Tag Archives: Lincoln assassination

It doesn’t come out until September

…but you can already pre-order your very own copy of Bill O’ Reilly’s Lincoln assassination book, which will doubtless sell nine hundred bazillion copies.

Despite early indications that this was going to be another harebrained conspiracy account, along the lines of the 1977 book which falsely implicated Stanton in Booth’s plot, I was hoping against hope that O’Reilly and his co-author wouldn’t strike out into the tall grass of pseudohistorical nonsense.

I mean, it’s bad enough when websites and sensationalized documentaries foist that sort of stuff off on the public.  Put it in the mouth of a well-known media personality like O’Reilly, and then picture the madness that would ensue.  For decades, anyone giving a Lincoln lecture or site tour would end up fielding questions about whether members of Lincoln’s administration plotted to have him whacked. History blog comment sections would overflow with the rantings of crackpots, accusing all doubters of perpetuating a 150-year-old cover-up.

It would be one of the biggest boons to spurious history since Glenn Beck started dabbling in Native American studies.  We’d never hear the end of it.  Indeed, we’d be up to our armpits in it.

Now take a look at the promotional copy:

In the spring of 1865, the Civil War finally comes to an end after a series of incredibly bloody battles. President Abraham Lincoln’s generous terms for Robert E. Lee’s surrender are devised to fulfill Lincoln’s dream of healing a divided nation, with the former Confederates allowed to reintegrate into American society. One man and his band of murderous accomplices, perhaps reaching into the highest ranks of the U.S. government, are not appeased.

So here we go again.  Gird up thy loins, ye public historians who specialize in Lincoln.  Your job just got a little bit harder.

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Give the makers of that Mary Surratt movie a break

Last night I went to a movie with my mom and saw the trailer for The Conspirator.  It looked pretty good.  (Of course, the trailers always look pretty good, which is why I ended up shelling out money to see that Clash of the Titans remake on opening night.)

When the movie screened at the AHA meeting, the topic of slavery and popular memory of the Civil War came up, according to a piece posted earlier this month at HNN:

As one AHA member observed, is it really possible to make a film about the Civil War era and not mention the word slavery?  The Southern Surratt family had been slaveholders before falling into more difficult economic times, but this fact is not alluded to in the film.  Instead, Aiken observes that he is as dedicated to his cause (the Union) as Surratt is to her cause.  However, the cause to which Surratt has pledged herself and her family is never identified.  Thus, it is possible for viewers to provide alternative answers to this question which deny the centrality of the slavery issue to the origins of the Civil War.  Those who attended a secessionist ball in Charleston, South Carolina may assert that they are commemorating a commitment to states’ rights rather than celebrating an effort to preserve the institution of slavery.  And The Conspirator fails to offer any cinematic challenge to such an assumption.  One may view The Conspirator free from the disturbing questions of race and slavery.  Perhaps this will make the film appealing to a larger audience, but it will do little to foster popular understanding of the Civil War as we observe the 150th anniversary of that conflict.

That’s not to say that the film is inaccurate.  In fact, the writer goes on to admit that The Conspirator “includes more accurate historical detail than most Hollywood productions.”  Yet some historians are still troubled, because it doesn’t address deeper issues revolving around the causes of the war.

So can you make a Civil War movie without dealing with slavery?  I’m going to suggest that you can.

Please don’t misunderstand me here.  I’ll be the first to state that the debate over slavery was, in every meaningful sense, what made the Civil War happen.  If there had been no controversy over slavery’s extension, there would have been no war. It’s as simple as that.  Anyone who asserts that slavery had nothing to do with the war simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  (To employ my own movie-related metaphor, such a person is wearing hockey pads.)

Still, I don’t think it’s necessary to address the war’s larger causes in every single attempt to tell stories about the Civil War era.  This isn’t a movie about the Civil War’s causes, nor even a movie about the Surratt family’s economic background. It’s a movie about the trial of Mary Surratt.  We don’t expect historians who write tactical studies of Civil War battles to address slavery’s role in the war.  Nor do we expect historians who write books about the very historical themes the film tackles—namely the relationship between military arrests of civilians and constitutional issues—to do so.  Why should we expect filmmakers to do it?

Apparently we expect it because films are a teachable moment.  The movie, we are told, will “do little to foster popular understanding of the Civil War.”  But is it really the filmmakers’ job to foster popular understanding of the war’s causes and of the debate over emancipation?  I don’t think so.  They’ve apparently handled the matter of the Surratt trial in a satisfactory manner, and that’s all they can reasonably be expected to do.

Furthermore, it’s worth asking whether most moviegoers are so ignorant of the importance of slavery in the coming of the Civil War that they need this film to tell them.  I submit that most people who don’t affirm the critical role of slavery to the war do so not out of simple ignorance, but through a conscious and willing act of denial necessitated by needs that have little to do with a desire to understand history.  I doubt that, if the film did put slavery front and center, thousands of audience members would leave the theater muttering to themselves, “Slavery caused the war?  Why, I had no idea.”  No, most Americans who deny that the peculiar institution brought on the conflict do so despite reams of scholarship and primary material telling them otherwise, so it’s unlikely that a movie is going to change their minds.

If historians are concerned about popular understanding of the relationship between the war and slavery—as they certainly should be—then let’s engage this topic in accessible books, exhibits, and documentaries.  This is a public history issue, not a Hollywood issue.

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Some images from that Mary Surratt movie

…are now up for all to see at the Internet Movie Database.

By the way, this is the first movie released by The American Film Company, which is dedicated solely to making accurate historical pictures.  They’re working on John Brown and Paul Revere projects, and they’ve got historians posting for their official blog.  Check it out.

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In Lincoln book news

I was quite pleased (but not at all surprised) to hear that Michael Burlingame will receive the Lincoln Prize for his two-volume biography.  This was an award that was very much deserved. 

I think it’s going to be interesting to trace this book’s trajectory in the coming years.  Scholars seem to have accepted it as the definitive bio for this generation, and I have no doubt that it is.  Still, I wonder if its heft and price tag will intimidate interested readers.  Unless a trade publisher brings out a paperback edition, David Donald’s one-volume work may remain the go-to life of Lincoln for those who simply want to get to know the man.

Speaking of Lincoln books, check out this item from the Abraham Lincoln Observer (a blog you should be reading regularly if you aren’t already).  Apparently Bill O’ Reilly is working on an assassination book which offers “startling new information.”  His co-author is a sportswriter with far too much time on his hands.

ALO speculates that it might have something to do with the pages torn from Booth’s memorandum book, the same memorandum book from which Booth himself tore pages to be used as notes.  It doesn’t need explaining.

So not only will we be subjected to another conspiratorial history book, but one probably based on a non-issue and written by non-historians.  The last time this happened, a chemist tried to convince us that one of Lincoln’s own cabinet members orchestrated his murder.  We need another Lincoln conspiracy book like we need another teenage vampire movie.

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I’m ready for my close-up

The past few days have given us a flurry of Lincoln movie news, which you can read about in a series of posts by Brian Dirck (here, here, and here).  Robert Redford has a Mary Surratt film in the works, and Spielberg is still pursuing his long-awaited Lincoln project.

Coincidentally, the History Channel has been on a Lincoln assassination kick today, with one documentary on the plot to steal his body and another on Booth’s possible connections to the Confederate government.  The latter is on  right now; as I type this sentence, Ed Steers, Jr. is giving some on-air commentary.  Steers is a diligent Lincoln researcher and the author of Blood on the Moon, a fine book that I highly recommend.

All this reminds me of a story I tell whenever the subject of Lincoln movies or the assassination come up.  Steers came to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum to lecture during my first stint there, back when I was fresh out of college.  Steven Wilson (ALLM’s curator and my boss) took Steers and his wife to dinner down in Cumberland Gap that night, and allowed me to tag along. 

John Wilkes Booth, via Wikimedia Commons

John Wilkes Booth, apparently a doppelganger of yours truly. Via Wikimedia Commons

When the conversation turned to Lincoln movies, Steven jokingly suggested we all produce our own, with himself in the role of Edwin Stanton, and me as John Wilkes Booth.  Ed Steers examined me critically for a second or two, and then said approvingly, “Yeah, you’d make a good Booth!”

I was pretty flattered.  Remember, this came from one of the foremost Lincoln assassination authorities in the world.  Of course, he was comparing me to the murderer of the most beloved figure in American history.  But still.

With an endorsement like that, you’d think either Redford or Spielberg would’ve called me by now.  Maybe I should get a new agent.

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A sample of Neo-Confederate historiography

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit for your edification a few selections from the catalogue of The Confederate Reprint Company.

  • The Genesis of Lincoln by James Harrison Cathey.  This startling tome informs us that “the man known to the world as Abraham Lincoln was actually the offspring of an illicit relationship between Nancy Hanks and a married man named Abraham Enloe, in whose western North Carolina home she worked as a servant in the early years of the Nineteenth Century.”  Given the well-documented links between an out-of-wedlock birth and a willingness to trample on the Constitution, this could very well change everything we think we know about the Union war effort.
  • The Eugenics of President Abraham Lincoln by James Caswell Coggins.  This enlightening volume explains how “the science of eugenics forever disproves the myth of the sixteenth President’s descent from the near imbecile Thomas Lincoln.”  Eugenics, in case you didn’t know, is the science of improving mankind’s genetic stock by encouraging selective breeding and by weeding out the less-desirable.  (Coincidentally, this book first appeared in 1941, when the German government stepped up their own endeavors in this fascinating field of study.)
  • Why Was Lincoln Murdered? by Otto Eisenschiml.  Eisenschiml “suggests that several top-level Government officials in Washington, particularly Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, may have played important roles in the crime and later covered up their involvement.”  This explains all those mysterious meetings between Stanton, the CIA, Cuban expatriates, and the Dallas mob.
  • The Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan by Stanley F. Horn.  The rousing tale of how “the Klan quickly evolved into an institution of ‘Chivalry, Humanity, Mercy, and Patriotism’ and spread throughout the Southern States to counter the aggression against their people by unscrupulous Carpetbaggers and their vicious Union League cohorts.”

And finally, my personal favorite.

  • A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery by John Henry Hopkins.  An 1864 classic which “proves conclusively that Abolitionism is at odds with, not only the entire history of mankind, but also two millennia of Christian theology.”  What Would Jesus Do?  Apparently nothing.  He’d make somebody else do it.

Operators are standing by!

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory