There is a hint of tragic irony that Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father so celebrated for the revolutionary democratic ideals in the Declaration of Independence, is also responsible for the quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Perhaps Jefferson, a slave-owning Virginian, suspected those words would one day haunt his wobbly young republic, but it would’ve been difficult for him to envision their brutal manifestation on July 4, 1863, on the battlefields near the tiny Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
For three days in July, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate armies engaged Union forces led by George Meade in the battle that both sides agreed would determine the outcome of the Civil War, then in its third year. Close to 10,000 soldiers — four times the population of Gettysburg — died in the field during the engagement that culminated with the Union holding its position against a bold — or reckless — Confederate assault on July 3.
The historic battle, which ended Lee’s invasion of the North and helped turn the tide of the war in the Union’s favor, is the subject of a dynamic new documentary that celebrates Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary. Directed by Jake Boritt and narrated by Stephen Lang (Avatar), The Gettysburg Story utilized aerial drone free-fly cameras and motion-control time-lapse shots to showcase the hallowed battlefield and reimagine the conflict like never before.
Lang, who famously starred as two Confederate officers — George Pickett and “Stonewall” Jackson — in two Civil War movies (one based on Michael Shaara’s novel Killer Angels, the other on his son Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals), is practically an ambassador for the town and its National Military Park. “When Shaara’s book The Killer Angels came out, I was just about to become a young actor back in the early 70s,” says Lang. “I remember thinking, ‘Boy, the role I really wanted to play was George Pickett.’ In many ways, he did represent this kind of mythic southern ideal. He was anxious for glory. Just one of those lucky times in life that years later I was fortunate to play the role [in Gettysburg].”
In this exclusive video clip from The Gettysburg Story, Lang narrates the climactic action of the battle, Pickett’s Charge, the South’s all-or-nothing attempt to smash the middle of the Union lines on July 3.
On July 4, 1863, residents of Gettysburg emerged from cellars after three days of gunfire to find hell on earth at their doorstep. Thousands of dead soldiers, thousands of dying men, thousands of dead horses. And then the rains came, as if Heaven wanted to wash it all away. Lee’s troops waited to see if Meade would counterattack, but when they didn’t, the Confederates retreated south, a miles-long wagon-train of death and misery.
One thousand miles southwest on the same day, Union general Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Vicksburg, a major Confederate stronghold that was a lynchpin to controlling the Mississippi River. After hearing the good news from both fronts, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a crowd of Independence Day well-wishers in Washington, trying out some words that he would later make famous at Gettysburg: “How long is it — 80 odd years — since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation, by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.'”
“The United States had been saved — at least for the time being,” says Boritt, who grew up on a Gettysburg farm that had served as a Confederate hospital. “Lincoln and many others were so committed to fight this war to preserve the Union that it was a great irony of history that in the Civil War, July 4 is that day that Gettysburg ends with a victory for the Union and Vicksburg surrendered. For the first time in a long time, it begins to look positive for the United States.”
The Gettysburg Story can be viewed on-demand now, and will play on public television in November to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.