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  • Writer's pictureShannon Heibler

Gettysburg (1993)

Civil War drag has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My mom loved the miniseries "North and South", which is my go to sick-on-the-couch viewing, and my dad loved Ken Burns' The Civil War.


I don't know how old I was when my youngest brother, Rob, decided he wanted to do Civil War reenactment, but he needed a guardian to participate with him (since he was a kid) and so my parents, Rob and I all got into it. I think I was in second grade? A year or two into that new pursuit, our unit, the Second Wisconsin, Company H, was invited to participate in a miniseries being filmed at Gettysburg. It was an adaptation of the Michael Shaara book and it was called The Killer Angels. Dad and Rob packed off in the family minivan to Pennsylvania in the height of summer and that's how the movie Gettysburg came into my life.


I remember how excited they were, how much their uniforms stank when they got back, how much hay we found in the van for years after. I remember the free t-shirt and hat Dad got that read "The Killer Angels"/TNT (it was initially for television) and how proudly he wore them both until they were scraps. I remember when word got back to the unit that it was going to have a theatrical release and now it was called Gettysburg and we were all going to see it opening night. I remember my dad counting how often you could see him and Rob on screen and how many of those times included dramatic deaths (I couldn't remember any of them on this viewing which was surprisingly distressing). I remember the stories of which actors were kind to the extras and which were jerks. (I do not, however, remember which ones were which. I think Sam Elliott was a good'un. Dad always spoke highly of him.)


(I'm such a sucker for a grizzled Sam Elliott speech.)


After watching all 4.5 hours of Gettysburg for the first time in at least a decade, probably two, I'm mostly just awash in personal memories and grief. It felt like stepping through the looking glass to observe a previous life experience. A flood of memories that belong to someone else but also me. The score is beautiful. The writing is trash. The romanticism about war and the Confederacy, in particular, angry up the blood. The personal stories and connections they portrayed are beautiful. (Maybe we can solve toxic masculinity by just engaging it through the lens of war movies? Men have Big Feelings in war movies and that's okay! Let's expand that.) I was particularly moved by the Armistead/Hancock throughline. It all felt very Shakespearean and was nicely bookended in that regard with Longstreeet's actor turned spy and Professor Chamberlain's quoting of Hamlet. I loved Jeff Daniels so much in this (back in the day and now) that when my friends all saw Dumb and Dumber my reaction was "OH I LOVED HIM IN GETTYSBURG." Oh, baby Shannon.


I don't even know where to jump in on this movie (beyond the word vomit you've already been privy to). I was overwhelmed by memories (good and less good) that I hadn't acknowledged in years and years. I suddenly remembered details about reenactments: the smell of the gunpowder, feeling the cannon fire in my bones (and hating it), the merchants (suttlers!) and how I wanted allll the pretty things, the food (kettle corn!), the yearning to be older so I could wear the pretty dresses that the ladies got to wear (like the fiancee and eventual wife of one of the officers, Doug (who was very handsome), who had the most stunning gowns for the balls), wanting an officer's tent so badly with its shade flap and the neat little travelling desks that went in them, the Virginia Cavalry unit with their beautiful horses and their daring/terrifying riders, my favorite ankle boots, my taciturn brother looking more comfortable than I ever saw him in "the real world". I remembered my unfortunate views on the Civil War, when I'd been swept up by what I saw as kinder revisionist history, the number of times I parroted "it's about states rights!" No, Shan. No, it's not. I remembered having Opinions about generals and officers and tactics and I'm exhausted. We went to a LOT of battlefields on family vacations and as much as we joked about that, I only look back on those trips with fondness. We went to Gettysburg a couple times and I returned once as an adult and would happily go again. It's a beautiful bit of land and an effective teacher. For as long as the movie is, I don't think it does justice to the scope of that battle and the lives lost. You really feel it when you're walking up Little Round Top or across Cemetery Ridge.


I'm still a little overwhelmed, emotionally, after watching this so I think that's all the response I've got for it.


India ink on paper. 6x9"

Untitled.



Reference image, the only picture I have of my Civil War garb, here with my dad at a Laura Ingalls Wilder event at a bookstore, my mother in modern dress, flinching at the flash:

Takeaways:

-I don't want to linger. I knew what this piece had to be by the "intermission" and then I cried a lot. The longer I worked on it, the sadder my little portrait got. It's funny, the pencil sketch looked eerily like me and not at all like my dad. The more I worked in the ink, the closer it got to realism with my dad and more like a Tim Burton caricature of 13-year-old Shannon.

-I liked working in the one color of ink. It was harder to control the opacity than I would have hoped but I think I made it work.

-I can't write any more without crying. I'm honestly scared to post this because it is not an invitation back into my life but I'm certain that's what it will be interpreted as. Thank god I have therapy in the morning. This movie and make have me so emotionally raw I'm at a loss.


Next week is significantly fluffier fare: A Night at the Museum. Thank goodness.


Have a great week! Give yourself a hug. If the weather cooperates, maybe wrap yourself up in a big fuzzy sweater or blanket. Deep breath. Coffee. You're okay.

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