Civil War Combat: America's Bloodiest Battles
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With beautifully shot footage of reenactors, Civil War Combat illustrates aspects of four particular Civil War battles that are rightfully considered legendary. Filmed on location, the reenactors depict the violent mayhem of the hornet's nest at Shiloh, the valiant charge on the sunken road at Antietam, the carnage in the wheat field at Gettysburg, and the brutal fighting at Cold Harbor. Produced by the History Channel, the episodes all benefit from insightful appearances by historians as well as rangers from the National Park Service. The format of putting the focus on specific points of action in larger battles allows for narratives about specific soldiers and commanders, in both the Union and Confederate ranks, to develop. For instance, the segment on Antietam profiles commanders and individual soldiers from the Union's Irish Brigade and the Alabama regiment they charged during some of the most violent action of the entire war. The Civil War reenactors provide a credible look at how the war must have appeared to participants (though purists will note that some of the reenactors appear too clean and too well fed to have been marching behind Robert E. Lee). The discussions of strategy and the importance of the events depicted, combined with the uniformly excellent cinematography, make this an entertaining and enlightening look at critical events of the Civil War. --Robert J. McNamara
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"Civil War Combat" is one of the later Greystone documentaries that was made not too long before The History Channel started calling itself "History" and giving its viewers a steady diet of mind-numbing reality TV programs about pawn shops, loggers, and crypto-zoology. As a Greystone Production, "Civil War Combat" will seem very familiar to old time History Channel viewers. It follows a similar format as other Greystone documentaries such as "Barbarians," "The Crusades," and "Civil War Journal." It features a straightforward narration with modern footage of the historical locations intermixed with period photos/paintings, maps, and historian talking heads. In addition, as with all Greystone Productions, it has actors portraying historical figures and reenactments of the historical events with the assistance of amateur historical enthusiasts (ie, reenactors.)
"Civil War Combat" is a two DVD set broken into four parts with each DVD containing two parts. Each 40 minute part is a separate program introduced by former TV journalist Roger Mudd about a particularly hard fought segment of a certain Civil War battle. The strength of "Civil War Combat" is its narrow focus on just a small part of a particular battle. Thus, it is able to give a lot more tactical and human interest detail about these fights than most Civil War documentaries. The subject matter of each particular program is as follows:
1) Hornet's Nest of Shiloh
2) The Sunken Lane of Antietam
3) The Wheatfield of Gettysburg
4) The Federal Assault at Cold Harbor
As set forth above, each program has lots of footage of how these battlefields look today, photos of the historical participants, narration of the events being depicted with actors occasional reading first hand accounts of the fighting, maps detailing the position of the forces, and historians imparting their knowledge.
However, the vast majority of these programs is spent on showing actors and reenactors recreating the historical events being narrated. This is problematic. Although the production values are relatively high for a Greystone documentary with its use of special effects such as "explosions" and "bullets" striking soldiers, the small groups of men being used to represent actions that involved hundreds, if not thousands, of participants are hard to swallow. Twenty guys in a single line does not do justice to the scope of the actual historical events. As understrength as many Civil War regiments could be, twenty to thirty men being used to represent not just a regiment but an entire brigade is silly.
Even more problematic is the use of historical amateur enthusiasts to represent the soldiers of the Blue and the Gray. It was nice that reenactors volunteered their time and brought authentic looking equipment and uniforms in an attempt to bring these historical events to life. However, the Civil War, like almost all wars, was a young man's war. The vast majority of its combatants were men in their late teens and early-to-mid 20's. Plus, they were reduced to sinew and bone by immense physical exertion and a poor diet. Yet, watching "Civil War Combat" one would get the impression that Civil War armies were filled with middle-aged, fat guys. Reenacting is not a young man's hobby, and the sight of gray-haired, gray-bearded, and obese privates and corporals in Civil War uniforms is eye-roll inducing. No one would create a documentary or film about the Vietnam or Iraq Wars featuring fat, old men as combat soldiers, but for some reason this is acceptable for Civil War documentaries and films when in reality it is complete nonsense. Look closely at the photos of Civil War soldiers. Despite the facial hair and gaunt faces, they were YOUNG! The battle scenes for "Civil War Combat" with all these middle-aged, fat guys waddling about are cheap and cheesy looking.
Why three stars? These documentaries are about very interesting facets of certain battles and thus they can be educational. Plus, the historians, photos, and maps are interesting. The battle scenes although cheesy are still a step above most reenactor pageants due to the inclusion of special effects and the deliberate attempts to act out particular events. Still, these Greystone documentaries, movies like "Gettyburg" and "Gods & Generals," and even the admirable work of historical illustrators like Don Troiani have created a warped view of the average Civil War soldier as a middle-aged man when in reality the vast majority of them were "boys." I think it does a disservice towards those young men who gave the last full measure of devotion: "to die so young is more than merely dying; it is to lose so large a part of life."
For the money, this DVD set is certainly a worthwhile piece. However, even made in 1999, it feels inferior to what it could have been.
For one, the title is misleading, but the back descriptions openly admit: these documentaries are NOT about the battles, but about specific instances in the battle. So concerned with the individual aspects of each battle is the documentary that it becomes esoteric, and a completely new experience even for someone like me who has studied such battles as Antietam and Gettysburg deeply. The Battle of Shiloh manages to go beyond the Hornet's Nest itself, but the piece on Antietam never leaves the trenches, and the piece on Gettysburg is secured entirely in the wheatfield, to a point of such intense study and devotion that you'd think the Wheatfield was where the core of the battle took place (Hint: it wasn't. It was major, but it was not the decisive battle area).
The re-enactments are decent, but inferior. Most of the re-enacting involves men laying around camp, or marching into battle. Typical of cable television documentaries, there's no blood and no violence, with very little emphasis on the actual fighting, and more on men marching, falling dead, and raising their guns to fire at targets never shown on camera. The re-enactment footage, compared to the pictures and interviews, are very hazy, as if done with a lower-quality camera, or under a perpetual veil of dust. Some of the casting, even though only present for a few seconds, are questionable, and their actions appear slightly out of character for the historical person. For example, the extra playing General Longstreet appears too portly, and looks so taken aback by the actions at the Wheatfield that he appears stunned stupid, not exactly the sort of reaction of a Corps Commander.
For the price offered by Amazon or its merchants, this is certainly a worthy addition, but I do not recommend it to anyone not a devoted studier of Civil War history, and even then it can appear dry, almost dull, when compared to other documentaries, or movies or books like "Gettysburg/The Killer Angels", "Gods and Generals", "The Last Full Measure", "Cold Mountain", etc.