Civil War history is an incredibly popular, as well as passionate, subject. Scores of Civil War media have been produced over the 150 years since fellow countrymen were at war, and I get it. It was a very complicated time in our American history, a nation split in two by opposing ideologies. The free and “abolitionist” North versus the racist and socially Darwinian South. A fight for what was right and what was wrong. And that same split resonates today, a nation still feeling the aftershocks of a cataclysmic event such as the Civil War.
But how much of these “universal truths” or maybe even stereotypes about the war are true? Was the North really on a humanitarian crusade to liberate enslaved Blacks from the South? And did southerners really go to war against their brethren to nobly uphold state’s rights? As we’ve learned in class, there are many bad, or even falsified, interpretations of the War created over these 150 years. For example, the Lost Cause historical lens affirms that the South were just in their right to secede, that the Union and President Lincoln acted against the Constitution in proclaiming that slaves (their ‘property’) should be freed. On the flip side, people today, or especially those early in the educational cycle, are probably taught that the Union were righteous liberators, excitedly storming the countrysides of the southern United States freeing every slave they found.
This is why I think I’m going to like these film reviews.
Over the course of four posts, I’ll be taking a deep dive into some of the most famous Civil War period pieces that Hollywood has to offer, from the historically accurate to the highly dramatized. In this venture, hopefully I’ll be able to pick apart the fact from the fiction and clear up the biases surrounding this conflict, and ultimately paint a more true-to-life picture of the American Civil War.
First on the docket is the critically-acclaimed and now decade-old (wow) film, Lincoln. The film is directed by highly decorated Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg and stars Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his most praised roles as 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
I remember this film very well. I’d never seen it until now, but I still remember it very well. That’s because all of its principal filming was done almost quite literally in my backyard. I’m from a small county in Virginia called Powhatan. For those not familiar with the area, understandable, but it’s quite an old and historic place. Founded in 1777 in fact, and if not for its unlucky geographical location down the James River it probably would have been much more important. But alas, we’ll never be quite as famous as our neighbor Richmond. You know, the state capital and former capital of the Confederacy? That’s right, a large portion of Lincoln‘s filming took place in the Richmond area, primarily in Petersburg and Richmond proper, but that puts Powhatan in rarefied air. All of the battlefield scenes (I believe) were shot in State Farm, Powhatan, a relatively destitute area home to some correctional facilities on the border of neighboring Goochland county.
Needless to say, the movie was all over local news for about a solid month. My mom was working for the county at the time and was even invited to a gathering at the Executive Mansion in Richmond where she saw the back of Spielberg’s head! Very exciting stuff but in all seriousness, it was truly an honor for our county to host such an accomplished filmmaker within our borders.
But enough about that, let’s get to the movie.
The film is centered around the last four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life and even more so within the month of January 1865. This was a critical point in the war. The South seemed ever closer to defeat, but controversy riddled the Capitol. Lincoln had recently put together a team to introduce into Congress a draft of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution; in other words, Lincoln had his sights set on something much bigger than peace.
As the plot unravels, even more drama begins to form in not only the politics of the House of Representatives but also between Lincoln and those close to him. His relationship with his wife is in turmoil due to never being around. His eldest son wants to join the fight in a war that has already taken many sons across the Union. Approval is slipping from those in his own party, even after winning his second term. And the nagging issue of slavery and racial equality looms large.
Well, I guess there’s only one thing left to do . . .
Actually Not Bad
There is loads of great information in Lincoln, which is surprising for something so theatrical and, well, Hollywood. Honestly, there’re not many inaccuracies I was able to spot . . . not many.
First off, not really an inaccuracy but the film location of the U.S. House of Representatives is actually in the Virginia House of Delegates. Again, not that big of a deal considering it probably would have been a tall task to rent out the U.S. Congress building.
Another slightly more major error I wrongfully attributed to a scene in the beginning depicting a flag ceremony was a flag that appeared to be the modern version. Upon further research, it turns out that it was the correct 35-star flag used from 1863-65 (source here), but then at the end of the film as they’re touring a battlefield they use the 38-star flag used starting in 1877. Oops.
Although there weren’t many historical inaccuracies, there were still quite a lot of interesting and relevant themes utilized in the plot. I identified three main themes that jumped out at me as being pretty significant: the reality of emancipation as a “military necessity” (exact words) and subsequent personal importance to Lincoln of the 13th Amendment, the myth of emancipation as a wholly humanitarian cause, and Lincoln’s insistence on upholding the values of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.
Emancipation was in fact viewed as a military necessity, there’s no arguing that. The importance of the Emancipation Proclamation in turning the tide of the War was undoubtable, instantly allowing the use of colored troops in combat and non-combat roles, bolstering the Union cause. That’s how the Union troops viewed this as well, many of whom probably wouldn’t have been on board with Emancipation if not for the fact that Lincoln claimed it would help end the war.
This fact that not all Union citizens were “true” abolitionists was also personified through a few different characters. In the first 30 minutes of the movie, a couple comes to President Lincoln from Jefferson City, Missouri (Union border state) looking to revive their family’s past toll operations. When abruptly asked how they view the 13th Amendment, the wife says she supports the amendment, but upon further questioning not because she believes in racial equality but because she thinks it will help bring about an end to the war (she was actually quite racist). And in effect she’s right, after all if the War is truly about slavery then what would the end of slavery mean? Another more ironic character is that of Fernando Wood, a House representative out of New York state (and after some research also two-time mayor of New York City and Tammany Hall alum). I found this person ironic because he is, for one, from New York, which back then was and still is a pretty liberal state, but he’s a member of the old Democratic party. He features prominently in the film because of his rabid opposition to the 13th Amendment and along with representative George Pendleton from Ohio try and thwart its passing.
The single most significant theme of the film for me though has to be Lincoln’s internal conundrum. He already enacted his Emancipation Proclamation, but that was largely viewed as an act of military strategy rather than abolition. As we’ve learned in class, Lincoln by the end of his life was a staunch abolitionist, but those around him and in the media questioned this. Take for example that famous quote of him proclaiming that if ending the war meant freeing every slave he’d do it, and if it meant keeping slavery he’d do it. That quote is still used even today as a knock on his legacy. His personal feelings towards slavery were complicated and it comes from a place of deep contradiction.
America was founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Founding Fathers proudly lauded that all men [people] are created equal, but the formation of their ideal society came with some troubling compromises that ultimately set the tone for the next century and beyond. Through the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, southern slave-holding states gained immense power in Congress and, without this, it would have likely meant a similar disunion to the Civil War but 100 years earlier. The slave issue did not go away, however, with the Missouri Compromise of 1820 setting another dangerous precedent further allowing expansion of slave states westward. Although this was an attempt at stifling the expansion, it actually emboldened a new southern “manifest destiny” into possibly conquering Mexico and even South America. A similar compromise in 1854 made Kansas a slave state and Nebraska a free state, pushing the boundaries of expansion. Lincoln knew these truths, that the ideal society of the Founding Fathers had turned out not so ideal for four million Black slaves living within America’s borders.
Lincoln was, however, first and foremost, a staunch believer in the Constitution. It’s because of this that he was so deeply troubled during this time. He knew that the South’s secession was a legal reaction, as the abolition of slavery would be in direct violation of the Constitution. He picked and prodded for the right solutions to end the War and the slave issue, and came to the conclusion that slavery needed to end. Slavery needed to end not only because it was morally wrong, but more importantly to him to uphold the values of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution in which his country was built.