Spielberg’s Union Soldiers Not So Hokey

Thanks to all of you for the thoughtful comments in response to my posts about Spielberg’s Lincoln [and here] movie.  I love to be able to use the blog to share my thoughts, but often your comments are much more interesting.  Like some of you I blew off that opening scene in which Lincoln talks with a couple of white and black Union soldiers following the battle scene.  After reading Bjorn Skaptason’s comment I now see that as premature.  There is much to consider in that scene.  Here is his comment:

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.

8 responses... add one

I had the same thoughts about the scene as Bjorn. It made me uncomfortable, and I think it was clearly meant to do so. At first I assumed that the battle scene was a poorly imagined Crater, but the dialogue that followed put it into context. The almost universal condemnation of the scene as “silly” convinced me to keep my mouth – or fingers – shut. Not the only time that has happened with criticism of this film. BTW, I hope everyone noticed that the white soldier on the right is none other than Lukas Haas, that Amish kid from “Witness.”

That scene never bothered me as much as it seems to have bothered others. It does come across as strange, (especially the way that it ends) so I’ve understood the complaints. Other than the reasons that you’ve explained above, it never bothered me too much because a) I think it was purposely meant to be an awkward moment because racial issues were being discussed, and b) I think it is solid in showing how Lincoln enjoyed interacting with the troops.

That’s a great explanation of everything. I really didn’t mind the scene either but I guess since it’s the first scene to come out of the gate everyone is struck by it one way or another.

Chris

I haven’t seen the movie yet as it won’t open here in Manila until January, but I am excited to hear that it opens with a scene from the Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry. My great great grandfather’s unit took part in that battle, knee-deep in the mud and the blood of a flooded south Arkansas cornfield. The best account I’ve read of that battle was written in German by a corporal from Company C of the 27th Wisconsin, the only all German company in a regiment that was one-third German and commanded by a colonel who was a German Forty-Eighter. The corporal’s diary more or less concludes with the realization that according to the historians he and his regiment didn’t actually participate in the Civil War. It all happened elsewhere, despite his protests to the contrary. Both the 1st and the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry were part of that brigade, though two weeks after Fort Pillow and a week after Poison Spring there wasn’t much left of the 1st. Colored troops were practically a matador’s cape.

My great great grandfather, a private in Company C, 2nd Kansas Colored Volunteers fought at Jenkins Ferry as well. He was a runaway slave who enlisted in the regiment in June ’63. On June 20, 1864 he was wounded by a bushwhacker near the Saline River while the regiment was en-route to Clarksville. His survival was a little short of miraculous although he carried the scar on his what was left of his jaw across his throat for the remaining fifty five years of his life. As he never learned to write no personal account of his experience survived him. His experience and sacrifice meant a great deal to him– and to his family. I am the first of the 4th generation in my family to finish college. Now there are 2 generations behind me who’ve managed the same. I read a little German. Could you post the title of the diary so I can locate and read? Thanks

LLoyd,

The memoir I mentioned was written by a corporal named Frederick Buker, with an umlaut over the u. I’ve had a link to it on my blog for quite some time, though when I last checked a few days ago the link was no longer functioning. It’s moved several times to different servers in the past half dozen years or so and appears to be between servers right now. It was translated about forty years ago by a German professor at the request of one of Buker’s descendants. The translator was not real familiar with Civil War history or the history of that particular regiment so it comes across as a bit jumbled and chaotic until you read it in conjunction with a fairly detailed history of the regiment. A detailed history of the regiment has been written and became available online around 2008. It contains several accounts of the Battle of Jenkins Ferry from Wisconsin newspapers during the Civil War that received regular reports from the regiment’s adjutant. There’s a link to that history on my blog sidebar that is functioning. When I first discovered in about 2004 that I have a Civil War ancestor Buker’s diary was the closest thing there was to a detailed history of the regiment available online. The memoir was written around 1915 based on a diary he had kept during the war, though the original diary had been lost by the time he composed the memoir. There are no dates in the memoir separating what he remembered of his diary entries. I’ll do some Googling to see if I can find a new link for the Buker memoir.

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