Why Spielberg’s Lincoln Matters to Civil War Buffs

Boyd Harris of the University of Mississippi left this comment today in response to my posting of the official trailer for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie, Lincoln.

I’ve been saying for a month that this is going to be the Passion of the Christ for historians. Blocks of seats bought by academics and us browbeating our non-historian friends into seeing it again with us.

Boyd hit the nail on the head.  The trailer has been posted and re-posted by friends on Facebook and Twitter.  To say that we are all excited would be an understatement, but I suspect there is a reason for this that all of us can relate to on some level.  Let’s face it, despite a few exceptions that fell short of being major box office draws, most Civil War era movies (for lack of a better way of putting it) suck.

By the looks of it, Spielberg’s Lincoln has the potential to make it easier for all of us who self-identify as Civil War buffs or enthusiasts.  We all know these moments where we are pressed to explain our interest in this period and why we find it so compelling.  This movie has the potential to supplant Ron Maxwell’s melodramatic and juvenile movies, which are commonly tossed about as the best in Civil War era movies.

I will bring the same kind of critical stance that I bring to any Hollywood movie that attempts to interpret the past, but I will not be counting buttons, judging the accuracy of uniforms or even counting moments that deviate from what I acknowledge as mainstream Civil War historiography.  I want to see an entertaining movie that drives home what was at stake in the war and presents an intelligent and absorbing portrayal of our sixteenth president.

You Never Been a Soldier

I am close to finishing up a magazine article on Confederate camp servants.  This morning I read through a number of postwar accounts, which are always tricky to interpret.  Consider the following passage from Andrew Ward’s, The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves.

After the war, a slave named Luke would ask for a parole when his master, a Confederate colonel, surrendered to a Yankee officer in Columbia, Mississippi.  “Luke, you don’t need one,” said his master.  “You never been a soldier.”  “Yes, I has been a soldier–for four years,” Luke replied.  “Now you and that man don’t want to do me that way.”  The Yankee officer declared that Luke “made more sense” than the colonel did, and gave him his parole.

There is quite a bit to unpack here.  First, there is Luke who is passionately making his case for recognition as a soldier.  It’s not simply the status he is interested in, but the respect and acknowledgment that he had suffered and exercised the same virtues as any other man in the army.  Luke is also quite assertive in his sharp response to his master and plea that he ought to be accorded the status of soldier.  It’s hard not to see such a strong defiance as a product of his four years with the army, including some experience on the battlefield.

Luke’s master’s response speaks for itself.  He was and is not a soldier in the Confederate army.  Such an acknowledgment would have rendered the two as equals.  Slaves could not be seen as exhibiting the same martial virtues and at the same time continue to be seen as the legal extension of the master’s will.  Recognition as a solider also collapses the distinction between slave and citizen.  The service of soldiers was a function of their obligation to the state as citizens.  Slaves served their masters.

Finally, what are we to make of the Yankee officer’s decision to grant Luke a parole?  On the one hand, it is very possible that he sympathized with the slave and believed he had made his case for the official recognition.  I prefer a different interpretation.  That officer would have understood what that military document meant to Luke’s master.  In granting the parole he did something worse than acknowledge Luke’s freedom.  He acknowledged Luke as his master’s equal.

Crossing the Rappahannock

This is one of those events that makes me wish that I still lived and taught in Virginia.  My Civil War class would be front and center at this event.  On September 22 a recreation of an 1862 slave crossing of the Rappahannock will take place at Cow’s Ford near Tin Pot Run.  The famous photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan of slaves fording the river in that area on August 19, 1862 will serve as inspiration for the reenactment.

It’s nice to have a visual window into the crossing of slaves to freedom.  [See John Hennessy's thoughtful analysis of the image at Mysteries and Conundrums and here] We have so few, but it does mean that the individuals in this photograph must somehow reflect our assumptions about what took place or what we hoped took place on the river.  More importantly, we run the risk of reducing the slavery to freedom narrative to one moment.  It’s one of the reasons I highly recommend Jim Downs’s new book, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Downs’s study reminds us that the steps toward freedom and beyond were fraught with challenges.

That a reenactment of the crossing is taking place at all is just another indication of how far our memory of the war has evolved.  It’s also interesting to see the language of “self emancipation” being used in the online flier for this event – a reference that comes right out of the recent academic debate concerning the proper interpretation of emancipation.  I hope the event gets the coverage it deserves and I do hope that people will take part to mark the event.

Appearance on NPR

Update: My interview is now available.

Earlier today I recorded a segment for NPR’s “Tell Me More with Michel Martin.”  The show will air tomorrow on the anniversary of 9-11.  One of the show’s producers contacted me after coming across one of my essays at the Atlantic in which I briefly explore some of the connections between 9-11 and Civil War remembrance.  The show focused specifically on the challenges of commemorating and remembering 9-11 eleven years later.  We talked a bit about the Civil War, teaching, and the loss of my cousin, Alisha.

The taping went on for about twenty minutes, but I don’t think all of it will make it on the air.  Thanks to Freddie Boswell for the invitation to take part and to Michel Martin, who did a first-rate interview.

You can check the show’s website for when it will air live tomorrow in your area.  Of course, I will update this post with the podcast when it becomes available.