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Byrd becomes soldier for a day

November 23, 2001

Byrd becomes soldier for a day



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


For a few hours Tuesday, West Virginia's U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd was a Georgian.

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Decked out in a gray greatcoat and a general's hat, with a sabre dangling against his leg, Byrd was at the Austin Flook farm near Keedysville to make a cameo appearance in the movie "Gods and Generals."

"You don't mind being a Georgian for a day do you?" Director Ronald F. Maxwell asked the senior West Virginia congressman as he arrived on the set at the farm Tuesday morning.

Maxwell was referring to Byrd's role of Paul Semmes, a Confederate general from Georgia.

Of course, Byrd didn't mind.

"You see, I'm a history buff. And anything I can do to preserve history for future generations, I want to do it," said Byrd, who sported a beard and mustache.

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At times, it was a tossup over what was attracting more attention Tuesday, Byrd's appearance or the movie.

A crowd of television and print journalists gathered around Byrd as Maxwell gave him a replica of a Civil War cannon as a gift.

Byrd, in typical form, recited world history, state history and named his heroes.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., showed up to sing "Happy Birthday" to Byrd, who turned 84 Tuesday.

"I won't soon forget this," said Byrd.

The film crew planned to surprise Byrd with a birthday cake in the shape of West Virginia later in the day, said Vic Heutschy, a spokesman for the production crew.

Maxwell said he invited Byrd and other political figures to appear in the film because they could provide valuable publicity for both the film and for Maxwell's interest in saving Civil War battlefields.

Byrd joined actor Robert Duvall, who portrays Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Stephen Lang, who plays Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson, and others in the re-creation of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, Va.

The war was going well for the Confederates at that time, but in the filming Tuesday, Lee and his comrades expressed concern about how they would face the opposition. The scene depicts activity at Telegraph Hill, which was Lee's command post during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

A cold wind swept up the hillside, and Byrd daubed at his nose with a handkerchief as he waited for the cameras to roll.

In the segment involving Byrd, the Confederate command meets around a table to discuss options.

Film crews selected a role for Byrd that would fit his background, said local Civil War historian Dennis Frye, who is involved in the production of the movie.

Semmes was born in Wilkes County, Ga. and Byrd was born in Wilkes County, N.C. Semmes fought in battles at Sharpsburg and Gettysburg and died in Martinsburg after being wounded in combat, film officials said.

The movie "Gods and Generals" is based on the book of the same name by Jeff Shaara. It is the prequel to the movie "Gettysburg," which was based on "The Killer Angels," by Shaara's father, Michael.

Maxwell has been filming on farmland and in towns, courthouses, and other buildings in Washington County and in Jefferson and Berkeley counties in West Virginia. Maxwell wanted to shoot the film where Civil War history took place in the hope it would inspire actors, Heutschy has said.

Before the segment involving Byrd, film crews shot a scene in which Duvall and his Confederate comrades view a battle area below from atop their horses.

The crew took a break from filming to allow leaves to fall from the trees, the better to re-create the battlefield as it appeared in the winter of 1862, said Heutschy.

"We have a few snow machines, if he wants to duplicate that," said Heutschy.

The rest of the filming likely will be done at the 500-acre Flook farm, Heutschy said.

Filming is expected to be completed by Dec. 13 and the Warner Bros. production is set for release in early 2003.

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