“Lawrence? Lawrence? What was History Channel thinking, Lawrence?”

As it appears I am among the hearty few–the bravest of the brave–who sat through all two hours of History Channel’s documentary about Gettysburg last night, a few comments/questions:

1. How did we–and by “we” I mean tens of thousands of soldiers–get to Gettysburg? Under what context did both armies arrive and with what intent? Was this actually “damn good ground?” In short, some form of broader context would have been helpful to explaining the battle and, most importantly, its impact. Somewhere Sam Elliott is not a happy camper.

2. Where was everyone? Despite repeated insistence that Gettysburg marked Lee’s “best chance to win the war” and that Pickett’s Charge included some 12,000 men, I don’t recall ever seeing more than a few dozen soldiers (from either side) on screen at any given time?

3. The weapons expert from Pawn Stars? Seriously? Where is Earl Hess? Where is William Davis? Granted, lightning is not often trapped in the proverbial bottle–a la Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ PBS Civil War Series–but this just smacked of History Channel taking the opportunity to prop up their own, often non-historical programming. Why go to all the trouble of interviewing the likes of McPherson, Carmichael, and Ayers about the battle when Sean whatever-his-name-is can tell you that cannister fire could “vaporize like 12 guys next to you?”

4. The documentary, by suggesting that the battle left northerners feeling overly confident in their abilities to produce a general worthy of sparring with Lee, seems to totally neglect the fact that Meade, though victorious, ultimately failed to pursue Lee and allowed the Army of Northern Virginia–on the brink of complete destruction–escape intact? That said, these types of statements abounded throughout the program and point to a severely lacking central narrative.

5. Who constituted this documentaries intended audience? Obviously producers for the History Channel didn’t make the program for a select minority of academic historians… but I’m guessing even the non-academic viewer (and especially the Civil War buff) was bothered by the lack of broader context and spotty (generally confusing) narrative?

Overall, I’m sure someone enjoyed this and, God willing, learned something about Gettysburg (although what that might be is more difficult to surmise). I think the three greatest lessons learned here are: (1) That Hollywood names, special effects, and constant breaks to slow motion can, in no way, make up for a cohesive historical narrative; (2) That despite its own flaws, the Burns documentary is all the more impressive by comparison to later, much more technologically advantaged attempts to explain and depict the war; (3) And, finally, that History Channel has, in many ways, simply resorted to the same types of reality TV and shock value programming that used to differentiate it from Discovery, TLC, and the like.

-MCH

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