Who Is That “Former Congressman”?

It’s been interesting to observe how my Civil War students have responded over time to the talking heads in Ken Burns’s The Civil War. While we don’t spend too much time on the series, what I have shown has been sufficient to be able to formulate judgments about how it functions as entertainment and historical interpretation. Shelby Foote has clearly grown on them over time. At first they didn’t quite know what to make of his little stories about owls on picket duty and Lee being able to “make himself Grant”, but over time they’ve grown to appreciate his place in the documentary. I think they see him as someone who embodies the memory of the war through his accent, dress, and overall demeanor, and they respect him as someone who cares about this past. As for Ed Bearss, well, let’s just say they don’t know what to make of him. I’ve had to print out his commentary so they at least know what he said and can consider it as part of the broader narrative. My more analytical students appreciate the commentary by Barbara Fields on issues of race and emancipation.

I’ve been able to give my students background information on all of these commentators except for James Symington, who is presented as a “Former Congressman.” He makes only a few appearances in the series and his commentary is not particularly interesting – much more emotional and consensus driven than anything else. My favorite moment comes toward the end of the series in Episode 8: “War Is Hell”, which includes Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Symington Interview: They knew each other. Grant remembered Lee very well. Lee didn’t quite remember Grant. That was understandable from the time that they were acquainted back in the early days. But I think it was the sensitivity that the two men had for each other and for the moment, enormous dignity and yet the necessary informality. Grant, not wanting to get to the point too quickly, Lee bringing him up shortly to the point of why they’re together. Lee dressed in his last good uniform. Grant apologizing that he was rushing from the field and didn’t have time to change. The scribe being unable to hold the pen steady and having it taken by another soldier. That, from Lee’s point of view, awful moment, and from Grant’s point of view, glorious moment, and yet for the two of them, a sad and quiet moment. And Lee taking his leave and doffing his hat from Traveller and riding back to his troops after securing those reasonable terms. It was the beginning of the unification of the country.

Symington’s effectiveness here is not simply in his choice of words (we’ve heard them countless times before) but in his cadence. The entire episode of Lee’s surrender is dragged out with attention given to every detail of the events leading to and following the actual surrender. There are two stories coming to an end at Appomattox as represented by Grant and Lee. Burns wants his viewers to empathize or sympathize with both men as well as with the two armies. Symington contributes to this emotional build-up by drawing sharp contrasts between Grant and Lee and by reciting his words in short fragments. And just in case viewers are emotionally invested in one side over the other, Symington poignantly reminds us of what it is all about in his final few words: “It was the beginning of the unification of the country.” [Very nice...yeah...whatever.]

I am curious as to why Symington was chosen as one of the talking heads for this series. There is a Wikipedia article on him, but I was unable to find anything more substantive that might help.  I am only now beginning to appreciate the extent to which the talking heads in this series contribute to shaping the film’s overall interpretation, but more importantly, the way in which we identify with key figures and events.

8 responses... add one

One eminent historian once told me that Burns invited him to participate but he didn’t want to go all the way to Chicago for an interview, and Burns wouldn’t come to his campus. When he bowed out, Burns turned to Foote. Perhaps that’s how Symington ended up in the series too. He was on the Civil War lecture circuit at the time–I found him speaking on John Hay in 1999 when I googled him–and I believe he still was conveniently located in Washington.

His family ancestry is interesting and may offer a clue …

His father’s biography at NNDB notes that “His great-grandfather, also named William Stuart Symington, was a Confederate officer in the US Civil War, and served as General George Pickett’s aide-de-camp.” (Krick’s Staff Officers in Gray confirms a William Stuart Symington served as a volunteer aide-de-camp on Pickett’s staff from Frayser’s Farm to Appomattox.) His mother was “a granddaughter of US statesman John Hay.” That is the same John Hay who was Lincoln’s secretary. She was also related to James S. Wadsworth, the wealthy Union general who was killed at the battle of the Wilderness heading a Fifth Corps division. I think he would be Wadsworth’s great-great-grandson.

Maybe the fact he came from such an interesting family background was part of the reason why Burns chose him. His ability to speak in cadence to impart emotion probably is in part due to his interest in poetry (his Wikipedia bio says he has published a book of poems and prose) and in part due to the fact he is a lawyer. (I would guess he has done some trial work; all good trial lawyers are good at appealing to emotion.)

One other guess … from what I’ve seen Burns seems like a soft-spoken guy; maybe he liked Symington’s quiet and rather unassuming manner.

Just hypothesizing.

Thanks Jenny. That would probably explain the Civil War-era photographs next to him on the table.

Just found your website. I was a legislative assistant to Congressman James Wadsworth Symington from 1972 to 1976. The previous comment that the Congressman was a descendant of John Hay, General James Wadsworth, and Confederate officer William Stuart Symington is accurate. I would add that Ken Burns went to Hampshire College, and Julia Hay Symington, the Congressman’s daughter, was also a Hampshire student. I don’t know if this in any way influenced Ken Burns selection of JWS for the documentary or not.

I can tell you that Jim Symington was incredibly well-educated (Deerfield Academy, Yale, Columbia Law) and well read in history, literature, and the classics. Prior to serving in Congress from 1968 to 1976 he was Chief of Protocol to President Lyndon Johnson, Deputy Director to George McGovern in the Food For Peace Program, and an aid to Bobby Kennedy in the Justice Department. He is a Renaissance Man, an incredible gentleman, and a devoted public servant. His defeat in the Missouri Democratic Party Senate Primary in 1976 was a great loss to the country. I treasure the years I had the privilege of working with him.

Elaine Green
Bigfork, Montana

Elaine,

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this post. The additional information/confirmation is very helpful.

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