Gettysburg: Sacred Ground/Sacred Story
No Civil War battlefield in America evokes more passion or conjures up more images than Gettysburg National Military Park. In fact, much of our national memory derives from the three days of battle fought there in July 1863, and also from the idea of “a new birth of freedom,” which took root on November 19, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. The TwHP lesson plan Choices and Commitments: The Soldiers at Gettysburg examines the motivations of men from north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line within the context of Civil War America, providing a glimpse into their respective psyches. One way you can enliven this lesson plan is to utilize different clips from the motion picture Gettysburg, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. Michael Shaara’s book and the subsequent film are about more than just physical combat; they are, in part, about the emotions and justifications for waging war for a cause. The several excerpts provided in this lesson plan do the same thing, but using visual imagery from the film heightens student learning.
Implementing the R.E.E.L. Process:
R: Retelling History: Introductory Discussion Because the battle of Gettysburg is included in the National History Standards Grades 5—12, it makes sense to create a classroom extension activity. With the R.E.E.L. approach, you can “show” and not just “tell” students what happened, while also getting them to see beyond a time, place, and date into a complex intellectual minefield. Use the same introductory approach as discussed in the Manassas lesson, but be certain to clarify with your students the differences between a documentary film like that of Ken Burns and a Hollywood interpretation of the Civil War. While the same general rules apply to the approach here, you are dealing with a different kind of character portrayal.
E: Evidence Collecting from the Primary Source (TwHP lesson Plan)
Have students first read “Three Days of Carnage” from the Determining the Facts section of the TwHP lesson plan. Then provide them the three personal accounts that follow in “Perspectives of the Participants.” Have the students answer the question prompts. These questions help students see into the minds of real people from the past, while allowing them to form their own original thoughts about these individuals’ reasoning and feelings without the addition of music, photography, and narration. It is a cleaner, less externally-invasive, approach.
E: Evidence Collecting from the Film
There are many different clips from the film you can use to support the material provided in the readings for this lesson’s Determining the Facts section. There are three clips I think particularly work well. The first clip is where Union Captain Thomas Chamberlain engages in a conversation with some captured Confederates over why they are fighting. Characters here flesh out their respective positions. The second scene is a conversation between Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (older brother of Thomas Chamberlain) and Sergeant Buster Kilrain about race and its place in 1863 American life. The third scene is a lengthy conversation between Confederate General Lewis Armistead and British observer Arthur Freemantle, which takes place moments before the Confederates launch Pickett’s Charge on Day Three of the battle.
There also are several scenes of combat in the film that you can use to juxtapose with “Three Days of Carnage,” particularly the 20th Maine’s defense of Little Round Top and the climactic Pickett’s Charge. If you want to take it even further, you can show yet another film clip on the 20th Maine’s stand on Little Round Top, this one from the Ken Burns series (Episode 5: Universe of Battle). In the latter clip, Burns chose to use the reminiscences of Private Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine to tell the story. So once again, narration overlaid with graphics, music, and sound effects produces a particular kind of historical immediacy. The problem with this clip, however, is that, even though Gerrish was a soldier in the 20th Maine, he was convalescing in a hospital in Philadelphia on July 2, 1863. Once again this raises serious questions with which students must wrestle.
L: Learning to Critically Examine Historic Retellings (by Comparing the Evidence)
After students have read documents in the TwHP lesson, followed by watching the film clips, you can query them as to how much the primary material they read matches what filmmaker Ronald Maxwell captured in his motion picture interpretation. Does the historical record provided by the primary sources validate what students saw on screen? In other words, how accurate is the film to real history?
This takes us back to the primary documents in the TwHP “Perspectives” reading, since they were all written or compiled long after the war. How do we know what is accurate? Script writers created the characters’ dialogue in Gettysburg. Burns chose to use the words of someone who for all intents and purposes appears to have been part of the drama on Little Round Top, but in fact was not. Even the eyewitness accounts may have been skewed by the passage of time. These are the complexities and ambiguities, even with primary sources, with which any good historian must grapple when analyzing the past and then developing a historical interpretation, whether in writing or on screen. Students are quick to point out that Hollywood films have a particular goal in mind—making money is the bottom line—that shapes how a film is created. So not only did soldiers have choices and commitments about their actions, but so do historians, filmmakers, and even the participants themselves, about how to portray those actions.