THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: James Jackson Purman – Medal of Honor Recipient (Thursday, July 2nd, 1863)

The Medal of Honor is the highest military award given to the soldiers of the United States Army. It is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” At the Battle of Gettysburg, only 63 of the 80,000 Union soldiers who fought there received the honor. One of those men to receive America’s highest award was James Jackson Purman. His gallantry may not have been as high as those of other men who won the award, but for the men he led, his actions were no less important.

James Jackson Purman, after the war.

James Jackson Purman, after the war.

James Jackson Purman was born in Pennsylvania in 1841. At the time of Gettysburg, he was serving as a Lieutenant in Company A of the 140th Pennsylvania. On July 2nd, 1863, his company was involved in the fighting in the Wheatfield on the Union left flank. At the risk of his own life, he, along with Captain James Pipes, voluntarily moved a wounded comrade to safety, before falling himself with a wound to the leg. He lay on the ground there until the next day, when he was finally removed from the field. His leg was amputated, but while being treated, he fell in love with one of the nurses, Mary Witherow, whom he later married. On October 30th, 1896, over thirty-three years after the fight at Gettysburg, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery under fire in moving his comrade to safety (Captain Pipes was also awarded the same honor).

Following Gettysburg, he worked as a schoolteacher before starting work with the U.S. Pension office in 1881. James Jackson Purman died in Washington, D.C. on May 11, 1915, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery along with his wife. But his legacy, and the legacy of those men who fought at Gettysburg, continues to inspire the people of America to this day. Recently, acclaimed actor Stephen Lang brought Purman to life in a one-man performance, where he portrayed Purman as if he was giving a speech at the 50th Anniversary Commemorations of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. That performance, as well as a Q&A with the actor, can be found here.

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, a look at the often-overlooked attack on Culp’s Hill on the third day of the battle.


The 16th President on Film: Some of the Best Screen Portrayals of Abraham Lincoln

Over the next two years, two high-profile film and television projects will be released featuring America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. This December, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a biopic on Lincoln set in the last three months of his Presidency, will feature Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, Last of the Mohicans) as Lincoln. This will be followed in 2013 by the highly-anticipated miniseries “To Appomattox,” which will feature acclaimed actor Stephen Lang (Avatar, Gods and Generals, Gettysburg, TV’s “Terra Nova”) as the President (There’s also Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I flat out refuse to talk about on this blog). These two projects will add to the list of nearly 300 film and television portrayals of the man labeled our greatest President. But of all these different portrayals, which of these truly stand out as the best of the bunch? With this article, I shall look at my five favorite portrayals of Lincoln on film (so far). They are in sequential order, mostly going by year of release.

1. Henry Fonda, (Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939)

Henry Fonda in "Young Mr. Lincoln"

1939 is considered a banner year for Hollywood, with classic films such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz among the greatest films released that year. John Ford, considered by many to be the greatest of Western film directors, released two major films that year: Stagecoach (Which gave birth to the Western as we know it) and Young Mr. Lincoln. A fictionalized account of Lincoln’s days as a prairie lawyer, the film features a young Henry Fonda in one of his early screen roles. Fonda turns in a truly amazing performance as Lincoln, capturing the tenderness and humor that Lincoln is known for, while also showing how he would go on to be a shrewd lawyer and politician. Although not as well known as other films of its day, this truly captures the spirit of Lincoln in his formative years in Illinois.

2. Hal Holbrook (Sandburg’s Lincoln, 1974; North and South, 1985; North and South, Book II, 1986)

Hal Holbrook in "North and South"

Hal Holbrook is one of the few actors who has portrayed Lincoln on film more than once. He first donned the stovepipe hat and beard for what has been called the first televised miniseries, Sandburg’s Lincoln, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Carl Sandburg. Holbrook truly did a magnificent job in the role, showing mostly Lincoln’s penchant for humor, while also showing his softer and political sides when needed. For his performance, Holbrook would win an Emmy Award for Best Actor. Eleven years after Lincoln, he would reprise the role for the adaptation of John Jakes’ bestselling novels North and South and Love and War, where he delivers a more tender portrayal of Lincoln during his time in office. Holbrook is also the only previous actor to portray Lincoln who will star in Spielberg’s Lincoln film, as Francis Preston Blair.

3. Gregory Peck (The Blue and the Gray, 1982)

Gregory Peck in "The Blue and the Gray"

Gregory Peck, star of such classic films as Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Guns of Navarone, portrayed Lincoln for this 1982 miniseries. Although a relatively minor role in the series, Peck once again shines out above the rest of the cast, giving a truly memorable performance as Lincoln (His recitation of the Gettysburg Address is truly memorable). Peck felt himself too old to portray the character, but that did not stop him from turning in a fantastic performance.

4. Sam Waterston (Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, 1988; The Civil War, 1990)

Sam Waterston in "Gore Vidal's Lincoln"

Like Hal Holbrook, Sam Waterston (“Law and Order”) would portray Lincoln more than once. In 1988, he starred in the adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln, which looked at the more political side of our 16th President. In my opinion, Waterston’s portrayal in this miniseries is the definitive Lincoln we have on film. Although he does show his humorous side, he also shows that Lincoln was a shrewd and powerful politician, able to handle his cabinet and others with great effectiveness. Waterston earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal. But he is best remembered for giving voice to Abraham Lincoln in Ken Burns’ classic documentary, The Civil War, which garnered tremendous critical acclaim, and high ratings for PBS. Waterston’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address is just one of the highlights in what is truly a remarkable document of our nation at war.

5. Fritz Klein (No Retreat from Destiny: The Battle that Rescued Washington, 2006)

Fritz Klein as Lincoln

A powerful but little-known film, No Retreat from Destiny depicts the events of July, 1864, when Jubal Early’s Confederate force nearly took Washington City, but a delaying action at Monocacy allowed time for Federal troops to defend the capital from invasion. The film features Fritz Klein, a well-known Lincoln actor, as the President, showing the resolve to win the war to the end, and refusing to leave the capital, despite the threat of Confederate invasion. Klein’s portrayal is subdued, but also shows the talent of a man who knows Lincoln inside and out, and gives the film’s best performance. If you have not seen the film, I encourage you to do so. Despite its miniscule $500,000 budget (Which shows at times), the performances and thrilling battle footage more than make up for it.

So, there are my picks for the five best portrayals of Abraham Lincoln on film as of right now. When Spielberg’s film and “To Appomattox” hit the airwaves, this list might change a bit. But, I welcome others to share their opinions on Lincoln portrayals.

Movie Review: “Gods and Generals: Extended Director’s Cut”

GODS AND GENERALS: Extended Director’s Cut (Ted Turner Pictures, 2011).

Starring: Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Mira Sorvino, Chris Conner

Running Time: 280 Minutes

Rated: PG-13 for Sustained Battle Sequences and Some Disturbing Images

Gods and Generals, Ronald F. Maxwell’s prequel to the critically acclaimed Gettysburg, was released in February of 2003, and met with a lukewarm critical reception, and became a failure at the box office. Many critiqued the religious overtones of the film, while some called it pro-Confederate. As someone who has loved the film since first seeing it, there are two complaints I had about it. One, the story was a little imbalanced at times editing wise. And two, the film did not seem accessible to modern movie viewers. Nevertheless, the film did a fantastic job of bringing to life the people, places and events of the American Civil War from 1861-1863.

In 2011, after being anticipated for over eight years, Ron Maxwell’s Extended Director’s Cut of the film was released on Blu-ray. A full hours worth of footage was added, bringing the total length of the film to four-hours, forty minutes. Big questions would be answered by the new version of the film. What changes would be made to the overall feel of the film? Would this version of the film be more accessible to those unfamiliar with the Civil War and its people? And finally, what scenes would be added to the film?

I’ll begin by saying this: If Gods and Generals was not the definitive Civil War epic when released in 2003, it sure as hell is now! Ron Maxwell’s full vision for the movie is a brilliantly-realized portrait of a country at war with itself, and how it affected the lives of the men who fought it, the families who lived through it, and shaped the views of one of the men who would fire the most devastating shot of the war at its conclusion. The film itself is divided into five  fifty to sixty-minute parts (Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Moss Neck, and Chancellorsville), which allows for the viewer to view each segment as if watching a miniseries (Band of Brothers and The Pacific come to mind). But as Ron Maxwell says in his introduction, if you’re a huge Civil War Buff, you’re likely to watch all five parts in one sitting (Which I sort of did). Finally, the full-length cut not only gives the film a proper editorial and story balance that progresses most evenly, but also gives the film a more epic scope. The film is now very Shakespearean in tone, giving it the classical feel that Ron Maxwell intended.

For those familiar with the theatrical cut of the film, I will go over what has been added. But first, I will briefly mention that two moments from the original version have been removed entirely. The first is Jackson’s prayer before First Manassas. I loved the scene in the theatrical cut, but I will be honest, with its removal, there is no break in between the arrival of Jackson at Manassas Junction and the battle itself. We go right into it, and this actually makes the battle scene more exciting. The second is some dialogue in the Beale house, where Martha, the Beale’s slave, is talking to Hancock. Her quote from Esther is removed, but this doesn’t affect the scene all that much.

Now, here is what has been added to the film:

John Wilkes Booth

One of the major additions to the film is a subplot with John Wilkes Booth, played by Chris Conner, who features in five scenes throughout the narrative. Conner plays the character effectively, and we see Booth how he really was before his hatred of Lincoln turned him into an assassin: a passionate man torn between serving the Confederacy, and his life as one of America’s most formidable actors. But the Booth character is not just thrown in just to have him in there. The character is actually used to propel the dramatic effect of the film, and this is done effectively.

One of the Booth scenes comes in after Antietam (More on that in a moment). Historically, Booth was on stage in Chicago performing Hamlet on the evening of September 17th, 1862, the evening after the bloodiest single day in American History. In the scene, Booth is on stage giving the “my thoughts be bloody” soliloquy from Shakespeare’s masterwork, with the line that really fits what has transpired: “While’s to my shame, I see the imminent death of 20,000 men That, for a fantasy and trick of fame, Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot , Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, Which is not tomb enough and continent To hide the slain?” A powerful line from Hamlet used to describe what has happened. This is very effectively done.

Toward the end of the film, Booth and several actors are giving a performance of Julius Caesar in Washington, with Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his wife Fanny in the audience. Afterward, Chamberlain and Fanny talk with the actors, including Booth and Henry Harrison, the man who became a Confederate spy, as seen in Gettysburg. Fanny Chamberlain asks Booth if he considers Brutus a hero or a villain, and after a little interlude from Harrison, Booth states one of the film’s most powerful lines: “It is for the audience to decide who is hero, and who is villain. We only play the parts allotted to us.” This is not just a statement about the characters in Julius Caesar, but also of all the characters featured in the film itself. All the characters, both North and South, are shown as they were, in their full humanity. It is up to the audience to decide who in the film the heroes are, and who are villains, if that can be done. All the characters in the film do is what their hearts and duty call them to do, or as Booth says, play the parts allotted to them.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Booth scenes in the film. Conner does a fantastic job of humanizing the character, and not creating a one-dimensional stereotype of Booth, which is very easy to do. We see him in the beginnings of his transformation into the assassin, but since that is two years away, he is a man of passion, who enjoys presenting Shakespeare to the masses. And in the scenes, we get to see Harrison, one of the best characters from Gettysburg, on screen again, while also seeing a good, though brief, appearance of Abraham Lincoln, played warmly by Christian Kaufmann.

Additional Camp Life Scenes

There are several scenes which add a lot of dimension, and character moments, to the film. Most of these scenes involve soldier camp life. One scene in particular that is fascinating to see is between Antietam and Fredericksburg, as Jackson and his staff are relaxing after a campaign. Here, Jackson receives a new uniform coat as a gift from General Stuart, and presented to him by Heros von Borke, a very animated figure played very well. As Jackson tires the coat on in front of his men, we hear the rebel yell come out of nowhere in the background, and continue for several moments. It is an eerie and powerful moment, with Jackson commenting on how that is some of the sweetest music he’d ever heard.

The introduction to the 20th Maine is also extended. We see more of Adelbert Ames, as he explains the need for discipline in the ranks, and instructs men how to load in nine times, which Chamberlain’s brother Tom does poorly at first. The whole scene feels very complete with the added footage. Ames is more of a unique character in the film, and as a Civil War reenactor and historian, we see how difficult it is to do things such as loading a rifle.

One of the most unique scenes added though involved Jackson purchasing Little Sorrel, the horse he will ride for the rest of the war, before Manassas in 1861. He originally intends to purchase the sorrel for his wife, but preferring his gait and temper, decides to keep him for himself. Although it has nothing to do with battles and waging war, it helps to humanize the character of Jackson as a man who loves to ride. And in a scene very reminiscent of John Ford westerns, we see Jackson riding the sorrel across the hills of Northern Virginia, with powerful music by John Frizzel and Randy Edleman playng along.

The Battle of Antietam

Perhaps the greatest addition to the film is, of course, the entire sequence involving the Battle of Antietam itself. From the planning of the invasion of Maryland, to the battle itself, this represents probably the best sequence in the film. The battle itself is the shortest in the movie, only about six minutes total. But for that short amount of time, we get what is probably the best and most intense Civil War battle scene ever put on film. The artillery duel is spectacular, and the fighting in the Miller Cornfield is brilliantly recreated. We see troops firing back and forth as fast as they can; whole companies falling as if done on command; stalks of corn being cut in two by bullets; all chaos and death. Those who worked on the film said the Antietam footage was some of the best shot for the film, and from what is shown, that was an understatement.

The one complaint about the scene: the date for the battle is shown as September 19th, 1862, which in reality was two days AFTER the battle was actually fought. It does seem like these films do have mistakes in their subtitles on occasion. But, this is a small complaint, and that mistake can be clarified by historians who show it in their classrooms.

Final Thoughts

It took eight years to do so, but Ron Maxwell’s full vision for Gods and Generals has finally been released, and the wait has definitely been worth it. This is almost a completely different film than what was seen originally. The additional footage not only makes this a complete film, but also manages to do what Ron Maxwell did with Gettysburg, which is create a movie that is not only historically accurate and epic and scope, but makes the story accessible to those who are not students of the American Civil War. Despite the mistake in the date for Antietam, the extended director’s cut of Gods and Generals is far superior to the theatrical cut, and makes this the definitive film on the American Civil War. Despite its length, I have no problems recommending this film to all who enjoy history and serious films!

On a scale of 1 to 10, I give the film a 10, or A+