Colonel Robert E. Lee resigns from the Union Army as the south secedes from the Union and both sides prepare for war. Major Jackson, who is a professor at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington at the outset of the war, leaves his family behind to do battle at Manassas Junction. Jackson is asked by a retreating General Barnard Bee for assistance against the Federal army who is pursuing them after a brief stand on Matthews Hill. In rallying his shaken troops, Bee launches the name of Stonewall into history and the Confederates rout the Federals at Henry House Hill. Jackson maintains steadfast discipline in his ranks during the battle despite suffering a wound to his left hand from a spent ball.
Meanwhile, Chamberlain makes his transition from teacher to military officer and practices drilling his soldiers, and is taught military tactics by Col. Adelbert Ames, the commander of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He is called to battle at the Union invasion of Fredericksburg. The Southern forces lead a fighting retreat as the Union army crosses the river and storms the town, and there are scenes of the subsequent looting of Fredricksburg by the Union Army. Outside the city, Lee, James Longstreet and Jackson have prepared an elaborate defense on Marye's Heights outside the town, and the movie focuses on Confederate defenses behind a formidable stone wall. Several Union brigades, including the Irish Brigade, attempt to cross an open field and attack the wall, but are thrown back with heavy losses by Confederate rifle and artillery fire. At one point, two Irish units are forced into battle against one another, to the anguish of a Southern Irishman who believes he is killing his kin. Chamberlain leads an unsuccessful attack against Jackson's defenses, led by Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead and finds his unit pinned down in the open field. He survives by shielding himself with a corpse until nightfall; eventually he and surviving members of 20th Maine are ordered to retreat and spend 2 nights on the battlefield, sleeping with the dead. Chamberlain and the defeated Union soldiers depart Fredericksburg. Jackson and Lee return to the city, and Lee is confronted by an angry citizen whose house has been destroyed by Union artillery.
Jackson spends the rest of the winter at a local plantation, Moss Neck Manor, where he develops a friendship with a girl who lives there. Later, Jackson discovers the child has died from scarlet fever and he begins to cry. A soldier asks why he weeps for this child but not for the thousands of dead soldiers, and another soldier states that Jackson is weeping for everyone. Jackson is soon reunited with his wife and newborn child just before the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Outside Chancellorsville, Lee identifies that the southern army faces an opposing force almost twice their size. Jackson calls upon his chaplain, Beverly Tucker Lacy who knows the area, and asks him to find a route by which the southern forces can infiltrate in secret. Jackson then leads his forces in a surprise attack on an unprepared Union 11th Corps. Although his men initially rout the opponents, they quickly become confused in the melee, and Jackson's attack is stalled. While scouting a path at night, Jackson is caught in no-mans-land between the 2 armies and badly wounded by his own men, who had mistaken him and his staff for Union cavalry. During his evacuation, his litter bearers are targeted by artillery and drop Jackson on the ground. He is then taken to a field hospital where his arm is amputated. Lee remarks that while Jackson has lost his left arm, he (Lee) has lost his right. Jackson dies shortly after, of pneumonia he had contracted during recovery. Jackson's body is returned to Lexington, accompanied by VMI Cadets and covered by the new confederate flag.Stephen Lang as Lieutenant General Stonewall Jackson (CSA)
Jeff Daniels as Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (20th Maine, USA)
Robert Duvall as General Robert E. Lee (CSA)
Kevin Conway as Sergeant Buster Kilrain (20th Maine)
C. Thomas Howell as Lieutenant Thomas Chamberlain (20th Maine)
Jeremy London as Captain Alexander "Sandie" Pendleton (CSA)
Matt Letscher as Colonel Adelbert Ames (20th Maine)
Brian Mallon as Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (USA)
Bo Brinkman as Major Walter H. Taylor (CSA)
Bruce Boxleitner as Lieutenant General James Longstreet (CSA)
William Sanderson as Major General A.P. Hill (CSA)
Billy Campbell as Major General George Pickett (CSA)
Alex Hyde-White as Major General Ambrose E. Burnside (USA)
Joseph Fuqua as Major General J.E.B. Stuart (CSA)
John Prosky as Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead (CSA)
Royce D. Applegate as Brigadier General James L. Kemper (CSA)
Patrick Gorman as Major General John Hood (CSA)
W. Morgan Sheppard as Major General Isaac R. Trimble (CSA)
James Patrick Stuart as Colonel Edward Porter Alexander (CSA)
Jonathon Demers as Brigadier General Richard S. Ewell (CSA)
Andrew Prine as Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett (CSA)
James Garrett as Brigadier General John C. Caldwell (USA)
J. Scott Watkins as Brigadier General Raleigh E. Colston (CSA)
Fred Griffith as Brigadier General Robert Rodes (CSA)
Tim O'Hare as Colonel St. Clair Augustine Mulholland (USA)
John Castle as Brigadier General William N. Pendleton (CSA)
Matt Lindquist as Prussian Lieutenant Colonel Heros von Borcke (CSA)
Ted Turner as Lieutenant Colonel Waller T. Patton (CSA)
Lester Kinsolving as Brigadier General William Barksdale (CSA)
Cooper Huckabee as Henry Thomas Harrison
Mira Sorvino as Fanny Chamberlain
Kali Rocha as Anna Jackson
Donzaleigh Abernathy as Martha
Karen Hochstetter as Roberta Corbin
Martin Clark as Dr. George Junkin
Christie Lynn Smith as Catherine Corbin
Ted Turner has a cameo in the film as Colonel Waller T. Patton. Colonel Patton, the great uncle of George S. Patton, was mortally wounded at Gettysburg, a scene depicted in the movie Gettysburg. United States Senators George Allen (R-Virginia) and Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) also have cameo roles, both playing Confederate officers, Phil Gramm (R-Texas) appears as a member of the Virginia Legislature early in the film and Congressman Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) also appeared as an Irish Brigade officer. Most of the extras were American Civil War reenactors, who provided their own equipment and worked without pay. In exchange, Ted Turner agreed to donate $500,000 to Civil War battlefield preservation.
The movie was filmed in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, western Maryland and in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Actual historic locations in the film include Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee University, known as Washington College during the Civil War.
Russell Crowe was the original choice to play Stonewall Jackson, but scheduling conflicts prevented his availability in the summer and fall of 2001 when the movie was filmed. Stephen Lang had begun to reprise his role as George Pickett, but instead was asked to fill in the role of Jackson. Billy Campbell, who had played a 44th New York lieutenant in Gettysburg was called in to hastily replace Lang in the role of Pickett. Although Tom Berenger desired to reprise his Gettysburg role as James Longstreet (which he called his favorite role) he was unavailable because of scheduling difficulties. Bruce Boxleitner was instead cast in the role. Darius N. Couch was portrayed by actor Carsten Norgaard. Martin Sheen was prevented from reprising his role as Lee due to contractual obligations to The West Wing.
During post-production, Maxwell, Warner Bros. executives and Turner debated on whether to release the film as two parts over two years or as a single film. Maxwell decided to focus on Stonewall Jackson's history in one film.
God and Generals closes with an ending sequence stating that the Civil War story will be concluded with a third film Last Full Measure. As of 2015, there have been no efforts to produce this final feature film.
The director's cut was released for Blu-ray Disc on May 24, 2011.
Among the footage edited includes a sub-plot which follows John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor who would eventually assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. One scene towards the end of the extended cut of the film features Chamberlain and his wife, Fanny, attending a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which Booth plays Marcus Junius Brutus. Chamberlain and his wife have a conversation with Booth and his fellow actors following the end of the play. Another scene cut from the film features a performance in Washington, D.C. in which Booth plays the role of Macbeth, which is being seen by President Lincoln. When he gives the famous "dagger of the mind" soliloquy, he looks directly at Lincoln while reciting it. Later, when Booth is offered the chance to meet with Lincoln, he refuses.
A sequence dealing with the Battle of Antietam was removed from the film. The battle was seen mostly from the perspectives of Jackson (who played a major strategic role in the battle) and Chamberlain (whose corps was held in reserve). In the Director's Cut the entire sequence at Antietam is shown; the Antietam battle scenes mostly depict the fighting in Miller's Cornfield, where soldiers from the opposite sides fired at each other from just a few meters away.
In 2003, the film score was composed by John Frizzell, with some minor contributions by Randy Edelman, who composed the score for the previous Gettysburg. The soundtrack is notable for containing a new song commissioned for the movie and written and performed by Bob Dylan, Cross the Green Mountain. The track was later included on the compilation album The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs.
Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes lists an 8% approval rating while Metacritic lists a score of 30, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews". The critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes reads, "Filled with two-dimensional characters and pompous self-righteousness, Gods and Generals is a long, tedious sit. Some may also take offense at the pro-Confederate slant."
Gods and Generals is widely viewed as championing the Lost Cause ideology by creating a presentation more favorable to the Confederacy.
Writing in the Journal of American History, historian Steven E. Woodworth derided the movie as a modern day telling of Lost Cause mythology. Woodworth called the movie "the most pro-Confederate film since Birth of a Nation, a veritable celluloid celebration of slavery and treason." He summed up his reasons for disliking the movie by saying:
Gods and Generals brings to the big screen the major themes of Lost Cause mythology that professional historians have been working for half a century to combat. In the world of Gods and Generals, slavery has nothing to do with the Confederate cause. Instead, the Confederates are nobly fighting for, rather than against, freedom, as viewers are reminded again and again by one white southern character after another.
Woodworth criticized the portrayal of slaves as being "generally happy" with their condition. He also criticizes the relative lack of attention given to the motivations of Union soldiers fighting in the war. He excoriates the film for allegedly implying, in agreement with Lost Cause mythology, that the South was more "sincerely Christian." Woodworth concludes that the film, through "judicial omission," presents "a distorted view of the Civil War."
Historian William B. Feis similarly criticized the director's decision "to champion the more simplistic-and sanitized-interpretations found in post-war "Lost Cause" mythology". Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film 1.5 out of 4 stars. He described it as "a Civil War movie that Trent Lott might enjoy" and said of its Lost Cause themes, "If World War II were handled this way, there'd be hell to pay." He also faulted the film for its music and "pithy quotations." Ebert had previously given a favorable review to Gods and Generals' indirect predecessor, the 1993 film Gettysburg.
On the contrary, Constitution Party politician Chuck Baldwin strongly supports the film. He claimed that it "has the power to change the hearts of millions of people who disdain the Old Confederacy, who misunderstand Southern slavery, and who hold Christianity in contempt."
Author Jeff Shaara originally liked the movie, but his opinion on it has since changed. He said, "It's enormously different, it's radically different from the book. There are characters in the film that do not exist in the book, and a great many characters in the book that never made it to the film. It's just an entirely different story, and I have to tell you, I've heard from literally thousands of people through my website, and I get emails every day and try to be as accessible as I can, and the overwhelming percentage of those that wrote me said, 'How could you let them butcher your book like that?' I have no answer to that because I had no control or power to change what came up on the screen."