10 Movies for Understanding the Civil War

Editor’s Note: Check out the previous installments in James Jay Carafano’s ongoing series exploring war films: The 10 Best Movies to Watch to Understand the Cold War10 War Movies Guaranteed to Make You CryAmerica’s First Wars in 10 Movies.


“We must settle this question now,” Abraham Lincoln warned in 1861. Four years later, Honest Abe declared America had secured “a new birth of freedom.” But it came at dreadful cost. Over 600,000 soldiers died.  And civilians, North and South, endured destruction, privation and misery.

Hollywood has had a long relationship with the Civil War.  The 10 movies discussed below* present that terrible struggle quite differently, yet together they underscore the sad truism that “freedom isn’t free.”

10. The Battle (1911)

American moviemakers’ obsession with the Civil War predates Hollywood.  D. W. Griffith filmed this 19 minute action-romance feature in his studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. While many silent classic films from that period—like The Battle of Gettysburg (1913)—are lost, several film archives still hold copies of The Battle. It’s also available on DVD along with several other films the pioneering Griffith made about the Civil War era, including The Birth of a Nation (1915), in which he infamously glorifies the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.

9. Gone with the Wind (1939)

One of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters ever, the adaption of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning novel is mostly romantic Southern schlock, redeemed only by the riveting iconic scenes of Union troops under William Tecumseh Sherman burning Atlanta. Today when most Americans think of a Civil War battlefield, they picture a bucolic national park. The real war was notable for the wanton destruction it brought town and country across the American landscape.


8. The Horse Soldiers (1959)

For classic Hollywood battle scenes paired with timeless Hollywood stereotypes of Civil War heroes and heels, it is hard to do better than director John Ford’s retelling of Grierson’s Raid, which climaxed in the Battle of Newton’s Station on April 24, 1863. For this film, Ford teamed with his favorite leading man, John Wayne. The Duke leads his cavalry troop in a daring campaign behind Confederate lines.

7. Ride with the Devil (1999)

Contemporary filmmaker Ang Lee illuminates another face of the Civil War. Instead of clashing columns of infantry and booming cannons, this film recreates the vicious guerrilla war waged in the territories by Confederate “Bushwhackers” and Union Jayhawks. Unlike his “big” movies (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000 ) and Brokeback Mountain (2005)), this film got only a limited theatrical release and met with mixed reviews.  Still, it’s a beautiful, violent gem of a war film not to be missed.

 6. The Raid (1954)

The war was not confined to the south. In October 1864, Confederate troops sneaked over the Canadian border and raided St. Albans, Vermont. Hugo Fregonese directed a highly fictionalized version of the story in an entertaining, fast-paced, old-school adventure film.

5. The Red Badge of Courage (1951)

Stephen Crane was born after the Civil War.  Still, he wrote “the” novel of one soldier’s experience in battle. John Huston brought the story to the screen with World War II hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy in the starring role. It did terrible at the box office, but it’s still a great cinematic imagining of American literature’s most important portrayal of the Civil War experience.


4. Mysterious Island (1961)

This film adaption of the Jules Verne science fiction novel so deserves to be on the list. Directed by Cy Endfield (who also directed the great war film Zulu), it follows the adventures of a handful of Civil War soldiers whose observation balloon lands on an island filled with fantastic creatures. Verne made his protagonists American for a reason. America was a font of scientific and mechanical innovation—from naval ironclads to the telegraph. After the Civil War, science became axiomatically part of the arsenal of war.

3. Shenandoah (1965)

Andrew V. McLaglen directs Jimmy Stewart in a poignant film about a big war. Civilians were often more than spectators in the great clashes between blue and gray. Historian James McPherson estimated that over 50,000 civilians died as a direct result of the conflict. In Shenandoah, Virginia, widower-farmer Charlie Anderson (Jimmy Stewart) tries to shield his family from the war raging around them. He fails.

2. Andersonville (1996)

One of America’s most noted directors of action films, John Frankenheimer, brought to the screen an often forgotten aspect of the Civil War: the fate of the prisoner of war. From February 1864 to the end of the war, Andersonville, Georgia, served as the Confederacy’s most infamous military prison.

1. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Who says the war ended in 1865? There are likely more Hollywood films about Civil War veterans running amok in the Old West than there are movies about the war itself. In one of the best, Clint Eastwood directed himself as a former confederate guerilla, declared an outlaw at war’s end, who outruns and outguns everything in his path.


These are all films worth watching. And after each viewing, it’s also worth repeating Lincoln’s most prayerful resolution from the Gettysburg Address:

… 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.

*Two of the best Civil War movies in recent memory—Glory (1989) and Gettysburg (1993)—are omitted from this list. Though richly deserving, they were already included in an earlier list of war movies.

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