Is Tom Hanks’ ‘1883’ Character Based on a Real Person?


The Big Picture

  • Tom Hanks makes a surprise appearance in Taylor Sheridan’s
    as General George Meade in a Civil War flashback, showcasing his unparalleled performance and raw portrayal of a military leader.
  • General George Meade was a real-life historical figure known for his victory against General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, although Hanks’ portrayal deviates from Meade’s short-tempered personality.
  • Taylor Sheridan enjoys incorporating real historical figures into his shows, as seen in
    with characters like Charles Goodnight and Marshall Jim Courtright, and he continues this in
    Lawmen: Bass Reeves

There’s no denying that Taylor Sheridan‘s Yellowstone prequel series 1883 is something of a Western television epic. The Paramount+ miniseries offers an honest portrayal of the harshness of the American West and expands upon an era of US history that we can’t fully seem to get past. As the Dutton family – led by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill‘s James and Margaret Dutton – make their way northwestward, they encounter plenty of historical figures. But none were more exciting than the surprise appearance by none other than Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks, who shows up in a Civil War flashback in the second episode, “Behind Us, a Cliff.”


The post-Civil war generation of the Dutton family travels to Texas, and joins a wagon train undertaking the arduous journey west to Oregon, before settling in Montana to establish what would eventually become the Yellowstone Ranch. 

Release Date
December 19, 2021

Main Genre


Who Does Tom Hanks Play in ‘1883’?

Although Sheridan is known for drawing in big-name actors for meaty roles (the likes of which include Kevin Costner, Sam Elliott, Billy Bob Thornton, Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, and soon-to-be Matthew McConaughey) the surprise appearance of Tom Hanks was exactly that: a surprise. Though he only appears in a single scene (not unlike John Wayne‘s appearance in How the West Was Won), his impact on the miniseries remains. The words and actions of Hanks’s character stick with McGraw’s James Dutton throughout their treacherous journey. Nevertheless, the question must be asked: Does Hanks play a real-life historical figure, or was his appearance just shoe-horned in for the sake of the Oscar-winner’s name?

In the episode, McGraw’s character has a flashback to his time as a soldier during the American Civil War. As the bloodiest era in United States history, this time period has often been a point of reference for the Western genre. In fact, many film and television Westerns take place in the immediate years following the Civil War, or feature characters haunted by their actions during this dark period. 1883 is no different, and we soon learn that James Dutton fought in the conflict, only on the side of the Confederacy. James was held in a Union prison for a considerable amount of time (three years) before the war ended, and though we don’t see much of that, we do get a glimpse of the defeat that took him there.


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James’ flashback to the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam saw the Dutton patriarch bruised and bloodied after a significant loss to the Union army. But rather than berate or belittle his defeated foe, Hanks’ General George Meade reassures the man that he understands the horrors he feels. Offering a steady hand on his weeping shoulder, Meade deals kindly with his opponent, taking pity on a man whose shoes he could have easily been in himself. Although Hanks only utters a few words, his performance is unparalleled, and the amount of compassion and empathy he shares with McGraw on screen is one of the rawest portrayals of a military leader in the history of television. Really, it’s that good.

General George Meade Was a Civil War Legend

Image via Paramount+

Yes, it’s true that Tom Hanks’ character was in fact a real, historical figure. Previously, the Civil War hero had been played by Rory Calhoun in the 1982 miniseries The Blue and the Gray, and Richard Anderson in Ronald F. Maxwell‘s 1993 epic Gettysburg. In real life, George Meade did fight (and win) at the Battle of Antietam, where he was also injured, though he wasn’t promoted to Major General until some time afterward. Before that, he had been previously injured in the Battle of Glendale, though he recovered enough to continue on, fighting in several battles before the one we see the results of in 1883. He is most well-known for his victory against General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Despite his calm and collected demeanor in 1883, the real-life Meade was actually a bit short-tempered. Nicknamed “The Old Snapping Turtle,” Meade was notorious for his uncontrollable attitude, losing his temper on more than one occasion. Union Army Lt. Col. Horace Porter, who would later serve as the personal secretary to President Ulysses S. Grant (another character who often cameos in Western media), once wrote that Meade “possessed of an excitable temper which under irritating circumstances became almost ungovernable.” While Tom Hanks played an incredibly convincing character in his one 1883 scene, that character doesn’t exactly sound too much like the real McCoy, err, Meade.

Taylor Sheridan Seems To Be Focusing on History

Despite the differences between the facts and fiction, Taylor Sheridan loves to toss real, historical figures into his projects, especially those relating to Yellowstone. In 1883 alone, many characters are based on real figures from the time. One such is Charles Goodnight, a rancher played by Sheridan himself who briefly engages with the wagon train. Goodnight was an actual ranching legend and was the credited inventor of the chuck wagon, of all things. Additionally, Billy Bob Thornton’s character, Marshall Jim Courtright, was a very real Fort Worth lawman, and though he wasn’t the Marshal in 1883, he served his town for many years before being gunned down. The Old West was full of wild characters.

Beyond 1883, Sheridan has woven real-life cowboys into the flagship Yellowstone series as well, namely Buster Welch. In the Yellowstone Season 4 episode “Under a Blanket of Red,” Welch appears in passing after talking with Jimmy (Jefferson White) on the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas. A Texas Cowboy Hall of Famer, Welch died only a few months after his appearance on Yellowstone. In the 20th century, Welch was known for cutting horses and worked on famous ranches such as Kings Ranch and 6666 Ranch for years. While he may not be known for fighting famous battles like George Meade, he certainly made an impact on the ranching industry, enough to be featured on the Paramount series.

Sheridan’s most recent series, Lawmen: Bass Reeves features David Oyelowo in the titular role of the real-life figure. The series, meant to be an anthology show with a rotating cast of historical lawmen, allows him to do exactly what he did with Tom Hanks’ George Meade: add more historical tidbits to his Western epics. Although Sheridan himself isn’t at the helm of Lawman, the Bass Reeves-themed series (originally billed as an 1883 spin-off) acts very much in step with the rest of Sheridan’s historical fiction. Next, the cowboy filmmaker is set to bring Empire of the Summer Moon, a historical visitation of the Indian Chief Quanah Parker, to life on the screen. Whether it’ll be historically accurate or another exciting Sheridan epic has yet to be seen, but so far we have yet to be disappointed… even if we didn’t really get to see the Old Snapping Turtle in action.

1883 is available to stream on Paramount+ in the U.S.

Watch on Paramount+


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