Picks and Pans Review: Civil War Generals

updated 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ulysses S. Grant Robert E. Lee Stonewall Jackson

Here's an easy way to get to know your generals. This trio of tapes offers the equivalent of Cliffs Notes profiles of three of the Civil War's major players. There is Grant, the bumbling businessman turned battlefield wizard; Lee, the Virginia aristocrat who opposed slavery yet remained loyal to his own as commander of the Confederate Army; and Jackson, the fiercely demanding tactical genius who pushed back Union troops in more than one nasty skirmish before he was accidentally shot by members of his own brigade.

Each 30-minute tape is illustrated with a parade of prints, photographs, paintings and footage of historic hot spots, all made more vivid by Grammy-winner Jon Carroll's original scores. Interviews with historians, who speak fondly of the heroic generals as if they were old bowling buddies, are ably edited into these minidocumentaries, each of which keeps to the same blueprint: tracing the subject's life from birth to death and spotlighting the memorable moments in between. (Atlas Video, $19.95 each, $59.95 the set; 800-999-0212)


No production can capture a remarkable life in 35 minutes, but this documentary makes an honorable attempt. Gracefully written by historian Scott Ellsworth and authoritatively narrated by James McPherson, whose Battle Cry of Freedom won a Pulitzer, it presents more of a sketch than a full-color portrait of the nation's 16th President.

Viewers are reminded of Lincoln's impoverished childhood, his early years in Illinois, his ventures into law and politics. There are mere glimpses of his evolution as a powerful orator and antislavery advocate, his marriage to the emotionally troubled Mary Todd and his life as a father. Lincoln, as we know, was a melancholy man who lost three of his four sons before they reached their teens.

Well-traveled territory is passed reviewing the brooding years of Lincoln's Presidency, which coincided with the Civil War, and his assassination just after his vision of preserving the Union was realized. At Lincoln's deathbed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton announced, "Now he belongs to the ages." On a small scale, this tape carries on that proclamation. (Atlas Video, $19.95; 800-992-0212)


The Battle of Gettysburg marked "the beginning of the end" for the Confederacy, and in this splendid half hour actor Stacy Keach gives an intelligent review of the strategies and struggles that also made Gettysburg the most ferocious encounter in North America. Simple maps, prints, photos and action footage—including commentary by Pulitzer prizewinning historian Bruce Catton—imbue the bald facts with clarity and resonance in this intriguing narrative. (Parade Video, $14.95; 800-548-8927)


This 55-minute video introduces the weekend tourist to the national parks and restorations in Virginia's Old Dominion, where most of the Civil War was fought. Again, the itinerary includes the majorbattle sites. The narrative is sturdy enough, but the tour gives the impression that it's nigh impossible to walk three feet without tripping over a cannon nestled under a blooming dogwood tree. And, if you want a survey of the visitors' centers before you plan your trip, this is your video.

Beyond the refreshment stand, this excursion focuses on buildings: a stone house overlooking the Manassas battlefield, which was converted to a hospital during the war; the Chancellorsville cottage where Stonewall Jackson died; and historic houses of Appomattox Court House, the village where two days after Lee's surrender, some 28,000 Confederate soldiers laid down their muskets and started the long walk home. (Finley Holiday Films, $29.95; 800-345-6707)


This engaging tape pays tribute to pioneering photographers who roamed Civil War campsites and battlefields with cameras, chemical tanks and boxes of cumbersome glass photo plates. Such men as James Brady, George S. Cook and Alexander Gardner saw the war from covered wagons that doubled as portable darkrooms.

The soldiers called them "what's it" wagons and befriended the intrepid lens-men, whose observations in diaries and letters show, in turn, the shared hardships of military life. In fact, with its dramatized live action and original photography, this tape not only reveals the war photographers' difficult task, it also conveys the bitter reality that is all war. (Parade Video, $14.95; 800-548-8927)

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