“It’s the summer of 1863, more than two years into our nation’s devastating Civil War, and the stakes have never been higher. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by Robert E. Lee, crosses into Pennsylvania. Trailed by the Union’s Army of the Potomac, Lee’s 75,000-strong army heads toward Harrisburg, but the forces meet instead near Gettysburg, a quiet farm town that would become synonymous with the epic battle that all but decided the outcome of the American Civil War.”
The Civil War is still the bloodiest war that Americans have ever experienced. The battle at Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of that war. While the war raged on for two more years, there is little doubt that the turning point came here at this place and time. It’s not really a surprise to find that History put together a riveting documentary about the pivotal battle. It’s a bit surprising that they pulled out all of the stops and created quite an epic documentary produced by the famous Scott Brothers Ridley and Tony.
When it comes to action, the Scott Brothers are not known for their subtlety or for running away from explosive action. Here we see the combined elements of an informative documentary with the graphic energy of a feature film dramatization of those events. The beginning of the show warns you that the images are brutal. Take the warning to heart. The re-enactments here get down into the trenches, and there is plenty of blood and carnage to bring the points home.
Still, this is not a film about the brutality alone. There are the expected military strategy guys here to point out the significance of what is happening as the film itself gives you an almost hour by hour depiction of those three days. Then there are the historians and authors who provide the historical perspective of it all. Of course, there are the plentiful “what if’s” being played out here as they have been in literature and film for decades. We all have speculated on how life would be different if the South had won the war. You’ll walk away from this piece a bit surprised at how close it really was several moments during that epic battle.
One of the great surprises about this film is that it never takes the easy way out. It doesn’t spend most of its time dealing with the well-known facts and personalities of the battle. Instead, the show takes us into the lives of the lesser known participants in the battle. Here’s History’s description of the participants from each side, I think is well worth providing here. It’s one way to get a good feel for how this story is told.
Gettysburg follows the stories of eight of these men as they put their lives on the line in a battle that would decide the ultimate fate of the United States of America.
Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes
Rufus Dawes’ patriotic fervor ran in his blood: His great-grandfather had ridden with Paul Revere on the famed midnight ride to warn American colonists of the approaching British army. An Ohio native, Dawes moved to Wisconsin as a teenager, and in June 1861 he organized a volunteer unit known as the Lemonweir Minute Men, which was soon mustered into the 6th Wisconsin Infantry. As part of the famed Iron Brigade-composed of regiments from the Midwest-the 6th Wisconsin saw action at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and Dawes himself received a series of promotions, eventually attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. By July 1863, Rufus Dawes, battle-tested and calm under pressure, had risen to become one of the best volunteer officers in the Union Army.
Sergeant Amos Humiston
New York native Amos Humiston had lived a life few Civil War soldiers could imagine. In an era when most men rarely journeyed more than 50 miles from their homes, Humiston had traveled halfway around the world as part of a whaling voyage sponsored by a New England firm. After returning to the United States, he worked as a harness maker before enlisting in the Union Army in the summer of 1862. Humiston spent much of his first year of service in poor health and was severely wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863. His spirits were lifted by frequent letters from his family and the cherished gift of a photo of his three children, given to him by his wife-a photo that would lead this unlikely man to become one of the most famous soldiers to fight at Gettysburg.
Colonel James Wallace
James Wallace’s experience reflected the conflict many Maryland residents faced at the outbreak of the Civil War. A pro-Union slave owner, Wallace was a successful politician who had served in the Maryland state senate before organizing the 1st Maryland Volunteers (Eastern Shore). One of four border states, Maryland remained loyal to the Union, but a growing sense of unease erupted into violence in 1861. Units like Wallace’s were charged with preventing civil unrest and protecting Union interests in the state. Most of these Maryland soldiers were reluctant to actively take up arms against their friends, neighbors and family members, and some even went so far as threatening desertion if forced to do so. However, in the summer of 1863, a small group of them, including James Wallace, fought their first and only battle of the war at Gettysburg-against those they feared facing the most.
Brigadier General William Barksdale
William Barksdale made his antebellum name as a newspaper editor and Mississippi congressman, a position he used to promote his support of slavery and states’ rights. As one of the most prominent in a group of Southern politicians known as the Fire Eaters, Barksdale strongly supported the secession of Southern states from the Union. A political rather than professional general, he earned a somewhat controversial reputation as a commander, narrowly escaping formal punishment for a drinking problem and becoming increasingly unpopular among his troops. He was successful in the field, however, and in July 1863 he led his unit, known as Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, into combat on the fields of Pennsylvania, urging them on with the rallying cry of “Onward, brave Mississippians, for Glory!”
Brigadier General Joseph Davis
As the nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Joseph Davis was a member of one of Mississippi’s most distinguished families. Trained as a lawyer and politician, he spent the first two years of the war on desk duty, serving on his uncle’s staff. Davis’ political connections eventually secured him a field command, though charges of nepotism would follow him throughout the war. After spending nearly nine months in command of Southern troops defending the Confederate capital of Richmond, Davis finally had the chance to lead his men into battle for the first time at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Private D. Ridgeley Howard
A native of Baltimore, Ridgeley Howard was one of more than 20,000 Marylanders who slipped across the Potomac and enlisted to fight for the Confederate cause. His 1st Maryland Infantry, formed just two months after war broke out, fought at First Manassas (Bull Run), the Shenandoah Valley and the Peninsula Campaign. By the summer of 1862, the term of enlistment for these men had ended, but most, including Howard, did not return to their homes in Union-occupied Maryland. Instead, they joined newly formed Confederate units, including the 2nd Maryland Infantry, and marched northward with the Army of Northern Virginia. At the Battle of Gettysburg they would face off against a familiar foe and perform with such bravery that General Robert E. Lee would be compelled to honor their service.
Private Joseph C. Lloyd
Joseph Lloyd was like thousands of other Confederate soldiers: He was in his early 20s when he fought in the war, came from a small, rural community and did not own any slaves. As a member of Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississipian Brigade, he saw action in some of the fiercest clashes of the war. Just 23 in the summer of 1863, Lloyd was already a battle-tested veteran, having served at First Manassas (Bull Run), the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Assistant Surgeon LeGrand Wilson
LeGrand Wilson was the rare Confederate soldier who was familiar with the North, having spent several years there before the war completing his medical education. A member of a prosperous Southern family that owned nearly 40 slaves, he considered himself a deeply religious and moral man. He was anti-gambling, pro-temperance and crusaded against the desecration of the Sabbath. After spending the early part of the war in an infantry regiment whose primary role was the defense of Richmond, Virginia, Wilson accepted a position as an assistant surgeon with the Confederate Army’s 42nd Mississippi. Gettysburg was Wilson’s first experience with the horrific aftermath of battle-and it would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Consider this one a step above the stuff you expect to find in a television documentary. This one belongs on every American’s video shelf.
Gettysburg is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35-40 mbps. The image here is as good as it gets for television documentaries. The amount of detail is equal to the task of presenting the gritty realism that the dramatizations display. There is a solid texture here that brings out the blood and dirt of the battlefield as well as the rough cloth of the uniforms. Black levels are rock solid, and the print is in pristine condition.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is much more lively than you might expect from a documentary presentation. You’ll hear musket balls zing all around you. The distant sounds of battle and soldiers yelling add tremendous realism to the effort. The dialog of the narration and the scholars comes through just fine. There is also a pretty sweet sub presence throughout.
It’s one of the most famous battles in American history and for good reason. Forget about what you think you already know. You’ll find this documentary works on two levels. It gives you an almost feature quality movie along with the informative stuff that will likely present you with information you didn’t know before. “For three long days, the two sides clashed in one of the war’s bloodiest engagements to decide the ultimate question: Would the United States of America survive?”