While dozens of theatrical movies have been based on the Civil War, there has only been a handful of Civil War based television series, made-for-TV movies and min-series. With the May television sweeps coming up. I thought it might be fun to look back at some of the more notable shows.
One of the earliest Civil War TV shows first aired sixty years ago. From 1953-1957 CBS news produced a documentary series called You Are There. Hosted by Walter Cronkite, it showed how major events in history might have been covered by CBS news.
Actual CBS reporters were used in the series and Cronkite acted as if he was hosting his regular newscast. Episodes included Lincoln’s inauguration, Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy, the fall of Fort Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, the death of Stonewall Jackson, the Gettysburg Address, the Surrender at Appomattox, and the capture of John Wilkes Booth. The series was revived in 1971 as a Saturday morning children’s program, though only episode, depicting Lincoln’s winning the GOP nomination for president in 1860 dealt with the Civil War.
The first Civil War television series was The Grey Ghost. Airing in first run syndication from 1957 to 1958, it starred Todd Andrews as Confederate raider Col. John Mosby. Though the show’s producers hired a historical consultant to help make it as accurate as possible, Andrews’ Mosby was clean shaven, when in reality Mosby had a rather impressive beard throughout most of the war. Though in fairness, this was probably a reflection of the fact that clean shaven actors resonated better with the viewing audiences at that time.
The show lasted for only 39 episodes. Why it was cancelled is still a source of debate due in part to the misconception that it was a CBS series. While some argue that it was cancelled because it showed the Confederacy in a positive light, the most likely reason was that the show was too costly to produce for an independent production company without network backing.
This series should not be confused with Willie and the Yank a three part series that aired in 1967 as part of NBC’s Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color anthology series. This starred a young Kurt Russell as Confederate private Willie Prentiss, a member of Mosby’s raiders whose sister is engaged to a Union corporal. Jack Ging, who would go on to appear in over 108 television series, played yet another clean shaven Mosby.
Next was The Rebel (aka Johnny Yuma) which aired on ABC from 1959 until 1961. It was a rare venture outside of game shows for the show’s producers, Mark Goodson and Bill Todman (Family Feud, Match Game, Password and The Price is Right.).
The then-28 year old Nick Adams, a friend and co-star of both Elvis Presley and James Dean, played Johnny Yuma, an ex-Confederate cavalryman and aspiring writer roaming through the post-Civil War Texas countryside, fighting for justice with a sawed-off double barreled shotgun.
Adams is credited as being a co-creator of the show which he saw as a starring vehicle for himself. Though Adams was the show’s only regular cast member, the show featured a number of notable guest stars, among them Carol Nugent, whom Adams met on the set and later married. One of their two children was named Jeb Stuart Adams.
Accuracy was obviously not at a premium during the show’s production. Despite the fact most of the show took place in the hot Texas dessert; Yuma always wore a clean, fresh press Confederate uniform and was clean shaven. (It should also be noted that Yuma was violating Federal law by wearing a Confederate uniform during the years the series was set.)
Today the series is best remembered for its’ theme song, The Ballad of Johnny Yuma. Adams had requested that Elvis sing the show’s theme song, but instead it was performed by Johnny Cash. In 1961 Cash released the song as a single where it peaked at #24 on the country music charts. As of 2013 it is airing on the Me TV Network, though for some reason, Cash’s them song has been replaced by instrumental music.
This would not be Adams last visit to the Civil War on the small screen. He would appear in the before mentioned Willie and the Yank as a Union sergeant.
In 1961 NBC aired as a mid-season replacement The Americans (Not to be confused with the current FX series of the same name.). Inspired by the 1953 novel The Valliant Virginians by James Warner Bellah and serialized in The Saturday Evening Post the show revolved around the Canfield brothers of Virginia, Ben, who fights for the North and Jeff who fights for the South. The series showed the day to day life of the two men as they adapt to the war and being soldiers.
Daryl Hickman, a once popular child actor, played Ben while the New York born Richard Davalos, best known as James Dean brother in East of Eden played Jeff. Music for the series was written by legendary Hollywood composer Bernard Herrman. The producers had hoped that the Civil War centennial which was happening at the time would spur interest in the show. They hired a historical consulted and had a tie-in novel The Americans written by Donald Honig. However, though twenty one or twenty six episodes were filmed, of which only 17 aired, the series was cancelled.
In 1963 CBS returned to historical dramatization with The Great Adventure. Unlike You Are There this was a strict dramatization of actual historic events. Their first episode which aired on September 27, 1963 dealt with the Confederate submarine Hunley. Other Civil War themed episodes included the life of Harriet Tubman, attempts by Confederates to escape from Libby Island prison, and the capture of Jefferson Davis. After 26 episodes, the series was cancelled.
In 1967 ABC debut two shows related to the Civil War. Hondo based on a Louis L’Amour novel which was also the basis for the 1953 John Wayne film of the same name. The Duke’s production company, Batjac, was one of the show’s producers. Ralph Taeger played Hondo Lane an ex-Confederate widower who travels the Southwest with his dog fighting for justice.
Going up against Gomer Pyle USMC and Star Trek, two of the most popular television shows of all times, Hondo did not have a chance, unless Wayne had reprised his title role. It was cancelled after seventeen episodes. Ironically, it became more popular after the show went off the air resulting in the first two episodes being edited together and released as a feature film in Europe.
The other series was Custer. Wayne Maunder played Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer who during the Civil War was the youngest U.S. Army general ever (at age 23). ABC hyped up the fact that Maunder was 28, the same age as Custer at the time of the show’s setting, in the plains in the post-Civil War era.
The series tried to portray Custer in a positive, sympathetic light. This led to protests from across the country from American Indian groups who still view Custer as everything but positive and sympathetic. In addition the show faced tough competition from Lost in Space and The Virginian which aired opposite of it. Consequently the show was cancelled after 17 episodes.
In addition to the above mentioned series, the Civil War and/or its aftermath was often shown in flashbacks or as themes in many television westerns of this era such as F Troop, The High Chaparral, Rawhide, The Wild Wild West.
Perhaps the most notable “flashback” occurred in the 1960 episode of Wagon Train entitled The Colter Craven Story. Directed by the famed filmmaker John Ford, this episode featured a flashback story involving Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Shiloh, and featured John Wayne in a rare television cameo as Gen. William T. Sherman. It was the closest Ford would ever come to fulfilling a lifelong ambition to make a feature film about the life of Grant.
Perhaps the most improbable appearance of the Civil War on television occurred twice on Jay Ward’s legendary cartoon The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. The first time was in a segment of Peabody’s Improbable History on ABC in 1960. In it Mr. Peabody uses his Wayback Machine to help Gen. William T. Sherman, whose march to the sea has been stopped by a toil boot.
Four years later, with the show now on NBC the war appeared in the famous Wossomatta U story arch, one of the most popular in the show’s run. Bullwinkle and Rocky have come to the rescue of Wossomatta University’s inept football team. Standing in their way are the two notorious no-goodniks Boris and Natasha. For the last game of the year versus the Mud City Manglers, the spies replace Wossomatta’s football game plans with Civil War Battle Plans.
However, anytime someone, even the narrator, says “The Civil War,” Col. Jefferson Beauregard Lee of the League of Confederate Correctors interrupts insisting that they call it “The War Between the States.” (His group also can’t stand anything “civil.”) Losing at half-time, Rocky comes up with the plan to have Wossomatta U don Confederate army uniforms and uses Lee’s battle plans. This leads the South, err the team, to victory.
Jay Ward’s next series Hoppity Hooper aka Uncle Waldo’s Cartoon Show which aired on ABC 1964-1967 featured a slow witted character named Fillmore Bear wears a Union army kepi and a corporal’s uniform shirt.
Lastly, since debuting in 1969, Hanna-Barbera’s Scooby-Doo and “those meddling kids” have solve a number of Civil War related mysteries.
In the next part we will look at the 1970s and 1980s. Stay tuned!