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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Some Thoughts About Spielberg’s Lincoln

We go to the movies to be entertained and transported to a different time and place.  That certainly happened for me while watching Steven Spielberg’s movie about Lincoln and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. That’s not such an easy thing to do when you’ve spend the better part of the last 15 years reading and writing about the period.  Historians look for complexity and and a certain attention to detail that reflects a careful consideration of the past.  I certainly did, but at the same time we would do well to remember that these kinds of questions rarely arise when watching films about other subjects.

The film fits neatly into the Civil War sesquicentennial with its emphasis on emancipation as the central problem that must be solved as opposed to the preservation of the Union.  Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a sympathetic portrayal of Lincoln as the central actor in this drama and one that certainly deserves an Oscar nomination.  He somehow manages to make Lincoln appealing and even worthy of his place in our collective memory without mythologizing him.  Indeed, one of the movie’s strengths is that it depicts Lincoln as one player (albeit an important one) in that not-so-well-oiled machine that is the legislative process.  Lincoln does his best to help to steer the amendment through Congress with the help of Thadeus Stevens, portrayed persuasively by Tommie Lee Jones.  We see the messiness of it all, but we also get a sense of Lincoln’s and Stevens’s sincere interest in ending slavery once and for all.

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Happy Thanksgiving

Hope all of you have a Happy Thanksgiving today.  Enjoy the time with family and do yourself a favor and hold off on the shopping until tomorrow and please be safe if you are on the roads this weekend. Looks like the Virginia Historical Society is trying to reassert itself as hosting the first Thanksgiving.  I will run this by Myles Standish later today to see what he thinks.  Nice try Virginia, but second place is still respectable.

I finally saw Spielberg’s Lincoln movie yesterday and plan on sharing some thoughts in the next few days.  I thoroughly enjoyed Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln and the movie’s emphasis on the messiness of politics.  Now that I’ve read a few reviews of the movie I am convinced that historians might be the worst people to evaluate a historical movie.  More later.

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No Confederate Battle Flag at Castle Pinckney

Now before some of you get up in arms, read the story.  I had no idea that the Sons of Confederate Veterans purchased Castle Pinckney last year from the State Port Authority.  What they plan to do with it is unknown, but for now they will erect a couple of poles on which will fly period flags.  The one flag that will not be flown will be the Confederate battle flag.  Why?  According to Philip Middleton, commander of the SCV’s Fort Sumter Camp:

“We’re not going to put anything up [battle flag] that’s going to be a stick in anybody’s eye. We’re going to be putting up flags that were historically correct…. We’ve pretty much ruled that out for the time being.  The only reason we’d be doing that would be to make a statement, and I don’t think we need to be doing that.”

You mean they are not going to use the opportunity to erect one of those big-ass Confederate flags?  Sounds to me like the Virginia Flaggers need to make a trip to Charleston to preserve the honor or whatever it is they do.

In the meantime, it’s nice to hear that not everyone in the SCV suffers from an unhealthy obsession with the Confederate flag.

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Toward a New Synthesis of Civil War Memory

David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory has dominated the historiography of Civil War memory studies since its publication in 2001.  Beyond academic circles, Blight’s emphasis on the triumph of reconciliation over an “emancipationst narrative” can be found in documentaries, news articles, and even historical tours.  Rarely do historical interpretations enjoy such popularity.    In recent years, historians have chipped away at various aspects of Blight’s view.  Two books that stand out in this regard are John Neff’s Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation and Barbara Gannon’s recent study, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic.

While both books are important contributions to the field they do not approach the scope of Blight’s study, both in terms of the time frame and topics covered.  These and other studies, along with an even larger number of scholarly articles, have shown that reconciliation did not always triumph, bitterness remained among veterans, and memory of slavery and emancipation may have been more vibrant throughout the postwar period than we thought.  At the same time we do need to explain why our memory of the war since the 1960s has emphasized reconciliationist themes that go back to the turn of the twentieth century.  In other words, we don’t want to err by minimizing the pull of reconciliation.

Caroline Janney’s forthcoming book, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation promises to be the first broad study of Civil War memory since Race and Reunion.  She’s been chipping away at various topics, including the Appomattox Peace Monument, the Heyward Shepherd Memorial, and the establishment of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

For a taste of what you can expect in this book check out Carrie’s recent talk from the 2012 Civil War Institute.

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