Gettysburg begins in June 1863 with a voice-over, map, and images describing the progress of the (Confederate) Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen), crossing the Potomac River and marching across Maryland and into southern Pennsylvania as it invades the North.
On 30 June, Confederate spy Henry Thomas Harrison (Cooper Huckabee) reports to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), First Corps commander, that the (Union) Army of the Potomac is moving in their direction, led by Gen. George G. Meade (Richard Anderson).
Lee commands his troops to stop near Gettysburg. Meanwhile, at the Union encampments near Union Mills, Maryland, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) of the 20th Maine is taking over the command of over 120 men from the previously disbanded 2nd Maine.
In Gettysburg, Brig. Gen. John Buford (Sam Elliott) and his cavalry division spot elements of Major Gen. Henry Heth’s (Warren Burton) division of Third Corps commanded by Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill (Patrick Falci) approaching the town. Buford asks I Corps (First Corps) commander Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds ( John Rothman) for reinforcements.
Heth’s unit meets Buford’s men the next day (1 July 1863), and Second Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell (Tim Scott), moves in to flank them. As the unit advances to battle, Reynolds is shot and killed by a Confederate soldier.
The Union army is forced to retreat to Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet suggests that Lee and his army go on the defensive, but instead, Lee asks Ewell to secure the Union position “if practicable.” Ewell expresses some uncertainty, and the armies consolidate their formations.
At Confederate headquarters at Seminary Ridge, Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble (William Morgan Sheppard) criticises Ewell’s hesitation to Lee’s direct order and asks to be reassigned.
On the second day (2 July), a brigade from the Union V Corps led by Col. Strong Vincent (Maxwell Caulfield) is sent to Little Round Top, and the 20th Maine and Chamberlain position themselves in wait for the Confederate forces. Lee meanwhile commands Longstreet to send men to capture Little Round Top and Big Round Top as well.
Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood (Patrick Gorman), commanding one of the divisions, baulks, telling Longstreet he will lose half his men if ordered to attack the well-defended high ground.
Longstreet ignores Hood’s suggestion and moves forward with the attack, and Hood sustains injuries while fighting at Devil’s Den.
Meanwhile, at Little Round Top, Chamberlain and the 20th Maine repel repeated attacks but begin to run out of ammunition. Improvising, Chamberlain surprises the Confederates and forces them to retreat down the hill.
That evening, Lee’s cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart (Joseph Fuqua), arrives on the battlefield. At the same time, Longstreet’s remaining division, under Maj. Gen. George Pickett (Stephen Lang) reaches the field.
On the third day (3 July) of the battle, Lee decides to order three divisions – led by Pickett, Trimble, and Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew (George Lazenby) – to conduct a frontal assault on the centre of the Union line at Cemetery Ridge.
Longstreet tells Lee he thinks the attack will fail; there is a mile of open ground to cross under massed artillery fire and the Union’s II Corps’ 10,500 riflemen under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon) are deployed behind
a stone wall.
Nonetheless, Lee orders the attack to go forward, preceded by a protracted artillery barrage to silence the Union guns on the ridge.
Though the Confederate batteries commanded by Col. E. Porter Alexander (James Patrick Stuart) fail to make any appreciable impact on the Union guns, the attack proceeds as planned. The Confederates who survive the withering artillery fire and reach the Union lines are mowed down by point-blank volleys of cannon grapeshot and musket fire.
Pickett’s decimated division is forced to retreat. Meeting with Longstreet that evening, Gen. Lee decides to withdraw the remnants of his shattered army.
The film ends by recounting the fates of the major figures of the battle.
Robert Duvall was initially cast as Robert E. Lee but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. He was replaced at the last minute by Martin Sheen.
Originally planned as a TV miniseries, Gettysburg was shot over a 10-week period, mostly on set locations at Yingling Farm, three miles west of Gettysburg.
Shooting on the actual battlefield was limited to just eight days due to National Park Service restrictions and numerous large granite war monuments that interfered with sightlines.
The shoot involved 100 actors and as many technicians, supplemented by some 5,000 Civil War re-enactors who came from all over the country at their own expense, equipped with their own replica firearms, uniforms, gear, and sophisticated knowledge of the battle – an indispensable element that increased authenticity and saved the production millions of dollars.
As the film took shape, Ted Turner liked what he saw so much that he decided to release Gettysburg as a feature film instead of a television miniseries.
Released on 8 October 1993, Gettysburg grossed $10.7 million – respectable box office returns for a small-scale release- but despite strong sales in the video market after its theatrical run, the film still failed to earn back anywhere near its $20 million production cost.
Reviews were also mixed, although historians credited Gettysburg with a high degree of historical accuracy – notwithstanding its pro-Confederacy slant.
General Robert E. Lee
Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet
Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett
Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead
Brig. Gen. Richard B. Garnett
Henry T. Harrison
Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood
Maj. Walter H. Taylor
Lieut. Col. Arthur Fremantle
Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble/Narrator
William Morgan Sheppard
Maj. G. Moxley Sorrel
Col. E. Porter Alexander
James Patrick Stuart
Maj. Charles Marshall
Brig. Gen. James L. Kemper
Royce D. Applegate
Cap. Thomas J. Goree
Maj. Gen. Henry Heth
Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early
Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart
Lieut. Gen. Richard S. Ewell
Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew
Brig. Gen. Willilam Barksdale
Charles Lester Kinsolving
Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes
Lieut. Gen. Ambose Powell Hill
Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Brig. Gen. John Buford
Lieut. Thomas D. Chamberlain
C. Thomas Howell
Sgt. ‘Buster’ Kilrain
Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock
Col. William Gamble
Col. James C. Rice
Joshua D. Maurer
Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds
Maj. Gen. George G. Meade
Col. Thomas C. Devin
Col. Strong Vincent
Capt. Ellis Spear
Sgt. Andrew J. Tozier
Brig. Gen. John Gibbon
Emile O. Schmidt
Capt. Atherton W. Clark
Scott Allan Campbell