General Lee (Martin Sheen) Returns to Gettysburg

Perhaps no one was more surprised than Martin Sheen when he got the call to play General Robert E. Lee for the movie Gettysburg. “I thought I’d be the last guy,” says Sheen, chuckling. “And I’ve always suspected and I’m going to have to ask Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg director) to be straight with me someday and tell me who it was he offered the role to that turned it down at the last minute. Because I got the call at the last minute.”

Today, Sheen is one of the best remembered actors to take on the part of General Robert E. Lee. And nowhere was that more evident than when Sheen returned to Gettysburg last weekend, 30 years after the movie’s release as a participant in The Art of Ken Burns: 2024 Gettysburg Film Festival. Actor Sam Waterston was also a participant. Both actors along with Burns took part in a discussion on the “Lessons from Lincoln.” Waterston played Abraham Lincoln in the 1988 mini-series Lincoln and voiced Lincoln in Burns’s The Civil War documentary.

 More than one friendly voice called out to Sheen as he made his way about the battlefield and the town of Gettysburg. saying, “Welcome back.” Some even adding, “Welcome back, General Lee.”

“I thought I really should get back here because the film had such a profound effect on a lot of people,” says Sheen of Gettysburg. And, “What happened here, Lincoln said that the world can never forget. So, we have to be reminded occasionally. I needed to be reminded.”

It was as if Sheen had never left. “I saw him graciously interacting with complete strangers,” says Andrew Dalton, executive director of the Adams County Historical Society and Gettysburg Beyond the Battle Museum and film festival producer. “As if they were his closest friends. From recording videos with fans to calling at least one person’s father to consoling and saying a prayer with a young widow.”

“I think it’s important for him to return to town,” adds Jonathan (Jon Jon) Pinkerton, an avid Gettysburg movie fan and collector of its memorabilia who has develop a friendship with Sheen and was pivotal in having the actor participate in the film festival. “To have someone come up to him and say, ‘My life changed because of that movie. You made me want to learn the history of the American Civil War.’”

While in Gettysburg, Sheen asked to visit the site where Lincoln read the Gettysburg Address accompanied by Waterston. Sheen had a special request for Waterston. “Sam read the Gettysburg Address aloud, mainly to Martin,” says Garry Adelman, chief historian for the American Battlefield Trust and a longtime licensed battlefield guide. “Standing within feet of where it was delivered and gazing at the same horizon that Lincoln saw.”

While at the Gettysburg Hotel bar, Sheen and Waterston also were treated to an impromptu performance by musicians  Jay Ungar and Molly Mason of their Ashokan Farewell from Burns’ The Civil War. “He was like a kid in a candy store,” says Adelman of Sheen’s delight in hearing the song, a favorite.

Sheen even posed for pictures wearing his original General Lee hat from the movie. The hat part of Pinkerton’s extensive collection was being worn by Pinkerton’s son, nine-year-old Lincoln, who accompanied his father to the film festival. Causing someone to comment, “Well, Lee has finally met Lincoln. And at Gettysburg.”

Taking a few moments in the midst of the busy weekend and before heading to Mass at a local church, Sheen sat in General’s Lee’s Gettysburg headquarters and talked about the movie, the role and the man himself.

After accepting the role of Lee, Sheen had read the script as he prepared to arrive in Gettysburg. “But someone said, have you read the book?” he recalls. The book being Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels on which the movie is based. Sheen hadn’t. He began reading the book and took it with him on the plane to Gettysburg. “I finished it as we were landing,” he says. “And I am so glad I did.” Adding, “It was a novel about real people.”  

While filming, Sheen remembers staying in an old house with no air conditioning during a summer of brutal heat. But it was a joyful time, he adds. “We brought the grandchildren,” he says. “We stayed in a house that had a view, if we walked out the door, from the field we could see the eternal flame. And I used to jog in that field. The grandkids would be out playing till after dark. It was great.”

On the set and on the battlefield, the war in many ways came to life for him. “It was a different world,” says Sheen. Actual reenactors were used for the film making it all the more realistic. “If you looked out over the campsites, the women were dressed in the costumes of the period and they ate the meals form the period, bacon fat and beans and so forth. Cooking over an open fire. They lived pretty much close to the time.”

That mindset of living in a different time would be conveyed to Sheen in an even more powerful way. While filming Pickett’s Charge during a long, hot day, Maxwell had an idea. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have Marty Sheen suit up and ride out on Traveller,” Maxwell recalls. “Not that he’s going to be in the shot, but just to boost morale.”

That day was Sheen’s day off. “He asked me if I was free and would I come by and just say hello to the lads,” says Sheen. Sheen agreed. “I went into makeup and got on the horse. I was still learning to ride that horse.”

Upon arrival, Sheen was met with “a couple thousand guys coming out of the woods and surrounding me.”  The reenactors began cheering and chanting Lee’s name. “In that moment they were not reenactors and Martin Sheen wasn’t Martin Sheen, the Hollywood actor,” says Maxwell.

But not all was glory and hurrahs. And reflecting on those moments haunt Sheen still. “One of the hardest things was being present to that battle,” he says. “Pickett’s charge on the last day; and realizing what this man and all of the commanders that day on both sides witnessed up close and personal. The brutal slaughter of thousands and thousands of able-bodied men. They watched that. They watched that carnage. What does that do to your spirit?”

Sheen’s taking on the role of Lee was not met without pushback, though. “A lot of people took issue with me playing that role,” says Sheen. “I’m known as a very radical West Coast liberal.”

In fact, Sheen, a devoted advocate for social justice causes, has been arrested 66 times. “When the film came out, I got a lot of criticism from Southern sources,” says Sheen. “Not so much for the performance, but ‘Who does he think he is? He just got dragged off of a demonstration.’”

In looking back at playing Lee, Sheen speaks of trying to understand the man as much as the legend. “He was an extremely stoic man,” says Sheen. “Yet I found out things about him that were very moving. He had a slave he grew up with and who he took to West Point with him. And this man died while at West Point, and he took him home to be buried. He was devoted to this man who he loved more than his father.”

For an actor who has played iconic roles in movies from Badlands to Apocalypse Now to President Bartlet on the television series West Wing, where does Sheen rank his role as General Lee? “It’s very close to the top,” he says with a smile.

+ posts

Lisa Gregory is an experienced journalist whose articles have appeared in publications nationally and internationally including the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report. She is also a frequent contributor to Frederick Magazine, Hagerstown Magazine and Carroll Magazine, among others. A published author of fiction, she has short stories in the books, “For the Love of Gettysburg” and “On Hallowed Ground.”

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
10 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Frank Zalar
Frank Zalar
1 month ago

I thought Jeff Daniel’s playing of Col. Chamberlain was the best part of the movie. Outstanding performance.

Carol
Carol
1 month ago

Martin Sheen will always be, to me, the epitome of Lee the man and commander. To appeal to Mr. Sheen’s social activism, I wish he would (if he hasn’t already) read about Lee’s life after the war; how he advocated peace between north and south, and was mourned by Americans on both sides when he died.

Judi Seniura
Judi Seniura
1 month ago

A beautiful story by a wonderful friend.

Mark Stesney
Mark Stesney
1 month ago

Best depiction of Gettysburg ever! I had several friends from the 10th Texas division in that movie. I’m sorry I missed it. What an absolutely magnificent movie! Sheen was the best Lee ever! Unbelievable cast ! All if then !

Joey
Joey
1 month ago

Very well presented article!!

Edward C Zeier
Edward C Zeier
1 month ago

Gettysburg is my favorite movie.

Douglas Hansen, PGA
Douglas Hansen, PGA
1 month ago

That movie, in part, played such a pivotal role is our deciding to leave New York after 63 years.

I must have watched it hundereds of times – and now we live only 15 minutes away from Gettysburg.

Paradise.

April L Redding
April L Redding
1 month ago

I was working at the Gettysburg Hotel as a housekeeper when the movies was being filmed. I was young and grew up there. I got to see actorTom Bellinger and Martin Sheen. And more actors at can’t remember names. It was remembered experience I’ll never forget!

Russell Seville
Russell Seville
1 month ago

Nice visiting gettysburg like dining at ernies Texas lunch

David D Keefer
David D Keefer
1 month ago

Robert Duvall who played in Gods and Generals would have been the perfect choice for this role. It’s been said his agent talked him out of it. Sheen would have been my last choice.

10
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x