By David R. Thomas
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in February 2002.
For three weekends this fall, I was on the set for the upcoming film Gods and Generals, based on the novel by Jeff Shaara. The film covers the years from John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry up to the Gettysburg Campaign. I had a wonderful experience working with this movie.
The film is bringing back most of the actors to play the same roles in this prequel to Gettysburg, including Jeff Daniels as Lieut. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Kevin Conway as Sgt. Buster Kilrain, C. Thomas Howell as Lieut. Tom Chamberlain, Brian Mallon as Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, and Patrick Gorman as Gen. John Bell Hood. Stephen Lang will be returning, but to play the role of Gen. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. New to the film are Bruce Boxleitner as Gen. James Longstreet, Mac Butler as Gen. Joe Hooker, and Robert Duvall as Gen. Robert E. Lee. The time I spent on the set was a wonderful experience for me and three of my friends from Gettysburg College, Eric Esser, Ian Harkness, and John Potter.
The first weekend, Sept. 7-9, Eric, John, and I traveled down to Staunton, Virginia to take part in the filming of the Manassas/Bull Run scenes of the film. Even after that first weekend, we had a greater respect for the film industry. We met Stephen Lang (aka Stonewall Jackson) and Ron Maxwell, director of the film. The filming was exhilarating; ground charges simulating cannon blasts were going off all over the place. Fake men and horses littered the field simulating dead corpses. That weekend gave us the first taste of what this film was going to be about.
The second weekend, Sept. 21-23, Eric, John, and I, along with Ian Harkness, traveled to Keedysville, Maryland to film the scenes for the Chancellorsville sequences in the film. There we got our picture taken with Stephen Lang. For the majority of the weekend we were playing the role of the 11th Corps being overrun by Jackson and his corps; that required a lot of running. We were set up in a fake camp, and when the Confederates charged, we ran “for our lives.” It was very exhausting but exciting at the same time. That weekend tested our endurance and the strength of our legs. After we returned from the Battle of Chancellorsville, we took some time off to concentrate on our schoolwork.
Eric and I made the final trip to the film set the weekend of Nov. 30 – Dec. 2. The scenes we were there to film depicted the Battle of Fredericksburg, most notably the charge up Marye’s Heights. Because the temperature had dropped, we were put up in a KOA campground, which was surprisingly comfortable.
When we arrived Friday evening, we met two fellow reenactors who were bunking in our cabin. There was a guy named Steve from the 5th New York and Alex Johnson from the 140th New York. We had a long discussion about the filming and what to expect that weekend. On both Saturday and Sunday we were awakened at 4 a.m. in order to catch the 5 a.m. bus to the set. We were outfitted with greatcoats, and the most “interesting” part was we were sent to wardrobe where we were each told to stand in front of a pool filled with muddy water while wardrobe men flipped it on us with brooms to make us look like we had just crossed the Rappahannock. Then we went to the set.
On Saturday we played the role of Zook’s Brigade in Hancock’s Division and also the 116th Pennsylvania of the legendary Irish Brigade led by Col. St. Claire Mulholland, played by Tim O’Hare.
One particular event that really got our blood flowing was when a ground charge went off about a foot away from us covering us with peat moss, cork, and crushed cement. That day was very exciting adding to the fact that Eric and I got our picture taken with Col. Mulholland.
The next day, Dec. 2, we were told we would be portraying the 20th Maine charging up Marye’s Heights. Being the 20th Maine allowed us to film with Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), Col. Adelbert Ames (Matt Letscher), Tom Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell), and Kilrain (Kevin Conway). That part of the weekend was the most exciting, because we got to fire while air bursts and ground charges were going off and men were flying everywhere. The Fredericksburg scenes had to have been the most exciting of the three weekends we participated.
My experience on the set of Gods and Generals is an event I will never forget. The film is due to come out in November 2002 and promises to be more realistic and graphic than Gettysburg, mostly because Gettysburg was made for television and Gods and Generals is being made for the big screen.
Plans have already been made to begin filming for the final film in the Shaara trilogy, Last Full Measure, which covers the time after Gettysburg until the end of the war. The time I spent on the set of Gods and Generals definitely gave me a greater respect for the film industry and what goes into making an epic motion picture like Gods and Generals.