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.



Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War

14 responses to “Give the makers of that Mary Surratt movie a break

  1. I think you can entirely do this story without beating the movie-goer over the head about slavery. It certainly is important to make it clear that she and her late husband were slaveholders, because that’s part of who she was, but that could be done with a line or two of carefully-crafted dialogue.

    I’m much more interested in how the film portrays her knowledge of, and participation in, the conspiracies to kidnap, and later kill, the president. There’s much that remains unclear and subject to legitimate debate, I gather. But ambiguity makes for poor storytelling, and I fear this film will do for the Lincoln assassination what Oliver Stone’s film did for Kennedy twenty years ago — fill in the gaps in the public’s knowledge of the event with gorgeous-looking but historically-poor narrative that makes the historian’s job that much more difficult.

  2. Michael Lynch

    The impression I get from the trailer is that they’re going to emphasize the matter of civilians being subjected to a military trial, and all the thorny issues that raises. I’m not sure where they’re going to come down on the question of her complicity in the assassination plot. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.


  3. Jefferson Davis

    By all that is good and holy, I prey that this movie will finally release the facts to the public that Mary Surratt was murdered by the UNION States. It was the governments way of now defacto making itself the fear monger that its original intention was at the start of the war…. Please lets all remember the winners of any war are the ones who write the history of such war. I am a civil war scholar have studied ALL aspects of the reasons the “Rebels” were in the right… The biggest problem with what happened in the war is that you have to go back more than 60 years before and find out the politics of the founding men of the original states. You need to know the anexation of Texas and TRUE deal that was made in the Missouri compromise… The true and total ignorance of the belief that the Civial war was originally about slavery is totally of those who wish to remain in their bubble. If you actually have to believe the war was not about slavery in its pear form, you then now have to understand that this country was and is and has been created under an iron fist. Oh and before I forget I’m also an FORMER Attorney, had to quit because you either live with the scum and deal with it to make a living; or you have code of ethics. Who ever believes in the whole “UNION” concept of April 12th 1861 to April 9th 1865 is a fool. If you only knew that if the south would have won there would have been one country of no slavery by 1899, one country of no DEPRESSION in the 20’s, there in fact would have never been the two world wars that we have been through… Hitler would have never messed with the way the C.S.A intented things to be in time. Yes folks this is more than 25 years of research and document finding. The sad part is; just like that love that you lost and always think about and wonder what could have been, but then believe it was for the best that you didn’t wind up with that person, is just the human way of coping with the loss. This is why most believe the way the Civil war turned out was and is BETTER… it is not. Ask yourself one simple and easy question………. Why is it that over 80% of the rest of the living world HATES this Country… Can that many people be that wrong. Find out about your government and what they really do before you pretend to love and believe the holly than now “north” won because it was right, it was not, they only won through the act of attrition nothing more… Go find out that the C.S.A. had way fewer soldiers like half to a third fewer but kept kicking the crap out of the Union most of the time… For all those who do not know, the only reason General Lee withdrew at Gettysburg was he knew it would continue for days and days and days, knowing he would probably win, but did not want to have any more blood shed than already happened. I mean good god there were 5000, Yes I said 5000 horses dead in 3 days. General Lee believed he could win the war in another way. He did not need Gettysburg to surround Washington. General Gearge Mead was an idiot, and was replaced by Grant… The meeting of the Union and Confederate army’s at Gettysburg was on accident if no one knows that. General Lee had no intentions of fighting right there. Ok, ok enough… If you are a flag waver, please go get more information before you continue that ignorant behavior. P.S. this country has caused the world resession that we are in now. Its hopes is to control the rest of the world as was its intention for the Civil war. Thank you and now go read some real information about the WHOLE picture and the Real Reason of the Civil war.

  4. Michael Lynch

    Mr. Davis,

    I can’t say that I agree with anything you’ve said, but I will say that of all the comments ever left on this blog, yours was both the longest and the most entertaining.


  5. Jefferson Davis

    Hey watch this: I can leave short and to the point messages as well. Just becasue someone gives all thier energy to convincing you that the sky is green will you eventually give in and believe them!? You sound just such to be the person… When you have almost 25 years of research under your belt come have this conversation again, and 11 years of higher education, and become a member of Mensa. Then and maybe then you can see the light. 1991 graduate of M.I.T Please don’t try and compare brain pans. The story of Mary is being told now because it is “WE THE PEOPLE” who have had enough of this malignant shadow government. I suppose you believe Communism fell in Russia becasue it was evil! Why don’t we just way… Location, location, location. When this country is all done scalping the resources of this continent it will fall. The Russian continent was around a 1000 years or more when the Indians were a small population in this land. They could not strip it of anything, they were too small. I know you will argue for the argument sake… So, go on. Oh and no remarks about how I said short comment…. This is short to me.

    • Peabrain

      Since you don’t like it here-MOVE in with the other 80% of ingrates! We don’t need your holier than thou, smarter than thou crap anymore. People like you need to get a real life!

  6. Michael Lynch

    Okay, now it’s the second most entertaining.


  7. Jefferson Davis isn’t coming back, is he?

  8. Michael Lynch

    It seems that he’s found greener pastures. Another Mensa meeting, perhaps.


  9. Big Al

    If you must mention the issue of slavery and the reason the war was fought, please remember to also mention that some Northern States (such as Delaware and Kentucky) continued to permit slavery AFTER THE WAR ENDED!!!! As such, isn’t it somewhat disingenuous to say the the war was fought to abolish slavery? It’s just not true. If it were true, then the North would not have slaves AFTER THE CIVIL WAR ended. The slaves in the North were never emanciapted by Lincoln and were not emancipated until months after the war ended and well after Lincoln was assassinated. Look it up.

    P.S. Don’t believe that crap about the “border states”. Delaware and Kentucky did not cecede from the Union. Those states were not in the Confederacy. That’s political cover written by the revisionist historians. The victors always write the history books.

    • Michael Lynch

      Big Al,

      “If you must mention the issue of slavery and the reason the war was fought, please remember to also mention that some Northern States (such as Delaware and Kentucky) continued to permit slavery AFTER THE WAR ENDED!!!!”

      Yeah, I know.

      “As such, isn’t it somewhat disingenuous to say the the war was fought to abolish slavery? It’s just not true.”

      I didn’t say it was. I said that the debate over slavery is what made the war happen, not that emancipation was a Union war aim when the war began. It didn’t become a Union war aim until the war was underway. That doesn’t change the fact that southern unease over the fate of slavery is what prompted the Deep South states to secede, which in turn is what brought on the war.

      “If it were true, then the North would not have slaves AFTER THE CIVIL WAR ended. The slaves in the North were never emanciapted by Lincoln and were not emancipated until months after the war ended and well after Lincoln was assassinated. Look it up.”

      The 13th Amendment, which permanently abolished slavery in the border states, was a consequence of the war and a measure which Lincoln promoted and helped push through Congress, though it wasn’t finally ratified until after his assassination. In fact, Lincoln was a consistent proponent of emancipation in the border states.


  10. Bryan

    I watched the movie the other day on DVD. Although the acting seemed surprisingly stiff, it was nevertheless riveting. The slavery issue seems
    misplaced to me. I took her character’s reference to “A cause greater than yourself” to mean her devotion to her children, specifically her son, whose life she was trying to save. Meanwhile, if slavery came up in the trial transcripts, of course it would be appropriate to consider it, otherwise
    it would feel awkward and forced. The story wasn’t even about the Civil War, it was about the abuse of power and the corruption of justice. Indeed, the film seemd to suggest that Mary Surratt wasn’t Akin’s real client. His real client was the constitution.

  11. lin

    It should include slavery because it was part of the story. In reality Mary’s slave testified at her trial and her testimony was significant. Funny how they conveniently left this out of the film.

    • Michael Lynch

      Are you talking about Susan Mahoney Jackson? I’m not sure she was Mary’s slave; some accounts state that she was a freedwoman who had just been hired as a live-in servant a few weeks earlier. Her statement to the authorities did lead to the arrest of Lewis Powell, although it happened by accident, since some of the information she passed on was inaccurate. I’m not sure if she testified at Mary’s trial, but I think she did appear as a witness at the trial of John Surratt.

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