A Civil War Historian Gives the Blue and the Gray a More Than Passing Grade

updated 11/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

CBS' dramatization of the Civil War in The Blue and The Gray is twice as long and, in my opinion, twice as good as its nearest competitor, Gone With the Wind. But does this TV epic offer an authentic portrayal of the Civil War? The answer must be mixed. On the negative side: The drama fails to tell viewers what the war was about—and what its participants thought it was about. The scenes depicting John Brown's execution and the lynching of a freed black man hint that the conflict concerned slavery. Much later we see Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. But these scenes burst onto the screen without a context; the viewer gets no clear idea how or why slavery and emancipation became involved with the war. In fact, most Yanks and Rebs did not go to war primarily to protect or abolish slavery. Northerners believed they were fighting to defend government, flag and nation from destruction by "rebels"; Southerners believed they were fighting to defend home and land from invasion and spoliation by Yankee "hordes." The scriptwriter missed good opportunities to convey these themes. For instance, the script's conversation between a Northern soldier and a Confederate soldier during a battle in Virginia could have had Johnny Reb utter the words of an actual Southern soldier captured in battle, who, when asked why he as a non-slaveholder was fighting for slavery, replied: "I'm fighting because y'all are down here."

Civil War buffs will note a few factual errors and flaws in the film. In February 1861 Lincoln assumes that war is inevitable, when in fact he was trying to avoid it. Confederate infantry fire comes from inside the Henry House at the First Battle of Bull Run. Artillery shells burst with unreal reliability in attempts to shoot down observation balloons. Union soldiers sing The Battle Cry of Freedom in June 1862—before it was written. And why couldn't CBS have filmed all the scenes in the right season of the year? Instead, we have trees with spring or summer foliage during John Brown's execution in December 1859 and Lincoln's whistle-stop near Gettysburg in February 1861.

But these are small errors. The conflicting allegiances of the main characters reflect a true dimension of the war and symbolize the national tragedy of a house divided against itself. The main details of dress, uniforms and weapons are strikingly realistic. The battle scenes are convincing (except for two or three skirmishes in the macho gunslinging style of grade-B Westerns). The episodes of soldiers in camp, on the march and in combat are excellent. The depictions of life in Vicksburg during the siege, of women nurses in war hospitals and of wartime railroad are well done. Even the sentimentality of the love stories conveys an ultimate realism, for this was a sentimental age. Gregory Peck makes a fine Abraham Lincoln, though his rich baritone is not anything like Lincoln's higher-pitched voice. The few other actual historical personages who appear briefly are accurately portrayed: John Brown, members of Lincoln's War Cabinet, Mary Lincoln, Generals Grant, Lee, Meade and Haupt. But this is mainly the story of the common people who fought and endured the Civil War, told through fictional characters whose roles will help viewers understand something of what it was like to live and die in America's most traumatic and crucial war.

The reviewer is a professor of history at Princeton University and author of the recent Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction.

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