The Inconvenient Truth About 'Lincoln'
Like just about everyone who has seen it, I was enthralled by Lincoln, the Hollywood film directed with authority and creative license by Steven Spielberg, smoothly scripted by Tony Kushner, and crowned by a veritable feast of brilliant acting. But in my case, as the author of 40 books on African American history and editor of 212 library research volumes (New York Times, 1968-1970) that address Civil War era issues, I watched with an additional set of eyes.
Spielberg begins his story in January 1865, and on the right foot: Two former slaves, now Union soldiers, approach America's most venerated president to inform him of their battle experiences and of the reality that if captured they would be immediately executed. One soldier adds, "our pay is half of what white soldiers get, and we have to pay for our own uniforms."
Perhaps this scene is meant to evoke the little known truth that by the Civil War's end 178,958 African Americans—one-fifth of black male adults under 45, a tenth of the Union army—had proven their courage in 449 engagements and 39 major battles, earning 22 Medals of Honor. Another 29,511 constituted a fourth of the (integrated!) Union Navy. And black volunteers enlisted when the Confederacy had no reserves, faced mounting desertions, frontline casualties and bread riots at home. As early as August 1864, Lincoln had written that without his African American soldiers he would have been "compelled to abandon the war in three weeks."
Audiences are soon presented with a series of intense and consequential political discussions. A cautious Lincoln—Daniel Day Lewis—his hand resting on the white public’s pulse, duels amicably with Congressman Thaddeus Stevens the grim-faced chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. As Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones steals every scene he is in as a cantankerous advocate of equality whose tongue, the film maintains, only Lincoln can tame.
Stevens, one of history's most maligned figures, had the power to infuriate and a tongue that reduced political foes to quivering self doubt. On two occasions he had to fend off knife-wielding fellow Congressmen. In 1863 Jubal Early detoured his Confederate cavalry from Gettysburg so they could burn down his iron foundry in Chambersburg. [See Fawn Brodie’s Thaddeus Stevens (1959, 1966)].
Also Hollywood twice damned Stevens as a Benedict Arnold-grade "race traitor." The 1915 racist blockbuster, Birth of a Nation caricatured him as a snarling foe of white supremacy and champion of "race mixing." In 1942's Tennessee Johnson, Lionel Barrymore portrayed him as a soft-spoken, conniving, evil, fanatic.
The real Stevens stood with abolitionists pledged to "fight against slavery until Hell freezes over and then continue the battle on the ice." He defended fugitive slaves in court, used his home as an Underground Railroad station, and was a staunch egalitarian. He also practiced what he preached: He worked with African Americans, had an African American common law wife, and asked to be buried in Lancaster’s only integrated cemetery. He and Senator Charles Sumner led Congress's effort to free slaves, grant them equal pay as soldiers, and pass the 13th Amendment. In 1867 Stevens, father of the 14th Amendment, died short of his life's goal: A democratic South ruled not by a planter elite but former slave and poor white voters owning "40 acres and a mule."
Once Lincoln concentrates on the 13th Amendment important details beg for inclusion but, unfortunately, are absent. Senator Charles Sumner is mentioned once and Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony—who led campaigns to win over the public's hearts and minds—do not appear. Only Lincoln is left standing...the sole hero.
Also missing is the vital, rarely revealed, backstory. For two years Lincoln struggled only "to save the Union." Not only did he refuse to challenge slavery, but he also ordered Union officers to deny a haven to runaway slave families who had fled to Union lines.
Then the ground beneath the president shifted. The sight of U.S. troops triggered stampedes to freedom, rebuking the planters’ myth of the happy, loyal, slave and igniting clashes between soldiers in Union camps and the Confederate officers who arrived to brutally reclaim runaways. Indeed, the black urge for liberty turned the Confederacy’s greatest asset into its worst nightmare: an enemy within. "To see a black face was to find a true heart," reported Union soldiers caught behind enemy lines.
The actions of the enslaved began to dismantle the plantation system. The Confederacy was left without the thousands of laborers upon whose backs the agricultural oligarchy had rested. Abolitionist agitators used this news to broadcast a louder wakeup call to white northerners.
Meanwhile, Lincoln's officers reported "contrabands" in their camps wanted to help as nurses, cooks, servants, construction workers, launderers, and blacksmiths. Some were eager to serve as spies and soldiers. This news also reached a war-weary northern public fearful they would find the names of their drafted fathers, brothers and uncles in the weekly Union casualty lists.
The most dramatic changes came first in the West. In the Indian Territory, only months after Fort Sumter, 10,000 African Americans, Native people and some southern whites battled Confederate armies. Survivors then fought their way to Kansas, where the young men among them joined unofficial Union units. Commanding those units were abolitionist officers who had gained military training a few years before riding with John Brown in Kansas. In the West, a multicultural Union army fought a type of war Lincoln had not ordered: They liberated enslaved people in Missouri.
The Deep South faced new problems. In May 1862 in Charleston, South Carolina enslaved seaman Robert Smalls was thinking that his Confederate battleship, Planter, "might be of some use to Uncle Abe." One night, after the white officers had left, Smalls and his enslaved crew led their families aboard, sailed out of Charleston harbor and surrendered to the Union fleet. Smalls became Captain of the Planter, now a ship of the U.S. Navy. Such fast-moving events forced white people to reconsider their assumptions.
In 1862, Congress took note of the runaways' offers of help and abolitionist pressure with two Confiscation Acts. These laws opened the door to emancipation and the service of Black troops. Finally, President Lincoln acted. As a "military necessity," he announced, "We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued." On January 1, 1863 Abraham Lincoln became “The Great Emancipator”—by performing one of history’s great catch-ups. Four months later he admitted as much: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."
By August 1863, Lincoln saw "peace as not so distant." Why? "Commanders of our armies in the field believe the emancipation policy and the use of colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion." He praised his new soldiers: "There will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind ... while, I fear there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it."
That November, northern voters rewarded Lincoln for his battlefield victories and successful Black military gamble: He was returned to the White House by all but three states and 212 to 21 electoral votes. He also polled the largest vote percentage—55 percent—since Andrew Jackson and won a thumping 70 percent of military ballots.
Five days before his assassination, "Honest Abe" assessed his historic role: "I have only been an instrument. The logic and moral power of Garrison and the anti-slavery people of the country and the army, have done all." Sadly, what President Lincoln himself regarded as vital to his political and military success, Spielberg often leaves out.
After the first scene, the only people of color who appear are pleasant, taciturn servants. Gloria Reuben plays Mrs. Lincoln's quiet, subdued servant, Elizabeth Keckley. The real Mrs. Keckley purchased her freedom, that of her son, and sent the son to college (he volunteered and died in battle). She was an accomplished seamstress who served the households of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee before the Lincoln White House, where she became a confidant of Mrs. Lincoln. She also organized the Contraband Relief Society that aided thousands of wartime runaways with donations from the Lincolns, prominent whites and free African Americans. In 1867 she published her memoir, Behind the Scenes.
During January 1865 alone, Lincoln welcomed some dynamic African Americans to the White House but they do not appear on screen. Among them were Martin R. Delany, whom he characterized as "a most extraordinary and intelligent man" and had him appointed a major, the highest-ranking black Union officer. Today, Delany is considered the father of Black Nationalism.
Three times the president met with "my good friend Douglass." History knows him as Frederick Douglass—runaway slave, noted speaker, author and editor, an early champion of women’s rights, and the foremost recruiter of African American troops. Lincoln regarded Douglass as one of his chief advisors and told him "there's no man's opinion I value more than yours." Some scholars consider Douglass the greatest American reformer of the 19th century.
By overlooking the contributions of Keckley, Delany, Douglass, and millions of others who helped end human bondage and win the war, Spielberg makes a white Congress and President the sole creators of history. This is not the evidence provided by the Civil War, nor is it the way Lincoln understood his march to freedom and victory.
Early on, Abraham Lincoln was a frontier lawyer who told "darkey stories" and a senate candidate who endorsed white supremacy. As president, he returned runaways to their owners and hoped those who were free would leave the country. He rejected the reasoning of white and African American activists and resented their harsh language.
Later on, he began to listen, learn and change. And much to his credit, he never retreated from any advanced position he had previously taken. When he finally, finally advocated the right of black veterans and educated men of color to vote, he became the first modern president.
Sadly, this "Honest Abe," along with many known and unknown African Americans and their white allies, failed to make the movie’s final cut. Yet as runaways, soldiers and antislavery agitators they helped determine the course of a war, shaped public opinion, pressed Congress to pass laws and Constitutional Amendments, and altered the thinking and actions of America’s greatest icon.
All Americans deserve to know what President Lincoln knew about the country’s most important war.
You can find more essays and a list of books by William Katz at http://williamlkatz.com. You can also find more resources for teaching outside the textbook at the Zinn Education Project website:
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