Category Archives: History Matters (Blog)

My Civil War-themed submission to a Washington Post columnist contest

wilderness battlefield sign
Image copyright (C) 2015 by Tony Held, all rights reserved.


Several years ago, the Washington Post held a contest to select a new columnist. Since Wal-Mart wanted to build a new store right on top of a Civil War battlefield at the time, I chose that as my subject matter:

Opinion: The Wilderness battlefield Wal-Mart lawsuit was worthwhile

How many people were against building a Wal-Mart near the Civil War battlefield of the Wilderness in Orange County, Virginia? A roll call reveals the following: Ken Burns, David McCullough, and James M. McPherson; Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Duval; Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), and Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine and Virginia House Speaker William Howell; and finally, hundreds of concerned citizens such as this writer.

Such an impressive array of voices saying “no” could sway anyone. However, those voices did not sway the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Instead they turned a deaf ear to them and approved Wal-Mart’s application.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation joined with concerned citizens and the local preservation group Friends of The Wilderness Battlefield in filing suit against Orange County to stop the development. Their justification: The Board of Supervisors had failed to adequately gather and assess all information on the detrimental impact the Wal-Mart would have on the battlefield.

This was not a frivolous legal action, no matter what Wal-Mart or the Supervisors claimed before they ultimately gave in.

What was at stake here was the sanctity of irreplaceable sacred ground. Ground dyed with the blood of brave soldiers during Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant’s first battle against each other on May 5-7, 1864. The Wilderness is now a place where you can stand and contemplate the past. Reach out and touch it, appreciate it, and learn from it.

No battlefield visitor could have done that with a Wal-Mart next door. ‘Nuff said.

I didn’t win, but I am happy to report Wal-Mart moved their store to a far less sensitive location.

(Originally published on January 8th, 2014.)



Interview: Patrick Gorman

Turner & Hood
Patrick Gorman and Ted Turner behind the scenes during the filming of Gods and Generals. This and other images in this transcript courtesy Patrick Gorman.

I recently had the honor of doing an interview with actor Patrick Gorman, who portrayed General John Bell Hood in my most favorite movie of all, Gettysburg.  

Our interview was conducted in part via telephone and in part via e-mail, which is why I ask questions that start with “Could you tell me again…”  I am a good writer, but my transcribing skills are so-so.

Our interview contains tidbits that not only fans of Gettysburg and its prequel Gods and Generals might find interesting, but there is also some stuff here for fans of Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack as well.  Patrick’s first motion picture role was a part in none other than Three Days of the Condor.

Hood Killer Angels
Patrick Gorman as John Bell Hood in Gettysburg.

Tony Held: Was it hard or easy to recite the
lines Ron Maxwell wrote, given his style of utilizing the manner in which
people in the 1860s spoke?

Patrick Gorman: It really wasn’t difficult.
Of course, I’ve played classical theater, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy,
Restoration, and all that.  So, language is naturally part of what I deal
with all the time.  I liked the dialogue.  I liked what I had to say
as Hood, and it seemed accurate and good.

TH: Were any of your scenes filmed on the actual

PG: Yes.  There’s a scene of me in the
midst of the battle on horseback directing the troops, pointing my sword, and
all that.  It was actually filmed on the hill going up to Devil’s Den,
where the artillery pieces were.  Hood never made it there of course to
[Devil’s Den]; he was in sight of Devil’s Den in the Peach Orchard, where he
was wounded, but he never got that far.  We actually filmed those battle
sequences on the battlefield where you see me on horseback (no dialogue scenes)

The confrontation between Longstreet and Hood
was filmed actually in sight of the Round Tops (I mean they were in the
background; that was them.)  We were there.  I do not know if that
was where they had the conversation, but that was where we filmed.

Hood  Meeting Longstreet
Hood (Patrick Gorman) meets with General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) and protests that the attack on the Union army should move around to the right and flank them out of their positions, not smash into them head-on as ordered by General Lee.

There were lots of experiences for all of us.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never had a true metaphysical experience
in my life as far as I know; but there were experiences where I had a powerful
feeling that (not that I’d been there as General Hood, of course) but that that
place was all too familiar to me.  Many spots in Gettysburg –from the
battlefield and ‘round about it— I had this un-canny feeling that I had been
there.  I know that sounds terribly romantic and maybe a little dramatic;
but I wasn’t the only one [who had that experience]; a couple other people [had
them], especially around Devil’s Den.


Hood (Gorman) shouts orders to his troops at Devil’s Den in Gettysburg.

TH: What was it like working with Tom Berenger and Martin Sheen?

PG: Berenger was really the heart of the Confederacy for us.  I’ve told this story before, but when we had the big table read before we started the film (and I’d never met or worked with Berenger before) during the reading I noticed he’d brought in a bunch of boxes; and in between [the reading], on breaks, he was taking out swords and giving them to the various officers in his corps. I thought “Oh, how neat; how thoughtful: he went to props and got these swords.” And he gave me one too, a sabre.  It was engraved, it was beautiful. The blade was an actual 1861 blade; the hilt and everything else was [a] reproduction. It turned out… he had gone out on his own dime and bought those swords. Each one was different for each officer.  Mine was engraved “Maj. General, John Bell Hood, 1st Corps. Compliments, Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet, Army of Northern Virginia.”

He was very generous and a wonderful guy to work with; and it was his intent to get this done and get it done right.

With Martin Sheen: Well, there’s a really gentle man who can play tough as nails, and a wonderful, wonderful, actor to work with.  I didn’t have that many scenes with him, but he was a great presence.

You know, he got that role at the last minute, because [Robert] Duvall was originally supposed to do it, but he had a big movie where they were gonna pay him a lot of money, or something, and he had to back out at the last minute (I believe that’s the story).

Martin Sheen [had] almost no preparation. [He had] only a couple of weeks.  So, when talking to him, he said “You know, in this film I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”  He said, and rightly so I believe: “Everyone who knows anything about the Civil War has their impression of Robert E. Lee; and I don’t care how many books I read about it, I’m never going to satisfy them.” And a lot of people were critical of his performance or played it down; but I thought he really got that aspect of Lee where Lee was frail, and probably had a stroke sometime either just before Gettysburg or at the beginning.  For me he really nailed that.  I always liked his Lee.  Of course, Duvall looked more like [Lee] and had another presence.  But Martin Sheen’s a superlative actor, a wonderful man.  He was good to be around him and I thought his Lee was excellent.

I was still there when they did Pickett’s Charge; and when they were all getting set up there in the tree line and the cannons were all getting set up…there was a moment where Martin came out on horseback in uniform and started riding down to where Ron was.  And all the re-enactors spontaneously (this wasn’t staged at all; I even get choked up talking about it) started crowding around him and saying the things they knew the troops said to Lee and tried to touch him.  It was a real outpouring of true emotion.

I was right next to Ron.  Ron said to the cinematographer, “Get the cameras going; you gotta get this, you gotta get this.”  And they filmed it.  And Martin Sheen of course played it; at first he was taken aback, but quickly realized the truth of the moment, this was the way [Lee’s] troops felt about him, and played it.  And of course that was a magical moment in the film which was real.  It was not staged, it was not planned, it just happened; and it was truthful to history.  So that was a touching, perfect moment.

TH:  Yes, I am looking at that part right now in fact, and I notice that Stephen Lang was with Sheen as they are riding down to Ron; and at one point Stephen has to kind of drop behind Sheen because everybody is getting right up close to him just like Lee’s troops really did.

PG: Right.  That was not staged at all.  It was one of those happy accidents, if you will.

PG: Right.  Very often there will be directors who instruct their cameraman to not cut when they actually say “cut.”  I’ve been in a couple films where they used what I did before and after “cut” during a scene; because things happen that are real, ‘happy accidents’ they call them.         

TH: I read in your interview with Greg Caggiano that you and the rest of the actors playing Confederates regularly congregated at the Farnsworth House in Gettysburg.  Could you tell me a little about that?

PG: Tom Beregner had the Farnsworth House every Friday night during filming reserved for the Confederate officer’s corps.  It was only Confederate officers and guys playing Rebs that were allowed into the bar.

TH: You mentioned to Caggiano that it was a lot of fun?

PG: It was a lot of fun; a lot of stories [were swapped.] It was very much like an officer’s [club.]  It was very much like that.  A lot of laughs, and of clowning around; but we often played ourselves –I played General Hood, they played [their characters] —  we had that going.  It was like an improvisation, but we did break it, and we made jokes and talked about [other stuff], but it was basically for that.  We showed up in uniform, of course.

It was great fun, and it kept the spirit alive, because we had the esprit de corps of officers of the Confederacy.

TH: It shows up on camera too.

PG: I think so.  That I have to lay that at the feet of Tom Berenger.  I think he was responsible for creating that.

Some of them had worked together, but I had never worked with anybody in that cast before.

I wasn’t intimidated or anything like that [by it].  You know, sometimes playing smaller roles as I’ve had to do in my career, you come into a cast that’s something like a close knit family.  If you’re doing a TV series for example, I come in for a day or two with people who have been working together for months or many, many weeks and know each other, and you’re kind of the stranger; but I never had that feeling at all [while filming Gettysburg].  No ego, just people wanting to do the right thing by our history.

Of course I’d done my research on Hood as much as I could –of course the two books Advance and Retreat and The Gallant Hood—and every other book I could get hold of [that] mentioned [him.]  I focused on Hood and the second day.   I was comfortable as Hood and a lot of that had to do with my association with the re-enactors and visiting their encampments.  Sitting around the campfires with them, I got lots of anecdotal stuff that I didn’t find in books.  They helped set the mood for how it might have been.  I owe them a lot.  The whole film did.

When I read for the film, I wanted to play Armistead. That’s who I was hoping to read for when I read The Killer Angels, but they had already cast Richard Jordan and he was perfect. They wanted me to read for Hood, and I’m glad they did. I could relate to Hood more personally, even though Hood was “The Blond “ giant –he was like 6’2, really broad shoulders, he had a brooding, sad look–, well I’m 5’10, [and] I don’t have broad shoulders; but I got cast (I’ve told this story before too) but when I heard [Robert] Duvall was going to do Killer Angels, a Civil War story, I said to my wife at the time “You know, there’s gotta be something for me in this film.”  I had a picture [taken] where I shaved my head and it was growing out and had a bit of a stubble, and this dark look in my eyes.  (I thought I looked a bit like Sheridan).  I delivered the picture as a messenger to the casting office (my agent didn’t do that, I did that) and they called me in because of the photograph.  And later on I found out that when they saw the picture they said, “We just pray that he can act, because he is the only one who even comes close to what Hood looked like.”  And I don’t’ really look like him at all, but I had something.  The fact that I have a lot of Civil War fans validates that, because I was very successful with getting the persona of Hood across.

Patrick Gorman poses in character as General Hood for this old glass plate negative-type photo taken during the making of Gods and Generals.


T.H. Can you tell me again your story about Ted Turner at the Gettysburg premiere, and the certain actor who told you he wished he had played Hood?


P.G. Sure, here goes.


At the premiere of Gettysburg, I was walking down the right side aisle of the theatre with my then wife, looking for seats.  The theatre was packed and filling up, buzzing with conversation, when over the din and from across the theatre in the left hand aisle a voice called out, “General Hood, we shoulda gone to the right!”  There was a slight moment of, “What the?” in the house and then all resumed.  It was Ted Turner with his then wife, Jane Fonda.  We all moved into our seats with Ted and Jane right behind us and we introduced our wives and made small talk.  That was a fun moment and a big surprise.  After the successful screening of the film, I made my way to the men’s room on the way out of theatre.  Excuse me, but I’m standing at the urinal and a voice speaks over my shoulder saying, “Good work.  I didn’t even get to read for the film!”  I turned to say thanks for the compliment, and who was I looking up at but ‘Moses, himself,’ Charleton Heston.  Well, besides the film, those two encounters ‘made my day,’ you can imagine.  Fun recollection.  That was a great night for us all because the film was a great success.

T.H. Could you tell me again the story of what it was like to continue filming the Antietam sequence in Gods and Generals on 9/11/2001?  (By the way, I hope your friend who called you from the Pentagon was all right and not injured.)


General Hood (Gorman) and General Thomas J. Jackson (Stephen Lang) out for a ride with their staffs and subordinate commanders on the eve of the battle of Fredericksburg in Gods and Generals.

T.H. On a lighter note, could you repeat to me
your story about sitting all day next to Ted Turner during the “Bonny Blue
Flag” sequence? Did you talk with Jeff Shaara at all the
day the concert sequence was filmed (as I might have mentioned during our chat,
Jeff has a cameo in the scene as a Reb officer sitting next to the Rev. Tucker
And speaking of that scene, John Bell Hood
really liked to arrange that stuff?  Did Ron Maxwell base it on a specific
concert Hood arranged at Moss Neck?

P.G. I’ll take these three questions in
one.  I did sit right next to Turner during that scene and we filmed
almost all day.  He was charming and entertaining and a neat guy.  He
did say that if we didn’t lose too much money on G&G that we’d start preproduction on “The Last Full Measure” right
away.  Unfortunately, as you may know, G&G
didn’t do well at the box office.  Hood often held entertainments for the
troops, whether the one in the film was based on Moss Neck, I don’t know.
I did have several conversations with Jeff Shaara that day.  He looked
great in uniform and that was a first, for me.  I don’t know if he’d ever
done that before but he enjoyed himself and looked great.

T.H. Was the fact that you found Hood
fascinating what made you decide to do G&G,
or was it also because of the promise the Gettysburg
cast made to work together on a sequel/prequel?

P.G. Well, at the end of Gettysburg, Ron talked about doing G&G and all of us reprising our same roles.  It was an
exciting prospect for me, for sure.  Unfortunately, in the final script, Hood
didn’t have much impact and competition developed over the role of
Jackson.  I believe Tom wanted to play Jackson and, of course, Ron still
wanted him to play Longstreet as had been discussed.  I don’t know the
whole story, or even if that version is accurate.  Stephen was to reprise
Pickett but you know what happened.  It’s not unusual for a director
and/or producer to take a different take with a script, even history.
There is no distortion but the focus is on Jackson and it wasn’t the main focus
in the book, as I recall.  I revered and respect the memory of Jackson but
I don’t think he would have been someone you’d like to have served under.
He was a hard man and, to me, a fanatic.  He was a great general but a
difficult man to make the hero of a film.  Stephen did a magnificent job,
but I always thought G&G would have made a better series on cable
television than a feature film.  Way too much history to cram into that
short time frame.  A lot that was shot couldn’t be included and it could
have been in a series.  Hey, what do I know?  I’m an actor, not a
producer.  I just wanted to work with these wonderful people playing these
great characters.


Gods & Generals Head
Patrick poses in character as Hood for a publicity image taken during the filming of Gods and Generals.

T.H. You had a cameo as a Confederate veteran in the miniseries Rough Riders.  What was that like?

P.G. Therein lies a ‘sad’ story – to me, at least.  Originally Tom, who was one of the producers of the project, offered me the role of General Wheeler.  It was a gift and a huge step-up for me into a major role in the film.  Wheeler was a little man and even though I was taller than he, I had the right build and my white beard was perfect for him.  He was a quirky guy and I knew how to play him and worked on the role in great anticipation of actually embodying him in the film.  All was pretty much set and at the last minute there was a change of directors.  Actually, I was excited about the change because it was John Milius who was coming on-board.  A hero of mine.  I was called in to meet him and knowing so much about him I even brought him a Cuban cigar for our meeting.  The first thing he said to me though, was that unfortunately he ‘needed’ a star in the Wheeler part.  I wasn’t going to get to play him but Milius still wanted me in the project.  We had a great half hour or more talking about martial arts, kendo and sporting clays but ended up playing an old Confederate Veteran with his grandson at the railroad station.  Also, I shaved my beard and left a favori to play also a Colonel of the 71st New York who chases ‘Teddy’ down the railroad track on horseback after Teddy stole ‘my’ transport.  So, I played two roles, both very small and unremarkable and an actor friend of John’s, a six-feet plus, full bodied guy (a wonderful actor, but…) played Wheeler.  One of the bigger disappointments of my career.

T.H. Closing on a non-Civil War note, could you tell me again about working on Three Days of the Condor?


P.G. Condor was my first high profile film and it was special because I got to work with the incredible director, Sydney Pollack and with the iconic, Robert Redford.  When I went to read for the role, I ended up talking with Sydney about Samurai films, martial arts, Shakespeare and Paris.  We had a great interview that lasted over a half hour and then he thanked me and I left.  My agent asked me how the audition went and I told him, “Well, we had a great time discussing all kinds of things but he never asked me to read, so I probably didn’t get the part.”  Well, I did and later learned that Pollack didn’t usually read actors.  He had an instinct for talent (being a fine actor himself, and a teacher of actors) so he, “just knew.”  I had about 10-lines and, frankly, they are practically all under the credits but still it was a great sequence, the one where the mailman comes into the historical society and shoots everyone.  In the original script I was to be killed on camera but into the shooting, they decided not to kill me on camera for some reason.  I’d talked with Sydney enough to be able to say to him, in ‘semi-comical-tragic’ way, that he couldn’t kill me off camera in my first major film.  I’d figured out a stunt where I’d get shot and go flying backwards across the desk, hitting the wall and sliding down into a lifeless lump.  Sydney said, “Can you do that without getting hurt?”  And I said, “Sydney, I was a circus clown, falling down is part of what I do.  No problem!”  He said, “Let me talked to Dino (DeLaurentiis) tonight, and we’ll see.”  The next day, he came back and said Dino was pleased and thought it would be great.  And so, I got an extra week of work for that little suggestion.  Redford was a perfect gentleman and Pollack was a master director of few directorial words but one who instilled great confidence in all his players.

Sydney Pollack is with us no more and one of my great sadnesses is that I never got to work with him again.  He was a gentleman and any time I ever called him over the years, he would always get on the phone and speak to me in person.  When I was invited into the Motion Picture Academy, he was on the board, and I think that’s one reason I was accepted.  He had recommended me for a couple of other roles over the years in other peoples films.  To me he was a prince, a great actor and a thoroughly nice guy, one of my favorite directors.  Jeremiah Johnson is one of the films that made me leave New York and come to Hollywood.  I wanted to do films like that.  Ironically, Milius’ film, The Wind and the Lion, and the film Zorba the Greek, the Cacoyannis film, were the three films that made up my mind.  Besides, New York was way too cold and unfriendly for a Californian that year.  So, I left New York and came back home.


My thanks again to Patrick for taking the time to do this interview; he is an actor and a gentleman.








Kimmel, Bloch, and Short: Three unprepared commanders

short kimmel and mountbatten
A reception before the war: Walter C. Short (left) and Husband E. Kimmel (right) pose for a photo at a formal reception held for Lord Louis Montbatten during his visit to Oahu in 1941. (Photo credit: Public domain.)
Admiral Claude C. Bloch in a confident pose. (Photo credit: Public domain.)

Despite reams of nonsense to the contrary, the top three US commanders in Hawaii in December of 1941 –Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, 14th Naval District commander Admiral Claude C. Bloch, and U.S. Army Hawaiian Department commander General Walter C. Short–  are not scapegoats for what happened on December 7th, 1941.  Though all three commanders were capable, dedicated, loyal men, their combined mistakes conspired to leave the island of Oahu vulnerable to the Japanese attack which slammed into the island like a tsunami 72 years ago today.

The lion’s share of the mistakes could be said to have been made by Admiral Bloch and General Short.  Both men were supposed to devote attention to the protection of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which had been sent to Hawaii to act as a deterrent to rampant Japanese aggression in Asia as the situation in the Pacific worsened.   But General Short was a commander whose skills pertained to the infantry and training troops.   Short did not understand either air power or his mission to defend the Pacific Fleet.  In fact, General Short somewhat naively assumed the Pacific Fleet was the main line of defense for Oahu, not vice versa.    General Short also shared in suspicions related to the Japanese-American population on Oahu, who were suspected of being fifth columnists in waiting should war break out.  The result was Short placed a great deal of focus on preventing sabotage against U.S. Army installations on Oahu, which at the time also included air units, since the Air Force at the time was the U.S. Army Air Force, a quasi-independent branch yoked to the Army.   The result was Hawaiian Air Force commander Harold Martin had to obey orders from General Short issued after a war alert message was received on November 27th, 1941, to line up his planes wingtip to wingtip when not in use so sentries could be easily placed to guard against Japanese Americans sympathetic to Japan from infiltrating the airfields and destroying aircraft, hangars, etc.   The fact that such destruction could come courtesy of the Imperial Japanese Navy never crossed General Short’s mind, even as General Martin’s men felt bad feelings in their guts about lining up the aircraft in such a manner.  But they were not being paid to think, just obey.

Admiral Bloch had once commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet and was now on his last tour of duty before retirement presiding over the Fourteenth Naval District.  One of the tasks assigned Bloch was making sure the Navy’s own defenses at Pearl Harbor were up to snuff.  Unfortunately, Bloch was by now not the energetic officer he once was, always being in bed by 9 P.M. Hawaiian time each night.  This meant the Fourteenth Naval District was in essence run on a “nine to five” basis rooted strictly in a peacetime mentality.  Bloch also underestimated Japanese capabilities, but that was only the icing on the cake of his mistakes.

Admiral Kimmel was the most energetic of the troika of commanders on Oahu when the Japanese attack swept through the skies.   Hard-working, brave, and outspoken, Kimmel would have done well had his opposite number Isorouku Yamamoto attacked Hawaii by going via the American possession of Wake Atoll, a distant outpost taken from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American war of 1898.  Kimmel dreamed of being bait for a trap for the Japanese fleet when war came, and had made energetic plans for it to become such a tempting target, the Japanese would snap at the bait and Kimmel would unleash the Pacific Fleet against them.

Unfortunately for Kimmel, his preoccupation with offensive preparations once war broke out, coupled with a severe underestimation of Yamamoto, meant that Kimmel neglected to protect his northern flank, where the winds that bore aircraft into the Hawaiian Islands came from.  It should have been clear to not only Kimmel, but also Bloch and Short, that if these winds could assist American planes into the islands, they could easily do the same for a Japanese carrier task force.  In fact, no less than three pre-WWII fleet exercises held in the islands had seen U.S. Navy planes approach Oahu from that direction and take Pearl Harbor by surprise each time.   But the results of these exercises were always shrugged off by the Army, and ultimately lost on the U.S. Navy as well.

The biggest mistake all three men made, however, was an assumption all three men shared about Japan: that her warlords would be so polite as to make an official declaration of war before hostilities commenced.  Only then would they put their forces on a war footing.  Not even the message Short received on November 27th warning him of the imminence of hostilities with Japan nor a similar, even more strongly worded than the Army’s message received by both Kimmel and Bloch could shake them from this mindset.

The result was that when Commander Mitsuo Fuchida led the first attack wave over Oahu’s shores early on December 7th, 1941, not a shot was fired at them nor so much as one Army Air Force plane approached them.

I should point out in closing that the Navy’s message to Kimmel and Bloch included the phrase “war warning” and that the Army’s message to Short encouraged him to do nothing that would jeopardize his defense of Oahu.  If there had been a conspiracy put out by big, bad, Franklin Roosevelt, no such wording would have been included in those messages, nor, indeed, would any alerts have been sent at all.

Kimmel, Bloch, and Short were good, decent men, but even such men can make mistakes if they are not careful.


The core of this article is based on information contained in the books At Dawn We Slept and Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History, by Gordon W. Prange with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon.  Additional information comes from Gregory J.W. Urwin’s article “The Trap That Never Snapped: Admiral Kimmel and Wake Island,” which appeared in the January, 2003, edition of World War II magazine.



Lest we forget: PT 109

Lt. (jg.) John F. Kennedy, USNR (at far right) and the men of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 pose for the camera in this famous photograph taken a few months before the 109 was lost. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.


Olasana, the Solomon Islands, August 5, 1943

John Fitzgerald Kennedy had known lavish living so far in his youthful life.  A life that until now had been filled with wine, women, song, and literary success with a non-fiction book entitled Why England Slept.

On this island, Kennedy now knew only hunger, thirst, and pain. 

 The only resources he had left with him were his legendary sense of humor and iron will.

With him were the ten survivors of Motor Torpedo Boat 109: Leonard Thom, George “Barney” Ross, Gerald Zinser, Raymond Albert, Charles “Bucky” Harris, William Johnston, John Maguire, Edman Mauer, Patrick “Pappy” McMahon, and Raymond Starkey.

Two other men were destined never to emerge from the waves they had vanished into when the Japanese destroyer Amagiri had rammed the 109 on the night of August 2 during a chaotic night action with the “Tokyo Express”: Andrew Kirksey and Harold Marney.  Hope for them had by now faded in the hearts of their shipmates.

Kennedy had first led his men from the settling bow section of the 109 to Plum Pudding Island on the morning after the collision.  It was a calculated gamble that worked: though Kennedy and his men were surrounded by the Japanese on the nearby islands of Kolombangara and Gizo, the Japanese knew it would be a waste of manpower to garrison tiny islands near these two strongholds.   Plum Pudding proved to be free of the enemy, but lacked a commodity vital to survival: coconuts and their life-sustaining milk.

After two failed attempts to contact PT boats in nearby Blackett Strait by Kennedy and Ross on the nights of August 2 and 3, Kennedy decided to move his men to Olasana.

Today it seemed their situation would grow no better.  Johnston–who had dismissed any idea of prayer as a solace during their ordeal– looked at Maguire –who had a rosary– and said “Give that necklace a good working over.”

Maguire did, and suggested to Thom –the 109‘s second in command– that perhaps they should try group prayer.  Thom demurred.  He knew most of the men did not pray ordinarily, so why by hypocritical and do it now?

Little did they know that a miracle awaited them this day in the form of two Solomon Islanders who served the Allied cause as scouts: Biuki Gasa and Eroni Kumana.

While stopping to investigate the wreck of a small Japanese ship on nearby Naru Island, Gasa and Kumana were startled by the sight of two men they took to be Japanese.  In reality they were Kennedy and Ross, who had swum over to Naru to investigate it, since it was only half a mile from Olasana.  It was to the latter that Gasa and Kumana headed next, where they got another shock: a blond, bedraggled man in tattered khaki appearing out of the palm trees shouting “Come, Come” and beckoning to them with his right hand.  They turned their canoe away, assuming it was the enemy again.  In reality it was Leonard Thom, who called out to them “Navy, Navy; Americans, Americans,” to convince Gasa and Kumana he was a friend, not a foe.

Gasa and Kumana finally paused and looked back at him.  Could they trust this man?

Thom rolled up the sleeve of his shirt so Gasa and Kumana could see the color of his skin.  “Me no Jap,” Thom proclaimed.

The duo was still not convinced.

“Me know Johnny Kari,” Thom tried next, referring to a native scout who frequently visited the PT boat base at Rendova.

Gasa and Kumana still waited.

At last Thom pointed towards the sky.  “White star; white star.” He said.

Gasa and Kumana’s doubts vanished at last.

They returned and, despite a language barrier and the suspicions of the other survivors apart from Thom, the chain of events that would lead to their rescue began.

When Kennedy and Ross returned paddling a dugout canoe carrying a case of Japanese candy and a tin containing fresh water, Kennedy immediately realized that here at last was his chance to contact Rendova and inform them of what had happened and where they were.

Soon Gasa and Kumana were on their way back to the Australian coast watcher they worked for –Reginald Evans– with a message from Kennedy carved with his knife on a coconut husk backed by a supplementary message from Thom scribbled onto the back of an old invoice found on Olasana; a message he had written with the stub of a pencil he had carried in a pocket ever since the sinking.

Kennedy and his surviving crewmen were rescued within 48 hours.

One day Kennedy would stand at a podium on the day of his inauguration as the 35th president of the United States and eloquently proclaim to great applause: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Kennedy could well speak those words, for he himself had once done just that; even during those dark days in August of 1943 when he and the survivors of his PT boat were stranded in the midst of their enemies.

It is unspeakably tragic that Kennedy should die at the hands of a lone fanatic when all that he endured seventy years ago did not.


All facts and dialogue presented here comes from Robert J. Donovan, PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WWII, (McGraw Hill; 40th Anniversary Edition, 2001.)



Vicksburg 150th: U.S. Grant wins again

Union forces under U.S. Grant almost break through the Confederate lines at Vicksburg, Miss., during their second pre-siege assault on the city.  The unit depicted here is the 13th US Infantry, which won the accolade “First at Vicksburg” for this feat.  Image courtesy Wikimedia.


Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had sought to capture the strategic point of Vicksburg, Miss., since late 1862.  A railroad hub and a key point for river commerce along the Mississippi, both President Abraham Lincoln and his counterpart Jefferson Davis knew full well of Vicksburg’s crucial importance.

Unfortunately for Grant, his every attempt to take the city fell far short of success until May of 1863, when he embarked on a bold campaign that witnessed him deliberately abandon his supply line and subsist his troops off the land as they struck first towards the Mississippi state capitol at Jackson and then wheeled back west towards Vicksburg, centering the advance of his army on the railroad linking Vicksburg to Jackson and points east.

Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton, commander of the army based at Vicksburg, sought to stop Grant by coming out from his fortifications and taking the fight to him.  Pemberton’s military skills were pedestrian, however, and while his men fought well, Grant had the advantage in both skill and numerical superiority.  The inevitable result was that Pemberton lost every battle he picked with Grant.

But Pemberton’s army regained confidence once back inside the formidable defenses that ringed the eastern side of Vicksburg.  Grant twice tried to break through them, but a measure of his old bad luck returned to haunt him when both failed –though some historians such as Ed Bearss and Stephen Ambrose argue that Grant failed to properly support a breakthrough made by Gen. John C. McClernad’s corps, though scholars such as Bruce Catton do not agree with this argument.

No matter what Grant did or did not do during his attempts to crack Pemberton’s lines, the very fact that Grant had the hapless Pennsylvanian-turned Confederate –Pemberton was married to a Virginia lady– ensured that victory would be his regardless of how long a siege might take.

As Grant’s army ground away at Pemberton’s, Confederate soldiers and civilians alike found themselves under increasing hardships; hardships not even jocular pieces of writing like a “Bill of Fare” for the “Hotel de Vicksburg” that circulated amongst the Confederate ranks promoting “pastries” such as ” pea meal pudding” or “entrees” like “mule beef jerked a-la-Mexicana” or “liquors” like “Spring Water, Vicksburg brand” could obliterate growing pangs of hunger.  By early July Pemberton’s men had had enough of no food and slipped a note signed “Many soldiers” that demanded: “If you can’t feed us, surrender.”  It was the writing on the wall.

On July 3, 1863, a delegation bearing a flag of truce emerged from the Confederate works.

Pemberton and Grant soon met beneath a tree located between the opposing lines.  At first Grant demanded unconditional surrender just like he had done at Fort Donelson the year before.   But Grant changed his mind, and Pemberton was offered generous surrender terms: He was to disarm his troops, who would then be paroled home for the duration of the war.   Pemberton accepted, and on a date replete with tragic irony -July 4, 1863- Old Glory waved once more over the city.

Ironically enough, some of Pemberton’s 30,000 men broke their paroles and returned to combat, being captured again at the battle of Chattanooga the following November!  Regardless of this breach of good faith on the Confederacy’s part, Grant had won again.  With Vicksburg gone, the last remaining Confederate bastion along the Mississippi at Port Hudson, La., capitulated to Union forces besieging it under the command of Gen. Nathaniel Banks.  President Lincoln announced that “The Father of Waters again flows unvexed to the sea”… and Jefferson Davis had to cope with a country now divided in two.

Gettysburg 150th: Lee’s fateful decision

Pickett’s fateful charge begins in Ron Maxwell’s 1993 epic Gettysburg. This scene was filmed on the actual location, a fact that moved one and all as the cameras rolled.  Image courtesy War Movie Blog.


Only July 3, 1776, delegates from the Thirteen Colonies gathered in Philadelphia, Penn., were debating a momentous decision: whether or not to declare independence from Great Britain.

Only July 3, 1863, two armies faced each other at a town 111 miles west of Philadelphia. One army wore blue, the other gray.  As the morning wore on a fateful conference occurred between two generals of the Army of Northern Virginia: Gen. Robert E. Lee. and Gen. James Longstreet.

Lee was eager to attack the center of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge after failing to turn both of its flanks of the Army of the Potomac the day before.  His vision was of a massive artillery bombardment of around 200 guns lined up hub to hub on Seminary Ridge that would pulverize the Union defenders.  After that Longstreet would follow through with three divisions.  One of his own –Gen. George Pickett’s recently arrived one– as well as two from Gen. A.P. Hill’s III Corps, Johnson Pettigrew’s and Isaac Trimble’s.

Longstreet was highly reluctant. Both men had witnessed from atop Mayre’s Heights at Fredericksburg the previous December massed assaults by waves of Union troops crumpling beneath massed Confederate fire from the heights; and those attacks had been launched by numbers greater than that which the hapless Gen. Ambrose Burnside had flung against Lee on that bloody December day.  Longstreet could appreciate Lee’s zeal, given what he had accomplished at Chancellorsville the previous May –a battle Longstreet had missed due to detached duty with two of his divisions– but he would not stand idly by while disaster was in the making. He finally said to Lee something that went like this: “General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.”

Lee listened politely, but his fateful decision had been made.

Longstreet dutifully made his preparations, albeit with a heavy heart.

As the great barrage echoed and reechoed across the hills and fields of Gettysburg and the Union defenders endured the storm as best they could –some dying, some horribly wounded, but most unscathed due to the guns firing too high– Gen. Pickett eventually rode up to Longstreet bearing a message from I Corps artillery commander Lt. Col. E.P. Alexander:

“If you are coming at all, come at once, or I cannot give you proper support, but the enemy’s fire has not slackened at all. At least eighteen guns are still firing from the cemetery itself. –Alexander.”

Longstreet’s heart surely sank lower when he learned that Union cannon were still in action; cannon that could rake the left flank of his attack from their position on Cemetery Hill.

“General, shall I advance?” Pickett asked.

Longstreet could only nod in reply.

Pickett rode off in high spirits.  Soon the grand panorama of the charge that would bear his name appeared on the fields between Seminary and Cemetery Ridge: Soldiers marching in perfect cadence as their battle flags snapped above their gray and butternut-clad ranks.  The sight excited the admiration of their waiting opponents in blue.

But they sight did not overawe them into retreat.

“Do not hurry, men, and fire too fast, let them come up close before you fire, and then aim low and steady,” Union Lt. Frank Haskell heard Gen. John Gibbon tell his men. The night before Gibbon had been warned by Gen. George Meade himself that the next place Lee would attack would be on his front.  He could see now that Meade had displayed an incredible sense of foresight into his legendary opponent’s mind.

Five minutes after Lee’s men had emerged from Seminary Ridge the first shots of the epic finale of the battle of Gettysburg cracked out; skirmishers firing what Haskell eloquently described as “the first drops, the heralds of a storm, sounding on our windows.”

The storm finally broke in earnest as the Union batteries on not only Cemetery Hill but also the ridge –many untouched by the great barrage– opened up.  As soon as Lee’s men came into rifle musket range, the long lines of Union infantry arrayed before them began to fire and fire.

The carnage besetting Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble’s men defied description.  The survivors still marched on, their ever shrinking ranks closing on their battle flags as they fell repeatedly only to rise again and again.   Meanwhile, a Union brigade on the left flank of Pickett’s charge along with one on its right maneuvered out of their defensive positions and poured an enfilading fire into the Confederates, winnowing their ranks even more.

The gray and butternut mass reached the Emmittsburg Road; and while some sections of the fence were down as a result of an attack across this same ground the previous evening. the fence remained largely intact.  More men fell as they tried to surmount this obstacle, while many others crossed.   It was at this point the Confederates began to return the fire that decimated them right and left; but by now they were taking fire on both flanks from two Union brigades that had maneuvered out of their defensive positions and were now pouring enfilading fire into them.  Their odds of success were rapidly dwindling.

One of the men who reached the road was Gen. Lewis Armistead.  Hat perched on his sword as a guide for his brigade, he lead his men not only against the Union II Corps but also a personal friend –II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock.  He marched with a heavy heart, sad to be confronting his friend in battle at last.  His sense of duty kept him marching into the face of hell, however.

Meanwhile, down at the angle of the low stone wall fronting Cemetery Ridge was Lt. Alonzo Cushing.  Cushing’s battery had been one of the few Union batteries Confederate shells had played havoc with during the preceding massed barrage.  By now Cushing only had two guns left in action, and only had canister shot left; canister that flayed the oncoming Confederates.

Cushing was already suffering from a wound suffered during the barrage as well as a burnt thumb suffered when he jammed it over an exhaust vent on one of his guns before it fired when a Confederate bullet entered his mouth and drove into his brain.

He fell dead into the arms of a devoted Sgt. named Fuger, who laid him on the grass before taking command of the two guns.  He did not command them long, however, for their infantry support began to waver and pull back as the Confederates closed in; Fuger and the surviving battery crewmen had no choice but to follow.

Armistead led his brigade through Kemper and Garnett’s survivors.  At last Lee’s army had pierced Cemetery Ridge!

But Armistead and his men were alone. Pettigrew and Trimble’s men had not been able to make any appreciable penetration of the Union line to the north and were now pulling back.

Fresh Union reinforcements closed in to seal the breach by the copse of trees. None other than the First Minnesota Volunteers was amongst them.  Even the death of their temporary commander Capt. Nathan Messick did nothing to staunch their adrenaline as they crowded in with many other regiments.  They may not have captured a Confederate banner during their lone charge the evening before, but today they got one courtesy of the 33rd Virginia Infantry, captured by Pvt. Marshall Sherman when he charged its bearer and demanded his surrender.

Lew Armistead finally fell severely wounded amidst the scuffle at the angle.  He was soon was succored by two Union officers.  He learned from them that Hancock too had been recently wounded, and asked them to convey to their general how sorry he was.

Those Confederates that could beat a hasty retreat, while the rest surrendered.

As the battered and bloodies survivor streamed back to Seminary Ridge –some horrifically wounded– Lee met them.

The sight shocked him to his very core.

Finally a realization dawned inside Lee’s soul, one that he knew he could not deny.  “It’s my fault,” he said out loud over and over.

For decades and centuries after the Civil War, many sought to assign blame to various generals serving in the Army of Northern Virginia –James Longstreet in particular, for his alleged “slowness” in getting his corps into battle on the second day– but such blame-seeking is invalidated at a stroke by Lee’s admission to his men on that hot, bloody afternoon 150 years ago.   Lee knew his fateful decision was his fault and his alone.  No more, no less.  It was an act of moral courage lacking in many a general who made a costly mistake in wartime.

Poor George Pickett.   When Lee asked him to look to his division afterward, the now-traumatized Pickett exclaimed “General Lee; I have no division!”  As indeed he did not: All three of his brigade commanders were now gone, as well as numerous junior officers and enlisted men.

After the war Pickett’s Charge was hailed as the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. To those that survived it, however, it had been a journey to hell and back; a journey none of those delegates gathered in Philadelphia less than a hundred years before could have dreamed of.


Gettysburg 150th: The Charge of the First Minnesota

Sgt. William Irvine, First Minnesota Volunteers, poses with the shot-torn regimental flag in a studio portrait taken after Gettysburg. Sadly, Irvine was later mortally wounded during the siege of Petersburg.  Image courtesy First


Plum Run lay to the front of  the advancing brigade of Confederate Gen. Cadmus Wilcox on the evening of July 2, 1863.   Wilcox, a graduate of the fabled West Point class of 1846 –which saw many future Civil War generals graduate such as Thomas Jackson, George McClellan, Wilcox, and others– could see good fortune lay ahead of the stream. He was leading his men into a large gap in the Union lines on top of Cemetery Ridge.

Then a thin line of blue appeared in their path.

They were the First Minnesota Volunteers.  A regiment first offered by Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey to Secretary of War Simeon Cameron immediately after word of the attack on Fort Sumter reached Washington, D.C., in 1861.  The First Minnesota could justly lay claim to being not only the first regiment from Minnesota but the first unit to answer to call of the Union.

From First Bull Run to Antietam the First had distinguished itself notably.  Good fortune smiled on them in that they were spared the meat grinder below Mayre’s Heights at Fredericksburg the previous December and were lightly engaged in a diversionary action near the same town during the Chancellorsville Campaign of May 1863.

On this July evening, however, the gods of war decreed the First shed its blood.

The chain of events that led to this sacrifice had begun that afternoon when Gen. Dan Sickles had advanced his III Corps off of Cemetery Ridge to occupy the Wheatfield-Peach Orchard-Devil’s Den salient. When Confederate Gen. James Longstreet smashed into Sickles with his I Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, Army of the Potomac commander Gen. George Gordon Meade had no choice but to reinforce Sickles since it was too late now to recall him. The corps that the First Minnesota wore the trefoil emblem corps badge of –the II– committed several brigades in an attempt to shore up the III Corps along with units from the V Corps.  It was to no avail: Longstreet’s battle-hardened men ultimately crumpled the salient and sent the survivors retiring towards their lines.

II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock had committed so many of his troops that he discovered a large gap in his lines along Cemetery Ridge as he sought to rally retreating soldiers; it was the same gap that Wilcox was aiming his brigade for.  Hancock spotted a regiment of infantry supporting a nearby artillery battery. “My God!  Are these all the men we have here?” Hancock exclaimed to Col. William Colville, commander of the First.

“What regiment is this?” Hancock quickly asked Colville.

“First Minnesota.”

“Charge those lines!” Hancock barked.  But before Colville to execute the order Hancock apparently added something else.
“Colonel, do you see those colors?” He asked Colville next, referring to the flag of the leading Confederate regiment in Wilcox’s brigade.

Colville said he did.

‘Then take them!” Hancock cried.

Then the First Minnesota began their charge to glory.

Colville had less than his full strength at his disposal.  Two companies of the first had been detached for duty elsewhere, which left him with only eight totaling less than 300 men. Every man present followed their colonel down the slope of Cemetery Ridge towards Plum Run and Wilcox’s brigade.

In a fierce fire fight that swept Plum Run, Colville, his second in command, and many others fell dead or wounded as Wilcox’s men and Confederate artillery savaged them. The First gave as good as it got, however, and Wilcox’s advance was stymied.  Union reinforcements finally arrived to plug the gap, and the First Minnesota –down to 47 men still on their feet– withdrew to Cemetery Ridge. Wilcox’s men lost not a flag to them but the First had kept theirs even though it had fallen and been raised five times during their feat of valor.

Colville –who until early that morning had been under arrest for letting his men cross a bridge over a stream rather than ford it in order to spare their feet suffering from chafing later on– survived his wound, as well as many other wounded. Many others, alas, would not rise again. One such soldier was Isaac Taylor, brother of Henry Taylor, who survived. “Well Isaac, all I can give you is a soldiers grave.” Henry somberly proclaimed when he took a detachment from the First out to find Isaac. When Abraham Lincoln said that the soldiers who died at Gettysburg had “given the last full measure of devotion” to their country in his Gettysburg Address the following November, Henry Taylor knew painfully well what Lincoln spoke of.

The First Minnesota’s participation was not done yet, however. The next day found the regiment still in the center and ultimately reinforced by the two detached companies. Now commanded by Captain Nathan Messick, they would participate in the grim grand finale of Gettysburg: the repulse of Pickett’s Charge.

Today the shot-torn battle flag of the First Minnesota occupies a hallowed place in the rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.  It is also a somewhat incongruous place, given the petty politics that occur within its halls and chambers.  Nevertheless, it remains 150 years after it was carried into Plum Run as a mute but eloquent reminder of the First’s epic charge.

And Cadmus Wilcox?  He never rose to the heights of fame that classmates like Tom Jackson did; but he will forever be known as the Confederate general whose brigade was stopped by a lone regiment named the First Minnesota.


“Gettysburg” (1993): Cold steel at Little Round Top

20th Maine charge Gettysburg
The 20th Maine surges forward with fixed bayonets in Ron Maxwell’s epic 1993 film Gettysburg.  Image Copyright (C) 1993 Turner Pictures/Warner Brothers; image courtesy


The hills, fields, and swales surrounding Gettysburg, Penn. witnessed many an act of courage 150 years ago today. On this date in 1863 Robert E. Lee sought to turn both the left and right flank of George G. Meade’s army from the “fish hook” position the latter’s Army of the Potomac occupied on high ground east of Gettysburg. Lee’s plan went awry despite a blunder made by Union Gen. Dan Sickles when –incredibly– he advanced his III Corps beyond Meade’s line to ground Sickles somewhat naively thought was better than what he was assigned to.  Sickles’ corps –and ultimately elements from several others– bled dearly for that ground too far; ground they ultimately had to give up: the Peach Orchard, The Wheatfield, Devil’s Den.

Sickles’ mistake late on the afternoon of July 2 did set the stage for glory at a place named Little Round Top, however.

On the slopes of that hill many Union soldiers crossed the threshold into the realm of heroes. Soldiers such as Strong Vincent, Patrick O’Rourke, and, most remembered today, Joshua Chamberlain.  The commanding officer of the 20th Maine Volunteers of Vincent’s brigade, which was the first brigade deployed by Union Gen. G. K. Warren to hold the hill exposed by Sickles advance.

Chamberlain and his men were soon confronted by two tenacious Confederate regiments –the 15th and 47th Alabama– plus part of another –the 5th Texas; the 20th Maine soon had their hands full as they repelled attack after attack.

The men of the 20th steadily burned through their ammunition until a sustained rate of fire became impossible.  Chamberlain was now faced with two options: annihilation or retreat.

Chamberlain chose neither.

Let his own words describe what he did next:

The silence and the doubt of the momentary lull were quickly dispelled. The formidable Fifteenth Alabama, repulsed and as we hoped dispersed, now in solid and orderly array–still more than twice our numbers-came rolling through the fringe of chaparral on our left. No dash; no yells; no demonstrations for effect; but settled purpose and determination! We opened on them as best we could The fire was returned, cutting us to the quick. The Forty-Seventh Alabama had rallied on our right We were enveloped in fire, and sure to be overwhelmed in fact when the great surge struck us. Whatever might be other where, what was here before us was evident; these far outnumbering, confident eyes, yet watching for a sign of weakness. Already I could see the bold flankers on their right darting Out and creeping and crawling like under the smoke to gain our left, thrown back as it was. lt was for us, then, once for all. Our thin line was broken, and the enemy were in rear of the whole Round Top defense– infantry, artillery, humanity itself- with the Round Top and the day theirs. Now, too, our fire was slackening; our last rounds of shot had been fired; what I had sent for could not get to us. I saw the faces of my men one after another, when they had fired their last cartridge, turn anxiously towards mine for a moment; then square to the front again. To the front for them lay death; to the rear what they would die to save. My thought was running deep. I was combining the elements of a “forlorn hope,” and had just communicated this to Captain Ellis J. Spear of the wheeling flank, on which the initiative was to fall. Just then–so will a little incident fleck a brooding cloud of doom with a tint of human tenderness–brave, warm-hearted Lieutenant [Holman S.] Melcher, of the Color Company, whose Captain and nearly half his men were down, came up and asked if he might take his company and go forward and pick up one or two of his men left wounded on the field, and bring them in before the enemy got too near. This would be a most hazardous move in itself and in this desperate moment, we could not break our line. But I admired him. With a glance, he understood, I answered, “Yes, sir, in a moment! I am about to order a charge!”

Not a moment was to be lost! Five minutes more of such a defensive, and the last roll-call would sound for us! Desperate as the chances were, there was nothing for it, but to take the offensive. I stepped to the colors. The men turned towards me. One word was enough,” -BAYONET!” It caught like fire’ and swept along the ranks. The men took it up with a shout ,–one could not say, whether from the pit, or the song the morning star! It were vain to order “Forward.” No mortal could have heard it in the mighty hosanna that was winging the sky. Nor would he want to hear. There are things still as of the first creation, “whose seed is in itself.” The grating clash of steel in fixing bayonets told its own story; the color rose in front; the whole line quivered for the start; the edge of the left-wing rippled, swung, tossed among the rocks, straightened, changed curve from cimetar to sickle-shape; and the bristling archers swooped down upon the serried host–down into the face of half a thousand! Two hundred men! –Joshua Chamberlain, “Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg.”

Chamberlain’s audacious maneuver routed his opponents.

Incredibly, despite numerous accounts of the action left behind by Chamberlain and other members of the 20th, their valor lay forgotten in the dust bin of history along with all the other heroes of Gettysburg –until two men arrived on the scene.

The first was John J. Pullen, who retold the story of the 20th Maine in his book simply entitled The Twentieth Maine.

The light Pullen shined on their story attracted the attention of another writer: Michael Shaara. Shaara had conceived the idea of retelling the saga of Gettysburg in the form of not another history book but a historical novel that boldly utilized historical characters for the cast. Shaara was gripped by the story of Chamberlain and the 20th, and so included them in his masterful novel The Killer Angels.

Shaara’s novel attracted the attention of filmmakers Ken Burns and Ron Maxwell. Chamberlain occupied a prominent place in Burns’ documentary miniseries “The Civil War.”

Maxwell had something even more grand in mind.

In 1992 cameras finally rolled on Gettysburg, Maxwell’s big screen adaptation of The Killer Angels; an adaptation that brought the novel to stunning life.

Here is a You Tube link to a clip from the film that depicts Chamberlain and his gallant charge, a scene so stirring it can send shivers down your spine:

God bless Chamberlain and all the other heroes of Gettysburg’s second day 150 years on.


Gettysburg 150th: John Buford

Buford and staff Aug 1863
Brig. Gen. John Buford and his staff pose in a photographers studio one month after Gettysburg. The officer standing to the left of Buford is none other than Miles W. Keough. An officer destined to fall in battle at the Little Big Horn over a decade later along with another Gettysburg participant: George A. Custer. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.


Gen. John Buford was a lucky general 150 years ago. He not only did not have to contend with Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart and the best of the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry because Jeb and his best brigades were off on a raid. The rest of Robert E. Lee’s horse soldiers were tied down in convoy escort duties. For once, the Army of the Potomac had the advantage.

Buford had wasted no time in realizing Gettysburg’s importance when he arrived with his division on June 30, 1863; he realized that not only did the town’s road hub made it important, he also knew the terrain around town was perfect for defensive fighting. This writer does not know if Buford knew of the plan Gen. George Gordon Meade had for fighting a defensive battle along Pipe Creek just across the Maryland/Pennsylvania border. Buford nevertheless realized the Army of the Potomac could not afford to let Lee capture the high ground at Gettysburg and decide to fight defensively just as he did at Fredericksburg the previous December –to the Union army’s cost.

So Buford set the stage for the epic clash at Gettysburg.  Deploying his division dismounted and on foot, he waited the onslaught.   When it came the next morning, he met the challenge with skill and courage as the III Corps of Lee’s army bore down on Gettysburg from the west. If help did not arrive soon, Buford knew he would also have to contend with Lee’s II Corps as it arrived from the north of Gettysburg.

Gen. John F. Reynolds arrived with the vanguard of Meade’s I Corps, however, and Buford could breathe a little easier.  When Lee’s army drove in the combined forces of Meade’s I and XI corps later that morning, Buford actually threatened the Confederate forces on the Seminary Ridge sector with a mounted charge.  The Rebels near Buford’s Yankees actually formed square to repel their charge, a sight not seen since Waterloo.   Buford was just bluffing in order to buy time for the I Corps to retreat, however.

Alas, Buford’s division actually left Gettysburg on July 2, apparently due to conflicting orders.  Buford may have missed the rest of the battle, but his determination to keep the good ground for the Union paid good dividends for the Army of the Potomac in the bloody days to come.

Speaking of Buford’s stand on July 1, some confusion exists regarding two events that took place during it.

Two accounts left by members of his staff differ as to where Buford was when Gen. Reynolds arrived with the I Corps. One account by one of his staff states he was just behind his dismounted cavalrymen on horseback; the other that he was in the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary on Seminary Ridge. This writer believes Buford was at the Seminary. Much of the terrain on that part of the battlefield is wooded.  Why would Buford deny himself the advantage of such a vantage point, especially when so much was at stake? The discrepancy between the two staff officers’ accounts can be easily explained by a memory slip on the part of the staff officer who assumed Buford and Reynolds first met behind the lines because that is where he himself first saw the two together.

The second event that is surrounded by confusion concerns this question: Just how long did Buford’s men fend of Gen. Harry Heth’s lead division of the Army of Northern Virginia’s III Corps that morning 150 years ago? One historian assumes it was barely a half hour; Buford’s own report states they fought alone for two hours.  This writer believes Buford’s report.  Buford was there, the scholar was not.

Regardless of where Buford was when Reynolds arrived or how long Buford’s men stood alone against Heth’s, the veteran pony soldier deserves the credit many have given him for saving the high ground at Gettysburg.  His innovative use of dragoon-style tactics advocated by Gen. John Watts DePeyster –tactic which Buford had studied before the Civil War—put him at the front rank of Union generals.


Taking apart a bad “Gettysburg” review

Stand firm ye boys from Maine; here the 20th Maine defends Little Round Top in the film Gettysburg. Note the green coated sharpshooters; some really did fight with the 20th during the actual engagement. Image Copyright (C) 1993 Turner Pictures/Warner Brothers; image source BlogSpot.




Ronald F. Maxwell’s Gettysburg –an epic screen adaptation of Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels—has been damned with faint praise from many critics. This article is a point by point refutation of one such review of this grossly underrated motion picture.

TV Guide review:

“Lavishly produced, lovingly detailed, incredibly pious, GETTYSBURG presents a few days of the Civil War during which occurred the biggest battle ever fought on US soil. Yet the film is too focused to succeed as history in context, and too generalized to triumph as personal drama; instead, it’s a made-for-TV miniseries, shown in theaters, which thrusts a new auteur upon the cinema: reverential Civil War buff Ted Turner.”

This reviewer was plainly ill-suited to review historical dramas. His opening paragraph is also as clear as mud: What does he mean by “too focused to succeed as history in context and good generalized to triumph as personal drama”? Didn’t he read The Killer Angels before he sat down to watch Gettysburg? He would have understood the tone and feel of Maxwell’s adaptation better. Also, the “reverential Civil War buff Ted Turner” comment is clearly a dig at Mr. Turner.

“In 1863, Confederate Generals Lee (Martin Sheen) and Longstreet (Tom Berenger) prepare for a decisive battle with the Union at Gettysburg PA. Meanwhile, Northern Col. Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), an academic by profession, must guard a mutinous troop while also moving his own men into position. Union Gen. Buford (Sam Elliott) traps a Southern unit along a narrow road and attacks before they can move to higher ground. Later in the day, however, the South gets an edge, and Lee, unlike Longstreet, wants to charge to seize hold of several key hills. Aided by flamboyant strategist Gen. Pickett (Stephen Lang), Lee plans his attack. Chamberlain’s men, including almost all of the mutineers, who have a change of heart, hold a vulnerable flank on a crucial hill and, though outnumbered, defend their position and even take prisoners.

After a brief lull, North and South steel themselves for the final and largest skirmish. The South sets up an impressive cover of artillery fire so that its forces can cross a field and take the center of battle–exactly the spot where Chamberlain’s exhausted troops have been placed, in the thought that the center will see little action. Despite this miscalculation by the North, the charge is too long and exposed for the South to succeed, and Lee belatedly realizes his mistake. Only three days have passed, and the Civil War will continue for another two years, but the Battle of Gettysburg has claimed 53,000 lives.”

This is a satisfactory summary of the film itself.

“Director Ronald F. Maxwell, whose previous credits include LITTLE DARLINGS and THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA, is undeniably a filmmaker of talent. He labored on GETTYSBURG for years and, though his respect for the enormity of his task shows up harmfully in his screenplay, it works onscreen. The vistas are impressive, the pacing carefully measured, the acting firm. Endless tracking shots of cannons firing seem a bit too designed to impress with their scale, but the combat scenes are handled with a functional directness which suggests less a lack of imagination than a deliberate attempt to emphasize the gritty chaos of battle. Maxwell is also probably most responsible for the finest sequence of the film, the exciting charge on Little Round Top which ends Part I, with Chamberlain’s incredible defense of the hill including even a successful sweep by his ammunition-starved troops upon the attackers below.”

The mixed thumbs up/thumbs down attitude of this section reveals the reviewer’s forte is not historical dramas and war films. He seems to be grasping as he searches for something to praise and something to criticize.

“The acting is uniformly well-crafted but, because the gifted cast is given little to work with, few memorable characters emerge from this panorama. C. Thomas Howell is good as Chamberlain’s brother Thomas, unable to address his commander sibling properly until he sees the older man in battle, and an extremely (indeed, overly) restrained Sheen has some brief flashes of fire as Lee. But only two actors from the huge cast really manage to make an impression as human beings in GETTYSBURG. The splendid Daniels, although his character has as many platitudes to utter as the next, was actually permitted to stutter as the idealistic college professor turned unlikely war hero. And Richard Jordan, who died soon after filming his role (the film is dedicated to him and to source author Michael Shaara), is deeply moving as Virginia’s General Armistead, crying at the thought of his best friend, a Northerner, perishing in combat.”

The reviewer’s lack of knowledge about the book comes through especially clear in this passage.  Ron Maxwell’s script –backed by Shaara’s novel—gave the cast plenty to work with. Their characterizations of the novel’s characters match up beautifully to Shaara’s.

“Ultimately, however, the contributions of director, cast and crew pale beside that of Ted Turner (who plays a cameo role) and that of the medium of TV itself. Aiming to present itself as history rather than a representation of it, GETTYSBURG is a film entirely without a point of view. It dispenses with social critique and, for that matter, irony. Turner presents a Civil War which reveals only the slightest amount of fear and no really malicious intentions. Since the film is focused so intently on the battle alone, the only woman is an onlooker and the only African-American a wounded slave too exhausted to speak. The extras consisted largely of Civil War hobbyists who owned actual uniforms and other paraphernalia; this of course does make them more than ordinary extras, but the insistence of the film’s publicity on calling them “historical re-enactors” is unfortunately emblematic of the production’s pomposity. The dialogue, meanwhile, is crammed with admiring exchanges like “The boys are puttin’ up a hell of a fight”/”They are indeed.” Later on Lee even says, “Does it matter after all who wins?” As with most TV, GETTYSBURG aims not to offend any possible viewing sector of the public, and in that respect it succeeds admirably. After all, this is a Civil War in which everyone can only live or die a hero and, equally importantly, which no one really loses.”

The reviewer is plainly out of his element by now. He has not read the book, so he has no idea what the film was meant to be.

Let Michael Shaara himself explain what his novel was about:

“This is the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, told from the viewpoints of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and some of the other men who fought there.

Stephen Crane once said that he wrote The Red Badge of Courage because reading the cold history was not enough; he wanted to know what it was like to be there, what the weather was like, what the men’s faces looked like. In order to live it he had to write it. This book was written for much the same reason.”

Ron Maxwell followed Shaara’s vision when he made his movie. This refutes the TV Guide reviewer’s gobbledygook arguments against the film in the closing paragraph of his review.


Movie reviewing is-admittedly a thankless task. Reviewers who work for major newspapers and other news outlets are assigned what to watch and review. They have no freedom of choice in the matter.  This in turn means Gettysburg was reviewed by critics out of their element like the one whose review was critiqued here.