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328: This Week: They Died with Their Boots On, 37 Days, Gettysburg

In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in these movies: They Died with Their Boots On, 37 Days, and Gettysburg.

Events from This Week in History


Birthdays from This Week in History


A Historical Movie Released This Week in History

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

June 25, 1876. Montana Territory.

It’s dark out. Not just because this movie is in black and white, but because it’s nighttime. A campfire can be seen as a man in a military uniform walks to one of two wagons in the shot. He unties the back and a man comes falling out onto the ground.

The man who fell out seems to be tied up with his hands behind his back.

He glares at the man, saying, “You’ll pay for this, Custer!”

Then he demands to be cut loose. Although he probably didn’t expect his captor to do that, Errol Flynn’s version of George Armstrong Custer does exactly that as he bends down to cut the man loose. That man is Arthur Kennedy’s character, Ned Sharp.

Getting up, Custer tells Sharp that he’s free to go. But Sharp says he doesn’t know where he is or what day it is. Custer replies it’s just about dawn on the 25th of June and you’re on the Rosebud Ridge above the Little Big Horn River.

In the next shot, it’s daytime now as Custer leads rows of cavalry along an open terrain. All of a sudden, one of the men points up and along the ridge we can see lines of horses appearing. With a closer camera shot we can see armed Native American on the horses charging toward the cavalry under Custer’s command.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie They Died with Their Boots On

That is how the 1941 film They Died with Their Boots On shows the start of an event that happened this week in history: The Battle of Little Bighorn. Or, as it’s sometimes referred to, Custer’s Last Stand.

Although that movie plays loose with historical facts—that stuff with Ned Sharp never really happened because, well, Ned Sharp was not a real person—it is true that the battle took place on June 25th and June 26th, 1876.

The battle’s name comes as most battles do, from the location, as it took place near the Little Bighorn River in what was then Montana Territory. Montana was admitted into the United States in 1889.

On one side of the battle was the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry, led by Lt. Colonel George Custer. On the other side were warriors primarily from the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes.

Since the movie’s version of the story is quite skewed, in a nutshell, what really happened was the United States was forcing Native Americans to leave their lands and move to reservations. A treaty had been signed in 1868 between the United States and the Lakota and Cheyenne. That’ll come back into play in a moment.

Custer was there to map the area, but when geologists found some gold that brought in lots of people trying to strike it rich. That violated the 1868 treaty and angered many who didn’t agree with the treaty to begin with. Among those were two Lakota leaders, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

In 1876, the United States gave an ultimatum for Lakota who refused to go to the reservation. When the deadline passed without any change, the U.S. Army was tasked with enforcing it. As you can probably expect, the way the military enforces things is not a peaceful solution.

There was a Lakota and Cheyenne village near the Little Bighorn River and Custer’s superior officer, General Terry, decided to send Custer’s 7th Cavalry to flank them from the east and south while he himself would lead other soldiers from the north.

For a bit of context, Custer had about 600 men under his command and while we don’t know exactly how many Native American warriors were in the battle, many sources I found give a range between 1,500 and 3,000. We also don’t know the full story of what happened in the battle, but when General Terry’s men arrived in the valley, they found Custer and all his men were killed.

If you want to see the events unfold on screen, you can see the day of June 25th, 1876 start at about two hours and seven minutes into the 1941 film They Died with Their Boots On. And if you want to dig deeper into the true story, we covered that movie back on episode #198 of Based on a True Story.

June 28, 1914. Sarajevo.

A white-haired man sits down in a quiet room. On his lap are some papers. He pulls out his reading glasses and looks down at them.

As he does, we hear voiceover that we can presume is what the man’s reading about—which, in turn, is an event that took place earlier in the day.

The voiceover tells us that the Archduke’s assassin was Gavrilo Princip. He was a Bosnian Serb who believed that Bosnia should be part of the Kingdom of Serbia and that the only way to get rid of the province’s Austrian overlords was through violence. The victim they chose was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was the heir to the Habsburg throne and the symbol of everything Princip hated about Austrian rule.

On top of that, the 28th was a day of Holy mourning, the most important date in the Serb calendar, so it was madness for an Archduke to visit Sarajevo on this day of all days. The voiceover likens this to an English king going in battle dress to Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day.

As the voiceover explains this, we can see the Archduke in his dress uniform getting into a car with his wife in an elegant white dress and hat.

The voiceover continues, saying that Princip missed his chance as the Archduke’s car drove by too fast. So, Princip went to a nearby café to contemplate what might have been.

We can see a man now, sitting down and smoking a cigarette.

The voiceover explains that he got a second chance because the Archduke’s driver got lost in the city’s old town. It got stuck right outside the café where Princip was at.

We can see Princip noticing the Archduke’s car backing up outside. He pulls a pistol out of his pocket, cocks the gun and rushes outside.

From the perspective of the car, we see the Archduke’s wife smiling as the car continues to back up down the street. Princip raises his pistol and begins firing. There are screams. The car stops and all we can see now is Princip pointing his gun right at the camera, shooting at the passengers inside.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the TV series 37 Days

That sequence comes from the 2014 miniseries called 37 Days and it depicts an event that happened this week in history when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg were both assassinated by Gavrilo Princip.

So, the series was correct to mention those names as being the key people involved in the event.

What followed after that event was a series of alliances being triggered that launched the world into war—what we now know as World War I. The series was also correct to mention Princip failing at the assassination plan at first, although there’s more to the story than the series tells.

Just a few years earlier, Austria-Hungary had annexed the Bosnian provinces, increasing tensions from nearby Serbia who also wanted the provinces. Also important to the story is the fact that Archduke Ferdinand was the presumptive heir to the Austrian emperor at the time.

So, when Ferdinand was in Bosnia for some military exercises, there was a revolutionary society who plotted to assassinate him. Some have suggested the Serbian government itself was involved, but we don’t really know for sure. What we do know is that Gavrilo Princip was among those involved in the plan. On June 28th, there were seven would-be assassins who planned to intercept Ferdinand’s car in Sarajevo. The first attempt wasn’t by Princip, but another in the group tried to throw a handheld bomb, kind of like a grenade, at the Archduke’s car. The series only mentions the Archduke’s car, but in truth it was a motorcade and the bomb bounced off and exploded under the wrong car.

Some people nearby were injured, and the would-be assassin was captured by the police. However, the Archduke decided not to end his trip in Sarajevo, but to continue the day’s planned events.

The series mentions them driving at high speeds, and they did do that after the first failed attempt. But then, just like the series suggests, the first three cars in the motorcade turned down the wrong street. It just happened to be where Princip was. The cars tried to back up, but Princip seized the opportunity and pulled out his pistol to kill the Archduke and his wife at point-blank range.

After the assassination, the Austro-Hungarian leaders blamed the Serbian government for the attack. The truth is that we still don’t really know if the Serbian government was involved at all, but the lack of proof didn’t stop the Austrians from sending an ultimatum to Serbia.

As a little side note, Serbia was allied with Russia, so Austria-Hungary had to tread carefully with this move. But, they were assured Germany’s support in case of war by Kaiser Wilhelm II, so the ultimatum was delivered in mid-July. Meanwhile, Wilhelm went on his annual cruise. Serbia agreed to most of the demands on July 25th. Once Wilhelm returned from his cruise, on July 28th, he communicated there wasn’t a justification for war. But the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, had already authorized war.

On July 28th, 1914, Austria-Hungary officially declared war on Serbia. Today, we refer to July 28th as the start of World War I because it was the start of a chain of events.

In response to the declaration of war, Serbia called on their Russian allies for assistance. Russia responded by mobilizing their military. Germany sent an ultimatum to Russia to halt its mobilization. That was ignored and Germany declared war on Russia on August 1st. France then mobilized their military, so on August 3rd, Germany declared war on France while also invading Belgium. In response, Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th. Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia on August 5th, Serbia declared war on Germany on August 6th, Montenegro declared war against Austria-Hungary on August 7th, France declared war on Austria-Hungary on August 10th, on August 12th Montenegro declared war on Germany while Great Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary the same day.

Of course, that’s just a quick overview, but you get the idea. There’s more—for example, on August 23rd, Japan declared war on Germany, then two days later Austria-Hungary declared war on Japan. But, in a nutshell, that’s why the event that happened this week in history, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is the event that spiraled the world into war.

If you want to watch that depicted on screen, check out the 3-part miniseries from BBC called 37 Days. The assassination starts early on at about 12 minutes into the first episode.

Before we wrap up this segment, though, to add to the story of history this week, it’s also worth pointing out that the most important treaty of World War I was signed exactly five years after Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28th, 1919, and it officially ended war between most of the Allies and Germany. The Treaty of Versailles also demanded Germany accept responsibility for the war and pay reparations. And thus, it was a key factor in the economic collapse of Germany after World War I that subsequently fueled the resentment that helped the Nazi Party rise to power in Germany which led to World War II.


June 30, 1863. Pennsylvania.

As the movie fades up from black, the landscape is dark. The silhouette of trees can be seen in the foreground. In the background is the sky, filled with clouds and an orange color that we would expect to see with the morning sunrise.

This is what we see as the text on the screen gives us the date of Tuesday, June 30, 1863. It also tells us it’s the third summer of the war. Now we can see the sun peaking over the mountains on the horizon as the orange colors are starting to melt into the day’s blue sky. In the foreground, looking over the sunrise in the distance is the silhouette of a man. After a moment, he turns around and walks toward the camera. The scene fades to another beautiful landscape with mountains in the background, the morning fog creating a sort of atmospheric haze of blues and oranges.

The man is on horseback now and he rides to the center of the frame before stopping. He pulls out a telescope and puts it up to his eye. The camera cuts to what he’s seeing, a line of soldiers on horseback. Thanks to their blue uniforms and a couple of United States flags being carried, we can tell these are Union soldiers.

The man watching them puts away his telescope and we can see better now that he’s wearing a brown jacket. Although no one else is around, he says out loud that’s two brigades of Federal cavalry.

Then, in the next shot, we see him riding along another hill. He stops his horse and pulls out the telescope again. This time he’s looking at a line of infantry soldiers marching along a dirt road, from the right side of the camera frame to the left side.

After this, we see the scout delivering the news of the Union soldiers on the move to Confederate General Longstreet. He’s played by Tom Berenger in the movie. This is also where we find out the scout’s name is Henry T. Harrison, and he’s played by Cooper Huckabee in the movie.

Later, General Longstreet meets with General Robert E. Lee to tell him about the Union’s movement. Looking at the map, Lee says they should concentrate right here. He points to a town on the map. The camera cuts to the map and we can see the name of the town: Gettysburg.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Gettysburg

That sequence comes from the 1993 film named after that town, Gettysburg, and it depicts an event that happened this week in history when Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered his troops to concentrate around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The movie was correct to show Harrison as being vital to the gathering of information for the Union troop positions leading up to the battle.

Just like we see happening in the movie, Henry T. Harrison—the “T” stands for Thomas—was a Confederate spy who told General Longstreet that the Union soldiers were advancing north. Although, my sources mentioned that happening on June 28th and not the 30th like we see in the movie, but in either case, it happened this week in history.

Longstreet was surprised at the news of the Union troop’s locations, but it was based on this that helped Lee make the decision to concentrate his army of 75,000 troops at Gettysburg because of its crossroads. That set up what we now know as the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest single battle of the Civil War with an estimated 50,000 casualties over the three-day battle between July 1st and July 3rd.

For a bit of geographical context, Gettysburg is 35 miles or about 56 kilometers to the south of Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg.

For a bit of historical context, the Federal states were tiring of the war that had been raging for a few years at this point. Lee’s purpose at Gettysburg was to invade the north and deal a blow to the Union that would force a peace negotiation.

What really happened, though, was that Lee’s plan didn’t work. His army was defeated at Gettysburg in a battle that many consider being a turning point in the Civil War.

If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out the 1993 movie simply called Gettysburg. As I mentioned, most of the battle took place next week in history from July 1st to July 3rd, but the event that I started this segment with started at about 5 minutes and 16 seconds into the film.

And if you want to dig deeper into the true story, I’ve covered Gettysburg twice here on the podcast. Episode #160 is a chat with Jim and Eric, two Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides and the co-hosts of The Battle of Gettysburg Podcast. Then, episode #280 is adds even more of the true story with acclaimed historian Gregory J.W. Urwin. As always, you’ll find links to both of those in the show notes!



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