It’s been over a century and a half since the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) ended, yet it remains one of the most talked about historical events. The conflict, also known as The War Between the States, was influenced by many factors, but it was primarily triggered by the election of the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who had been clear about his intention to abolish slavery. In reaction 11 Southern states seceded, forming the Confederate States of America under President Jefferson Davis.
Hundreds of Hollywood movies have captured the moral and economic issues surrounding the war. In the majority of films, those allied to the Confederacy are normally depicted as villains since they care more about the economy than human rights. Some big screen projects ignore the larger controversial conflict and only use it as a background to tell stories about smaller characters. Whatever side they fall under, these movies are ideal for anyone seeking to be entertained while also learning more the American Civil War.
20 The Horse Soldiers (1959)
Cutting off supplies is a major strategy commonly used in war and in The Horse Soldiers, a Union unit sneaks into Confederate territory to destroy a Newton Station depot and railway section that is crucial for transporting weapons and food. The secondary plot involves the unit leader, Colonel John Marlowe, falling in love with a plantation owner, creating an ethics-related quagmire for both parties.
Most war movies focus on the offense, but the strategy is all defensive here, with the Marlowe-led unit seeking to head back and destroy a bridge before the furious Confederate forces catch up with them. It’s undoubtedly one of John Wayne’s finest collaborations with John Ford, thanks to the neatly choreographed battles that follow after the Union soldiers destroy the depot.
19 Friendly Persuasion (1956)
The Old Testament is full of stories about war, yet modern Christianity often discourages people from heading to the battlefield. The moral question around killing for the country remains a big topic and the debate regarding the validity of war is explored perfectly in Friendly Persuasion. In it, a Quaker Christian community finds itself in a dilemma when members receive news that a Confederate Unit is approaching.
Whether they will stand up to defend themselves or sit back and watch themselves get massacred, in line with their Christian beliefs, remains the big question throughout the proceedings. And as tense as the film is, it lightens up the audience’s mood by including several comical subplots, notably one where a spunky child engages in an endless feud with the family goose.
18 Lincoln (2012)
Lincoln is usually one of the movies that instantly pop up in the minds of cinephiles whenever Daniel-Day Lewis’ greatest performances are discussed. The biopic isn’t about Lincoln’s entire life as the title might make one believe. Instead, Steven Spielberg dedicates the biggest chunk of the running time to the American Civil War since it’s this particular President that triggered it all.
Rather than take audiences to the battlefields as many films do, the movie centers around the political strategies employed to make sure the war ends smoothly. As the noble and good-hearted person that he is, the POTUS remains focused on ensuring that the “Emancipation Proclamation” (Presidential order meant to end slavery) doesn’t get overturned by the Confederate states once they rejoin the union. Away from the performances and tense storylines, the costume designs and makeup styling are extremely impressive. Lewis looks exactly like the action Lincoln and serious efforts are made to ensure everyone looks like they are from the 1800s.
17 Gettysburg (1993)
Every war has a few key battles and for the Confederacy versus Union conflict, the Battle of Gettysburg mattered a lot more than the rest. This is because Confederate General Robert E. Lee had a mega plan to invade the North and if he had been successful, the entire United States would have been absorbed into the CSA (Confederate States of America).
Gettysburg covers this battle via the eyes of a large ensemble cast that includes junior soldiers and commanders from both warring factions. There is as much fighting as there is scheming, resulting in a tale that is satisfactory in every possible way. Events are more focused too, since they are only spread across three days.
16 The Beguiled (2017)
Adapted from Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel of the same name, The Beguiled benefits from outstanding work from Colin Farrel and Nicole Kidman. The Southern Gothic thriller centers around the members of a girls’ school who fall in love with a wounded Union corporal after finding him in the woods. Initially keen on handing him over to Confederate forces as a POW, they decide to keep him until he heels, but they soon grow to like him.
Since everyone is vying for his attention, conflict soon arises, resulting in infighting between the girls and the matrons. The drama is fascinating to watch because of the evil tactics employed by each of the girls to ensure she ends up in bed with the only male in the building. The bitterness and hatred eventually grow out of control, resulting in a tragic outcome.
15 Glory (1989)
Before Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman began dominating Hollywood in the ‘90s, they starred together as members of 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (the Union army’s first all-Black unit) in Glory. Because of its flawless plot and wonderful work by the entire cast, the movie ended up being nominated for five Oscars.
Events are plucked from two non-fiction books (Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard) and focus on the attempts by the regiment members to be granted more responsibility, having initially been restricted to performing menial manual tasks in the military. The desire for adventure eventually pays off, and the soldiers get to fight. Though they don’t obliterate their opponents in the movie, the courage, and commitment displayed by the soldiers encourages Abraham Lincoln to approve the admission of more Black people into the army.
14 Shenandoah (1965)
The majority of highly rated anti-war movies cover modern conflicts, starting with World War I, so Shenandoah feels unique. The protagonist Charlie is depicted as a rugged individualist. He sees the war as pointless, so he only concerns himself with matters involving his six children. However, he is forced to act when his daughter-in-law gets killed and his youngest son gets captured.
So principled is Charlie that he doesn’t own slaves like several farm owners around him. He frequently goes to church too, but is soon forced to go against his principles when all around him falls down. The strength of Shenandoah thus stems from its numerous emotional moments, all of which feel relatable despite the old setting.
13 Cold Mountain (2003)
The choice between love and patriotism is often a difficult one, but after getting wounded, Confederate soldier, W.P. Inman, doesn’t think twice about deserting his unit and heading back home to be with his lover after he gets wounded during the Battle of the Crater. The decision is influenced by a letter he received from her, urging him to come back home.
Cold Mountain’s entire running time is dedicated to Inman’s journey back home, which is far from straightforward. From being betrayed by a good Samaritan to fending off surprise attacks, the soldier endures all kinds of challenges. It’s one of the few movies that portray a Confederate soldier in good light, and audiences will find little to fault about this approach, given how likable Inman is. He even stops Union soldiers from raping a woman at one point, further endearing himself to those watching.
12 Gone with the Wind (1948)
With a running time of 238 minutes, Gone with the Wind is one of the longest movies ever made, yet the lengthy story never discouraged viewers. When its box office figures are adjusted for inflation, the romance drama still stands as the highest-grossing film of all time. Most importantly, it has been credited for changing how Black people were depicted in movies. Because of her performance in it, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black actor to win an Oscar.
Set at the height of the Civil War, Gone with the Wind follows the Southern belle, Scarlet, as she views the affection of the man she cares about. The movie perfectly highlights the minor and major challenges that often plague romance whenever there is a wider conflict. Perhaps it could have been enjoyable with a little more trimming, but those with time On their hands will find every scene worth it.
11 The Andersonville Trial (1970)
A Civil War story constructed as a legal thriller is also a rare find, so watching The Andersonville Trial feels revitalizing. The camera stays in the courtroom for the most part and majorly focuses on a Confederate general who is being tried for mistreating Union POWs while in charge of the Andersonville prison, leading to the death of 13,000 men.
Given the nature of the plot, the project by the now-defunct NET network entertains through its dialogue. Movie lovers will find some similarities between The Andersonville Trial and A Few Good Men, which is also about a general on trial. It also has plenty in common with Nazi-related films that dive into the trials of former Third Reich officials who spearheaded the persecution of Jews.
10 The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd (1980)
Fate can be cruel and nowhere is that more evident than in The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd. For Dr. Mudd the Civil War initially turns out to be a blessing. Business booms because people are getting injured every day, but a decision to welcome a strange-looking patient one day turns out to be his undoing. It’s soon disclosed that the man is President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
Being with the wrong person at the right time ends up costing Mudd as he is soon charged together with Booth as a conspirator in the President’s assassination. As much as he pleads his innocence, no one is convinced, so the movie comes off as one long pity-fest. In the end, a life sentence seals his fate, leaving him languishing behind bars.
9 The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Stories about angry widowers who seek to avenge the brutal massacre of their families have been told many times in Hollywood, but The Outlaw Josey Wales is fascinating because it’s set in the Civil War, and because Clint Eastwood is the lead. Here, Union soldiers are the rare villains once again, and this particular unit is led by the nefarious Captain Terrill.
In response to the murder, Josey Wales (Eastwood) joins the Confederate army and takes out his anger on everyone wearing a Union badge before settling for Terril and his men. There are dozens of incredible fight sequences and despite the fact that challenges keep piling up on Wales, he overcomes them all and stands tall in the end.
8 The General (1927)
Buster Keaton doesn’t have a bad movie, but nowhere else are his talents displayed as brilliantly as they are in The General. From facial expressions that have franticness written all over them to endless slapstick moments, the actor stays on top of his game as his character Johnny Gray pursues a train that has been stolen by Union forces.
The railroad engineer isn’t motivated by the desire a retrieve the train itself. His fiancé happens to be on it, so he has to save her or risk singlehood at a time when finding a spouse is already proving difficult for so many people. It’s impossible not to admire Gray’s relentlessness as he keeps using all kinds of means to give chase. From hopping on a handcar to riding a boneshaker bicycle, he never gives up.
7 Dances with Wolves (1990)
Dances with Wolves is one of the few movies that Kevin Costner starred in and directed himself. Interestingly, despite being at the height of his career as an actor, he won an Oscar for directing and missed out on one for his performance as the friendly Union Army Lieutenant John J. Dunbar.
In the movie, Dunbar meets and befriends a Native American tribe. With time, he falls in love with a White woman who has lived with them for a while and leaves his past life behind. Peace prevails for a while until a group of Union soldiers arrives, ready to take over the land. Unwilling to let that happen, Dunbar takes up arms against his former associates.
6 Andersonville (1996)
While The Andersonville Trial restricts the events to the courtroom, Andersonville takes viewers to the notorious prison where thousands of Union army captives were kept by Confederate soldiers. Events are loosely based on the memoirs of the former prisoner, John Ransom.
The prison’s warden, Colonel Wirz is shown to be the ultimate sadist. He thrives in watching prisoners and even gives a 12-hour head start to anyone who escapes, confident that his scent hounds will track them down and maul them. To date, Wirz remains the only Confederate soldier to be tried and executed for war crimes.
5 How the West Was Won (1962)
How the West Was Won is one of the scarce movies that has three directors. That’s mainly because it has different chapters, each focusing on a different time period. The filmmakers — John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall — tell the story of a family as it overcomes several challenges, notably those brought about by the American Civil War.
Though the war is only covered in the third chapter, the horrors that the family goes through leaves a lasting trauma. Overall, How the West Was Won is an ambitious movie that perhaps offers too much for audiences to consume. Nonetheless, it stays entertaining for those who offer it the attention and keenness it demands.
4 The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
The Red Badge of Courage highlights the delusion most people suffer from whenever a major war break out. Many people always enlist, only to learn that war is not as fun as they thought. Such is the predicament that Henry finds himself in as soon as he signs up to fight for the Union army. During his first battle, he witnesses so much horror that he flees. Soon, he begins feeling guilty about his cowardice, especially after learning that his colleagues put up a good fight and won.
The phrase “The red badge of courage” is used to refer to wounds that brave soldiers show after coming back from war. Because he doesn’t have one, Henry is forced to lie that he suffered a head injury. After getting tired of his own lies, he decides to rejoin the unit and fight bravely.
3 Ride with the Devil (1999)
Ride with the Devil grants some attention to two groups that are often ignored in American Civil War stories: the Bushwackers (independent guerilla fighters allied to the Confederacy) and the Jayhawkers (those loyal to the Union). Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, Woe to Live On, the film primarily places the spotlight on two Jayhawkers eager to avenge the death of a family member.
Movie lovers who prefer action to the story will enjoy Ride with the Devil more because it packs in dozens of entertaining shootouts. A few romance and friendship arcs are sprinkled into the main plot, but the fighting remains the flick’s strongest pillar, aided by magnificent performances by Tobey Maguire and Mark Ruffalo.
2 The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (1968)
Witty quotes, catchy scores, a dense plot, and magnificent cinematography have earned The Good, the Bad & the Ugly a spot among the greatest movies of all time. The story revolves around three men eager to get their hands on $200,000 worth of Confederate gold that a soldier stole and buried at a cemetery. Each of them attempts to outdo each other, resulting in wild consequences.
It’s the perfect Western as it features tense standoffs, clever use of weapons, perfect costumes, and all the traditional tropes like ambushes and bounty hunters bringing in outlaws for reward money. And with a strong cast that includes the legends Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cliff, and Eli Wallach, every single action is effortlessly executed.
1 Major Dundee (1965)
After the Battle of Gettysburg, Union cavalry commander Major Amos Dundee is demoted to the head of a POW camp after he almost messes up a mission. He is unhappy in his new position and when he hears that an Apache chief has massacred a number of ranchers he forms an army full of imprisoned Confederate soldiers and Black criminals in order to go and fight him.
The alliance between a Union officer, former slaves, and Confederate convicts in Major Dundee thus becomes interesting to watch since all three parties hate each other for obvious reasons. As is always the norm, some disagreements pop up but thanks to Dundee’s great leadership skills, everyone soon gets on the same page, ready to fight.