There is good news for the folks who have been disappointed by "Gods and Generals," the four-hour Ron Maxwell movie that critics pounded when it was released last month. Coming tomorrow to the History Channel is a far more engaging film -- and only 90 minutes long -- based on Jay Winik's very successful book, "April 1865: The Month That Saved America."
This one works. It has an identifiable theme, is anchored by three impressive historians and uses a satisfying combination of vintage photographs and bits of battle reenactments. Actors portraying President Lincoln, Cabinet secretaries, Union and Confederate generals move through their parts but don't speak; the soothing voice of narrator Powers Boothe and the impassioned remarks of historians Winik, Gary W. Gallagher and Donald L. Miller fill in for them.
The book and the film deliver the same message: The decision by Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston to surrender and not resort to guerrilla warfare saved America from many more years of war. Surrendering meant disobeying orders from Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had demanded that the army continue to fight or disperse to the Blue Ridge mountains to take up guerrilla resistance.
"Surrendering meant there would be no Ireland or the Balkans or the Mideast here," Winik, of Chevy Chase, Md., said in a telephone interview. "The generals chose to follow Lee and not Davis."
The movie is good enough to watch more than once. The second time through, I paid closer attention to Lee's struggle over the decision. It was something he had never done in his long military career, but he decided to take that course because he believed it was the right thing to do for his men and for his country.
"He wasn't afraid to send men to their deaths, men he loved dearly," Winik said. "But he would not send them to their deaths for the wrong reason."
Winik also corrects a widespread misconception. The end of the war is usually accepted as April 12, 1865, when Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. But there was still more fighting. The last of the Confederate army surrendered May 26 in New Orleans.
My only quarrel with this film is that not enough time was given to the fall of Richmond. In 2001, when the book was released, I read and reread Winik's description of the destruction of the Confederate capital, absolutely transfixed by the images he evoked.
As I recalled it, he had devoted a whole chapter to the agony Richmond suffered when set afire by retreating Confederate soldiers and left in the hands of lawless mobs. But when I checked, it was only five pages. But what a great five pages!
After the militia bashed open 300 kegs of whiskey to keep it from the Union troops, Winik wrote, "shifty looters quickly followed, scooping up what they could from the streets and even lapping up the remnants like animals prowling along the curbs. . . . Prisoners who had escaped from abandoned jails began sacking everything in sight: food stores, jewelry stores, dry goods shops, warehouses, abandoned town homes. Elsewhere the dispossessed left their dank saloons, whorehouses and dilapidated tenements to join in the free-for-all, looting, fighting one another."
Meanwhile, the departing soldiers had set fire to the tobacco warehouses just as a stiff southerly wind sprang up.
"Like a funeral pyre, the blaze rolled up from the waterfront, hissing and sparking and crackling," Winik wrote. "The old colonial timber undergirding much of Richmond didn't help; it made the fire insatiable for more."
It happens to be a favorite part of the book for Winik also, but he said it wasn't in the final draft he submitted to his editor.
An earlier version of the film included more on Richmond, but it was cut, Winik said.
See the movie. Read the book.
The show is scheduled for 9 p.m. tomorrow.
Calendar of Events
Petersburg: Today. At Pamplin Historical Park and National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, a Civil War Weekend devoted to the soldiers' experiences from enlistment to battle. Fee charged. 877-726-7546.
Baltimore: 11 a.m. Saturday. At the Baltimore Civil War Museum, an annual remembrance of the Pratt Street riots, in which the first casualties of the Civil War occurred. Sponsored by the Friends of the President Street Station. 410-385-5188.
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 703-443-6846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.