Even though it chronicles one half of the Eastern sector of the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil, the new movie “Gods & Generals,” is one of the most deeply religious movies ever produced.
In every one of the four Gospels, there is that account of the violence of Jesus Christ. For after a brief sermonette of one verse, he took “a small scourge of cords” and used it to whip the money changers and sacrificial animal salesmen out of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Two of the most devoutly religious and courageous soldiers in American history were Thomas Jonathan (Stonewall) Jackson of Virginia and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine. Both of these men were well aware of the violence of Jesus in the Temple, which cost him his life by an enraged Sanhedrin and a Roman procurator who wanted peace at any price. Both of these devout Christian generals are superbly portrayed: Jackson by Steve Lang and Chamberlain by Jeff Daniels.
I cannot remember at any time of my life, of having seen so many hundreds of films, that I have ever seen prayer more deeply moving than Gen. Jackson’s early morning devotions alone in the countryside, facing a rising sun and praying just before military action near a town called Manassas.
That and the expressed theology of this Cromwellian genius, who, when asked by a subordinate officer how he had remained so calm under heavy fire, replied: “The Lord knows my time of departure – which could be in battle, or in bed. Therefore I am no more afraid in battle than in bed.”
Equally devout is Col. Chamberlain, the North’s primary hero in both “Gods & Generals” and its predecessor film, “Gettysburg.” So is Gen. Robert E. Lee, first portrayed by Martin Sheen in “Gettysburg,” and now by an actor, who in my view, has had no peer since the death of Lawrence Olivier – Robert Duvall.
Through the inestimable kindness of director, screenwriter and producer Ron Maxwell, I was given the honor of a bit part in both of these movies – as well as playing a Confederate color sergeant during the six days of filming “Pickett’s Charge” – on the first of these six days, we were on the actual hallowed ground where that great Napoleonic assault took place.
When we heard the war drums and the cheering of the artillerymen as we marched out from the woods of Seminary Ridge, I am sure that I was not alone in weeping. I had the remembrance of seven of my family that served in that army. For this was a march described by one writer as:
Pickett’s Virginians were passing through;
supple as steel and brown as leather
Rusty and dusty of hat and shoe
wonted to hunger and war and weather
Peerless, fearless, an army’s flower!
Sterner soldiers the world saw never
Marching lightly that summer’s day
to death, and failure – and fame forever
The speaking role I had in both movies was Confederate Brig. Gen. William Barksdale of Mississippi. He was my cousin, and that had one importance because he was the only clean-shaven confederate general in the battles – and I look like him.
There is enough in Barksdale’s life to do a movie about him – as there was in the lives of a number of the leaders on both sides. I was very deeply moved to be able to portray him in one scene in “Gettysburg,” and two in “Gods & Generals” in the absolutely stupendous Battle of Fredericksburg.
- He was born Aug. 21, 1821, Rutherford Co. Tenn., son of William Barksdale Sr., veteran of the War of 1812 with Andrew Jackson in New Orleans, and grandson of Nathaniel Barksdale, veteran of the Revolutionary War.
- At 16, he moved with two brothers to Mississippi in 1837.
- He read for law in Columbus and was admitted to the Bar at 20 in 1840. (His brother, Ethelbert, served 4 years in the Confederate Congress and after the war became publisher of the Jackson Clarion Ledger).
- In 1846, he enlisted as a private in the 2nd Mississippi Rifles, commanded by Col. Jefferson Davis.
- He rose through the ranks and eventually mustered out as captain, after being appointed commissary officer (quartermaster). He not only performed commendably, but also kept volunteering for combat.
- In 1853, he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives against fellow Mexican War veteran, Rueben Davis. It was an extremely bitter campaign, culminating in both of them meeting in a room of the Hotel Washington in Vicksburg on July 1, 1853 to arrange a duel, across the Mississippi in Louisiana. Davis backhanded Barksdale in the face.
Barksdale responded by knocking Davis down, Davis got up, pulled a penknife and stabbed Barksdale 10 times in his arms, chest and side (all flesh wounds). Barksdale, bloody but unbowed, decked Davis again. The fight was finally broken up, and there was no duel. The electors were horrified, not at duels or knife fights, but at Davis attacking an unarmed man. Therefore, Barksdale was elected in a landslide. He was re-elected in 1855, and twice more in 1857 and 1859 – without opposition.
- In Washington, most congressmen went to the Capitol armed. Barksdale, one of the most eloquent and articulate defenders of slavery and states rights, equipped himself with a Bowie knife to escort the south-hating Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania from the floor.
- This notoriety led to charges that he also used his knife to keep anyone from going to the rescue of Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on May 22, 1856. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina, offended by Sumner’s reference to his father-in-law, entered the Senate with a gutta percha cane, which he used to beat the seated Sumner into unconsciousness and permanent injury. There were, however, no witnesses that testified that Barksdale was involved. It is doubtful, given his experience with Davis’ penknife, that he would have protected Brooks in this surprise attack on another unarmed man.
- On Feb. 1, 1858, the U.S. House of Representatives was still in session at 2 a.m., debating the red-hot issue of slavery in Kansas. Mississippi’s Gen. John Quitman, a congressman and hero of the Mexican War, asked special permission of the House to explain something. Pennsylvania Congressman Galusha Grow, who loved to bait southerners, loudly and impolitely objected. South Carolina’s Rep. Laurence Keitt demanded that in accordance with House rules Grow must make his objection from his party’s side of the aisle.
Grow retorted: “I will make my objection anywhere I choose.” And then arching his eyebrows, he added: “Since this is a free House.” Rep. Keitt responded: “You are a black Republican puppy!” Rep. Grow countered: “I’ll not allow any n–ger-driver to crack a whip around my ears!” At which Keitt clutched Grow by the throat. The House floor then became a free-for-all, with numerous fisticuffs and wrestlings. When the curious onlookers approached this melee to get a ringside view, they were thought by Republicans to be reinforcements.
Among the fist-swinging congressmen were Davis of Mississippi (who had knifed Barksdale six years earlier), Craig of North Dakota, Potter of Wisconsin (“a fist like an ox”), Washburne of Illinois, Washburn of Wisconsin, Lamar of Mississippi, Lovejoy of Ohio, Bocock of Virginia, Montgomery of Pennsylvania and Covode of Pennsylvania “who seized a giant spittoon.” (Washburne and Washburn both became Union generals).
Barksdale was in the thick of the fighting when he received a fierce blow from Grow. This caused Barksdale, whose hair was thinning, to lose his hairpiece. He promptly reached down and put it back on – backwards. This was instantly noticed by his violent colleagues. They began roaring with laughter, shook hands, voted to adjourn and went off to bed.
When the Mississippi legislature passed the ordnance of secession, Barksdale resigned from Congress and returned to Mississippi, to volunteer for military service. He was appointed quartermaster general for all of Mississippi’s troops but, within days, he resigned to accept election as Col. of the 13th Mississippi Regiment of the Confederate States Army, organized on May 14, 1861. This regiment was ordered to Union City, Tenn., to a training center under Gen. Leonidas Polk, the Episcopal bishop and West Pointer.
After brief training, they were moved to Lynchburg and, on July 20, railroaded to Manassas Junction, arriving after dark. The following day, after reporting to Gen. Jubal Early, this regiment attacked the Union Army’s right flank, with such speed and savage intensity that the Federals fled, beginning a momentous rout and a spectacular Confederate victory.
On Dec. 9, 1861, the 13th was assigned to the Mississippi Brigade, under command of Gen. Richard Griffith, who in the next spring’s fighting on the Peninsula was mortally wounded. His place was taken by Col. Barksdale, as senior colonel.
After the Battle of Malvern Hill, where Barksdale’s command suffered 91 killed and 434 wounded, the new commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Gen. Robert E. Lee, recommended Barksdale for promotion, with Lee’s personal citation: “Seizing the colors himself and advancing under terrific artillery and infantry fire, Col. Barksdale displayed the highest qualities of a leader and soldier.” (How often in that war were fallen colors seized and carried by colonels?) Barksdale was promoted to brigadier general on Aug. 12, 1862.
At Fredericksburg, Barksdale’s Brigade had its most strategic effect of the war – rivaled only by their nearly breaking the Union line in Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard.
From 2 a.m. until after sundown, on Dec. 11, 1862, the Mississippians kept decimating Gen. Burnside’s army engineers as they were trying to build pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock. Finally, Gen. Burnside grew impatient with trying to dislodge the southern snipers with return musketry. So, he ordered his artillery chief Gen. Hunt, to barrage the town with his 147 guns on Stafford Heights. Barksdale’s men took cover in cellars. Whenever the Union heavy artillery let up, out they came and began shooting down more Union army engineers. The artillery caused Fredericksburg homes to burn.
Barksdale sent a message to Longstreet, “Shall I have my men put out the fires?”
Longstreet replied, “You have enough to do to watch the Yankees!”
It took two orders by Barksdale’s superior, Major Gen. Lafayette McLaws to get him to evacuate this artillery-pulverized town instead of remaining for some hand-to-hand. Finally, after sunset, the Mississippians evacuated. They went to Marye’s Heights, where their heroic delaying action under heavy bombardment had given the 75,800-man Lee, Jackson, Longstreet and company time to dig in for the Dec. 13 Confederate shoot-out of 12,700 of Burnside’s 106,000 Federals.
The Mississippi Brigade remained in this area for nearly five months. During the Chancellorsville battle, they were stretched thin for three miles and given the task, as one brigade, of halting the entire Union Fourth Corps of the competent and well-beloved Gen. (Uncle John) Sedgwick – 15,000 to 20,000 against part of one Confederate brigade.
They built triple campfires to try to deceive the North. They were eventually overrun with heavy casualties, but they held long enough to keep Sedgwick from attacking Lee, and that was an essential. For in an audacious gamble, Lee divided his army, and turned loose Stonewall Jackson for his spectacular flanking of Howard’s Corps – and another Confederate victory.
On July 2, 1863, the Mississippi Brigade arrived on the line at Gettysburg Seminary Ridge. Here, William Barksdale led his final and most spectacular charge … at the sacrifice of his life. He was at such a distance in front of his men that one Union Army officer ordered his men to: “Aim at that big politician!”
Barksdale fell with several wounds. After being kindly treated in a Union hospital, he died near dawn of July 3, still confident of Confederate victory – and praying at last that God would take care of his wife and two young sons back home in Mississippi.
Editor’s note: Historical information in this column was excerpted from one chapter of the new book “Faith in God & Generals,” published by Broadman & Holman.