A Small Tribute to a Short Speech

1000 Voices at Olean High School Photo Credit:  Mrs. Skrobacz

1000 Voices at Olean High School
Photo Credit: Mrs. Skrobacz

Our local high school put on a special program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettyburg address.  A retired teacher put together the presentation which included videos, re-enactors from local regiments, the Bucktails and 154th NY, and period music.  I was invited to give a five to ten minute presentation.  The highlight of my presentation was my daughter’s introduction.  She is a senior and so very poised in front of a microphone.  Anyway with no further a-do here is my presentation:

Given the mythic proportion that Lincoln has achieved, there is a persistent notion that the Gettysburg Address was written on the back of an envelope by Abraham Lincoln as he made his way by train to Gettysburg.

There are several reasons to doubt this.

First off, Lincoln’s presence at Gettysburg was an afterthought. He actually had to petition the organizers of the cemetery dedication to include him in the dedication ceremony. The very fact that Lincoln called his effort an “address” indicates that he’d prepared it, not for a general delivery but for a specific occasion and a select audience.

Lincoln recognized that this gathering was an opportunity to bring the country “up to speed” –as we would put it–on the meaning and worth of the sacrifice these Union soldiers had made and all the others were making. He wanted to remind the nation that while this war was being fought at an enormous cost in lives and treasure, it was being fought for an immeasurably valuable prize. Lincoln would not take an opportunity like this lightly and he would traditionally prepare very carefully for such an event.

Secondly, Lincoln liked to think on his feet. Literally. All his life, he walked while he thought and he thought while he walked. He walked back and forth in his White House office when he was puzzling out or preparing something. That’s a little difficult on a moving train.

He also had a habit of reading things out loud –whether he was reading someone else’s writing –a funny story or a newspaper article–or was composing a letter, or a speech or a proclamation.  The cadence, the content, the impact of what he was working on seemed much clearer when he heard it spoken aloud.

Lincoln was always extremely unwilling to speak off-the-cuff. The night he arrived at Gettysburg a crowd gathered outside the house he was visiting. The crowd called for a speech and Lincoln resolutely refused to say anything but an extended version of “Good evening.” He didn’t want, he said, to say anything foolish.

This last concern was particularly important because Lincoln’s only direct access to his fellow countrymen was through the written word. So each word he spoke or wrote for the record had to be very carefully crafted. There was no radio. No television. Lincoln hardly ever left the White House. This trip to Gettysburg was one of the longest trips out of Washington that he took during his whole Presidency. Lincoln spent probably 95% of his presidency in his White House office. The country came to him. Anybody willing to wait long enough would have the chance to briefly meet and speak with Abraham Lincoln.

When Lincoln spoke for the record, reporters took his words down more or less accurately in short hand. His words appeared in the newspapers in black and white for his friends and enemies to read. It was the president’s standard forum when he wanted to “speak” to the country. Lincoln was by profession a lawyer. So he designed his speeches as a lawyer would, using precise language to develop a compelling argument.

But Lincoln also possessed the soul of a poet. He had, in fact, written some actual poetry –all of it terrible, dreary and gloomy –really bad – but when his poetic inclination was tempered by his need for lawyerly precision, the results were some of the most remarkable and carefully prepared political speeches ever delivered. The only ad-lib, the only improvised words in the Gettysburg Address, were the words “under God” in the phrase “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”  Lincoln was an “agnostic” meaning he was someone who did not deny the existence of God but didn’t acknowledge the existence of God either.  Apparently, somewhere between Fort Sumter and November 19, 1863 – as the war took a turn for the better with major Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, God was beginning to look pretty good.   

Lincoln had read widely and his writings had obvious influences: the Bible for sure –he could quote relevant passages from the Bible to suit almost any occasion. He was an aficionado of Shakespeare…he read the plays and attended performances of them regularly in Washington… he admired and studied classic political orators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. One less noted but very obvious influence on Lincoln was the telegraph. The President spent an inordinate amount of time at the telegraph office, which was situated a brisk walk from the White House. It was his sanctuary from the cares and activities of the White House and it was also the nerve center of the war effort. Lincoln telegraphed constantly to his commanders in the field. These telegrams had to be short, exact and put in terms that could not be misunderstood. Lincoln developed an affinity for the blunt “shorthand” communication of the telegraph. The influence of this “compressed” language helps account for the brevity of the Gettysburg address.

The actual physical presentation of this address is interesting to visualize. Lincoln sat with dozens of local and national dignitaries on a raised platform on a breezy hillside in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. November 19th can be cold and blustery. A large crowd, thousands of people, filled acres of space to listen to noted lecturer Edward Everett, the featured speaker, give a two hour speech –which he had memorized. His talk encompassed the Gettysburg battle in some detail and he expounded on the significance of the battle and the meaning of the war.

Then Lincoln stood up and gave his two-minute address, which he read. There were no microphones. There was no amplification. Lincoln had a rather high-pitched voice but it was a voice that carried wonderfully. So the original delivery of the Gettysburg Address was not some solemn, sonorous presentation but a belted out rendition by an expert stump-speaking political pro, one of whose principal qualifications for office in pre-electronics 19th century America was a voice that carried to the farthest person back in an enormous crowd in a large open field while the wind was blowing. What distinguished Lincoln in this specialized field of orators and politicians was that the short hand reporters dispatched to document his speeches would stand listening, completely enthralled, and forget to write down what he said.

Lincoln sat down-there was prolonged applause–yet he sensed that the speech had not gone down well. “That speech didn’t scour,” was the phrase he used, meaning the speech hadn’t carried through smoothly, as a plow would. He didn’t know it at the time but he was probably feeling the effects of the mild case a small pox that he developed soon after returning to Washington. Some newspapers ridiculed his effort but Edward Everett, an old political adversary of the President, wrote to him that Lincoln’s two minute effort had come closer to the “central idea of the occasion” than Everett had in his two hours.  

In evaluating Lincoln’s stature on the stage of history – and he stands way, way up there – the Gettysburg Address is certainly important on his resume. If there can be any question of his genius, it’s merely necessary to ask who else on earth could come up with a phrase that became one of the most famous passages in the English language and that will be remembered so long as the language is spoken. What did he come up with when all he was trying to say was “87 years ago?”  Four score and seven years ago.

This is not “train ride, back of an envelope material.”

Some New Civil War Classics

When the Civil War Sesquicentennial came around, it reminded me of the sets that were published to coincide with the Centennial of the Civil War. I decided to dust off Bruce Catton’s three volume Centennial History. I had the impression that modern scholarship had made this set obsolete but I was quickly jolted out of this notion within pages of picking up this book. If the scholarship was not up to today’s standards (mostly because Catton’s researcher E. B. Long probably had to manually copy any notes or quotes he wanted to use–he couldn’t simply Xerox pages and pages from the O.R. or from archives or library materials) the writing more than makes up for that. If any war or period was ever dramatic it’s the Civil War era. And Bruce Catton’s portrayal of the actors and the drama being played out surpasses anything that contemporary historians are publishing. Modern historians may provide more facts but they lose out in terms of providing a vivid feel for the people and the era.
 
One thing however that’s obvious is that Bruce Catton misjudged his ability to cover the war in three volumes. Vol. 2 ends at Antietam. That leaves Catton with a single volume to cover the rise of Grant and his campaigns and battles, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Sherman’s rise and his campaigns…the third volume is like a “flashcards” history of the war. But the writing is, in a word, magnificent. Also, and because I wasn’t ready to put Catton down, I read the Lloyd Lewis/ Bruce Catton biography of Grant. It ends with the Civil War–perhaps Catton didn’t want to face the bleak interlude between Appomattox and Mount McGregor–but I was ready to start the book again as soon as I’d finished it. Catton (and Shelby Foote) had a magical, stirring feel for the War and it’s dramatis personae.   

C-Span Book TV Presentation

On Thursday, December 2,1999 C-Span Book TV videotaped a presentation by our cartographer, Earl McElfresh to the Huntington (Long Island) Civil War Round Table at The Book Revue, an independent bookstore.  The talk was attended by approximately one hundred people.  The presentation was a little over an hour with a question and answer period.  On the C-span website we were able to make a short four-minute clip about Jed Hotchkiss.  Please follow this link if you wish to see it:

C-span Clip

If you would like to see the entire presentation, please follow this link:

C-Span Entire Mapping Presentation

Civil War Questions with High School Students–Final Questions

Question 12  Did you Ever consider that map-making wasn’t for you?  What do you like the most about making maps?  The least?

Once I started making maps I never looked back. It’s a very satisfying activity and I like every aspect of it. The research is fun, the drawing is fun, using watercolors is fun, deciding what to include on the reverse side of the map is fun, the process of taking the original manuscript of the map to the printer is fun (great inky smells, huge thundering printing presses) and getting paid for doing something fun is fun.

Question 13  What do you think makes your maps about the Civil War better that others?

Our Civil War maps are essentially unique. No one else has done Civil War battlefield maps that contain so much cultural and physical information and present that information is such a stylized format. The corn fields look like cornfields, the fences look like fences, the orchards look like orchards. Our maps give modern visitors to the battlefield the same view of the terrain as the Civil War armies had. That’s why when West Point does its staff rides at Gettysburg or at Saratoga, they carry our maps with them. They want modern soldiers to see the roads and lanes, the farms and fences, the rivers and bridges, the terrain, that Civil War soldiers confronted and contended with. Because these were the features that settled the outcome of the battles.

Question 14 During the Civil War, what do you this was Lincoln’s most strategic move as president?

Lincoln’s most strategic move as president was to ignore the lurid gossip about U.S. Grant, saying to Grant’s detractors, “I can’t spare this man, he fights.” Lincoln, sight unseen, intuitively trusted Grant (a fellow mid-westerner) and when he appointed Grant overall commander of U.S. forces, the Confederacy  was done for because U.S. Grant brought William Tecumseh Sherman to the fore and the Southern Confederacy was done for.

Question 15  What do you think Lincoln would have done  the 13th Amendment hadn’t passed? What would have been his next step?

The 13th Amendment passed. There are no “if’s” in history. Every “if” brings more “if’s” and one drifts away into a mist.

Question 16  Lincoln is always refered to as “honest Abe,”  yet in the movie Lincoln, you see he could be very dishonest at times. 

I don’t see Lincoln being dishonest in the movie “Lincoln.” He was contending with existential challenges and had to manage the give and take of politics in the midst of the iron contingencies of war. And throughout, he had to contend with political opponents who were in fact undermining the war effort in ways that didn’t exist in U.S. politics until the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. But in neither of the latter wars was the nation’s life hanging in the balance. At different times in the Civil War, there were Rebel flags  from the White House.

Question 17  What would you say was the most important fact or scene put into the movie Lincoln?  Meaning, what would you say is the most influential fact about Lincoln we should take away from the movie?

The best thing about the movie was its realistic portrayal of the character Lincoln. He was a consummate politician, a very real man, the wisest of the wise, and the only person in all the country that could have managed the menagerie that was Civil War era America partly with an iron will and an iron fist and partly with the most thoughtful political words ever spoken.

 

Civil War Questions with High School Students–Questions 9, 10, 11

Question 9:  How did the draft work during the Civil War?

The draft was a pretty shabby affair for both sides and it was also manifestly unfair. In the North a drafted man could buy out for $300. That was a lot of money then and only the wealthy could afford that. They would then get a substitute. They were often enough shady characters who would take money, enlist, desert at the first opportunity and enlist again, again for money, using an alias – and on and on. In the South, there were numerous exceptions and the saying was, “It’s a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” In other words, the wealthy men who owned the slaves (and they made up a tiny fraction of the overall population) that the war was really all about were not drafted because they had to stay home and oversee the slaves etc. Initially, in the South, draft age (and there were many occupations, including service in the non-fighting state militias e.g. that were exempt from the draft) was from 18 to 45. By the end of the war, they were taking men from “cradle to grave” 16-65. The draft, for both sides, was pretty much a disaster.

Question 10  Did we have the Medal of Honor during the Civil War?

There was a Medal of Honor during the Civil War. It was awarded much more liberally than the present day Medal of Honor and it was sometimes given to an entire unit for some especially meritorious action. There were several local Medal of Honor winners including a Mr. Oviatt (the street next to Boardmanville school is named for him)  and Stephen Welch. Mr. Welch, your OHS teacher, is a direct descendent. Stephen Welch is buried in Allegany cemetery. Mr. Welch can tell you all about him.

Question 11  What was the most important information a battle map could provide for the armies?  Elevated ground?

The most important information a map could provide a Civil War commander was enough knowledge of the ground that he knew where he could march and maneuver his army (where he could pass through a mountain range, where he could ford a river, where he could feed his men and water his animals, what multiple roads he could spread his army out on and still maintain contact between the separated units and get them to the right place at the same time.) A commander mostly wanted to know from a map where he could go and what he could do and equally important to him, where his enemy could go and what the enemy’s options were. It was while the armies were angling for a battle that maps were most important. Once contact was made and battle was joined, they could scout around for information and to a limited extent see what was going on.

Civil War Q&A With High School Students–Questions 6, 7, 8

Question 6:  How many people survived the prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia?

There were about 45,000 Union prisoners at Andersonville. Something like 13,000 of them died there, so there was about a 27% casualty rate. The biggest Union POW camp was in Elmira, NY.  There was less excuse for the approximate 25% casualty rate for Confederate prisoners there since the Union, in contrast to the South, was thriving throughout the war.  But those were very hard times and very hard people.

Question 7:  Would you consider Robert E. Lee a traitor?

Robert E. Lee was still in the U.S. Army in early 1861 and he received a promotion. When you receive a new rank, you take a new oath of allegiance.  You swear to defend the United States of America against any enemy, foreign or domestic.  Within weeks of taking that oath, Robert E. Lee was a domestic enemy of the nation he had just sworn an oath to defend.  That pretty much makes him a traitor I’m afraid.

I think the Southern aristocracy—which Lee was part of—had such a high opinion of their personal “honor” that whatever they did had to be honorable because it was their honorable selves doing it. I also think that their absolute power over their black slaves, and the iron handed rule they had over their plantations and their society gave them a bad case of arrested development. Their actions and opinions were so unchallenged that they had been gradually lulled into simple-mindedness.

Question 8:   What was your favorite map to make? Why?

I really can’t say which was my favorite map to make.  Each mapping project is really exciting, first because it’s a new job and it means money and it means you’re going to be profitably and happily employed for months and that’s nice. And it’s also wonderful to have a new subject to delve into, to dig around for resources and information.  So I like that.  It’s also a lot of fun to do the drawing and I really enjoy, for example, doing the lettering of the map titles.  I usually meet some interesting people and get to travel to interesting places when I do the research…And as I got better at doing the maps, the ones done with more expertise were more enjoyable than ones done early on that I look back on and wish I’d done a better job. Long and short, I guess I’d have to say my favorite map is the one I’m working on or the next one I’m about to do. I guess my Pearl Harbor map is right up there though.

 

Civil War Q&A with High School Students–Questions 3, 4, 5

How long does it typically take you to create a map of a famous battle?

 It typically takes six to eight months to do the research, draft the map, and then ink in the data and watercolor the whole concern.  In the midst of that process, I also work out the information and secure the images for the reverse side of the map.  That six or eight months means seven days a week, morning, noon and night.  The maps are great fun but they’re also a lot of work.

 What interests you most about the Civil War?

The most interesting thing about the Civil War is the participants. The panoply of characters, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, and more obscure characters like Richard Ewell (he married a widow and always introduced his wife as “Mrs. Brown”), Confederate general Joe Johnston who hated president Jeff Davis so much that you wouldn’t know from his memoir that he was fighting the Yankees, he’s always fighting Davis.  Then George B. McClellan, Union general whose reputation collapsed because the stupid, vainglorious letters he wrote to his wife revealed him to be a supercilious jerk.  There was General George Custer (of Little Big Horn fame) who was a brilliant cavalry leader who perfumed his flowing locks and designed a uniform that made him look like a circus performer.  It was a wild bunch of characters.  England had Dickens’ characters.  We had these guys.  Some of the most noble people in history, and some of the most ignoble, made up the cast of our Civil War.

Also, most wars are futile. For example, the First World War led directly to the Second World War and the Second World War wasn’t even over when the Cold War got underway.  In contrast, the Civil War was fought to end slavery and preserve the United States.  When the Civil War was over, slavery was dead and the United States lived.  Success!

Who do you think was the greatest Confederate General?

I think Stonewall Jackson was the South’s great general but he had the advantage in that regard of dying too early in the war to confront the best Union generals.  But I also think there was something vaguely—for want of a better term—autistic, about him.  He seems kind of blank in terms of personality and he was a bewildering figure to his fellow generals.  And his successes came in the first half of the war when the south fought with the immense advantage of a friendly population and in familiar countryside.  His Valley Campaign, upon which his fame primarily rests, would not have been possible once Union forces knew the roads and topography as well as he did.  But circumstances are what they are and he was, in my mind, the best in the 1861-1863 timeframe.

What is the oldest battle that you mapped?

The oldest battle I’ve mapped is the Revolutionary battlefield of Saratoga in NYS.  It was fought in 1777.  The oldest Civil War battlefield I’ve mapped is Manassas or Bull Run, VA.  Two battles were fought there, 1861 and 1862.

Civil War Q&A With High School Students–Questions 1 & 2

Time did not allow me to answer all of the questions of the American History Class at Olean High School, but I did respond to them by e-mail.  The first and second question were:

What information do you use to draw the maps?  Do you use photos along with studying the landscape?  What else do you use?  How do you decide if the information is reliable or legitmate?

I had to give a rather long answer to the question:

  1. I use contemporaneous photographs, taken within days of some of the major battles (Antietam, Gettysburg e.g.).  I got a Cornell agronomist (a crop expert) to study the panoramic photos of these fields to determine the crops in the fields. It was easy to figure out what type of fencing there was, where the orchards were, the extent of the woodlands etc. Essential to the use of these photographs was the 1970’s work of William Frassanito, who painstakingly determined the point-of-view and location of each extant wartime photograph of Gettysburg and Antietam.
  2. Then I used regimental histories – each regiment would occupy a small sector of the battlefield and their accounts and maps  would show their particular sector in great detail. The soldiers’ diaries and letters (this was probably the most literate war in history) also contain many references to their immediate surroundings. Many of them were themselves farmers and they would frequently comment on the crops and fields, fences, barns and orchards. The most poignant research items were “burial” maps. Dead men were often buried right where they had fallen by their fellow soldiers, who were usually their townsmen, friends, even relatives. They would then send the family a very detailed map so they could journey to the battlefield, locate the body and bring it home for burial.
  3. On the major battlefields such as Gettysburg, Antietam, Stones River in Tennessee, the National Park Service has tons of data that they gladly make available to a researcher.
  4. As I mentioned in the class, aerial photographs are very revealing if you know what you’re looking for. If I have a reasonably good Civil War era map and it shows a road or a lane that’s vanished, or a barn or a house, if you look very carefully, you can find a footprint or a trace of it. Also, the skeleton features in the landscape – the rivers, streams, hills, principal roads etc. – are obviously extant features on todays extremely accurate USGS maps. So those features are immediately drawn on my map so I immediately have a framework to go by. And the maps drawn and used by the actual Civil War armies, while not terribly accurate in terms of exact distances etc., are full of the sort of information the armies needed. They needed the name of residents along the roads because there were no route markers and there were not normally formal names for a given road or lane so the surest way to get reliable directions was to get pointed toward the Smith’s house or the Jones farm. Documenting the residents also gave the armies a idea of the local population. The more residents there were, the more resources there were for the armies to live off. (Union General Sherman set off across Georgia on November 16,1864 saying, “Where a million Georgians can live, my army will not starve.) The armies also had to know where they could find corn fields, wheat fields, orchards, hay fields, wells, springs etc. because an army on the march needed to feed 30, 40, 50 thousand men  and thousands of horses and mules. A typical mule would drink 10 gallons of water a day. Multiply that by 10,000! A Civil War army (and it didn’t matter whether they were friends or enemies, Union or Confederate) would devastate any countryside they marched through. They would take all the food for themselves and all the forage for their animals, drink the wells dry, destroy the fields they camped on, empty the barns, clear out the larders, tear down all the fences (to make their camp fires to brew their coffee) and raise havoc generally. But the armies need to live off the land is great for mapmakers because their military “route” maps detailed this sort of food and forage information so the armies knew where they could march and fend for themselves.
  5. A great aid in mapping Gettysburg was the work of John Bachelder, who arrived in Gettysburg immediately after the battle. Bachelder marched up and down the field, mapping it, and he had as a resource the thousands of wounded soldiers, Union and Confederate, remaining behind, who he interviewed. His map, a birds-eye view of the field, was very reliable and valuable.
  6. There were also quite accurate published county maps available of some areas, including Gettysburg, published prior to the Civil War that I could make use of. (They were also made use of by the armies and the generals.) Also, soon after the war, the U.S. War Department prepared surveys of many of the major battlefields. These maps were much more detailed and accurate than the maps made under wartime conditions. (The U.S. hired former Confederate mapmakers to work on these surveys. One Rebel named Blackford, who’d sworn he would die rather than live again under the stars and stripes, found himself, within a month of Appomattox, working for the U.S. Army mapping the battlefields.)
  7. Finally, most every Civil War battlefield has people who have devoted their lives to studying “their” battle. They know every nook and cranny of the field and like nothing more than to guide someone around the field, point out sites, recommend books and resources, provide access private lands and to other knowledgeable locals, and in some cases they fix parking tickets.
  8. There are other resources but the above provides a pretty good idea of what’s out there. I decide on the reliability of the information based on the resource I used. Photographs, for example, are irrefutable – at least back then they were, before photoshop – and other data would often be corroborated by some other data. And then you have to wonder why anybody would mislead about the existence of a stone wall or the presence in their front of a rye as opposed to a wheat field.

 

 

The Civil War: Some Suggested Reading

I prepared a reading list of Civil War volumes to hand out to an Olean High School junior year American history class as part of a Civil War presentation on Jan. 15, 2013. The list is short and sweet and my basic premise was that, for the most part, none of the students had read much, if anything, about the Civil War. My intention was to suggest some books that would be scholarly but entertaining and informative at the same time.  Also the list had to fit on one page. This is the list I came up with. My feeling is that if any of the students read even one of these volumes they will probably be drawn to read others as well.

  •  Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the Civil War, which includes The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat, is a very dramatic and beautifully written set. It’s accurate history but it reads with the verve of a novel.  A pretty long novel though.
  • Bruce Catton also wrote a terrific little book entitled U. S. Grant and the American Military Tradition. It’s one of my absolute favorite Civil War books. And it’s short!
  • There are two excellent one volume biographies of Abraham Lincoln.  Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Toward None and/or Benjamin P. Thomas’s Abraham Lincoln.  Another really neat little book is this same Benjamin P. Thomas’s Lincoln’s New Salem.
  • The best single volume account of the overall Civil War—it’s pretty long and quite detailed but extremely worthwhile—is James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.
  • There are all sorts of truly fascinating first person accounts of being a soldier in the Civil War.  These books are America’s Victorian literature.  We don’t have a Dickens, a Trollope, a Thackery, an Eliott…but we do have these.  And they’re not only thrilling and entertaining but they’re also true.  There are dozens of these but two of the best are: War Years with JEB Stuart by W.W. Blackford and I Rode With Stonewall by Henry Kyd Douglas.
  • The Blue and the Gray, edited by Henry Steele Commager, is a chronologically arranged collection of excerpts from contemporary accounts of the Civil War.  The entries are usually short.  They’re like intellectual snacks.  But the selections were chosen because they gave the illuminating sense of “being there.”
  • If you’re feeling really ambitious, there’s a fabulous set of volumes by Carl Sandburg (he’s the poet)—2 volumes entitled The Prairie Years, and 4 volumes entitled The War Years.  Together they constitute a superlative biography of Lincoln and the American cultural and political environment in which he lived and governed. Make yourself a promise to read these volumes some time in your life.
  • Finally there is an ongoing series The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It, which will consist of four volumes published by Library of America.  McElfresh Map Company prepared the endpaper maps for each volume.

Lincoln–The Movie and the Man–Both Treasures

I went to see the new Spielberg movie Lincoln. I’ve been an avid reader of Lincoln biographies–from where I sit right now I can see more than fifty volumes on Lincoln and I can honestly say that if I haven’t read all of them, there are some that I’ve read multiple times and will read again, including  Sandburg’s six volumes–perhaps the most wonderful biography ever written–and Benj. Thomas’s Lincoln’s New Salem which is the most charming Lincoln book of them all. I also have half again as many Lincoln volumes at home. Suffice it to say, I like Lincoln.  And I’ve written about him for publication in Civil War Times. Mine is no casual affair. Lincoln and I are for keeps.

Well…Wonder of wonders. I loved–I revered–the Lincoln movie. It was the first movie my wife and I have gone to since Primary Colors. We were startled at the cost of theater tickets ($19 !) but we were thrilled by the movie. My mental picture of Lincoln, framed for ever and ever by the staged photographs of him, has been supplemented by Daniel Day Lewis’s movie portrayal of the 16th president.

I have two quibbles with the movie. The opening scene was a little much. Lincoln, for some reason unattended to and sitting in the rain, seemed a bit unrealistic and daft (the President was a gigantic celebrity in 1864 too, and his being somehow overlooked was as unlikely then as it is now). Then the post battle-scene at the end of the movie…this is presumably in the trenches around Petersburg after the Confederate line is cracked. The movie depicts corpses stacked like the concentration camp images at the end of WWII. There are actual contemporaneous photos of the most gruesome slaughters of the war, scenes from Antietam’s sunken road, indeed photos from the Petersburg field in the battle aftermath. There is nothing like what the movie shows. Maybe modern audiences have to see a carpet of bodies before they’re impressed.

But apart from those two improbable scenes, the film makers did an impeccable job. Lincoln’s office, as filmed, was exact in every detail. The more prominent members of his cabinet (Gideon Wells, Edwin Stanton e.g.) bore a striking similarity to the real men. Secretary of State William Seward was portrayed as a more presentable figure: they skipped the magpie-like features of the actual Seward but that’s understandable. Modern audiences would probably find his looks laughable.

To sum up, considering how awful the movie could have been–and considering how tempting it must have been to go the saccharine route–makes how realistic the movie was all the more commendable. It’salso a treat to see Republicans portrayed as the good guys. People forget the Democrats obstructing role as the nation was locked in a death struggle. And they also forget that the modern Civil Rights legislation was vehemently opposed by the solid South–the South was solidly Democrat in 1964 as well as in 1864–and it was the Republican party that enabled Lyndon Johnson to push his Civil Rights agenda through. Look it up!