If I ever meet an editorial writer who’s capable of discussing sectionalism in modern American politics without invoking the Civil War, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Tag Archives: Civil War memory
When I wrote my own review of Lincoln, I said this: “You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink. Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint.”
Based on some of the responses to the movie that have hit the Interwebs since then, I might need to revise that statement. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was the main draw for me, but at least some viewers apparently had different expectations.
I have a tendency to judge all Lincoln-related movies by how convincingly they depict him. If a film can sell me on its Lincoln, I can overlook any number of other flaws. Conversely, if I don’t buy the Lincoln, then it’s hard for me to appreciate other strengths a movie might have. I’ve enjoyed quite a few good Lincoln portrayals over the years, performances that have captured particular aspects of the genuine article—Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, and Sam Waterston are favorites of mine—but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody inhabit the role as completely as Day-Lewis. I didn’t love everything about Spielberg’s film, but what I really wanted to see was Lincoln himself, and I left the theater satisfied.
Some historians have noted the movie’s inaccuracies, which is a perfectly proper thing for historians to be doing. Other commentators, though, seem less interested in what the filmmakers did wrong as much as they’re interested in what they didn’t do at all.
Over at The Atlantic, for example, Tony Horwitz writes, “I enjoyed Lincoln and agree that it strips away the nostalgic moss that has draped so much Civil War cinema and remembrance. But here’s my criticism. The movie obscures the distance Lincoln traveled in his views on race and slavery. Probing this journey would have made for better history and a finer, more complex film.” Sure, but it also would’ve made for a completely different film. Spielberg and Kushner made a conscious decision to focus on the last months of Lincoln’s life. Including his transformation from a fairly conservative Whig into the man who embraced the Thirteenth Amendment and made public references to limited black enfranchisement would have required not a longer movie, but another one.
Historian Kate Masur, meanwhile, complains that “it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.…Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.…[I]t reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.” But this isn’t a movie “devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery.” It’s a movie about the twilight of Lincoln’s presidency. Any examination of the men who stood at the pinnacle of the American government in the 1860’s is inevitably going to spend most of its time on white men.
William Harris wrote a book about the last months of Lincoln’s second term; I don’t think anyone who would criticize that book for failing to analyze the evolution of Lincoln’s views on race from 1858 to 1865 would get much of a hearing. Similarly, I think most of us would be quite surprised if a reviewer referred to a novel about Lincoln as “an opportunity squandered” because the book didn’t deal with African-American life in nineteenth-century Washington.
Yet Masur ultimately concludes that the move is “an opportunity squandered.” That sort of reaction is legitimate when it comes to major museum exhibits or interpretation at an important historic site, since those are educational institutions which can and should try to tell definitive stories about their subjects. Movies shouldn’t have to be so authoritative.
We seem to hold filmmakers to a lower standard when it comes to getting the facts straight, but a higher one when it comes to deciding what to include and what not to include. The reason, I think, is because movies reach so many people and leave such an impression. We envy filmmakers their audience and their influence, and since we know how many stories about the past need telling, we want filmmakers to use the tremendous resources at their disposal to tell the ones that matter to us, as well as to tell their own stories well.
First things first. You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink. Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint. In fact, between the two of them, star Daniel Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner have almost worked a miracle of resurrection.
It’s not just that Day-Lewis disappears into the role. It’s that his Lincoln is so complete. We’ve had excellent movie Lincolns before, but I don’t think anyone has captured so many aspects of his personality in one performance. You get the gregarious raconteur as well as the melancholy brooder, the profound thinker as well as the unpolished product of the frontier, the pragmatic political operator as well as the man of principle. He amuses the War Department staff with off-color jokes in one scene, then ruminates on Euclid and the Constitution in another. It’s the closest you’re going to get to the real thing this side of a time machine, a distillation of all the recollections and anecdotes from Herndon, Welles, and the other contemporaries into one remarkable character study.
And it’s primarily as a character study that the movie stands out, for there is much about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that is unremarkable. Not bad, mind you, but unremarkable. The film takes as its story the effort to get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress, and at times it’s too much a run-of-the-mill political procedural. The Thirteenth Amendment was undeniably one of the Civil War’s most important outcomes; it formally ended a divisive institution which had existed in America for more than two centuries and contributed to a fundamental shift in the relationship between U.S. citizens and their government. But it seems—to me, anyway—like an odd method of approach if one is trying to convey all the drama and significance of Lincoln’s presidency in a couple of hours. Why not the Emancipation Proclamation or the ups and downs of the Union’s military fortunes, instead of an issue dependent on so much wheeling, dealing, cajoling, speech-making, and roll-calling? Telling the story of the amendment’s fate makes this a movie that’s as much about democracy as it is about Lincoln himself, and that’s fine, but Day-Lewis and Kushner have given us such an interesting central character that the rest of the film seems unexpectedly average by comparison.
Even Spielberg’s directorial trademarks—his tendency toward sentimentality and his flair as a visual stylist—are surprisingly kept in the background. This movie doesn’t have the signature Spielberg “moments”—no little girl dressed in a crowd of black and white, no thundering footfalls from some unseen menace causing ominous vibrations in the water, no kids on flying bicycles silhouetted against the moon. One scene between Lincoln and Mary does have a distinctively “Spielbergian” sense of light and shadow, but other than that, the director’s fingerprints are not really apparent. It’s a very restrained, straightforward effort.
Perhaps that’s as it should be, because ultimately this show belongs to the screenwriter and the cast. Like Lincoln himself, Kushner has a flair for language, and the dialogue is some of his best work. Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and David Strathairn give some of the finest performances of their careers, and Jackie Earle Haley looks more like Alexander Stephens than Alexander Stephens himself did.
Ultimately, though, when this movie soars it’s because it makes one of the most compelling figures in American history seem to live again. When I was in the museum business, we used to bring in Lincoln impersonators to do presentations for groups of schoolchildren. These events were always a lot of fun, but the most memorable moments for me happened offstage, when “Lincoln” would relax on a couch in the office, out of character. At those times you could catch a glimpse of him, sitting there in a black suit with his stovepipe hat on the table beside him, one long leg folded over the other while he chatted and joked with the staff. It was downright surreal. This, I would think to myself, is what it must have been like to sit in the telegraph office at the War Department or in a parlor at the Executive Mansion, watching Lincoln just being himself. I had the same thought the first time Spielberg’s Lincoln appeared on the screen, and that was more than worth the price of a movie ticket.
Pyongyang is just about the last place in the world you’d expect to find GWTW fans, but apparently you can’t swing a dead cat there without hitting one.
Maybe the notion of a society devastated by war and famine is especially resonant in North Korea. Or maybe it appeals to some aspect of East Asian culture in general; Tony Horwtiz mentioned GWTW‘s popularity among Japanese visitors to Atlanta in Confederates in the Attic.
Personally, I think the explanation is pretty simple: Margaret Mitchell was a master storyteller who knew how to create remarkable characters. Sure, her portrayal of the Old South was mythical—but holy cow, what a myth she managed to build.
Some observers see Lincoln’s presidency and the outcome of the Civil War as the point when America got off-kilter, sort of like a national equivalent to the Fall of Man. At some point between 1860 and 1865, so this line of thinking goes, the country went off the rails and abandoned the legacy of the Revolution and the Constitution, leaving us with the centralized, interventionist, and industrial nation in which we now live.
There’s a nugget of truth to all this, but it’s hidden among a lot of overstatement and moralization. The Civil War did contribute to the creation of a stronger and more vigorous central government, Lincoln’s use of presidential authority was broader than many of his predecessors, and the Union’s victory did accelerate the creation of a more consolidated and economically modern America. At the same time, though, you can’t attribute America’s transformation entirely to the Civil War or to Lincoln’s presidency. The war was a critical step down that road, but it wasn’t the only one—and the road itself was circuitous, since the exertion of federal authority has expanded and contracted at various times between 1865 and today. Lincoln did a great many consequential things, but he didn’t sucker punch the whole country into the modern age single-handedly.
In an interesting and provocative essay, Thomas DiLorenzo takes this notion of the Lincoln presidency as something akin to America’s moment of original sin and applies it to foreign policy. He argues that Lincoln abandoned the Founders’ desire for neutrality and friendly commerce in favor of “imperialist fantasies about perfecting the entire planet as the bedrock of American foreign policy ideas.” Lincoln, he states, believed that it was incumbent upon Americans to impose democratic ideals on other countries, and so our subsequent foreign entanglements and interventions follow from this misguided conviction.
DiLorenzo thus uses an interpretation of the past to critique the present. As far as his criticism of American interventionism goes, I’m inclined to agree with him, at least to a considerable extent. What I don’t agree with is his diagnosis of the historical origins of the problem. Like the larger concept of which it’s a part—the notion that the Civil War is the point at which the country somehow went wrong—I think his argument contains a kernel of historic truth hidden in a matrix of serious oversimplification. DiLorenzo makes Lincoln out to be a far more influential figure than he actually was.
He’s certainly correct that Lincoln believed the U.S., as an experiment in popular government, had an important role to play in the world. Indeed, that’s one reason why he took secession so seriously. If the nation collapsed in civil warfare, he thought, then the whole notion of a nation governed by the people themselves was in doubt. Hence his argument at Gettysburg that America was a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition of equality, and that the war was a contest to determine whether any such nation could survive. If the Union prevailed, self-government would be vindicated and would have the opportunity to take root elsewhere.
But I don’t think DiLorenzo is accurate in equating Lincoln’s brand of American exceptionalism with a zealous support of foreign intervention. Ever since the Revolution—since earlier than that, actually, if one takes the Puritans into account—Americans have believed they could instruct the world, but not all of them have believed they must do so by force. I don’t really see any reason to assume that Lincoln’s American exceptionalism was necessarily of the militant kind or to lay the blame for America’s status as a global policeman at his feet. True, the interventionist and expansionist U.S. of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries probably wouldn’t have taken the form it did if it weren’t for the creation of a consolidated and industrial nation with a vigorous government, which the Civil War made possible. But that’s not to say that it wouldn’t have become an interventionist and expansionist country at all. The agrarian, slave-based economic interest that was so influential in antebellum America was something of an imperialist engine in its own right, spurring on conflict with Mexico and sparking filibustering expeditions in other parts of Latin America. Indeed, well before the Civil War, America had been practicing a form of internal imperialism with regard to the Indians. It’s therefore entirely possible that an America without a Lincoln presidency or a Civil War might have become an interventionist world power anyway, albeit an interventionist power of a different kind.
I have no idea how Lincoln would feel about modern America’s willingness to spend blood and treasure policing the world. Maybe he’d endorse the extension of American ideals and institutions to foreign countries by force of arms, at least under some circumstances. Or maybe not; after all, he was a vocal critic of America’s war with Mexico in the 1840’s. Whatever the case, I think he’d be quite surprised that anyone would draw a direct line between his readiness to use force to suppress what he considered an internal rebellion and the deployment of American forces across the globe a century and a half later.
Staff rides and ranger walks are great, but there’s just no substitute for the insight of an experienced ghost hunter:
Among the stories told was one about a re-enactor who was re-enacting a battle at one point and thought he had been “killed” by another re-enactor. However, after the battle was over, nobody else saw the “killing” re-enactor, and Riley implied it was the spirit of an actual dead soldier who took part in the battle re-enactment, thinking it was real.
A subsequent investigation by four adolescents and their dog revealed that the “spirit” was actually a local con man in disguise. When reached for comment, the malefactor stated, “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids!”
…by seceding from their SCV camp.
It seems some members of Florida’s General Jubal A. Early Camp No. 556 (of ginormous Confederate flag fame) wanted to devote more of their efforts to historic preservation and education. Their compatriots preferred to focus on charitable work and PR, so twelve of the historically minded gents accordingly took their leave and formed a new camp, named for Judah P. Benjamin.
When members of a Civil War heritage group can’t persuade fellow members to engage in Civil War heritage activities, I think you’ve got a case for secession that even the most radical of nineteenth-century Republicans would support.