An analysis of the role of the spy H. T. Harrison
as portrayed in the movie Gettysburg.
Writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell adapted Michael
Shaara's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels, © 1974 ,
into a powerful
epic film thus allowing us to appreciate this historic event through the
magic of film. Shaara’s novel and the movie screenplay are both based on
the historical record but there are naturally some liberties taken with the
facts and some created events appear in
the story line. This is by necessity in order to portray any historical event
as a novel or movie. With the advantage of hindsight, the following comments are
directed solely at the the role of Longstreet's scout (spy) Harrison as written by
Sharra and incorporated into the screenplay.
Background: At the time
Shaara was writing his book it was believed that Longstreet's scout Harrison was
a professional stage actor. This mistaken assumption was proved to
be incorrect in the 1980s (long after Shaara published his book) by
historian James O. Hall. Shaara actually did an excellent job of research
given what was available to him at the time. With the
benefit of later research, Maxwell's screenplay correctly identifies the spy as Henry T. Harrison,
but otherwise remained true to Shaara's novel. The screenplay ignores the rest of Hall's findings, in particular, there is no evidence
that Harrison was ever a professional actor.
The following remarks are intended to correct
errors of historical facts in regard to the role of H. T. Harrison in the movie Gettysburg.
1: The movie opening scene informs us that it is June 30, 1863 as the spy Harrison approaches on
horseback. He reports to Longstreet that
Federal cavalry and infantry are converging on the town of Gettysburg.
Actually, the historical truth is that it was the night of June 28 when Harrison arrived at Chambersburg,
not with news about Gettysburg, but with the news that the Union army had
crossed the Potomac and was at Frederick, Maryland.
Since the Confederate Army
of Northern Virginia was spread out over a
50 mile area, Lee was vulnerable to being attacked piecemeal by Union forces.
Without any information from Jeb Stuart's cavalry, Lee was compelled to depend
on Harrison's information. As a result, Lee issued orders on the morning of the 29th (a full day before the movie's
beginning of June 30) to concentrate his army east of the mountains. The movie's compression
of time (June 28 - June30) benefits the screenplay and conveniently covers the events of the three days
in a single day, thus setting the scene for the first day of the battle, July1,
2: In the movie, Longstreet tells Lee that Harrison was an actor from Mississippi.
That conversation, although unrecorded, is based on historical facts. Harrison was born in
Tennessee but he did claim to be a Mississippian. It is a fact that he joined the Confederate army in Yazoo County,
Mississippi, in 1861.
3: In the movie, Longstreet said Harrison read about General Meade's appointment in the
Yankee press. If the opening date was actually June 30, as depicted in the
movie, that could have been
true. But the fact is that Harrison reported at around 10 pm on the night of June 28 and Meade's
appointment took place only 17 hours earlier. Since Harrison did pass through
(or near) Frederick, it is theoretically possible that he would have known about
the change of command but, of course, not by reading it in the newspapers.
Meade's appointment took place on the grounds of Prospect Hall near Frederick,
Maryland, at 5 a.m. on the
morning of June 28.
4: In the movie, Longstreet sends Harrison on some "night work" on
July 2nd to scout
enemy positions on the southern flank. There is no historical record of
5: In the movie, Harrison asks for a uniform and gun to join Picket's Charge on July 3rd. There is no historical record of this
event. (In this author's opinion it is unlikely that Harrison would have
volunteered. Although Harrison bravely exposed himself to the dangers of
being hung as a spy, he had great confidence in his skill at
deception. I doubt that he would have exposed himself to the horrendous
firepower of the entire Union army after witnessing the slaughter of thousands
of Confederate troops the previous two days.)
6: The movie trailer states that Henry. T. Harrison became a Shakespearian actor after the
war. Historical research has never uncovered any evidence that Harrison became a
actor. This is recorded in Shaara's novel. However, the entire body of
known evidence reveals that Harrison led a very private life and avoided notoriety. He maintained
such a low profile that it took more than a century to uncover his true identity. And even after the discovery, it took another decade to
find that he spent his final years in Covington, Kentucky where he is buried in
nearby Highland Cemetery.