Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Lincoln’

The Incivility of Any Civil War

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

By Gretchen Gibbs

A brutal civil war is being fought in Ukraine.

A brutal civil war is being fought in Ukraine.

The Ukraine people look haunted in the newspaper photos. Some want to stay with their country, some want to separate and join Russia. We tend to think of them as non-overlapping groups. My experience this past weekend on a trip to Washington, D.C., led me to think about the matter differently.

Our own Civil War divided our country in ways hard to fathom. I know little about the Civil War beyond the Ken Burns series and what I gleaned in high school and college. I have heard that books about Lincoln sell better than anything else, and given that, I am hesitant to put forward any views at all to readers who may be much more knowledgeable than I. But there must be some who don’t know all the things I learned this weekend.

First, I went to hear a concert at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington. An attractive church with great stained glass and excellent acoustics, it is pre-Civil War and housed wounded Union soldiers during the fighting. According to the historical poster outside, Washington as a whole was essentially a southern, secessionist city, and that was especially true for the area of the city around the church. Most of the members were for secession. Jefferson Davis was a member with his own pew until conflict with the minister, who was strongly pro-Union, led to his departure. The poster mentioned that Mary Todd Lincoln had a brother and three half-brothers who fought for the Confederacy. Two of them were killed and one was wounded.

The next day we (I, my brother and sister-in-law) went to Arlington National Cemetery. I’d been before, but the lines after lines of white gravestones, stretching off in all directions, still made me gasp. These dead are from all our wars, of course, not just the Civil War, but there were three quarters of a million deaths in that war, the most costly of our history.

We climbed a steep hill to the former home of Robert E. Lee. Arlington Cemetery was built on his property just over the line in Virginia. It was  confiscated by the Union early in the war as a sort of statement: “See what you’ve done.” When you look out from the front porch, you see a bridge crossing the Potomac and right at the end of the bridge, the Lincoln Memorial. The two men seem enmeshed, or at least their differences bridged. I knew from Ken Burns that Lincoln had asked Lee to head the Union Army, and with great difficulty Lee had refused.

I didn’t know that Lee had released all his own slaves five years before the Emancipation Proclamation. I didn’t know that his wife returned to the house after the war ended and died five days later, apparently of a heart attack brought on by the level of destruction. Few of the articles in the house today are original, except for furniture or dishes or pictures that have been returned by some descendant of a Union soldier who stole them. Now the site is a National Monument, and rightly so, for Lee was a remarkable man. After the war, he became president of Washington and Lee College, and tried to help heal the divisions in the country.

Another thing I learned, not this weekend but when doing research on the 1692 witch trials for The Book of Maggie Bradstreet, was that my ancestors in Massachusetts had slaves. They were called servants, but they were slaves. Tituba, who set off the whole Salem witch hysteria, was a slave from the West Indies. Northerners didn’t need slave labor the way the plantations needed it, but that didn’t prevent them from using it when they could.

It’s a kind of cliché, “brother against brother,” but the ways the Union and Confederacy were linked and divided were so complicated, they can’t possibly be reduced to “good vs. bad” or “right vs. wrong,” the way we learn in high school to think about it.

When we see the division in Ukraine, or in Syria, or earlier, in North and South Korea, and North and South Vietnam, we could reflect more on our own experience. People suffer, for such a long time and in such complicated ways, from a Civil War.


In Need of a Fix

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

By Jeffrey Page

There are times when it’s best to just shut up and do the right thing. Correct a mistake. Make explicit that which is vague. Banish doubt and misunderstanding. Such a time is now and at issue is some extraordinary license taken in the making of the movie “Lincoln.”

Truth in Journalism: I had not been aware of the inaccuracies in this movie until I read Maureen Dowd’s column in last Sunday’s Times.

By now, you probably know the story. Tony Kushner spent seven years writing the Lincoln screenplay, which focuses on the politics in the House of Representatives during debate and voting on passage of the 13th Amendment, the 43-word declaration that slavery was now and forever banned in the United States.

The movie depicts the two Connecticut members of the House voting against the proposed amendment when, in fact, they voted for it. To further confuse matters, just about all characters in the movie are identified by their real names – Lincoln, Seward, Grant, Stanton, et al. – but the two men from Connecticut are assigned pseudonyms.

You can’t libel the dead, but this portrayal of the vote comes close. At best it’s a mistake that needs correcting. At worst, it’s history turned on its head in the name of dramatic license. In any case, it needs fixing.

Dowd reported in her Sunday piece that Kushner was outraged – her word – at the attention three-term Representative Joe Courtney, D-Conn had been receiving after he blew the whistle on the movie’s inaccuracies.

Dowd quoted Kushner as saying that in a movie, it’s all right to “manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth.”

Kushner goes on to lamely compare his mistaken history of voting on the proposed 13th Amendment with the absurd – and unasked – question of whether Abraham Lincoln wore blue socks or green. Then Kushner declares the matter “ridiculous.”

Socks and the end of slavery. A small detail? A valid comparison?

This is where Kushner stepped over the line. For, Augustus Brandegee and James Edward English were not insignificant back benchers with little to say.

“[Brandegee] zealously supported the anti-slavery movement when its supporters met contumely and contempt,” the Connecticut State Library said. “He rendered signal service to [the] cause of the Union and to the building up of the Nation after the Civil War…. His state counts him among her illustrious sons. His country is the better for his life.”

“He [Brandegee] was a knightly man – hypocrisy, shame, expedients, pretensions – the whole brood of lies and deceits – were his enemies. He fought them all his days and when the end came, passed over God’s threshold with escutcheon unstained and with plume untarnished,” said “A Modern History of New London County, Conn.”

English’s thoughts about slavery were more complicated, according to “A Modern History of New Haven and Eastern New Haven Counties” (1918).

“While as a democrat [sic] he fully recognized the constitutional right of the southern states to the possession of their slaves, he also felt that slavery was a monstrous injustice,” the New Haven County history observed.

That mighty sound like the opening words of a cop-out, but it was no such thing. “Long before the close of the [Civil War] it became evident to all thoughtful observers that the question of general emancipation must be met sooner or later, and Mr. English made up his mind to take the hazard and incur the odium of voting with his political opponents whenever, in his view, it became a political necessity,” the New Haven history continued.

Courtney has called on Steven Spielberg, the director of “Lincoln” to make corrections when the film is released on DVD, but Kushner opposes this because, he told Dowd, he thinks the question of his accuracy is a “made-up issue.”

Maybe, but for Kushner, now’s not the time to worry about a “made-up” issue. Now’s the time to make things right.