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Helpful Background

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections:
      Bridges To Reading
      Links to the Internet
      Selected Awards & Cast

Go to the Learning Guide for this film.

Helpful Background:

Almost everything in this film conforms to the historical record, including Colonel Chamberlain's bayonet charge, Longstreet's objections to Lee's tactics, Lee's statement accepting blame for the defeat, etc. Good readers ages thirteen and up should be encouraged to read books on this important battle or the historical novel, The Killer Angels, before or after they see this film.

It was the summer of 1863. The South's Army of Northern Virginia had been largely victorious in all of its previous engagements. But the Confederacy was having increasing difficulties supplying its troops with food, clothing, guns and ammunition. The Union Army continued to grow in strength and its advantage in men and materiel continued to improve. The rebel commander, Robert E. Lee, believed that he had two choices: either to retire to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and try to withstand a siege, a tactic that he knew would ultimately be unsuccessful, or to invade Pennsylvania. Lee chose invasion hoping that a brilliant victory in the North would force the Union to the bargaining table or encourage England to enter the war on the side of the South. At least, if he invaded Pennsylvania, his troops would be able to feed off of the rich Pennsylvania countryside. In addition, the pressure in Pennsylvania might cause the federal government to pull troops away from Vicksburg, which was then under siege by General Grant. (It did not.) By bringing the summer's campaign into the North, Lee would give some respite to the war ravaged Virginia countryside and disrupt the Union Army's plans to march again on Richmond.

At Gettysburg, the Union put 83,300 men in the field. Of these, 23,000 were casualties. The Confederacy put 75,100 men in the field and sustained 28,100 casualties. The Federal Army of the Potomac entered the battle under a new and untested commander, General George Gordon Meade.

Some historians disagree with the view that the Battle of Gettysburg was the "The High Water Mark of the Confederacy." They point out that Lee left the field with his army intact and that the South was able to sustain the fight for another 21 months. In any case, combined with Grant's capture of Vicksburg later that month, Gettysburg gave the Union hope of victory. As the film makes clear, Lee made a terrible mistake in having Pickett's division charge uphill into entrenched Union lines. For a description of Lee's reasoning behind this decision set in a historical novel, see an excerpt from The Killer Angels.

The film gives the impression that Union soldiers fought primarily to free the slaves. While this was true for many, especially soldiers from the New England states, the majority of Union soldiers would not have risked their lives to eradicate slavery. They were fighting to keep their country together. This was not simply patriotism. If states could secede from the Union, the country would eventually dissolve into several competing small countries. The dissolution of the United States would have shown that democracies could not hold together and were not stable. The cause of democracy in America and in the world would have been set back hundreds of years. It was to prevent this process of division that the North went to war. (As blacks were permitted to enlist in the Union Army and died fighting for the Union, and as the North and President Lincoln searched for a rationale for the horrific loss of life caused by the war, the abolition of slavery came to be more and more important. See Learning Guide to "Glory" and Learning Guide to "Abraham and Mary Lincoln - A House Divided".)

The Gettysburg Address was given by President Lincoln on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. It is a key document of American history and shows how, by that time, Lincoln was combining the twin goals of saving the Union and "a new birth of freedom" (abolition of slavery).
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (This Version from the Hay Draft.)

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

The incidents in the movie involving Colonel Chamberlain dramatize actual incidents. He convinced about 100 mutinous soldiers from the Second Maine Regiment, whose enlistments had not expired when their regiment was disbanded, to pick up their guns again. When his soldiers ran out of ammunition but he had to protect the Union Army's left flank, he organized the charge down the hill that surprised and routed the Southerners. The face-off with the Confederate officer occurred except the man didn't run out of ammunition, Chamberlain had his sword to the man's throat.

Although wounded six times, Chamberlain survived the war. He was appointed to take the flags of the surrendering Confederate units after Appomattox and ordered his soldiers to salute the surrendering Confederate battalions. This sign of respect was consistent with General Grant's orders. It was designed to help heal the wounds of the war and encourage those Southern units that remained in the field to surrender. After the war, Chamberlain served four terms as governor of Maine and later was president of Bowdoin College. For excerpts of his description of the battle of Gettysburg, see Voices of Battle from the Gettysburg National Military Park Virtual Tour.

This film has been criticized because it fails to explain the motivation of the Southerners in fighting the war. Some of the reasons were: the strong force of regionalism in American society at the time, the oppression of Southerners by Northern banks and industries, and resentment at the North's efforts to impose its will on the South.

An Historical Evaluation of Robert E. Lee:      Robert E. Lee was worshipped by his soldiers and by Southerners generally. He was respected by Northerners for his prowess as a general. But there is another less positive view of General Lee. Lee had been a brilliant officer in the Union Army. He disliked slavery and did not agree with secession. Just before the war, when secession was imminent, President Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Union Armies. But because of his allegiance to his native state of Virginia, Lee joined the rebellion.
Robert E. Lee
An argument can be made that Lee forsook his country for a retrograde regionalism and an unworkable political theory holding that a state had the right to secede from the Union. This theory, in practice, would have done immense harm to the cause of democracy throughout the world by demonstrating that one of the world's first and most stable modern democracies could not hold itself together. In addition, the Confederacy that Lee fought to establish was dedicated to the institution of slavery, which was barbaric and cruel. If Lee had remained loyal to the Union, the rebellion would have been over in a matter of months. The argument continues that many hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, Northern and Southern, died or suffered grievous injuries because of Lee's decision to side with the past, rather than the future.

There were prominent Southerners who remained loyal to the Union at great personal cost. Two examples are Thomas Hart Benton, Senator from Missouri, and Sam Houston, Governor of Texas. They sacrificed long and illustrious political careers because they refused to join the cause of disunion. Benton said, "I also am a Southern man but vote nationally on national issues ... I am Southern by my birth --- Southern in my convictions, interests and connections, and I shall abide the fate of the South in everything in which she has right on her side." (Benton and Houston are each the subject of articles in Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. The quotation is at page 98 of the Inaugural Edition, 1961.) Lee may have been a brilliant general, but was he a statesman? This is an excellent discussion topic. For a description of Lee's reasoning behind his decision to side with the South, set in a historical novel, see excerpt from The Killer Angels.

Charge of the 20th Maine
The Confederate army was fighting for ideals as well, for example, the right of a state to secede, against people from the outside who wanted to impose their values, or for slavery. These ideals have not stood the judgment of time.


Additional Discussion Questions:

Continued from the Learning Guide...

1.  See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

2.  What do you think would have happened if the Union had lost the Civil War? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response. The share cropper system which replaced slavery involved less investment and responsibility by the landowners. Many historians argue that it was actually better for the landowners economically than was slavery. Most historians believe that slavery would have withered away on its own in the face of the mechanization of agriculture. Nor was slavery suited to an industrial society. A good discussion will mention these points.

3.  Was the Battle of Gettysburg a turning point in the Civil War? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response. Many historians believe that Gettysburg was the turning point because the South had no reserves. There were virtually no replacements for the tens of thousands of soldiers lost in the battle. Gettysburg also showed the North that its soldiers could win a battle against Robert E. Lee. On the other hand, the war lasted for almost another two years. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought in July of 1863 and Lee did not surrender until April of 1865. A good discussion will mention these points.

4.  Why were the Confederate soldiers fighting the war? Suggested Response: The Confederate soldiers saw the war as the second American Revolution. They were fighting for political freedom (states' rights) and to protect the South against intruders from the North. Some were also fighting to uphold slavery, but most Confederate soldiers didn't own slaves. Robert E. Lee himself said he was against slavery.

5.  Why were the Union soldiers fighting the war? Suggested Response: Most Union soldiers were fighting to save the Union and the cause of democracy in the world. The U.S. was the leading democratic state in the world at the time. If the U.S. could not hold itself together, then the cause of democracy would have been set back for generations. Some Union soldiers, but only a minority, were fighting to free the slaves. As the war went on and the horrific losses mounted, some Americans who had not advocated abolition at the beginning of the war, searched for an even greater meaning for the conflict. They found it in the abolition of slavery. Abraham Lincoln is the primary example of a person who came to abolition by looking for a reason for the death and destruction caused by the war. Others came to oppose slavery after learning of the heroism displayed by black soldiers when they were allowed to fight.

6.  Was Robert E. Lee a statesman? Suggested Response: One answer (other views are widely held) is: Leaving aside Lincoln's and the North's primary reason to oppose secession, i.e., that it would destroy the Union and do immeasurable harm to the cause of democracy in the world, the reason that Lee's decision (and that of every man who joined the Confederacy) was morally indefensible was that at the heart of the very concept of the Confederacy was slavery, a massive and horrid crime. Lee's decision was even worse than most because he acknowledged that slavery was wrong. A general is a leader of people and a leader cannot ignore the political and moral consequences of the wars that he fights.

7.  Had Lee stayed in the Union Army, how long do you think the Civil War would have lasted? Suggested Response: Not very long. All the Union lacked, until General Grant took over, was a good leader for its armies. It had the equipment and brave soldiers.

8.  General Meade was criticized for not following up on the victory at Gettysburg and trying to crush Lee's Army. This "failure" especially angered President Lincoln. However, most of General Meade's officers agreed with him that the battle had been won and an attack on Lee's army would risk turning victory into defeat. What do you think? Suggested Response: A few of the possible arguments: For attack: The Army of Northern Virginia had lost 1/3rd of its men and must have been demoralized; Lee's army was far from its supply lines; Against attack: as things stood, the Army of the Potomac had won a great victory, a counterattack would risk all that; in the war to that point, attacking had proved very risky, the advantage was with the defenders; Lee's army was wounded but not smashed nor was its morale destroyed; the Union Army had been fighting for three days and needed to regroup.

9.  List each major war fought by the United States (or your own country). What were the reasons for fighting and dying in each one? For each, was it worth it? Justify your answer. Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer to this question. The purpose is to get students to focus on the broad sweep of history. 10.  Chamberlain, when he is talking to the men who refused to fight because their enlistments had expired, tells them that the Union Army is different than other armies that the world had known before. What was his point? Was he correct? What about the rebel army that served under Washington in the American Revolution or the armies of Republican France during the French Revolution? What about the Confederate Army? Suggested Response: Chamberlain meant that the army was fighting for an ideal, not for conquest. Chamberlain was historically incorrect, although not by much. We can think of several armies that fought for their ideals before the Civil War. First, the Continental Army that served under George Washington and won the American Revolution. Second, the armies that protected France from invasion by foreign nations during the French Revolution. They were fighting to prevent the reinstatement of the monarchy and for the ideals of the French Revolution. Third, the armies of former slaves that fought the French (Napoleon was Emperor of France at the time) for control of Haiti. There may have been others. However, Chamberlain's general point was well-taken. Armies that fought for ideals were relatively new at that point in history.

It can also be noted that while the soldiers themselves were not fighting for personal financial gain, the South saw the war as its resistance to efforts by the financial powers of the North to dominate the economy of the South. So, in one sense, the war could be said to have been for financial gain.M

Additional Assignments

Continued from the Learning Guide...

See Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction and Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories and Plays. Another suggestion is to assign a research project and essay on why England banned slavery decades before the U.S. Was it a moral or an economic decision?

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


1.  Give some examples of leadership shown in this film. What leadership skills were shown in these examples? Suggested Response: Here are two examples, both by Colonel Chamberlain. In getting most of the mutinous soldiers to agree to fight, Colonel Chamberlain always showed them respect. He ordered them to be fed; he assured them that he would not shoot them. He also showed that there were limits; the unit had been ordered to move, and they had to move with it. He appealed to their patriotism and to their principles in his plea for them to rejoin the battle. The second example was when his men had exhausted their ammunition but another attack by the rebels was expected. Colonel Chamberlain ordered his men to charge down the hill, taking the Confederates by surprise and rolling up their line. This showed imagination and daring in seizing control of a situation that looked disastrous.

2.  Why did Colonel Chamberlain tell his brother to distribute the soldiers of the Second Maine Regiment who had decided to fight among the companies in the regiment? Suggested Response: His purpose was to make sure that the mutinous soldiers bonded with the other men in the regiment and that they didn't get together and hatch more plans for mutiny.

3.  Was General Pickett branded a coward because he didn't lead his troops from the front like General Armistead (who was one of the brigade commanders in Pickett's division)? Was this a failure of leadership? Suggested Response: It was not a failure of leadership. In the Civil War, division commanders were responsible for coordinating troop movements and it was perfectly acceptable for them to lead from the rear. Pickett was not faulted by experienced military observers for his role in the battle.


4.  In the Civil War, defensive technology (such as repeating rifles) gave defenders a great advantage. State a theory explaining why tens of thousands of soldiers on each side, in battle after battle, had the commitment and the courage to march in regular order against the withering fire of the defenders while those around them fell with hideous and usually fatal wounds? Suggested Response: TWM is not aware of the correct answer to this question. Here are some possibilities: duty, shame, unit loyalty, allegiance to a cause such as the preservation of the Union, abolition of slavery, or, for Southerners, protecting their homes against an invading force. For most, it was probably a combination of some of these elements.

Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)
See questions under Citizenship and Courage in War.

(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)

1.  Patriotism is love of one's own country. However, a civil war fractures the concept of country. People on each side believe that their opponents have betrayed a principle that is vital to the essential nature of the nation and that, as a result, they have become traitors. What principles did each side of the Civil War espouse? Suggested Response: On the Union side, the concept was the indivisibility of the Union and the importance to the cause of democracy of demonstrating that one of the first democratic countries the world had ever known could keep itself together. A minority also wanted to free the slaves. On the Confederate side, there was a belief in the right of individual states to leave the federal government, an allegiance to their state and section of the country which they believed had been invaded, and for many a desire to defend slavery.

2.  Why did the soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies willingly march to their deaths in the many battles of the Civil War? The history of every country is replete with men and women who have served their country at great risk and who have died as a result. These are not only soldiers but also political leaders (who are often exposed to the risk of assassination) and other controversial people such as Civil Rights workers (Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King). What did patriotism mean for them? Suggested Response: The word "patriot" comes down to us from the Greek word meaning "of one's fathers." Patriotism is a sense of loyalty to your community, a realization that who you are and what you have become depends upon that community.

Patriotism includes more than being a soldier willing to die in war. There are patriotic people who will not kill for their country. Some of these people make a greater contribution than many thousands of soldiers combined. Here is one example: James Lawson is now a retired Methodist minister. He is black. During the Korean War, he refused service in the Army as a conscientious objector and served time in jail as a result. After he got out of jail, Reverend Lawson went to India and studied Gandhian non-violence in an ashram. In 1954, while he was still at the ashram, he heard a news report about the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott (see Learning Guide to "The Long Walk Home"). Reverend Lawson then headed home and made contact with Dr. Martin Luther King, the leader of the boycott. Reverend Lawson became the most important theoretician for non-violence for the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the conduit for the transfer of knowledge about non-violent civil disobedience from India to the U.S. Reverend Lawson saved countless lives and helped with the peaceful resolution of a serious moral contradiction in U.S. society. You can see pictures of Reverend Lawson training college students to conduct the first lunch counter sit-ins in a documentary called A Force More Powerful. Reverend Lawson was patriotic, but he was not willing to take another life or participate in a military establishment that would.

3.  How can people act in a patriotic way if their country has decided to go to war but they think that it was a bad decision? This has been a question for many people in the U.S. during the last three substantial wars that the country has fought: Vietnam and both Gulf Wars. Suggested Response: Patriotism is a value that can be easily manipulated by unscrupulous people, including people in the media, politicians, and government officials. See All Quiet on the Western Front. The answer requires a look at the role of the majority and the role of the minority in a democracy. In the U.S., war is declared by the majority acting through the Congress, the people's elected representatives. In many other democratic countries, war is declared by parliament, also the people's elected representatives. Once Congress or parliament decides that the country will go to war, citizens have an obligation to support the war effort, unless they are conscientious objectors to all wars. However, that doesn't mean that citizens lose the right to speak out against a policy of their government with which they disagree, including the decision to go to war. Actually, a citizen has more of an obligation to speak out on issues that involve life and death, than with any other issue. Protesting a war probably does undermine to some extent the morale of the troops risking their lives on the battlefield. (People who don't understand the proper role of dissent in a democracy will claim that there should be no dissent during time of war.) But there is a larger and more important principle at work, that is, the necessity of free speech and public debate in a democratic society. For example, most would now agree that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, that it was bad policy, and that the lives sacrificed in that war were wasted. The people who demonstrated against the Vietnam War were right and it was important that they spoke their minds. The anti-war protests were a major impetus behind the U.S. getting out of that war. (However, those opposed to the Vietnam War who vented their frustration on the troops coming home were wrong. The troops were not at fault. Any fault lay with the majority and the government.) So, for those who oppose a war, in almost every case patriotism involves supporting the war effort but denouncing the war at the same time.

Being patriotic and supporting the war effort in some extreme cases is not the principled thing to do. Some people realize that their values differ so substantially from those of their countrymen that they cannot support the war effort at all. Since war involves life and death, it makes a strong call on the loyalties, as does opposition to war. The situation of each person is different and must be judged on its own. However, two extremes can set some parameters. Some people who cannot support a war effort but who are drafted into the military decline to serve and take the punishment provided for by law. Reverend James Lawson, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement did this. See the response to preceding question for more about Reverend Lawson. While the action is not patriotic, it is principled and satisfies any ethical or moral test. If the punishment is jail, when these people have served their time they return to society and can be as patriotic and valuable, or more so, than many soldiers. Again, Reverend Lawson and his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement is a good example. Another principled, but unpatriotic, action is to leave the country and resign from being a citizen. During the Vietnam War, some young men went to Canada or other countries to avoid the draft. These people have sacrificed their association with the country. Whether they are readmitted to citizenship depends upon the mercy of the majority acting through its government. Several years after the Vietnam War was over, President Jimmy Carter proposed a program to forgive young men who fled to other countries to avoid the draft and to allow them to return home. This was not an endorsement of their actions, but an act of mercy.

(Additional questions on these topics are set out in the "Social-Emotional Learning/Courage in War section above.)

Bridges to Reading:

"Gettysburg" is based on The Killer Angels, a historical novel by Michael Shaara. [Grades 9 - 12]. There are hundreds of excellent books on the Civil War. We list a few of them below, based either upon our own review or recommendations from librarians or educators. An online article entitled Civil War in Children's Literature discusses some of the books described below and recommends several others.

    Soldier's Heart by Gary Paulsen [Grades 5 - 8];

    Abraham's Battle: A Novel of Gettysburg by Sara Harrell Banks [Grades 4-7];
    Pink and Say, by Patricia Polacco [Grades 5+];
    Cezanne Pinto, by Mary Stolz [Grades 5+].

    Til Victory is Won: Black Soldiers in the Civil War by Zack Metgar;
    Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton. This short work by an eminent historian contains 41 illustrations and 5 maps. It describes the battle and its historical context. [Grades 5 - 8]
    The Boys' War by Jim Murphy describes in text and pictures the experience of children who fought in the war. This book won the Golden Kite Award for Non-fiction in 1990;

    National Geographic Guide to Civil War Battlefield Parks by the National Park Service; Excellent if you are going to visit any Civil War battlefield sites.

Culpeper, Va. Officers of the 80th New York Infantry, Provost Guard

Links to the Internet:

For websites on the Generals who Fought at Gettysburg:
About the Gettysburg Address:
Sites about the movie:

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards:  None.

Featured Actors:  Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Stephen Lang, Richard Jordan, Andrew Prine, Cooper Huckabee, Patrick Gorman.

Director:  Ronald F. Maxwell.


In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 1974, and
  • Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy, Harper & Row, New York, Inaugural Ed., 1961.

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