Where are the Magnolias?
The History Behind Cold Mountain
Quick. Name one movie about the Civil War.
Did you pick
Gone with the Wind? Though filled with historical inaccuracies,
that 1939 classic has profoundly shaped the way American audiences
envision the Confederate homefront during the Civil War. Chivalrous
young men rushing off to defend the Southland. Beautiful belles
in tight corsets waiting patiently on plantations. Devoted slaves
staying loyal to their masters. Villainous Yankees seeking to destroy
the sweet, well-ordered society of the South.
out on DVD this week, offers a very different Confederacy. One change
is locale. While Gone with the Wind focuses on the Deep South of
magnolias and plantation belles, Cold Mountain presents the South
of the Appalachian Mountains, where poor farmers eked out a living
on small farms.
But more dramatic
is the shift of villain. In Gone with the Wind, the white South
is united against those pesky Yankees. But the evil in Cold Mountain
emanates from within-in particular from the Home Guard. Those leering
villains sadistically hunt down Confederate deserters like Inman,
sympathetically portrayed by Jude Law.
Based on Charles
Frazier's bestseller, the film sheds light on a little known aspect
of the Civil War-the bitter conflict within Southern communities
as loyalties divided and long-simmering resentments exploded. Here's
a guide to the film's historical realism.
Q. Was Inman
a real person?
A. Inman was based on an ancestor of author Charles Frazier, about
whom Frazier heard stories as a boy. Inman's desertion in the last
year of the war and his climatic confrontation with the Home Guard
are documented facts. But Frazier created most of the details of
his hauntingly poignant story, including Inman's love affair with
Ada Monroe, played by Nicole Kidman.
Q. Was the
Battle of Petersburg shown accurately?
A. The opening battle sequence of Cold Mountain realistically portrays
the gruesome nature of Petersburg's "Battle of the Crater." Union
engineers created a massive crater with explosives in an attempt
to penetrate the Confederate lines. Untrained Union soldiers rushed
into the crater and got trapped. Confederate soldiers remembered
the ensuing clash as a "turkey shoot," with over 5000 Union soldiers
dying.What the film misses, though, are the many black Union soldiers
involved in that battle. Probably this was a function of filming
in Romania, with all-white Romanian army troops as extras. But though
the Union army's racial diversity wasn't portrayed, the use of Romanian
extras made for more believable looking soldiers. Young, gaunt,
and sporting bad teeth, these soldiers are a far cry from the chubby,
middle-aged Civil War reenactors who populate the battles in recent
epics like "Gettysburg."
North Carolinians pretty gung-ho about the Confederacy? This movie
shows a lot more ambivalence.
A. North Carolina, and indeed the entire Southern Appalachian region,
actually had a lot of Union sympathizers. Western Virginia, for
instance broke off from the secessionist Virginia and became a separate
state. One county in northern Alabama seceded from the state after
Alabama seceded from the Union. In the Appalachian highlands, farms
were small, slaves were few, and class resentment simmered against
rich plantation owners-those seen as benefiting most from the Confederacy.
During the war, the region's sympathies shifted depending on which
army was more obnoxious. When the Confederate army started a compulsory
draft in 1862 (the first in American history) Confederate loyalty
dropped, and the army's desertion rate skyrocketed. When later the
Union army threatened Tennessee and North Carolina, people rallied
in defense of their homes.
Q. Were desertions
A. Absolutely. North Carolina had the highest desertion rate, particularly
in the highland areas. As many as 24% of enlisted highlanders eventually
deserted. Like Inman, many responded to pleading letters from starving
or threatened families. And as shown in the movie, the Confederate
government authorized community Home Guards to find deserters and
Q. In one
scene the Home Guard tortures a woman to get her to reveal the location
of her deserter sons. Would they really have been so nasty?
A. I must confess that on my first viewing, I was deeply skeptical
of that scene's historical accuracy. It reminded me of the infamous
church burning scene in The Patriot: memorable, certainly, but without
much basis in fact. I was wrong. A conversation with John Inscoe,
an historical expert on North Carolina, assured me that that many
brutalities like that happened. But the historical truth is, as
usual, far more complicated than Hollywood's version. The film presents
a classic clash of good (the gentle deserters) vs. evil (the sadistic
Home Guard.) But the reality is that many deserters became mountain
outlaws, banding with Union guerillas to plunder farms and towns.
The Home Guard was charged with protecting highland communities
from the marauding bands, but sometimes did so in brutal ways. To
make matters worse, the animosity intensified ancient Hatfield and
McCoy-type feuds, which increased the bloodshed.
So, the tortured woman incident? It actually happened, but it was in response to a raid in which the children of a Home Guardsman died. The sad historical truth is that, in the Appalachian Civil War, there were few good guys and lots of bad guys.
can I find more information?
A. Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain, is a wonderful
read. But for good historical background, get The Heart of Confederate
Appalachia, by John Inscoe and Gordon McKinney.
By Cathy Schultz,
Joliet Herald News, July 4, 2004.
Also see the Queens
Times Newsweekly July 1, 2004.