Top Ten Civil War Movies For The Fourth of July

Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.

                                                                                  Shelby Foote

Two years ago I compiled a list of the top ten movies for the Fourth of July which focused on films about the Revolutionary War.  Go here to view that post.  Last year I compiled a list of top ten patriotic movies for the Fourth, and that post may be viewed here.  This year we will focus on the top ten Civil War films for the Fourth of July.  I agree with historian Shelby Foote that it is impossible to understand the United States without understanding the Civil War, and it is “therefore fitting and proper” that over the Fourth Civil War movies come to mind.

10.   Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)-We begin with a non-Civil War movie with the video clip at the beginning of this post.  In 1908 English Bulter Charles Ruggles, well played by actor Charles Laughton, comes to work in the American West.  It is a hilarious fish out of water comedy, as Ruggles, with his culture and British reserve comes face to face with the Wild West.  While living in America, Ruggles becomes interested in American history, and becomes a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln.  When he recites the Gettysburg Address, the impact on his listeners is obvious, and reminds us that for Americans the Civil War will never be a matter simply relegated to books or memory, but is something that still has a vast impact on us to this day.

9.    Friendly Persuasion (1956)-Starring Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell, the head of a Quaker family in southern Indiana during the Civil War, the film is a superb mix of drama and comedy as the Quakers have to determine whether to continue to embrace their pacifist beliefs or to take up arms against General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry during his Great Raid of the North in June-July of 1863.  When the oldest son of the Birdwell family, portrayed by Anthony Perkins in his pre-Psycho days, takes up arms, his mother, played by Dorothy McGuire is aghast, but Cooper, as Jess Birdwell, defends him.  Although he remains true to his pacifist convictions, Birdwell understands that his son is acting in obedience to his conscience, and, as he tells his wife, ” A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.”

8.    Major Dundee (1965)-Sam Pekinpah’s flawed, unfinished masterpiece, the film tells the fictional account of a mixed force of Union soldiers, and Confederate prisoners, who join forces to hunt and ultimately defeat an Apache raider, Sierra Charriba, in 1864-65.  Charlton Heston gives an outstanding performance as Major Amos Dundee, a man battling his own personal demons of a failed military career, as he commands this Union-Confederate force through northern Mexico on the trail of the Apache, with fighting often threatening to break out between the Union and Confederate soldiers.  Use of Confederate prisoners as Union soldiers in the West was not uncommon.  Six Union infantry regiments of Confederate prisoners, called “Galvanized Yankees”, served in the West.   The final section of the film involving a battle between Major Dundee’s force and French Lancers, the French occupying Mexico at the time, has always struck me as one of the best filmed combat sequences in any movie.

7.    The Horse Soldiers (1959)-In 1959 John Ford and John Wayne, in the last of their “cavalry collaborations”, made The Horse Soldiers, a film based on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name published in 1956, which is a wonderful fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid.

Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher and band leader from Jacksonville, Illinois, who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led from April 17-May 2, 1863 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge in Louisiana.  Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg.

John Wayne gives a fine, if surly, performance as Colonel Marlowe, the leader of the Union cavalry brigade.  William Holden as a Union surgeon serves as a foil for Wayne.  Constance Towers, as a captured Southern belle, supplies the obligatory Hollywood love interest.

Overall the film isn’t a bad treatment of the raid, and the period.  I especially appreciated two scenes.  John Wayne refers to his pre-war activities as “Before this present insanity” and Constance Towers gives the following impassioned speech:

Well, you Yankees and your holy principle about savin’ the Union. You’re plunderin’ pirates that’s what. Well, you think there’s no Confederate army where you’re goin’. You think our boys are asleep down here. Well, they’ll catch up to you and they’ll cut you to pieces you, you nameless, fatherless scum. I wish I could be there to see it. (more…)

Published in: on June 29, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Top Ten Civil War Movies For The Fourth of July  
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Preserving the Declaration

A fascinating little video on preserving the Declaration of Independence. 

It is of course very important that the physical document be preserved.  However, it is much more important that the spirit of the document be preserved.  On the Fourth of July we do not merely engage in ancestor worship.  The principles of the American Revolution, immortally set forth in the Declaration, are just as important today as they were then, and almost as controversial. 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

1.  God given rights.

2.  Government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.

3.  A right of revolution when Government becomes destructive of God given unalienable rights. (more…)

Published in: on June 28, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Preserving the Declaration  
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Captain America

A trailer for the Captain America movie coming out in July.  Two superheroes have managed to become symbols of the nation:  Superman and Captain America.  One of the first of the comic book heroes, Superman first appeared in 1938  and helped establish the whole concept of a superhero.  “A strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of a mortal man”, Superman was a hit from his first publication and rapidly achieved fame around the globe, as World War 2 GIs carried Superman comics with them throughout World War II. 

Captain America was another favorite comic of American GIs.  He first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 dated March 1941, which was actually on sale in December 1940.  It told the story of Steve Rogers, a classic 98 pound weakling, but with the heart of a lion.  A student of fine arts, he desperately wanted to fight for America in the war he saw coming against Nazi Germany, but was rejected by the Army due to his physical weakness.  He was offered an opportunity to serve his country by volunteering to be a  human guinea pig in an experiment by Dr. Josef Reinstein.  Reinstein injected him with a formula that transformed him into a perfect human specimen:  muscular, quick and agile.  He was to be the first of many volunteers who would be injected with this “super-soldier” formula, but a Nazi agent who had infiltrated the project shot Reinstein to death, before being subdued by Rogers, and therefore he would be the one and only “super-soldier”.  The first issue sold an astounding one million copies, an indication of just how popular Captain America would be with the American public.  However, not all of the public.  Writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby also received hate mail and death threats from isolationists and Nazi sympathizers in the country.  I guess Captain America punching out Hitler on the cover of  issue # 1 was a clear indication of where Simon and Kirby stood as to the Third Reich. (more…)

Published in: on June 27, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Captain America  
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John L. Burns of Gettysburg

John L. Burns was an American original.  Born on September 5, 1793, he enlisted in the War of 1812 in the United States Army and fought in numerous battles in that war.  He volunteered for service in the Mexican War and at the beginning of the Civil War volunteered for service in the Union Army.  At age 67, it is small wonder that he was rejected by the Army.  Nothing daunted, he served as a teamster for the Union Army, until he was sent home to Gettysburg where the tough old man was named town constable.

The War that he had attempted to fight in followed him home to Gettysburg.  When the Confederates briefly occupied Gettysburg on June 26, 1863, Burns was jailed by the Confederates for his insistence on upholding the authority of the Union as town constable.  When the Confederates departed, Burns was released, and promptly began arresting Confederate stragglers.

When the battle of Gettysburg started on July 1, Burns grabbed his flintlock musket and powderhorn and went off to join the fight.  Running into a wounded soldier, he picked up from the soldier a new-fangled percussion rifled musket.  Attaching himself to the 150th Pennsylvania, Burns fought in McPherson’s Woods.  In the woods Burns joined the stand of the Iron Brigade.  The soldiers at first laughed at this grandfather who was so eager to fight, but their laughter turned to admiration as the old soldier turned out to be a sharpshooter, at one point shooting a charging Confederate officer off of his horse.  Burns fought throughout the day, receiving wounds in an arm, legs and breast.  Being left behind during the Union retreat, Burns was able to convince the Confederates that he was a noncombatant and had his wounds treated by one of their surgeons.

Burns found himself a national hero after the battle,  Lincoln met with him when he came to Gettysburg to deliver the Gettysburg Address for example, although Burns’ wife was unimpressed, calling him an old fool for risking his neck on a battlefield at his age.  In 1864 humorist Bret Harte wrote a poem about Burns which is half mockery and half homage: (more…)

Published in: on June 24, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on John L. Burns of Gettysburg  
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Don’s Book Haul


When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.


(This was originally posted last week at The American Catholic, but I thought the bibliophiles who read Almost Chosen People might enjoy it also.)

We at The American Catholic like to keep an eye, frequently jaundiced, on popular culture.  One recent development that I enthusiastically endorse are videos posted by individuals on Youtube discussing “book hauls”, books that they have recently purchased.  I find this heartening.  I have always regarded myself as a hopeless book addict, and now I learn that my addiction is socially acceptable, perhaps even cutting edge!  This post will therefore tell you about a book haul I made yesterday, but first a bit of background information.

When I was growing up in Paris, Illinois, my mother and father used to give me and my brother a dollar each as our allowance.  (Considering that between them my parents brought home about a $100.00 a week, I thought the allowance was rather generous. )  My parents expected us to clean the house each day before school, to do the dishes and to run to the grocery store to pick up items during the week.  It was emphasized to us that the allowances were not payment for our work.  We worked at our chores because we were members of the family, and our parents gave us our allowances because we were members of the family.

You could do a lot with a dollar when you were a kid in the sixties.  Comic books cost 12 cents, cokes were a dime, candy could be purchased for a nickel to a dime.  However, I spent a fair part of my money at the local Goodwill.  Paris did not have a bookstore, but the Goodwill had a bookcase with used paperbacks and hardbacks.  The paperbacks were a nickel and the hardbacks were a dime.  New used books came in fairly frequently.  Most Saturday mornings I would go into the Goodwill and search through the books.  It was there I first made the acquaintance of Plato, Aristotle and Aristophanes.  On one memorable day, the divine Dante came my way for the first time with a paperback copy of Purgatorio, and a “new life” began for me.  History books were plentiful, especially on the Civil War and World War II and I gobbled them up.  Thus I began my personal library, and I have some of those books to this day.  And so my shameful addiction devotion to purchasing mass quantities of books as cheaply as I can began.

This week I have been on vacation, and one of the activities my family engages in when we are on vacation is to haunt book sales and used book stores.  Yesterday we went to a booksale in Naperville.  It is a perennial, and I look forward to it each summer.  My family and I picked up 28 books for $67.00  Here are the books I picked out and why I chose them.

1.    Dictionary of American Military Biography-This was the find of the day as far as I was concerned.  I was unaware of the existence of this three volume set.  Here it was waiting for me complete.  (There was another set also available, but I decided not to be piggish and left the other set for some other lucky bibliophile.)  One of the three editors of the set was a legendary Civil War historian, the late T. Harry Williams.  Noted authors contributed bios to the three volumes, including the late Jay Luvaas, another distinguished Civil War historian.  The bios are not squibs but full blown essays, and I will have much reading pleasure making my way through these 1200 pages.

2.    Ben Gurion and the Birth of Israel-Part of the Landmark series put out in the Sixties on historical topics for young readers.  I have been collecting these for years and had never seen this volume before.  The book was published in 1967 and is in mint condition.

3.    Shadow Knights:  The Secret War Against Hitler-Part of a recent series which produces history books that are accurate in a pulp fiction format.  Excellent for history minded teens that need to be convinced that history need not be dull.

4.    Union 1812-A recent book on the War of 1812.  There has been a resurgence of interest lately in the War of 1812, a trend that I welcome.  Our Second War for Independence was far more important to our history than is commonly thought, as many of these recent histories point out.

5.    The Templars-More rubbish has been written about the Templars than any other group from the Middle Ages.  This history is a useful corrective.  It is written by Piers Paul Read, a first rate historian and an orthodox Roman Catholic.

6.    Attila King of the Huns-A good biography of the Scourge of God written in 1994.

7.    Russia and the Golden Horde-Being under the Mongol Yoke for centuries had a profound impact on the Russians, one that was strongly negative I think.

8.    Hardluck Ironclad-Edwin Bearss is a distinguished Civil War historian.  This is one of his earlier works written in 1966 and details the history of the Union gunboat Cairo that was sunk during the Civil War, and his ultimately successful efforts to raise it from the Yazoo River.

9.    Kasserine Pass-The late Martin Blumenson was one of the great historians of World War II.  He began his career as a historical officer attached to the Third and Seventh Armies during the War, collecting the data that would eventually be used to produce the multi-volumed official history of US Army operations in World War II, the “green books” that are available online.  Here he tells the story of the humiliating defeat inflicted by Rommel in North Africa at the battle of Kasserine Pass.  The Army learned a lot of very valuable lessons from that early defeat and Blumenson describes in painful detail all the mistakes that went into making Kasserine Pass a debacle.

10.   Mr. Lincoln Goes to War-This book by William Marvel, who is fairly hostile to Lincoln, details Lincoln’s first year as commander-in-chief.  If you listen very carefully, you might be able to hear the grinding of my teeth as I make my way through this volume.

11.   A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep-The first volume of the autobiography of acclaimed Catholic author Rumer Godden, who, among other novels, wrote In This House of Brede.

12.   Three volumes of The Historian, the quarterly publication of Phi Alpha Theta-The historical articles in The Historian are usually good, but the book reviews are much, much better.

13.   Bug Eyed Monsters-An anthology of BEM stories, with Bill Pronzini and Barry Malzberg as editors.

14.   Origins of the Medieval World–  Yet another thesis as to how antiquity was transformed into the Medieval World.  This one was written by Professor William Carroll Bark when I was one year of age and I will see if I find his explanation any more convincing than the myriad of others that I have read.

15.   Four volumes in the Best of series-Nelson-Doubleday in the Seventies did a series where they published Best of volumes on various science fiction authors.  The hook was the series that they had the stories edited by a big name science fiction author and an introductory essay by the same author.  In the fourvolumes we have the Best of C. M. Kornbluth (Frederick Pohl ed.);  Leigh Bracket (Edmond Hamilton ed.);   L. Sprague DeCamp (Poul Anderson ed.);  and John W. Campbell (Lester Del Rey ed.).

16.   Trips in Time-Nine time travel stories from big name Golden Age science fiction authors edited by Robert Silverberg.

I invite commenters to tell me about your recent bookhauls.  Don’t be ashamed, be proud!  Besides, this is only between me, you and our thousands of readers.  🙂

Published in: on June 23, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Don’s Book Haul  
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Harriet Beecher Stowe

A scion of the famous Beecher clan of preachers and abolitionists, Harriet and her husband Calvin were life-long abolitionists and supporters of the Underground Railroad, frequently housing runaway slaves in their home.  The Compromise of 1850 with its strengthened Fugitive Slave Law, galvanized Stowe into action and she put pen to paper and began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  (more…)

Published in: on June 21, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Harriet Beecher Stowe  
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June 19th 1861: Birth of the Reorganized Government of Virginia

Union control over what would become West Virginia was established quite early in the Civil War, with Union troops from Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania quickly seizing the area.  Under the shelter of the Union Army, the Wheeling Convention of delegates from Western Virginia sat in Wheeling Virginia and repealed the Ordinance of Secession of the state of Virginia, declared the state offices of Virginia vacant, and, on June 19, 1861 declared the “Reorganized Government of Virginia”.  On June 20, 1861, Francis Pierpont, the Father of West Virginia, was chosen governor of the “Reorganized Government of Virginia”, and was recognized by the Union as governor of Virginia throughout the War, and served as governor of Virginia after the War until 1868. 

Here is the text of the Declaration of the Wheeling Convention issued on June 13, 1861 which explained why the Wheeling Convention was acting as it did. (more…)

Published in: on June 19, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Stars and Stripes Forever

Something for the weekend.  We are two weeks out from the Fourth of July weekend so Stars and Stripes Forever seems called for.  Beyond a doubt the best known composition of John Philip Sousa, it is the National March of the United States.  Sousa wrote it on Christmas Day 1896 and it proved massively popular, especially when it was played during the Spanish-American War (more…)

Published in: on June 18, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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July 4, 1828

July 4, 1828 saw an interesting juxtaposition of two revolutionary movements in American history.  Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the last survivor of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most successful group of revolutionaries in the history of Man.  He was a vigorous ninety years old on July 4, 1828. (more…)

Andrew Jackson and Our Lady of Prompt Succor

When one thinks of Andrew Jackson, Our Lady of Prompt Succor and the Ursuline nuns do not spring to mind, but they should. (more…)

Published in: on June 16, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
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