Tuesday, April 22, 2014

DVD Review: Civil War: The Untold Story (of the western theater)

A history resource article by  © 2014

Next week RLJ Entertainment will be releasing the new DVD series "Civil War: The Untold Story".  I know many of you Civil War buffs may be wondering how there could be anything about the Civil War that hasn't been told before, but this series, unlike a lot of others I have seen, focuses on the battles of the "west" which the producers claim actually led to the ultimate Union victory.

Now as someone from Oregon, I hardly think of Tennesssee as "the west" but it was, as far as the scope of the Civil War was concerned.  This series closely examines the battles of Shiloh, Stone's River, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Chickamauga as well as Sherman's infamous march across Georgia that wasn't as one sided as many other programs have led us to believe.

These conflicts were particularly interesting to me because back in 1993 when my husband and I were helping my daughter move to the east coast, we visited almost all of the national military parks where these battles occurred on our way home, although we visited the sites in reverse, starting our journey at Fort Sumpter then traveling south to Savannah before swinging east to the site of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville.  Then we drove on to Atlanta then Chatanooga, stopping at the Chickamauga National Battlefield, probably the largest military park on our trip.  Pressing on we drove to Stone's River then Franklin and finally visited our last Civil War cemetery at Shiloh.  The visitor's centers had excellent presentations about the battles, particularly at Chickamauga where the Park Service had just installed a new multimedia theater-in-the-round-type exhibit.  So receiving a review copy of this DVD set was like reliving that unforgettable trip!

The series begins with a discussion of the economic history of slavery.  I didn't realize that slavery was on the decline in the late 18th century until Eli Witney invented the cotton gin.  I remembered how, as a girl, I studied famous inventors like Eli Witney and his cotton gin.  Back in the 50s, though, school teachers did not point to the cotton gin as one of the primary reasons for the outbreak of the Civil War.
The documentary explains that, although the cotton gin was a labor-saving device, it made the cotton cleaning process so efficient that it made the growth of cotton far more profitable than almost any other crop.  Cotton exports jumped from 500,000 pounds in 1793 to 93 million pounds in 1810.  Cotton became as important to the U.S. economy as oil is today.

So, there was a land rush to develop more and more acres into cotton fields.  This corresponded to the increasing acquisition of land during the "manifest destiny" period of U.S. growth.  But, politically, there were sharp differences in opinion about whether newly admitted states would then have to legally sanction slavery viewed by some as necessary for cotton development.

The program was quite candid in pointing out that northerners, with the exception of a few passionate abolitionists, had no real objections to slavery as a labor strategy.  Researchers stated simply that white northeners didn't appreciate the racial "pollution" slavery introduced.   Apparently, successful black individuals in the north,  like Solomon Northup portrayed in "12 years a slave", were an extremely rare exception.

19th century Caricature of the so-called Hottentot
Venus.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
I had never heard about the so-called Hottentot Venus, a rather large African woman named Saartje Baartman, who was sold into slavery.  She was exhibited by showmen in London and Paris because of large fatty deposits on her buttocks.  After her death in 1815, famous French anatomist Georges Cuvier, performed an autopsy on her body, claiming it clearly showed that Africans were more closely related to such primates as orangutans and monkeys, than humans.  These types of studies not only reinforced attitudes of racial superiority in the north but the opinion that slavery actually served to civilize such unfortunate individuals in the south.

I was also surprised to learn that four slave states actually stayed with the Union throughout the Civil War.  Slavery was still legally recognized by the federal government and the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the states in rebellion as a war measure intended to cripple the Confederacy.

The other military goal accomplished by the Emancipation Proclamation was that it successfully prevented the involvement of foreign nations in the struggle.  Britain and France actually considered supporting the Confederacy, since they imported most of the American cotton crop that was sold for export. But, many Europeans opposed slavery as an institution so Lincoln's directive along with a significant Union victory at Antietam successfully influenced foreign powers to maintain a "hands off" policy.

The series then shifts to an examination of military objectives of the Civil War.

From a military standpoint, reclamation of the important economic highway of the Mississippi River was paramount to defeating the Confederacy.  Yet, it appeared to me that Confederate leaders seemed to think there was more importance in victory at the high profile battles along the eastern seaboard (the Civil War version of winning hearts and minds) than in protecting the vital commerce artery of the Mississippi River in the west.  The most famous Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were assigned to those eastern theaters of war, while the battle for control of the Mississippi was relegated to Generals Albert Sidney Johnston, Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood, names much less familiar to people like me that have not studied the Civil War as intensely as I have battles of the ancient world.

Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
I use the word relegated as if Johnston, Bragg and Hood were lesser commanders but that was not necessarily the case.  Johnston was an experienced combat veteran, fighting and directing engagements in the Texas War of Independence, the Mexican-American War, the Utah War and the American Civil War.  Johnston was actually considered to be the finest general officer in the Confederacy by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  But this did not prevent Davis from distributing most of the Confederate resources to the eastern front.

Johnston had to supply his troops by conducting raids and engaging in maneuvers that made it appear that he had larger forces than he actually did.  My additional research revealed that this was compounded by the assignment of support staff that were either incompetent or frequently intoxicated.

Despite all of these obstacles, Johnston still managed to pull off a massive surprise attack against Ulysses S. Grant on the first day at the battle of Shiloh, despite being delayed for three days by adverse weather.  Grant just couldn't imagine Johnston would leave his well fortified position at Corinth to confront Grant in the field.  The surprise maneuver almost worked, with Confederates overcoming bitter Union opposition at the "Peach Orchard" and the "Hornet's Nest".  But, Johnston, charging back and forth ahead of the advancing Confederate line, was shot behind the right knee, possibly by one of his own soldiers .  The bullet cut a major artery and Johnston, seemingly unaware of the seriousness of the wound, bled to death.  The three days lost to bad weather would also prove fatal.

The epic struggle at the "Hornet's Nest" on the first day of the battle of  Shiloh.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

By the second day, Grant, with control of the vital Tennessee River,  received reinforcements bringing total Union troops to 45,000 men to the Confederates'  remaining viable troops estimated at only about 20,000.  To make matters worse, Confederate General Beauregard, unaware of the Union reinforcements, pressed Grant, only to be driven back.  Later counterattacks were eventually repulsed as well. So, Confederate forces finally had to fall back to the heavily defended railroad center at Corinth.

It makes you wonder if Grant had faced the more formidable Johnston on the second day and the battle had occurred on schedule, if the outcome would have been different.

Later in the series as the researchers discussed the campaigns of Sherman in Atlanta, I was surprised to learn about the Confederate successes at Kennesaw Mountain and the more aggressive resistance in Atlanta after command was given to General John Bell Hood.  As my husband and I did not visit any Civil War museums in Atlanta, I only remember Hood as a Confederate general who had suffered severe casualties at the battle of Franklin (where we did stop) in an action sometimes known as the "Pickett's Charge of the West".

Confederate General Braxton Bragg.  Image
courtesy of Wikipedia.
The other Confederate general I enjoyed learning more about was Braxton Bragg.  When I first saw a picture of him at the Chickamauga National Battlefield Visitors' Center, I thought he looked a lot like John Brown with his bushy brows and rather wild look in his eyes.  But this surly officer orchestrated what has been called the greatest Confederate victory in the Western Theater, defeating Union General William S. Rosecrans at the battle of Chicamauga.

As for other political issues of the Civil War, I had never read about George McClellan's run against Abraham Lincoln for president or that if Sherman had not taken Atlanta at the time he did, Lincoln may have lost to powerful and vocal northern supporters in favor of a truce that would have ended in two separate nations.  So I found all of this background information fascinating.

As for the production quality of the DVD set, I thought the reenactment sequences were very well done with very life-like special battle effects and the cinematography was excellent.  Elizabeth McGovern's narration was articulate and quite empathetic.  I much preferred her voice to the rather harsh newsbroadcaster voiceovers I have heard in other presentations.

The series will premiere tonight (April 22, 2014) on a number of public television channels and the DVD set will be available for purchase next week.  I highly recommend it!

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