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Making a Civil War documentary film

Posted on Thursday, May 1, 2014 at 8:35 am

The film crew prepares to get its cannon shots.

The Confederate general shouted, “Men, follow me!” as he rode his horse into the shallow water at the river bank.

The captain of the Union gunboat Osage couldn’t believe the audacity of the Rebel officer, and ordered one Dahlgren cannon to fire a round at the impudent horseman. The shell exploded in the air and a fragment hit General Tom Green on the top of his head, mortally wounding the cavalry leader.

Texas folklore says the popular general was decapitated by the shell at Blair’s Landing on the Red River in Louisiana on April 12, 1864. However, primary source documents note that the good general did not die until the next day, so his head must have stayed attached, as a headless man doesn’t generally live through the night, unless his name is Ichabod Crane.

The death of General Green is one scene in a new documentary film, made by the Hays County Historical Commission, which is all about the life of a local physician, Colonel Peter Woods of San Marcos, Texas, who was the commanding colonel of the Confederate 36th Texas Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War.

General Green’s death is in the film because Colonel Woods was riding right behind the general when Green met his bloody fate. That’s icing on the cake in terms of cinematic excitement for a biographical documentary about a town doctor.

 

Who Was There

My son and I were among about 25 Civil War reenactors hired to work in the film. The reenactor cast for the film included:

• Mounted reenactors and their horses from Terry’s Texas Rangers cavalry reenacting group

• Infantry reenactors from the Alamo Rifles group, fighting as dismounted Confederate cavalry and Union infantry

• A Napoleon 12-pound cannon and crew, which did duty on land and lake, as both Rebs and Yanks

• Two loaded freight wagons with horses and drivers

• A Civil War surgeon reenactor and his orderly, complete with field hospital set-up

• One Union gunboat pilot

•Two actors who portrayed the colonel and the general in speaking parts, and their horses

 

The film is yet unnamed, and is not the work of a full-blown Hollywood or TV network production company. The director was also the primary cinematographer. There were no outdoor lighting technicians with their big reflecting screens or big booms for microphones. There was a professional make-up artist who was primarily involved in making sure Colonel Woods’ dark beard was attached and groomed correctly, and a portable smoke-making machine was put to good use.

Volunteers from the historical commission doubled as catering staff and go-fers. There were horse wranglers who did double duty as mounted escorts to the officers. There was a volunteer professional photographer on hand who documented the documentary with hundreds of still photos – and provided images to illustrate this article.

Finally, there were the “Lake Services Co.” fellows, who were not volunteers. They were hired to convert a 60 foot long, burned-out, party barge hull into a replica ironclad gunboat, at least on two sides. They also ferried everyone, including the real cannon and crew to the simulated gunboat, and provided a small work barge as a filming platform facing the moored gunboat.

 

Where We Filmed

The Civil War portion of the documentary took three days of filming at six different settings:

• A pasture, in a scene under a grand old live oak tree

• A rutted dirt road through a different pasture

• A pathway through some thick woods, and the woods on either side of the pathway

• An army surgeon’s operating table under a tent-fly

• A picturesque river bank

• A large replica of an armored Union gunboat moored on a Texas lake.

 

What Happened Each Day

The cavalry reenactors’ duties during the filming were completed on the first day. Their first job was to portray mounted civilians being recruited by Colonel Woods for his new cavalry company. Then, as the war progressed, they were filmed as uniformed Texas cavalry escorting freight wagons loaded with cotton to protect the valuable cargo from bandits and raiding Yanks.

The infantry reenactors, the group to which my son and I belonged, were filmed on the first day as dismounted Confederate cavalry fighting in the woods at the Battle of Yellow Bayou in Louisiana. Then we changed uniforms, putting on our Yankee duds, and fought our former Texan selves from the other side of the path in the woods, this time fighting as troops in General Bank’s Union expeditionary force. Like Pogo said in his comic strip some 40 years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

On the second day of filming, three of us became drafted Confederate artillery crewmen, helping the two knowledgeable artillerymen load and discharge the Napoleon 12-pounder from the river bank. The rest of the infantry reenactors spent Day 2 as a different group of Reb riflemen firing at imaginary gunboats on the Red River at the Battle of Blair’s Landing.

On the third and last day of filming, we put on our blue uniforms again and became Union troops on the top of the armored gunboat Osage, firing back at the Rebs on along the river, the same Rebs we had portrayed the day before.

On Day 3, the same full-sized wheeled artillery piece fired on Day 2 was very carefully transferred from its land-trailer to a work barge on the lake, using an overhead crane and winch. You have never seen nervous artillery reenactors until you have seen two men watching the cannon they co-own being lifted over water.

I think for everyone, Day 3 was the highlight. That’s when the cannon firing through a gun-port on the iron clad was filmed, along with Union riflemen firing from on top of the superstructure.

 

Reflections

 

Obviously, film making is not reenacting. Costumed professional actors are much better at the craft of acting than are we reenactors. Through my six experiences as being a paid Civil War reenactor-soldier in film projects, I see us falling somewhere between movie “extras” and actors with a speaking parts.

If I’ve learned one thing, it is that reenactors are hired for what we look like and the kits we own, and not what we think. Our authentic appearance as soldiers of the 1860s is generally appreciated, and that is why we are invited.

On the other hand, what we sometimes bring to the film set that is not appreciated, is our willingness to verbally share our opinions with the director regarding Civil War soldiers or his cinematic decisions when filming us. Directors may care, but they sure don’t want to hear it from minor parties on the set. We are truly hired to be seen and not heard.

One challenge was finding General Green’s uniform. Renting from Hollywood was one expensive option. Finding a reenactor general to rent or loan his uniform was another idea that didn’t pan out. In the end, your author’s unadorned Confederate frock coat was used, after CSA general officer “three-star and wreath” emblems of rank were sewn on the collar. It worked, even if the director didn’t get the high-styling flash he probably wanted. Nonetheless, the plain coat was probably more accurate for a general to wear on campaign than a dress coat with a double row of shiny buttons and all the gold braid on the sleeves and colored cuffs and collar.

I’m curious to see in the final film if it’s obvious that a small group of Civil War soldier-reenactors are shooting at themselves in different uniforms. We enjoyed portraying both sides, as it gave each us of more days of work. Nonetheless, uniforms and hats may change, but faces don’t. We’ll see how that worked.

 

The Gunboat Choice

Finally, the gunboat itself was the biggest challenge in the whole production. Actors, reenactors, wagons and horses can be found and hired. But in 2014, there aren’t any floating Civil War ironclads in Texas, or anywhere else. That meant to have a Civil War armor-plated gunboat, it would have to be built. Even though a whole boat wasn’t needed, the expense was still high. Building just two sides of a super-structure, made of black-painted plywood and lumber, set on a floating barge platform, consumed the majority of the production budget.

The director told me he looked at many period images of armored gunboats before he saw the well-known photo of the Cairo, and decided that shape would look best and be the most “buildable.” I don’t know if he also studied the good period photograph of the Osage, the boat from which the shell was fired that killed General Green. The Osage was a Monitor class ironclad, strikingly different in appearance from the Cairo.

The Osage had a single big round armored turret holding two large cannons, an armored pilot house further back towards the stern, and the deck was generally flat, but with a slight slope.

The Cairo had flat sloped armor plates along all sides, with four cannon gun-ports on each side and three gun-ports on the bow. It had an armored pilot house on top, with space for riflemen on the top near the pilot house.

I admit that it is easy to compare images of the two real gunboats and decide the Cairo’s shape better lends itself to filming riflemen on top shooting, while a cannon blasts away beneath them. A replica of the Osage would not have provided the stacked firing platform. Beyond that, just how many people know or care that Confederate General Tom Green was killed by a cannon shell fired from a Monitor class ironclad and not a Cairo class ironclad?

So, the first casualty of the historical documentary was a significant bit of historical honesty. Such is the business of film production, be it for commercial entertainment or non-profit education.

We only filmed for a couple of hours on the replica gunboat, regardless of the expense to build it. By now the slanted walls, the smoke stacks, and the pilot house are long torn down, the lumber re-sold cheaply as slightly-used building material. But no regrets, after all, it was only a plywood movie prop, not a historical artifact.

Tom Bender, of Wimberley, Texas, is responsible for the beautiful photographs that accompany this article. Mr. Bender’s website is www.tombenderimages.com.