The American Civil War (1861-1865) was a crucial moment in the history of the United States. Thousands of lives were lost, boundaries were drawn, and the very existence of American democracy and the abolishment of slavery hung in the balance. It was a war that affected Americans from all walks of life, and it became a conflict that shall never be forgotten.
Throughout the years in cinema, Hollywood has produced several acclaimed films that depicted or were set during this brutal conflict. These movies shed light on the struggles of those affected by the Civil War and how it changed American society. From Westerns to war dramas, these films stood the test of time and proved to be accurate depictions of America’s bloodiest war.
10 ‘Cold Mountain’ (2003)
IMDb Score: 7.2
In the waning days of the war for the South, W.P. Inman (Jude Law), an injured and disgruntled Confederate soldier, abandons his post and makes a desperate trek back to his home in Cold Mountain, North Carolina, to be with his beloved admirer Ada (Nicole Kidman.) Along the way, he meets many unique characters while Ada back home tries to keep control of her struggling farm.
This impressive historical romance focuses less on actual battles and more on the toll that war has taken on the lives of many people across the country during this time. Beneath the adventure and romance plot, it’s a study into the needlessness of violence and how wars always bring out the worst and best of humanity.
9 ‘Andersonville’ (1996)
IMDb Score: 7.3
In this two-part made-for-television film, a newly arriving unit of Union prisoners of war struggles to survive after being sent to “Andersonville,” one of the worst and most brutal Confederate prison camps. During their time in the camp, they faced starvation, exposure, disease, and lingering threats from violent prisoners.
The film offers insight into the harrowing ordeals these prisoners went through in real life. It also doesn’t shy away from depicting the terrible acts of punishment and war crimes committed by the corrupt camp guards and the desperate and depraved acts committed by some of these prisoners to survive.
8 ‘Shenandoah’ (1965)
IMDb Score: 7.3
Prospering Virginia farmer Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) maintains a peaceful farm life for himself and his large family while staying out of the war by choosing neither side. However, when his youngest son is taken captive by Union troops after being mistaken for a Confederate, Charlie and his other sons are forced to trek across northern lines on a crucial mission to bring him back home.
Shenandoah talks about how even civilians during this time were in some ways negatively affected by the Civil War’s outcomes, whether they supported the conflict or not. Though it features heartbreaking moments of loss and despair, the film also conveys a powerful message about the importance of family and perseverance as the audiences follow Charlie and his brood on a dangerous mission to ensure their family’s survival.
7 ‘Lincoln’ (2012)
IMDb Score: 7.3
With the Civil War reaching a bloody conclusion, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) struggles to end the conflict peacefully while trying to convince Congress to pass his bold plans to abolish slavery altogether. Eventually, Lincoln proved successful against his own personal struggles and opposition from his enemies.
This great biographical drama relies heavily on historical facts and powerful performances to deliver a compelling story about one of the most popular and iconic Presidents in United States history. Lincoln’s actions and the roles performed by his allies in the fight to create the 13th amendment are shown in great detail, highlighting how stressful and nail biting it became in the fight to end slavery.
6 ‘Gettysburg’ (1993)
IMDb Score: 7.6
In this nearly five hours long war epic, Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) and Union Major General George Meade (Richard Anderson) lead their respective armies in a large-scale battle that will become known as one of the most significant turning points in the American Civil War.
With a star-studded cast including other big named stars like Tom Berenger, Stephen Lang, and Jeff Daniels, Gettysburg offers a more in-depth and historically accurate representation of the battles fought during the war. It also addresses the many differing ideologies and viewpoints of both sides and how they feel about what the war was truly about.
5 ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ (1976)
IMDb Score: 7.8
After a ruthless unit of Union soldiers murders his entire family, Missouri farmer Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) takes up arms and joins the Confederacy to exact his revenge. However, as the war ends, he soon finds himself on the run as an outlaw while being chased by the men he’s looking for.
The film is shown from the viewpoint of a broken man torn by his losses and involvement in a war that didn’t go the way he’d hoped. It also depicts how even the Union, the side that fought for a noble cause, still showed moments of corruption and villainy. It’s a thought-provoking anti-war film that lets viewers know that all wars have a lasting impact on those who served in them.
4 ‘Glory’ (1989)
IMDb Score: 7.8
Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) takes command of the first volunteered all-African-American infantry regiment known as the 54th Massachusetts. Shaw and his soldiers soon fought on the front lines, battling prejudice and discrimination along the way, determined to seek their own glory.
This courageous and emotional war drama offers a deep insight into the lives of the brave men of the 54th who fought constantly to ensure freedom and respect for all African Americans in the country. Through hardships and sacrifices, they eventually became an inspiration to the nation and instrumental to the Union’s ultimate victory.
3 ‘The General’ (1926)
IMDb Score: 8.1
Rejected from joining the Confederate army, a train engineer named Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) is forced to play a more civilian role while doing his part in the war effort. However, when Union spies hijack his precious locomotive, “The General,” Johnnie embarks on a wacky adventure full of dangers and chases all in an attempt to get his train back.
The General is a more comedic depiction of the war as it shows Keaton performing his hilarious and impressive physical comedy acts that still get chuckles from the audiences even after nearly a century since the film’s release. Besides the humor, the film also shows plenty of realistic battles and giant explosions to let the viewer know they’re still watching an engaging war film.
2 ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939)
IMDb Score: 8.2
In one of the greatest historical epics of all time, a southern belle named Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) struggles to keep her family together throughout the tumultuous years during and after the Civil War. Through loss and hardships, she strove to rebuild her home while engaging in a troublesome romance with the wealthy playboy Rhett Butler (Clark Gable.)
Hidden behind the character drama and romance, Gone with the Wind greatly shows a large-scale depiction of how warfare disrupts the beauty of nature and how innocent lives get caught in the middle of battle. The film also highlights the hopelessness and devastation the South experienced during the early years of the “Reconstruction Era” and how poorly mismanaged it was.
1 ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ (1966)
IMDb Score: 8.8
In this Sergio Leone western masterpiece set in the backdrop of the Civil War, three men, a stoic gunslinger, a ruthless hitman, and a wanted outlaw, all race against time and each other to find a Confederate treasure buried somewhere in the war-torn countryside.
Though it’s more of a Western than a war film, the conflict itself still plays a crucial role in the background of the movie behind all the exciting gunfights and duels as the three leads, in some ways, become involved in the carnage. The violence and the horrible crimes committed by soldiers on both sides are also apparent as it teaches the audience how complex and morally grey the Civil War was.