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.

New to the Civil War Memory Library, 09/12

As always thanks for purchasing books and other products through my Amazon Associate account. My commissions come in the form of book credits, which allows me to purchase two or three books for free.

Frances M. Clarke, War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North, (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861, (Knopf, 2012).

Rebecca (Becky!) Ann Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

D. Scott Hartwig, To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

Stephen Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889, (Penguin, 2012).

Louis P. Masur, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union, (Harvard University Press, 2012).

Preserving Civil War Memory at Gettysburg College

Calling all digital historians and archivists: If after reading this you have any suggestions please leave them in the comments section.  I will make sure they get passed on to the right people.  Thanks.

Imagine signing on as the Systems and Emerging Technologies Librarian and being told that the library recently purchased two blogs.  For Zach Coble of Gettysburg College the question now is what to do with Civil War Memory and Keith Harris’s Cosmic America.

This is an exciting project for Gettysburg College.  Although the Library of Congress is also archiving this site it’s nice to know that it will made available at Gettysburg as well.  I’ve suggested before that I think we have to begin to shift our understanding of historical memory in the digital/web2.o world.  Blogs and other social media tools have democratized the sharing of history  further than anyone could have imagined just a few short years ago and it also has made it possible for a much wider demographic to share their own understanding of the Civil War and its legacy.  As a result the categories that frame our understanding of the evolution of Civil War memory will need to be revised if not discarded entirely to make sense of the sesquicentennial years.  It is my hope that this site will function as a unique window into the world of Civil War memory at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

It looks like they found just the right person to take the lead on this project:.

It’s exciting to explore new forms of scholarship, but we’re not exactly sure what to do with the blogs. Although the blogs are currently active they will not always be, so we must determine how we want to preserve them. Since none of us are experts in digital preservation, we are trying to understand at a conceptual level how best to approach this project.

This initiative has required us to think of larger issues concerning the library’s role in digital curation. Should libraries even try to preserve blogs and other digital content? Are we equipped, in terms of technology and staffing, to take on this kind of work? Can’t we rely on the big names in the field like the Library of Congress and the Internet Archive to take care of this?

As an employee of a cultural institution, I’m biased to believe that libraries (as well as archives, museums, and others) have a responsibility to preserve cultural content as it fits within the mission, goals, and collection development policy of the organization. I also believe that institutions need to take responsibility and work to inform themselves so they can properly care for the digital materials in their own collections.

The agreement that I signed includes other resources (digital and hard copy) as well, but any discussion of that will have to wait until we sort out some of the details.  I will be sure to provide additional updates as this project evolves.