Civil War re-enactors adopt the identities of actual units that took part in the war. Mine, Company B of the Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry regiment, formed at the town of Mason in September 1861. The Seventh, comprised of men from throughout Michigan, fought in all the major battles in which the Army of the Potomac took part. These included Antietam, Fredricksburg, Gettysburg, The Wilderness and The Siege of Petersburg. As often happened during the Civil War, nearly as many Seventh Michigan troops died from disease as perished from wounds.
Before “Gettysburg” came along, re-enactors had lent their presence and expertise to films (“Glory”) and made-for-television projects (“The Blue and the Gray,” “North and South”). While some of these endeavors were more memorable than others, re-enactors’ involvement assured them a modicum of accuracy.
Dramatizing “The Killer Angels” had long been of interest to Civil War buffs. The novel’s gripping, personal account of the titanic Battle of Gettysburg through the actions of some of its major protagonists made Michael Shaara’s book a favorite text of American history classes in colleges. Through time a couple major television networks had discussed dramatizing the work: such plans fell through, in part because of the expense that would be incurred in assembling the “armies” needed.
Finally, Atlanta cable television mogul and Civil War enthusiast “Terrible Ted” Turner stepped into the breach. He committed to film “The Killer Angels” for broadcast on his TNT network in 1993, the year marking Gettysburg’s 130th anniversary. Almost at once a series of controversies over the filming rocked the re-enacting community. There was concern over the re-enactors chosen to act as liaison with the production company, worries that TNT wouldn’t take re-enactors’ counsel seriously and skepticism that the script wouldn’t be historically accurate. In addition, while TNT promised the re-enactors on-site meals, showers, porta-johns, firewood, water and a travel allowance, they would receive no pay.
Given TNT’s cornucopia, why was money a sticking point? At the time, the typical infantry re-enactor invested around $1,000 in procuring the essentials needed to go to battle (uniform, cap, leather accoutrements, brogans, canteen and reproduction bayonet and rifled musket.) Add in learning the manual of arms and how to march, and perhaps it is easy to understand re-enactors’ interest in being paid for their time. Throughout the first half of 1992 ofttimes heated philosophical arguments raged in the pages of magazines dedicated to the hobby over whether any self-respecting Civil War re-enactor should take part in “The Killer Angels.”
While the controversies simmered, TNT began marshaling its resources to tackle the project. The National Park Service is mandated with preserving and protecting many Civil War battlefields. TNT conducted lengthy negotiations with the NPS resulted in its receiving permission to do a limited amount of filming within Gettysburg National Battlefield Park; however, virtually all filming would take place on privately-owned land adjacent to it.
A number of modifications were made to the private land to push back the hands of time. Paved roads were covered by a layer of dirt and had rail fences installed on either side of them; modern buildings were altered to mid-Nineteenth Century appearance; pits were dug for FX (special effects) springboards and ground charges; and a replica of the Federal defenses on Cemetery Ridge was constructed.
An impressive line-up of Hollywood talent was signed to star in “Gettysburg,” a title given to the movie that, it was felt, would be more recognizable to the public than “The Killer Angels.” The lead roles included actors Martin Sheen and Tom Berenger portraying Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, and Jeff Daniels as Union colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Other roles were filled by Sam Elliott, Stephen Lang and Richard Jordan. Ted Turner got in on the act, appearing in a cameo as a Rebel officer. Documentary film maker Ken Burns also appeared briefly, as a Yankee officer.
The stage was set. Now all that was needed was the arrival of those nettlesome re-enactors!