Editorial: Civil War remembrance

‘Gods and Generals’

Rappahannock County resident, director and producer Ron Maxwell, premieres an extended version of his “Gods and Generals” Civil War epic July 22 at Manassas’ new Hylton Center. All the details are here.

The July 21-24 Sesquicentennial of the First Battle of Manassas makes me feel old enough to be a Civil War veteran. In a way, I am.

It’s not so much that my thinning hair, white beard, ailing body and ragtag clothes make me look as if I’ve stepped out of a faded Matthew Brady photograph. Rather, it’s the fact that 50 years ago, as a young teenager, I volunteered to serve in the Warrenton Rifles as they helped turn back the invading Yankees in a Centennial reenactment of the First Battle of Manassas — or, as the Federals would have it, the First Battle of Bull Run.

Growing up in what was then rural Virginia, I had been inculcated in the nobility of “The Lost Cause.” What that cause was exactly, I really had not a clue; and who wanted to open up old wounds, anyway? To fight the good fight, even when you knew that you would ultimately lose — that’s what mattered.

For weekend fun, my mother would drive me to the battlefields all up and down the so-called Rappahannock Line: Kelly’s Ford, Brandy Station, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness. Walking the same ground as those brave and now long-dead soldiers made history come alive, exciting even, like a sports match contested to the bitter end.

I knew by heart the William Faulkner quote about Pickett’s Charge and the Confederacy’s “high tide” at Gettysburg – and the imaginative world of what-if’s and infinite possibilities:

“For every Southern boy 14 years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863 . . . .”

Now, 50 years later, I don’t think so much of Faulkner as I do of Martin Luther King. And it’s remarkable to me now that I then was totally oblivious to the civil rights movement, then heating up to the point of war-like violence: While I was Civil War-reenacting, other boys just a few years older were making history themselves as the so-called Freedom Riders that summer of 1961.

What happened doesn’t change — just our interpretation and selection of facts to support that interpretation. That’s what history is all about. And that’s how we learn. The Civil War Sesquicentennial offers not only a unique chance to learn but also to see ourselves anew.

Walter Nicklin


  1. Yikes — an extended version of Gods & Generals!? The film doesn’t need extending, it needs serious editing. Cut it down to an hour and 40 minutes and you might be able to make a decent movie out of it. Cut out the hour and a half of sappy melodrama and it might be watchable. But as far as an extended version goes — run for the hills!

  2. Gods & Generals deserved better acclaim than it received. Well said that what happened is rooted in reality and never changed, but that how the past is perceived and conveyed has been in continuous evolution ever since the last gun was fired.

    Indigo Tree Publishing http://www.indigotreepublishing.com will release its latest book next week – GABRIEL’S TRUMPET, A Civil War novel. The novel presents the war through the personal experience of two Union soldiers in northern Alabama in 1862. The young men come face-to-face with the grim reality of slavery and begin to re-assess why they are fighting.

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