James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of numerous books about the Civil War, talks to Bookslut about his new book, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War:

Historians often gripe about misrepresentations in popular movies. I’m curious if you could name any one film that you felt gave an accurate portrayal of at least one aspect of the Civil War. And, while we’re on the subject, are there any that you particularly loathe?

I like two Civil War films: The Red Badge of Courage and Glory. Red Badge, of course, does not deal with any of the war’s issues or actual events except the battle of Chancellorsville, but it is a faithful reflection of Stephen Crane’s novel and captures beautifully the fears and the psychology of common soldiers like Henry Fleming. Glory has a number of inaccuracies, but it is after all a dramatic movie and not a documentary, and I think it did a good job of portraying the story of the 54th Massachusetts — though Robert Gould Shaw was a stronger and more mature individual than he is portrayed by Matthew Broderick. One of the worst Civil War movies, in my opinion, was Gods and Generals.

What, as a historian, did you dislike most about Gods and Generals?

I disliked most the sappy-sentimental portrait of Jackson and Confederates as true friends of the slave and supporters of ultimate emancipation.

Because of the fact that there are still a great many outwardly sensible Americans who insist on venerating the Confederacy, which was after all a rogue state that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in a futile quest to preserve its traffic in human beings, any Civil War historian is going to find himself dealing with contemporary attitudes. McPherson, to his credit, doesn’t shy away from this:

In your essay “‘As Commander-in-Chief I Have a Right to Take Any Measure Which May Best Subdue the Enemy’” you write about how Lincoln expanded his executive powers. We forgive him for suspending habeas corpus because, in the end, he also ended slavery and saved the union. At the moment, we have another president who has suspended habeas corpus. Is it possible that we’ll end up forgiving George W. Bush as well?

Whether history ends up justifying, or at least excusing, George W. Bush’s suspension of habeas corpus and other violations of civil liberties, as it has largely done for Lincoln, remains to be seen. The scale of such violations, to be justified, must be in proportion to the clear and present danger posed by those whose liberties are violated. That scale was pretty large and clear in the Civil War; it is less clear, and probably less large, in the war on terror, so if I have to predict, I predict that history will treat Bush more harshly than Lincoln.

You can read the entire thing here.

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