Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: Field of Lost Shoes

If I could go back in time to witness any single moment of the American Civil War, I think I would probably go to the Battle of New Market, on May 15, 1864. More specifically, I would go to the moment where Major General John C. Breckinridge, commander of the Confederate forces and one of the most remarkable figures in American history, realized that he had to commit to the fighting the two hundred or so boy cadets of the Virginia Military Institute or face defeat. "Put the boys in," he said.  "And may God forgive me for the order."

Breckinridge won the battle, but he wouldn't have done it without the VMI cadets. Ten of the cadets were killed and forty-seven were wounded. These men are still honored on the field of VMI to the present day. Visiting New Market is one of the most poignant experiences of any of the American Civil War battlefield, for one can easily trace the direct route the VMI cadets charged to smash the Union line, capture the enemy artillery, and help win the battle.

When I learned that a movie was in the works that would depict the events surrounding the VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market, I was both excited and concerned. I was excited because the story is almost tailor-made for cinematic treatment, as are so many of the lesser-known stories of the American Civil War. I also that the film would bring Breckinridge, a largely forgotten figure, to the attention of more people. But I also was concerned, because past movies made from Civil War subjects have often left much to be desired. Glory was outstanding, Gettysburg was very good, and Lincoln (though I have my problems with it) was a fine film. Most other attempts, sad to say, have usually been disappointments.

Considering the budget with which they had to work, I'd say that Field of Lost Shoes is a significant achievement. Overall, I enjoyed watching it and it made for a pleasant evening's entertainment. There were a few points to which I took exception, which I will detail in a moment. On the other hand, the film also raised interesting questions which are often forgotten in this day and age.

One of the main characters is a VMI cadet named John Wise. His father, Virginia Governor Henry Wise, is spoken of as an opponent of secession and slavery, when in fact he was a fervent supporter of both. The story starts with Governor Wise taking his son to see a slave auction, apparently to show him the evils of the institution. This scene was actually very effective; it's impossible not to be affected by the despair of the black family being separated by the callous buyers. John is apparently turned into a closet abolitionist by what he sees.

And herein lies a problem for the whole movie and, indeed, for Civil War fiction in general these days: audiences apparently want 19th Century characters to adhere to 21st Century values. John Wise and the other cadets can't be seen as heroes by the audience unless they are opposed to slavery. This is a problem for the rest of the movie. A black character named Old Judge, who runs the VMI bakery, is inserted into the story in order to give the cadets a slave with whom to sympathize when he runs into trouble. A scene of a cart overturning onto a black women who requires rescue is also tossed into the mix, apparently for no other reason than to remind the audience that these VMI cadets like black people just as much as they like white people.

If we're honest with ourselves, we must admit that these are not attitudes that would have been commonly held by mid-19th Century white male Virginians. I understand why the filmmakers did this, for people are so touchy and easily offended these days. The lightest whiff of "controversy" is looked upon with horror in the age of social media. But it robs the film of authenticity and makes the characters harder to take seriously. Better to let them be 19th Century people and take them on their own terms.

Field of Lost Shoes does, in fact, present reasons for which Confederate soldiers fought during the Civil War that are historically valid. A scene in which a cadet has just learned that his family's home has been destroyed by Union forces and that his family's whereabouts are unknown is rather poignant and one can well understand his desire for revenge. More interesting to me, though, is a conversation between two cadets, in which one reveals to the other his moral compunctions about slavery. The second cadet essentially tells the first that, whatever their feelings about slavery, it is still their duty to defend their homes and families. Moreover, he says, the Union will destroy everything else in the South while they destroy slavery. This manner of thinking might make us uncomfortable, for it is quite understandable and we can see ourselves making the same decision were we to be placed in their shoes. But that's probably the point.

Setting aside these deeper philosophical questions, there are some aspects of the film that bother from a historical point of view. One of the first scenes of the movie depicts a meeting between Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, which not only seems completely irrelevant to the plot of the movie but which unfairly stigmatizes Grant with the image of being a "butcher" and a "savage". Grant actually asks Lincoln, "Do you see me as a monster?" This is patently ridiculous. The undeserved reputation of Grant as being a "butcher" came during and after the Virginia campaign of 1864-65, which had not yet happened when the scene of the movie takes place. Grant's victories in the West in the first few years of the war had been masterpieces of maneuver and won at comparatively low cost in human life. Grant, as played by Tom Skerritt (who seems to not quite understand why he is there), plays no meaningful role in the course of the movie. Indeed, there seems to be no reason for Lincoln and Grant to be in the movie at all, since it really is all about Breckinridge and the VMI cadets.

Apparently the filmmakers decided Field of Lost Shoes needed a character to provide a Union perspective during the battle. For some reason, they choose Captain Henry Du Pont. This man is indeed an interesting figure, who came from one of the country's most illustrious families and who would go on to win the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Cedar Creek. But the movie makes him out to be far more important than he was. During the Battle of New Market, du Pont was commanding a single artillery battery. Yet he is depicted as having a large staff of subordinates and seemingly giving commands to the whole of the Union army. He's also depicted in the film as being sent by Ulysses Grant to keep an eye on the incompetent commanding general, Franz Sigel. I am unaware of any evidence that this was the case. David Arquette plays Du Pont quite well, but his presence in the movie seems forced and unnecessary, rather like the scenes with Grant and Lincoln.

Breckinridge is a major character, played quite well by English actor Jason Isaacs, whom I have always liked. People who enjoy history-based films know Isaacs as the ruthless British cavalry officer William Tavington in The Patriot, but he plays a very different kind of man in this film. Breckinridge was a warm, friendly, and self-effacing man with a keen intelligence and this is exactly how he is portrayed. In most scenes, Breckinridge also has a glass of whiskey in his hands, which is also true to history. The scene in which Breckinridge sits with the cadets and asks them about their plans for the future may be a bit contrived, but it still well done and full of substance. It makes the general's climatic scene, in which Breckinridge is forced to order the cadets to plug a critical gap in the line, much more effective than it otherwise would have been.

It's customary in a movie like this to have a love story. The one that is presented is goofy, sappy, and quite silly. But so what? We're not watching Field of Lost Shoes for romance. Besides, my own relationship with my wife is goofy, sappy, and quite silly, so who am I to complain? Love is weird.

I was pleased that they pronounced the name of the town of Staunton correctly, when almost everyone in the country pronounces it incorrectly. It shows that they did the filmmakers did their homework.

All things considered, despite its flaws, Field of Lost Shoes is a good movie and I enjoyed watching it. I knew the storytelling was good when I realized that some of the boys were going to die and I cared about which ones. The scenes of combat were very well done. The characters were sufficiently fleshed out to be seen as the real people they were. A well-done film, in my opinion.

Still, it is not a masterpiece. The film that will be to the Civil War what Saving Private Ryan was to the Second World War has yet to be made.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Could Napoleon Have Won the Battle of Waterloo?

The Battle of Waterloo was fought two hundred years ago today, on June 18, 1815. It is perhaps the most famous battle in all of history. After one of the most dramatic military and political careers of all time, Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated by the allied forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington and General Gehhard von Blucher.  Taken into British custody less than a month after the battle, Napoleon spent the few remaining years of his life as a prisoner on the desolate island of St. Helena.  The battle itself has become such a part of our collective historical memory that we use the term "Waterloo" as a euphemism for anyone's final downfall.

But could Napoleon have won the Battle of Waterloo?

The so-called "Hundred Days" had begun in February, when Napoleon had escaped the island of Elba, to which he had been exiled following his defeat the previous year in the War of the Sixth Coalition.  The Allies had placed the Bourbon King Louis XVIII on the throne of France and had proceeded to convene the Congress of Vienna to sort out the mess Napoleon had made of Europe during his fourteen years in power. Louis XVIII had proven a dismal failure as a ruler, however, and many feared that the rights and privileges won by the French Revolution were threatened by a return to Bourbon absolutism. Consequently, the French people enthusiastically embraced Napoleon when he returned from his exile.

When news had arrived at the Congress of Vienna that Napoleon had successfully seized power in France yet again, the allies had immediately declared that they would not tolerate the return of the Emperor and had ordered their armies to prepare for war. The British dispatched the Duke of Wellington to Belgium, where he had taken command of a combined army of British, German, and Dutch troops. A Prussian army under Blucher was rapidly approaching from the east, while the Austrians and Russians mobilized their immense forces and slowly set them in motion towards France's frontier.

In order to thwart the plans of his enemies, Napoleon characteristically struck first. He reasoned that if he could strike into Belgium before the allies were ready, he might be able to defeat Wellington and Blucher in detail before having to deal with the Austrian and Russian armies. Although heavily outnumbered, Napoleon had beaten long odds before and he was confident that he could do so again.

It was not to be. Although Napoleon defeated Blucher at the Battle of Ligny on June 16, he could not do the same to Wellington two days later at Waterloo. French infantry and cavalry repeatedly hurled themselves upon the allied lines, but the British, Dutch, and German troops stood firm at such legendary places as Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. On several occasions, the allied line was on the brink of collapse, but the French could never quite break through. After several hours of desperate and bloody fighting, the Prussian army finally arrived and shattered Napoleon's right flank, just after a final assault by Napoleon's famous Imperial Guard had failed. When Wellington ordered his men forward, the French army collapsed in a disastrous rout.

It has the air of inevitability about it, like the final act of a Greek tragedy. But nothing in history is inevitable. How might the outcome have been different?

When Napoleon embarked on the campaign in Belgium in 1815, he made some very curious decisions regarding his subordinate commanders. Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, the most brilliant of Napoleon's generals and a man who had never been defeated in battle, was left behind in Paris as Minister of War and did not actively participate in the campaign. Marshal Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult, another of Napoleon's most effective field commanders, was given the administration position of chief-of-staff during the Waterloo campaign, a role to which his talents were obviously unsuited. As it was, Napoleon's chief field commander at Waterloo was Marshal Michel Ney, a man whose bravery was unquestioned but who tactical abilities were mediocre at best. Had either Davout or Soult been in command of an infantry corps at the Battle of Waterloo, they might have succeeded where Ney failed and torn Wellington's line apart.

There is another tantalizing possibility regarding Napoleon's choice of commanders at Waterloo. His brother-in-law, Marshal Joachim Murat, was one of the great cavalry leaders in military history, who had earned his name on countless battlefields across Europe. A grateful Napoleon had made him King of Naples, but following Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Murat had betrayed his Emperor and gone over to the enemies of Napoleon in an attempt to save his throne. Realizing that the allies would stab him in the back eventually, he had rallied to Napoleon's side yet again when the Emperor had returned from Elba and had offered him his services as a cavalry commander.

Napoleon had rejected Murat's offer, which is really not that surprising. Murat had proven himself disloyal in the past, so how could Napoleon trust him to remain faithful now? The Emperor blamed his defeat in 1814 as much on traitors within his own ranks as on his Allied enemies, so it was only natural that he focused as much on ensuring faithfulness among his own people as on defeating his enemies on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the thought of Murat leading a charge of heavy cavalry against Wellington's lines at Waterloo is a fascinating one, especially if it is combined with the idea of Davout and Soult being in their proper places as infantry corps commanders.

Although the foot soldiers and cavalry troopers Napoleon led at Waterloo were as good as any he had ever led, the same cannot be said for his generals. If Napoleon had had Davout, Soult, and Murat in their proper places, he might well have achieved a decisive victory over Wellington.

The other tantalizing opportunity for a Napoleonic victory at Waterloo involves the Prussians. Historically, their perfectly timed arrival on the French right flank is what secured the victory for the allies. But what if they had arrived on the battlefield late or had failed to arrive at all?

After being beaten by Napoleon at Ligny on June 16, the most obvious route of retreat for the Prussians was eastwards towards the town of Namur, a direction which would have allowed them to cover their lines of communication and supply. However, they actually fell back to the north towards the town of Wavre, which allowed them to maintain communication with Wellington and prepare to move to his support. Had the Prussians elected to retreat towards Namur, they would have been too far away to participate in the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, which might easily have allowed the French to achieve a victory.

During the Battle of Ligny, Blucher impetuously led a cavalry charge in person and had his horse shot out from under him. The 72-year-old Prussian commander was knocked senseless by the fall and command temporarily passed to August von Gneisenau, the Prussian second-in-command. Gneisenau, unlike Blucher, saw the preservation of the Prussian army as far more important than providing help to the British and was ready to order a retreat east of the Rhine. Blucher, recovering quickly, reasserted control over the Prussian army and ordered it to Wellington's assistance, thereby ensuring the allied victory at Waterloo.

Blucher might easily have been killed when thrown from his horse, in which case Gneisenau would have had permanent command of the Prussian army. This, in turn, could have led to a Prussian retreat eastward, out of the campaign altogether. Again, without the timely arrival of the Prussians, Wellington might well have lost the Battle of Waterloo.

During the battle itself, Marshal Ney made a number of tactical mistakes. Most disastrously, he launched heavy cavalry attacks that lacked infantry support. Because of this, even if the cavalry had pierced the allied line, the French would lack the ability the ability to properly exploit the breach. If Ney had coordinated his attacks in a more professional manner, the allied line might have broken under the strain.

Another factor which played into Wellington's hands at Waterloo was the weather. It had rained heavily during June 17, leaving the ground sodden and waterlogged. Napoleon delayed the attack on the morning of June 18, in order to allow the ground to dry sufficiently for him to properly deploy his artillery. Had it not rained, Napoleon might have attacked much earlier in the day, giving him several more hours to defeat Wellington before the arrival of the Prussians tipped the balance against the French.

Napoleon could have won the Battle of Waterloo if he had had Davout and Murat with him and kept Soult in his proper place as a corps commander. He could have won if a Prussians had retreated eastward rather than northward after the Battle of Ligny or had Blucher been killed during that engagement. And he could have won had Marshal Ney not made such a thorough mess of the battlefield tactics. But what effect might a Napoleonic vicory have had on the course of European history?

Many argue that a Napoleonic victory at Waterloo would not have made much difference. After all, there were enormous Austrian and Russian armies marching towards the French frontier from the east, greatly outnumbering whatever forces Napoleon himself might have been able to assemble. Even as the troops at Waterloo were fighting to the death, the Austrians were crossing the Rhine and the Russians were close behind them. The Austrians were also pushing over the Alps into France from Italy and the Spanish were even planning on invading France from across the Pyrenees. If the Prussians had retreated east after the Battle of Ligny, they would have soon recovered their strength and been ready to fight once again. So even if Napoleon had been successful in smashing Wellington at Waterloo, he might still have been defeated by overwhelming numbers before the end of 1815.

On the other hand, Napoleon had won campaigns against long odds before, so it is not inconceivable that he might have triumphed against even such a strong coalition of enemies as he faced in 1815. Besides, between Napoleon's exile to Elba in 1814 and his return a year later, the Allies had fallen to squabbling among themselves. Great Britain, Austria, and the Bourbon rulers of France had found themselves aligned against Russia and Prussia over the status of Poland and Saxony. If Napoleon had won at Waterloo, perhaps he might have found a way to exploit the emerging differences between the members of the coalition against him. Austria, in particular, might have been willing to deal with Napoleon, as his wife Marie Louise was a member of the Habsburg family and their son, Napoleon II, might have been expected to sit on the imperial throne of France one day.

But in retrospect, it seems extremely unlikely that the coalition against Napoleon would have fallen to fighting amongst themselves. Great Britain had waged war against Napoleon virtually without a break for more than a decade, while Austrians, Prussians, and Russians were burning with a desire for vengeance against Napoleon for what he had done to their countries. Distrustful of one another they might have been, but Napoleon's enemies were almost to set aside their differences in the face of the common enemy.

It therefore seems entirely possible that a French victory at the Battle of Waterloo would not have much changed the course of history. Most likely, Napoleon would have been defeated and overthrown anyway and he certainly would not have been able to resume his efforts to secure French hegemony over Europe. Those days were in the past. It may seem strangely unfair, but sometimes the most dramatic events in history are also the most irrelevant.