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.