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.

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.

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.

Students Preserve a Piece of Milwaukee’s Civil War Heritage

I’ve met some incredible history teachers over the years through this blog.  A few of them have taught me as much as I hope this blog has helped their own classroom practices – none more so than Chris Lese, who teaches history at Marquette University High School.    Chris is a passionate and talented teacher.  Like me, he has the luxury of teaching a course on the Civil War.  In fact, earlier this year I Skyped with his class.  Later this morning we are going to connect online once again.

This year Chris’s class is hoping to do a little Civil War preservation in their local community.  The class will create a tin plated QR Code memorial to be placed next to a forgotten bronze plaque in the woods of a Milwaukee public park. The memorial is dedicated to to Col. Jerome A. Watrous, who served in the Iron Brigade.

The first phase of the project is to focus on the memory of Civil War both during the early 20th century (this bronze plaque was dedicated in 1939) and today.  Here are a few of the questions the students sent along.

  • What are some reasons people in the early 20th century dedicated monuments, plaques and memorials to Civil War soldiers?
  • What sort of issues were veterans facing during the early 20th century?
  • Did Civil War soldiers experience wide spread support across society? Who put up these memorials?
  • Why do you think it is important for younger generations to know about/remember Civil War history?
  • In this techno-crazy society that looks to get more and more digital, will memorials have to be digital
    to persuade future people to care? Will stone and bronze monuments still have a major place remembering history?
  • What role does technology have in historical memory?

The next phase includes researching the life of Watrous and the monument itself and attempt to determine why it was apparently forgotten. The class is also consulting with local Iron Brigade historian Lance Herdegen and the Kenosha Civil War Museum.  Herdegen just published a new book on the Iron brigade titled, THE IRON BRIGADE IN CIVIL WAR AND MEMORY: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter.

This is a great way to get kids not only interested in history, but in historical memory, and historical preservation.  It warms my heart. 🙂

A Train Wreck in the Making

Earlier this week I introduced you to Byron Thomas, who is considering joining the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  It looks like the research that will be necessary to establish his connection with a Confederate soldier will have to wait as Byron needs to write an essay on Robert E. Lee.  Now being enrolled at a state university in South Carolina one would assume that Byron would ask a librarian and/or the history department for references.  Instead, Byron is asking the good folks at the SHPG for their recommendations.  This is a train wreck in the making and wrong on so many levels.

We’ve seen this group in action when it comes to doing history.  If this is for a history class, Byron is going to be eaten alive by his professor.

Here is a wonderful example of what happens when we fail to train students on how to utilize the Internet.  We all know it can be a powerful tool when used correctly, but the vast majority of students have little training on how to search for information and evaluate individual websites.  We also need to train our students on how to do historical research.  It needs to begin in middle school, if not before, and continue right through college.  If Byron’s professors are simply assigning history essays without any training than they deserve to have to read what is likely to be produced as a result of what we see here.

And what we see here is basically the equivalent of approaching strangers on the street and asking them for reliable sources.  How sad.

[Byron, if you are reading, start with these references from the Virginia Historical Society.  Your library is likely to have most of these titles.  Talk to your librarian and not the SHPG.  Good luck.]

Smithsonian’s “The Civil War and American Art” Exhibition

A new exhibition on Civil War era paintings opens today at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

“The Civil War and American Art” examines how America’s artists represented the impact of the Civil War and its aftermath. The exhibition follows the conflict from palpable unease on the eve of war, to heady optimism that it would be over with a single battle, to a growing realization that this conflict would not end quickly and a deepening awareness of issues surrounding emancipation and the need for reconciliation. Genre and landscape painting captured the transformative impact of the war, not traditional history painting.

The first video is an overview, but the embed used here includes six more videos on individual paintings that follow automatically.  Enjoy.