On January 5, 2013, director Steven Spielberg, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and screenwriter Tony Kushner returned to Richmond, Virginia, where “Lincoln” was filmed, to discuss the process of “Bringing History to Life on Film” before an audience of 4,200. Moderated by Tim Reid.
Time for a little crowdsourcing in preparation for a simulation on Lincoln and Fort Sumter that my students will perform a week from this coming Tuesday. The overall idea is to have my students play the role of cabinet advisers and I, of course, will play Lincoln. Since I only have nine students we should be able to have a pretty lively discussion/debate. Yes, I am going to show up dressed like Lincoln and don’t worry as I will come prepared with plenty of responses that begin with, “That reminds me of a story…” Their responsibility is to advise me on what to do about the situation at Fort Sumter in the period following Lincoln’s inauguration. Should it be resupplied or abandoned?
I want to use the opportunity to have students consider the question from multiple perspectives and in light of recent events leading to Lincoln’s inauguration. Based on the available evidence they will also have to argue as to the likely consequences of Lincoln’s decision for the nation. Among other things, I want them to think about the differences between the Lower and Upper South, material differences between North and South, political differences in the North, Union, Southern Unionism, and disagreements in Lincoln’s cabinet. Their packet will include both primary and secondary sources. I’ve already put together a few things that I’ve used for various purposes in the past.
Secondary Sources (short excerpts)
- Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals
- James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom
- David Potter’s The Impending Crisis
- Maury Klein’s Days of Defiance
Primary Sources (short excerpts)
- Lincoln and Davis Inaugurals
- Lincoln on Southern Unionism
- Crittenden Compromise
- Speeches from Virginia’s Conditional Unionists
- Positions of Lincoln’s Cabinet members
- Horace Greeley Editorial
- Advice from Winfield Scott
- Correspondence with Major Robert Anderson
- Newspaper Editorials
- Letters and Diaries (George Templeton Strong)
This is just a start, but I would really appreciate any suggestions you might have. Please be as specific as possible and include sources. I am especially interested in online sources because they are easily accessible.
This first video is perfect for a course on Lincoln and/or Civil War memory. It provides a nice overview of how Lincoln has been interpreted in Hollywood movies and television since 1915. The only reference that I was unfamiliar with is the recent short animation, Robot Chicken: Jedi in Chief, in which George W. Bush faces off against Lincoln. Enjoy.
The Presidential Inauguration exercises have been filled with references to the Civil War era, including President Lincoln, Union, the 150th anniversary of emancipation and the unfinished capitol dome. I just saw Frederick Douglass and reenactors from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry march by the president’s reviewing stand. We even heard a reference to Stonewall, though I don’t think it was in recognition of Lee-Jackson Day. It’s a wonderful opportunity to make these references and remind the country that our history does include significant progress.
On a slightly different note, here is an interesting and even entertaining video of V. Bozeman singing Lynyrd Synyrd’s “Freebird” in a Confederate flag dress. Here is what she had to say about the choice of song and dress:
I fell in love with the lyrics and thought it would be a great song to cover. When I discovered the band’s previous connection with the confederate flag, I was even more compelled to re-record this song and give new life to it. Music is so powerful, it’s important for artists such as myself to use our platform to make a positive impact on the world. When I first heard the lyrics in this song, I could relate to its overall message, as I too have the desire to be a “Free Bird.” The beautiful and most riveting thing about Art is that it speaks to the individual and everyone gets something different from it.
To me, the overall message in “Free Bird” is LOVE! Something the world needs more of! Something we ourselves need more of! LOVE is accepting and understanding… It’s healing; amongst many other powerful things…essentially, it’s FREEDOM! Through my expression of “Free Bird,” I wanted to send a visual message to break the chains of negative stereotypes, racism, poverty, war, sexism, self hatred, etc. that hold us back as a people, as a nation. I decided to release this visual during President Barack Obama’s inauguration because the significance of this historic moment aligns with the overall theme of the song. As an artist I’ve always had a perspective and a voice and its important to me that I always be authentic to not only my fans, but myself in my expression.
I’ve been thinking about the gulf between the public’s response to Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarrantino’s Django Unchained and the overall commentary coming from professional historians and other public intellectuals. I’ve commented on this before, but this morning I was pleased to read Christian McWhirter’s review of both movies in The Civil War Monitor. Actually, it’s not really a review as much as it is a commentary on the value of the movies, which he believes has been overlooked by the academic community. I couldn’t agree more. Here are a few passages from McWhirter’s review that stood out for me.
Dismissing Lincoln is to effectively dismiss its vast audience, much of which is surely hungry for precisely the sort of information and interpretation we can provide.
I saw both films in packed theaters and the response to each was overwhelmingly loud and positive. This sort of reaction demonstrates that audience members were emotionally, and I suspect also intellectually, engaged. We cannot dismiss these movies because they do not adhere to the same rigorous standards we apply to historical monographs and documentaries. Instead of fearing the massive reach of bad films, we need to appreciate the potential for good films to help us educate the public and overturn resilient historical myths. Lincoln and Django Unchained will do more to change popular perceptions of American history than they will misinform or confuse. So, relax, enjoy, and ride this train as far as it will take us.
It’s safe to say that these movies will do more to influence popular perceptions of the Civil War and slavery than all the books published in the past twenty years combined. Unlike others, I fully embrace this fact. Much of the commentary about these films does little more than highlight individual historians’ current research projects and tells us very little about the films themselves. It’s not that I have a problem with pointing out shortcomings in historical content, but that they fail to acknowledge why these films are so popular with so many people from a broad range of backgrounds. Christian hits the nail on the head when he references the emotional and intellectual engagement of their audiences. We haven’t seriously explored this as of yet.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how I am going to use these movies in the classroom – assuming that I can use Django at all. Beyond the classroom I do hope that public historians are also thinking about how they can take advantage of this wave of enthusiasm. It’s a unique opportunity that could not have come at a better time. We are smack in the middle of the sesquicentennial having just commemorated the 150th anniversary of emancipation. The issues and subject matter raised by these two films are incredibly controversial and fraught will all kinds of landmines. Just getting people to think about them is a challenge and, yet, that is exactly what millions of Americans are doing. What more could we ask for?
All of us in the historical community should give Spielberg and Tarrantino a big Thank You.