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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.

Cold Mountain, 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."

Q. Weren't 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 common?
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 Union supporters.

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.

Q. Where 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.

© 2004 History in the Movies