The American Civil War, spanning from 1861 to 1865, stands as a pivotal moment in American history. This violent conflict between the Union (North) and the Confederate (South) resulted in a staggering loss of life, with estimates ranging from 620,000 to 750,000 deaths. Ultimately, the war’s outcome led to the abolition of slavery, marking a significant turning point for the nation.
If you’re looking to deepen your understanding of the tumultuous period when the United States was divided through fighting, here are 15 American Civil War movies available on Netflix that can provide valuable insights:
“Little Women,” released in 2019, beautifully captures the essence of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, which is set during the American Civil War. The film revolves around the lives of four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March – as they navigate the challenges and experiences unique to being women during that era.
While the Civil War serves as a backdrop in the story, it doesn’t take center stage. Instead, it acts as a historical context that subtly influences the lives and choices of the characters. The March sisters’ father, Mr. Laurence March, leaves to fulfill his duties as a Union chaplain, leaving their mother, Marmee, to shoulder the responsibility of caring for the family.
The film primarily focuses on the personal challenges faced by the sisters, which are intricately woven into the fabric of their daily lives. The conflicts that arise within the March household, including sibling rivalries and societal expectations, provide the primary source of turmoil for the characters. As they navigate these internal and external struggles, the film delves into themes such as love, sisterhood, gender roles, and societal expectations prevalent during the time.
Titled “Glory,” the movie provides a poignant portrayal of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the earliest African-American units formed in the Union Army during the Civil War. The narrative unfolds through the perspective of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white officer entrusted with leading this remarkable regiment. Shaw’s journey is intertwined with two notable characters, Thomas Searles (played by Denzel Washington) and Trip (played by Morgan Freeman).
The film delves into the profound racial tensions that existed between the white and African-American soldiers as they fought against the Confederate forces. It explores the challenges faced by these courageous men, who fought not only for the preservation of the Union but also for their own freedom and equality. Despite their valor and sacrifices, they were denied formal recognition and equal rights within the ranks of their white counterparts.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) is a gripping film set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. The story revolves around Josey Wales, a former Missouri farmer portrayed by Clint Eastwood, who is driven to become an outlaw after his family is killed by Union soldiers. Seeking refuge, Wales escapes to Texas and joins a band of Confederate guerrillas. However, tragedy continues to haunt him as the group faces devastating losses at the hands of Union troops. Forced to forge new alliances with erstwhile adversaries, Wales grapples with the complexities of loyalty and redemption in a war-torn landscape.
Throughout the film, the central focus remains on Wales’ pursuit of revenge and his journey towards personal redemption. Haunted by the memories and pain of the war, he confronts his own inner demons while navigating a world fraught with violence and turmoil
“The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (1966), directed by Sergio Leone, is an iconic spaghetti western that unfolds against the backdrop of the American Civil War. The film follows three gunslingers – Tuco (Eli Wallach), Blondie (Clint Eastwood), and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) – as they pursue a hidden fortune of Confederate gold.
The movie vividly captures the chaos and turmoil experienced by civilians during the wartime period. Tuco, in particular, endures personal horrors as he finds himself imprisoned in a brutal camp, only to later attempt an escape through the treacherous Panama Canal as the war encroaches on his territory.
Blondie’s journey, on the other hand, primarily involves evading the conflicts between Confederate and Union troops. In contrast to his companions, Blondie chooses to avoid direct confrontation, preferring to navigate the shifting allegiances and dangers of the war-torn landscape.
“Andersonville,” a made-for-TV movie released in 1996 and directed by John Frankenheimer, offers a harrowing portrayal of the Confederate prison camp during the American Civil War. The film provides a realistic depiction of the horrors endured by Union soldiers who were captured and transported to Andersonville Prison in Georgia.
Set against the backdrop of the war, the movie focuses on a group of Union soldiers who find themselves taken captive and sent to the prison. Originally designed to accommodate around 10,000 prisoners, the camp suffered from mismanagement and overpopulation, resulting in the confinement of nearly 30,000 men in deplorable conditions.
This gripping drama exposes the daily struggle for survival faced by the prisoners, who grappled with extreme hunger, disease, and brutality from their captors. The film emphasizes the harsh realities of their existence, including inadequate food and water rations, lack of shelter, and constant threats to their lives.
In 2012, the highly acclaimed film “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, brought to life the story of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. The movie delves into the final months of Lincoln’s presidency, specifically focusing on the challenges he faced during the reconstruction period after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Lincoln” offers an intimate portrayal of the political life of this iconic figure during a crucial period in American history. The film delves into the complexities of Lincoln’s personal relationships and captures the immense weight of his responsibilities as he navigates the political landscape.
One of the film’s notable strengths is its accurate depiction of the challenges Lincoln encountered in ensuring the passage of the amendment despite opposition even from within his own party. It highlights his strategic and diplomatic approach, showcasing the immense effort he invested in securing the necessary support for the amendment that would forever change the course of American history.
The Keeping Room is a thrilling drama based on the American Civil War in the year 1865. Directed by Daniel Barber and written by Julia Hart, the story deals with themes of survival, sisterhood, and resiliency through a gripping narrative.
The film follows three women living in a farmhouse remote from any forces during the war. Augusta (Brit Marling), Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and Mad (Muna Otaru) look after themselves following a violent attack left behind by Union forces.
While Union soldiers equip themselves for a campaign to ravage the countryside to find supplies, the sisters must protect themselves from intruders with little means at hand. Closing the central conflict, two rogue soldiers, Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller), stumbled upon the isolated farmhouse where our protagonists take refuge. With danger outside their door, Augusta gathers her companions to safeguard what remains.
“Free State of Jones,” directed by Gary Ross, presents a compelling narrative based on the true history of Newton Knight, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey. The film showcases Knight’s extraordinary rebellion against his own army in Mississippi, as he forms a mixed-race community that challenges racial hierarchies and the prevailing notions of Southern identity.
The movie adeptly weaves together the stories of two young men, Jake Roedel (played by Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (played by Skeet Ulrich), who join the Confederate cavalry in Missouri during the Civil War. Simultaneously, it sheds light on the experiences of slaves, freedmen, and women living in rural Mississippi during this tumultuous period.
“Free State of Jones” offers a unique and thought-provoking approach to exploring the complexities of the Civil War era. It delves into the intersection of race, identity, and societal norms, presenting a narrative that challenges established hierarchies and confronts the harsh realities faced by marginalized groups.
“Ride with the Devil,” a 1999 film directed by Ang Lee, stands as another masterpiece set during the American Civil War. The movie centers around two young men, Jake Roedel (portrayed by Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (played by Skeet Ulrich), hailing from Stary Creek. The story unfolds as they depart their hometown to join a cavalry regiment from Kansas.
As the film progresses, Jake and Jack face numerous challenges, including hardship, death, tragedy, and occasional glimmers of hope, all while fighting for the freedom of Missouri. Their journeys highlight the enduring themes of loyalty and grace in the face of adversity. The film delves into the profound character development of its protagonists, showcasing their struggles and the complexities of their moral and ethical choices.
“Ride with the Devil” captivates viewers with its rich yet simple style, immersing them in the era’s intricate moral and ethical dilemmas faced by soldiers on both sides of the war. The movie does not shy away from exploring the multifaceted nature of loyalty and the nuanced choices individuals make in times of conflict.
“Hateful Eight,” released in 2015 and directed by Quentin Tarantino, stands as one of the most highly-rated American films. While it may not specifically focus on the American Civil War, the movie incorporates various elements that contribute to the exploration of its underlying themes.
Set in the late 1800s within the Wyoming landscape, “Hateful Eight” unfolds against the backdrop of a post-Civil War America, still grappling with the aftermath and consequences of the conflict. This historical context serves as a foundation for the film’s examination of themes such as distrust, racial tensions, revenge, and the quest for justice.
The story centers around a group of diverse individuals who find themselves trapped together in a remote stagecoach lodge during a blizzard. As the characters’ suspicions and mistrust intensify, the tension escalates, leading to unexpected twists and turns.
In Sofia Coppola’s 2017 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s Civil War-era novel “The Beguiled,” the complex relationship between a Union soldier named John McBurney (portrayed by Colin Farrell) and a group of Confederate women in Virginia takes center stage.
The film skillfully moves back and forth between different periods, capturing McBurney’s arrival into the women’s educational establishment and the delicate dynamics that unfold as he becomes entangled in their lives.
“The Beguiled” explores the intricate interactions among these female characters and McBurney, shedding light on how gender is embraced or denied within the post-Civil War society they inhabit. The story unfolds in a chapter-by-chapter format, delving deep into the emotional complexities and lingering problems that haunt the characters for years after the war’s end.
Released in 2003, “Cold Mountain” is a captivating period drama based on Charles Frazier’s 1997 novel of the same name. The film unfolds as a poignant story of survival and redemption during the American Civil War.
The protagonist, Inman, is a Confederate soldier hailing from North Carolina. Deserting his position shortly before the war begins, Inman embarks on a treacherous journey homeward. Along the way, he encounters individuals whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the devastating effects of the war, particularly the accusations of slavery against white landowners in the Southern region.
“Cold Mountain” slowly unravels the narrative of Inman’s arduous quest to return to his birthplace, the eponymous Cold Mountain, where he spent his formative years. The journey is fraught with danger and obstacles, but Inman clings to hope as he strives to survive amidst the harrowing circumstances.
“Shenandoah,” a 1965 film set in the American Civil War, stands as an iconic Western drama featuring the talented Jimmy Stewart. The movie revolves around the life of a Virginia farmer named Charlie Anderson (played by Stewart) and his family, who are inadvertently entangled in the war’s tumultuous events.
The film portrays the Anderson family’s struggle to maintain their farm and preserve their way of life, as they find themselves inexorably drawn into the conflict. As the story unfolds, Charlie realizes that neutrality is not an option, compelling him to make difficult choices and sacrifices to protect his loved ones.
“Shenandoah” exemplifies a timeless cinematic masterpiece that examines the profound impact of war on ordinary people caught in its crosshairs. Through its compelling narrative, the film explores themes of courage, sacrifice, and survival against the backdrop of one of America’s most turbulent periods.
“Gods and Generals,” directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, serves as a compelling prequel to the acclaimed film “Gettysburg” (1993), delving into the lives of key figures such as General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson during various battles of the Civil War. The movie offers a historical perspective from both the Union and Confederate sides, providing a comprehensive understanding of the conflict.
Set in 1863 during the Second Battle of Manassas in Bull Run, Virginia, “Gods and Generals” immerses viewers in the experiences of soldiers on both sides of the war. The film delves into their lives, exploring themes of loyalty, courage, and the complexities of wartime decisions.
With meticulous attention to historical detail, the movie captures the essence of the era and the intense struggles faced by those embroiled in the conflict. It offers insight into the motivations, dilemmas, and sacrifices of individuals on the battlefield.
Centered on the Battle of Gettysburg, this epic war drama provides an immersive depiction of the three days of intense fighting between the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
The film offers an accurate and gripping portrayal of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict, showcasing their unwavering dedication and sacrifices for their respective causes. It delves into the experiences of these individuals, providing an intimate glimpse into the harsh realities they faced on the battlefield.
Through its powerful storytelling, the movie explores the profound impact of war on the human condition. It portrays the immense stress, the brutal confrontation with mortality, and the moral dilemmas that soldiers confront. The film delves into the depth of human resilience and the degradation that can accompany the ravages of war.