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.