Spielberg’s Battle Scene

When I first heard that Spielberg was planning on making a moving about Lincoln one of the first things I imagined was an opening battle scene that approached the realism of Saving Private Ryan.  I had never before scene anything like it on the big screen.  Well, we got an opening battle scene, but it did not approach the scale or length of his re-creation of the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

We have to imagine Spielberg considering such famous battles as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh.  I have no doubt that he could have pulled off such a large-scale battle.  Instead, Spielberg throws his viewer into the middle of a nameless close-quarter fight.  No wide shots of carefully formed units waiting for orders to march into battle and no close-ups of famous commanders behind the lines.  It would have been easy to do, but it would also have been a distraction.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

What Spielberg wanted his audience to see was the brutality and hatred that defines any bloody civil war.  There are no battle lines in this scene.  At times the national identities of the men are indistinguishable from one another, except for the African Americans, assuming you already knew that they fought for the United States.  The mud functions as a metaphor for the ugliness of war and perhaps even a war that has lost any sense of meaning for the two parties.  The United States flag may have been prominent in this scene, but the viewer is left wondering what it’s all about.

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25 comments… add one
  • Kevin Williams May 29, 2014 @ 19:24

    Hello – I came across this site in my search for images of the battle scene from “Lincoln”, and I realize that it’s been a year and a half since the last comment was posted, but I just wanted to say definitively that the battle depicted is Jenkin’s Ferry. I know this because I was one of the soldiers in the scene. I have to say that during filming I was very puzzled by the lack of guns firing, and cannons, and horses and all of those things one expects from a civil war battle, but in the end, I thought it all came together nicely. I guess that Spielberg guy knows what he’s doing. (An incredibly nice man by the way. At the end of that very long, wet day of filming, he individually thanked all of the extras who were there.)

  • Bjorn Skaptason Nov 24, 2012 @ 8:18


    I have seen the film just once, like you. I might have taken more away from that opening scene, though. I think the battle scene is clearly the U.S.C.T. soldier describing his experience as part of the 2nd Kansas (Colored) in the battle of Jenkins Ferry, Arkansas. Ken is right that there was a hand-to-hand fight there for a couple of guns during a driving rainstorm in a muddy, plowed field. The Second Kansas took no prisoners in that engagement. The soldier then goes on to describe a reasonable transfer scenario wherein he joined the 116th USCT in Kentucky, and now he is standing in front of the commander-in-chief at a wharf in Washington, D.C.

    Further, the infantryman is in company with a cavalryman who identifies himself as part of a Connecticut Volunteer regiment (the 5th?). That individual is much more aggressive in challenging Lincoln on the failures of his administration. The infantryman is visibly annoyed by this. There is rich subtext here for historians. The infantryman is a Kansas freedman, escaped from bondage in Missouri, and fighting to destroy slavery. He is thrilled to meet the Great Emancipator. The cavalryman is probably a free born New Englander, obviously well-educated, and committed to a mission of equality that Lincoln is distinctly failing at. He will not let Lincoln get away with empty promises and half measures.

    The unspoken conflict between these two soldiers, played out in annoyed sideways glances, foreshadows the conflict of the movie – a conflict between overthrowing slavery on one hand and establishing equal rights on the other. They aren’t the same thing, they weren’t perceived as such at that time, and the movie sets up that nuanced view of the situation in the first scene.

    Then the white kids come in, and they are a little goofy, but they give us a chance to see Lincoln pre-visioning his own deification, and not liking it very much. Then everybody leaves to get on their transports that carry them off to their date with Fort Fisher. During a later scene we get to see Lincoln’s reaction to casualty reports from that battle, and we catch a glimpse of people reading long casualty lists in the newspaper. Our proud freedman, caustic cavalrymen, and goofy kids might well be on that list.

    It’s a good scene in a good movie, I think.

    There is much more to think about here, than in the typical costume balls that serve as Civil War movies.


    • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2012 @ 8:36

      Thanks. Excellent point, Bjorn.

    • Kevin C Mar 29, 2017 @ 10:10

      This is spot on! Love it.
      By the way…the new england born colored soldier belonged to the much maligned 5th Mass Colored Cavalry. They unfortunately had a poor battle record, but were brigaded with the famed 4th and 5th USCTs that helped capture the guns during the intial Petersburg assault.

  • Bummer Nov 24, 2012 @ 6:27

    Bummer is not much of a movie critic, but the battle scene with the Union flag in the middle of the mud, the storm, the confusion, the blood, black and white soldiers killing each other, a total enigma of cause. This focused attention on Lincoln’s struggle and the dilemma he faced in ending the war, healing the Nation, and the lingering struggle for Emancipation.


  • London John Nov 24, 2012 @ 6:22

    Rather OT, but have you ever discussed the Petersburg Crater sequence at the beginning of Cold Mountain? If so, I missed it.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2012 @ 6:28

      It has popped up on occasion, but you can also read about it in my book. 🙂

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Nov 24, 2012 @ 4:38

    I’ve wondered about that scene since I saw it in the previews. But my question about it was, “What battle is that? I don’t know of any Civil War battle that tok place in the mud and the rain. Black powder doesn’t work in that kind of weather.”

    Someone else complained about this Civil War movie’s lack of battlefield action… at least one more battle would have been satisfying. But this movie wasn’t a battle movie; it’s about the 13th Amendment (and I think “Lincoln” as the title is fine and more marketable for audiences all over the world). The academic historian crowd, many who teach the war without teaching much about the war itself, just found their favorite movie. Just like Gods & Generals is a great film for those who are all about battles and generals and who was on whose flank at 1st Bull Run. Life works out for everybody. 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2012 @ 4:44

      I agree with you that people looking for more battle scenes missed the point of the movie. What Spielberg included was enough both in terms of its length and its scope. Whether there was a battle fought in the mud and rain is certainly a reasonable question, but the more important one is why he chose these conditions.

      The battle scenes in Gods and Generals are just downright awful. I actually laughed through the Fredericksburg scenes.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Nov 24, 2012 @ 7:13

        “I actually laughed through the Fredericksburg scenes.”

        Thanks a lot, Kevin! And I was planning on re-watching the Fredericksburg scene for the sesquicentennial in a couple of weeks. 🙂

        I guess there must be a real art to making convincing battle scenes in a movie. I have heard others describe Ron Maxwell’s movies as “hokey” (his movies are rated PG, so perhaps they lack the intensity and grit of Glory and Saving Private Ryan).

        BTW, I have heard the Fredericksburg scen in that movie described as “textbook” for the accuracy of the scenes depicted. Maybe it is but just was not told very well.

        And while I’m way off topic, I just wanted to mention I’m reading Time Life’s “Voices of the Civil War: Fredericksburg.” This is a great series of books that tell the Civil War through primary source letters, diaries and memoirs. It was interesting to read that when the fight at the stone wall began, a Black woman was seen running behind the wall dodging Yankee gunfire; and that as late as April 1863, there were still a couple of dead Union soldiers’ bodies still lying unburied on the field.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2012 @ 7:16

          Sorry, Bryan. I didn’t mean to ruin it for you. G&G is one of the worst war movies ever made. There is no depth to any of the characters and the scripts include one Civil War cliche after another.

          • Bryan Cheeseboro Nov 24, 2012 @ 7:28

            The battle scenes in that movie don’t bother me much but you’re right; it’s a terrible film. But I’ve actually found it to be a fascinating film when teaching about the Lost Cause.

            I would love to see an HBO mutlipart series, like Band of Brothers or The Pacific, on the Civil War someday, told from as many sides as possible- Union; Confederate; slave; free Black; immigrant; Southern Unionist; etc. The Civil War is really too big for a two-hour movie.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2012 @ 7:29

              I would love to see something along those lines as well.

              • MississippiLawyer Nov 24, 2012 @ 8:51

                How did you guys miss this? They are already making one. Although I think it is going to be on Showtime maybe.


                • MississippiLawyer Nov 24, 2012 @ 8:54

                  Powers Boothe as Albert Sidney Johnston? How EPIC and PERFECT is that?


                • Bryan Cheeseboro Nov 24, 2012 @ 13:46

                  I’ve seen information on this miniseries before; maybe somewhere on this blog.

                  I’m sure I will watch it if I can but I have to say I’m disappointed the cast as shown features no African-Americans. I would hope to see something that includes the war from their perspective as well and not just as supporting actors. This program looks like a re-hash of North &South, Gods & Generals and Gettysburg.

                  • MississippiLawyer Nov 25, 2012 @ 2:06

                    I know one of the main writers and producers of this series. Believe me, it will not be a re-hash of hideous projects like N and S or G and G.

          • Bard Nov 24, 2012 @ 13:46

            I stopped watching G&G when they were doing a wideshot of the Town of Fredricksburg (I believe, it could have been another town) and they have the name/year below the town. It’s small, but you can see a car driving down the first road of the town. Would have taken 5 seconds or a better editor to fix.

        • Ryan A Nov 26, 2012 @ 11:32


          As far as G&G goes, some of its scenes were done relatively well in terms of the formations and actual accuracy of the movements of the troops. In that regard, the Fredericksburg battle scenes aren’t awful. It’s when you look at it as a piece of dramatic film that it completely falls apart. The combat itself is muted and hokey. The extras (in this case all reenactors) are in bad shape, uniformed incorrectly, and completely useless in portraying combat reality. The music is wayyyy over the top and makes it even worse.

          I thought the Mannassas scenes were really bad and probably the worst on-screen depiction of combat I’ve ever seen. Even in Gettysburg, Maxwell was able to string together some good scenes, particularly in the Little Round Top fight. This movie was terrible at that, and of course, the movie itself was abysmal. If you’re looking for something good that portrays the battle accurately, I’d check out the NPS’ Fredericksburg film that Media Magic did about 10 years ago. They used reenactors too, but generally only filmed the ones in shape and used the most accurate uniforms possible. It’s an hour long and has plenty of battle scenes and emphasis on ALL the aspects of that battle, including the decisive moment of that fight at Prospect Hill and the Slaughter Pen Farm and NOT Marye’s Heights. Also, alot of input from prominent historians. Search Historical Films Group and you should find it.

          Fredericksburg is a really cool battle to learn about, especially in the sense that it’s often overlooked as an inevitable Confederate victory when in truth, George Meade and John Gibbon were in prime position to score a decisive blow to the Rebel line that morning when they didn’t receive adequate reinforcements. What a horror show that day must have been.


          • Bryan Cheeseboro Nov 26, 2012 @ 12:37

            Thanks Ryan. I just checked over at Historical Films Group and did not find anything on Fredericksburg. I will look around some more. If nothing else, I’m hoping I can squeeze in a trip to Fredericksburg in the next month or two.

    • Ken Noe Nov 24, 2012 @ 5:09

      I’ve assumed it was Jenkins’ Ferry. One soldier mentions it in the opening dialogue, and it absolutely was fought in rain and deep mud. Afterwards, African-American soldiers admitted atrocities in retaliation for similar horrors committed against their comrades at Poison Springs. So much for the “passivity” argument?

      • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2012 @ 5:19

        Hi Ken,

        I remember that reference as well, but I wasn’t sure whether he was making a direct connection with the previous scene. Knowing the details of the battle now makes it much more likely. Thanks. I still appreciate how Spielberg chose to film that scene.

    • Chris Evans Nov 24, 2012 @ 7:22

      I don’t think its suppose to be the ‘Bloody Angle’ at Spotsylvania even though that took place in the mud and rain nor the Battle of New Market that took place in pouring conditions.

      Another battle fought in the middle of a thunderstorm was at the North Anna River during the Overland Campaign.

      I thought the battle depicted was interesting in its enigma.


      • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2012 @ 7:25

        I think Ken is right that it is Jenkins’ Ferry. I know there were some minor skirmishes involving USCTs during the Overland Campaign, but not at Spotsylvania or North Anna and definitely not at New Market.

        • Chris Evans Nov 24, 2012 @ 7:50

          Yes, I thought it was suppose to be Jenkins Ferry.

          I was responding mostly to the comment of Bryan Cheeseboro who said that he thought, ““What battle is that? I don’t know of any Civil War battle that tok place in the mud and the rain. Black powder doesn’t work in that kind of weather.”

          Because in May of 1864 in Virginia there was some heavy duty rain that the men had to viciously fight through.


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