As readers of Blog Divided are well aware, we have been fascinated by the story of Samuel and Bayard Wilkeson, a father and son who were both at Gettysburg, one as a correspondent for the New York Times and the other as a 2LT for the Union army. The son died on the battle’s first day after being wounded by an artillery shell and after amputating his own leg. The father discovered his son’s body on July 4, 1863 following more than a day of intense searching. Then he wrote a passionate, angry account of what happened for the New York Times, which closed by resolving that the dead at Gettysburg had “baptised” with their blood, the “second birth of Freedom in America.” President Lincoln knew the Wilkesons. The story of the family’s tragedy echoed across the North during the summer of 1863. So the connection to Lincoln’s famous phase in the Gettysburg Address, “a new birth of freedom,” seemed overwhelming, intentional, and eminently teachable. We first posted about the story of the “Angry Father” in July 2010, but then followed up with more details in the summer of 2013, here and here. I spoke about the Wilkeson family during the 150th anniversary commemorations for the Battle of Gettysburg and have been featuring the story in numerous K-12 workshops during the last five years, typically through this handout.
But there’s been one nagging concern that we just have not yet been able to fully resolve. What exactly did Sam Wilkeson look like? The problem is that there are multiple images attributed to him but they don’t seem to align properly. I brought this up at the final seminar session of the “Understanding Lincoln” open, online course and asked for help, in true “class-sourcing” fashion. Remarkably, within a few hours, I got a very helpful lead from course participant Martha Bohnenberger, a social studies teacher from South Carolina.
Here is the problem that first disturbed me in the summer of 2013. The House Divided Project has been using this striking 1859 image of Sam Wilkeson (on the top left) taken by Alexander Gardner, discovered and cleaned up by project co-founder John Osborne, courtesy of the online collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Yet the Buffalo News profiled the Wilkesons this past summer because the family were Buffalo natives and they used the image on the top right –clearly not the same person– to represent Sam Wilkeson (undated, no source citation). I presume they obtained this photograph from the Buffalo History Museum, but I haven’t yet tracked it all down. By the way, Buffalo was a nineteenth-century city partly founded by the grandfather in this story, Judge Samuel Wilkeson, Sr., who had hailed from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Dickinson College is located. However, there is even more about the image to consider. The Gettysburg National Military Park features the story of the Wilkesons inside their main museum experience at the Visitor’s Center, but they use an entirely different image reportedly of newspaper correspondent Sam Wilkeson, which they credit to the National Archives (on the bottom left). Meanwhile, Martha Bohnenberger discovered this illustration (bottom right) in the New York Sun from December 3, 1889 as part of an obituary for Wilkeson –read it, he led a truly remarkable life– by doing some shrewd online research at the Library of Congress site, Chronicling America. Again, it’s different.
Now, I am not willing to bet my tenure on this, but I think that the Smithsonian Wilkeson (1859) is the same as the New York Sun Wilkeson (1889), just bearded in that latter illustration. The lines of the face, however, strike me as almost identical. But I don’t quite know what to make of the National Archives Wilkeson or the Buffalo News Wilkeson. The image quality isn’t quite good enough for me to decide, but they seem (especially the Buffalo Wilkeson) to be a different person (and probably different from each other as well). What do you think? There’s certainly more researching and phone calling to do, which I haven’t yet accomplished, but I appreciated the quick extra help from my class-sourcing exercise the other day and would like to continue to seek help if others would provide it. Feel free to comment here and leave your opinion, or contact me directly by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to share any insights.
On Tuesday evening, July 7, 1863, Abraham Lincoln responded to a “serenade” from a crowd outside the White House celebrating the wonderful news received in Washington earlier that day that Vicksburg had finally surrendered to Union forces (actually on the Fourth of July, Independence Day). Speaking extemporaneously, the president struggled to find the right words to put the twin victories –Vicksburg and Gettysburg– into context.
How long ago is it? –eighty odd years– since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.”
Ever since, many Lincoln scholars have noted –though not nearly enough classroom teachers have realized– that this “Response to a Serenade” from July 7, 1863 stands as an especially compelling “first draft” for the Gettysburg Address, whose famous opening lines delivered just over four months later on November 19, 1863 clearly owed their origins to Lincoln’s desire to revise and improve what for him had been a somewhat awkward initial effort:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
But there’s even more to this “first draft” story than most Lincoln scholars have acknowledged. It appears very likely that Lincoln was working at least in part from another man’s text as he contemplated how to answer that boisterous serenade on Tuesday evening, July 7. Sometime the night before or earlier that day, the president probably read and was inspired by what historian Harold Holzer is now calling “the greatest piece of war reporting ever,” a stunning dispatch from Gettysburg written by a New York Times correspondent whose eldest son had died tragically on that first day of the great battle.
The story of the reporter, Samuel Wilkeson, and his son, Bayard, is also reasonably well known to Civil War scholars and Gettysburg buffs, but nonetheless remains absent from most American textbooks and classroom discussions. Yet the reason why Holzer is featuring it in his next book (on Lincoln and the press) and why we have been focusing so much attention on it here at House Divided (see our earlier posts here and here), is because of the many layers of human drama involved. Lt. Bayard Wilkeson was 19-years-old when an artillery shell nearly severed his leg around mid-day on July 1, 1863 north of the town , along what is now known as Barlow’s Knoll (see image above). The brave young man was then forced to amputate his own leg before he ultimately died from shock that evening while in Confederate custody. Meanwhile, his father Samuel had been trying to rush up to the battlefield to report on General Meade and the Army of the Potomac as they entered into combat with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Sam Wilkeson spent two anxious days reporting from Meade’s headquarters and wondering what had happened to his son, knowing only that Bayard had been wounded and captured. Eventually, Wilkeson found his dead boy on Saturday evening, July 4, and wrote his lead dispatch for the New York Times with these memorable words:
Who can write the history of a battle whose eyes are immovably fastened upon a central figure of transcendingly absorbing interest -the dead body of an eldest born crushed by a shell in a position where a battery should never have been sent, and abandoned to death in a building where surgeons dared not stay?
Wilkeson then produced a dramatic and detailed account of the battle, which was published on Monday, July 6, 1863, and which he closed in this stirring fashion:
Oh, you dead who at Gettysburg have baptised with your blood a second birth of Freedom in America, how you are to be envied.
To read the full text of Samuel Wilkeson’s article, go to the House Divided research engine, or click here
This story raises a profound question: was Wilkeson’s “second birth of Freedom in America” a line that Lincoln was recalling and intentionally evoking when he closed his own Address at Gettysburg on November 19 with the phrase, “a new birth of freedom”? The National Park Service displays relics from Bayard Wilkeson’s death, including the sash he used as a tourniquet, and they provide a text panel showing the opening of his father’s famous dispatch (later turned into a pamphlet, Sam Wilkeson’s Thrilling Word Picture of Gettysburg), but they refrain from making any direct connections between Wilkeson’s account and Lincoln’s address. Most scholars have so far been equally reticent about making that interpretive leap.
Yet that is surely too much scholarly caution. Holzer confirms that during the Civil War Lincoln had same day or next day access to the New York Times, and while nobody knows for certain if Lincoln read Wilkeson’s dispatch before he replied to the serenade, there are a handful of good reasons for believing that he did. First, he and his aides knew Sam Wilkeson quite well. The story of Bayard’s death and his father’s dramatic reaction is one that would have transfixed them as it did nearly everybody else in the North. But second, and more important, Lincoln appeared to allude to the episode in his brief remarks on Tuesday evening, July 7:
I would like to speak in terms of praise due to the many brave officers and soldiers who have fought in the cause of the Union and liberties of the country from the beginning of the war … [but] I dislike to mention the name of one single officer lest I might do wrong to those I might forget. Recent events bring up glorious names, and particularly prominent ones, but these I will not mention.
Perhaps the president was referring here to General John F. Reynolds or other tragic losses from the battle, but I believe this is a direct reference to the Wilkeson sacrifice. One certainly cannot ignore the fact that the sentiment Lincoln offered here of not mentioning names later became the guiding principle of his Gettysburg Address. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln mentioned nobody by name. He offered no specific details. Ordinarily, we warn students against abstractions and encourage them to be as concrete as possible in their writing. Lincoln was anything but specific in his Gettysburg Address. However, like many great writers, he was thoroughly evocative. Those last lines of the Address were especially evocative for nineteenth-century audiences, not only paraphrasing Daniel Webster’s famous Second Reply to Hayne (“It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s Government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people” (January 26-27, 1830), but also –I would argue– paraphrasing the “greatest piece of war reporting ever” from Samuel Wilkeson. Even if we will never know the full truth behind the “first draft” of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, I hope more teachers see the value in bringing up this poignant and powerful story in their classrooms and letting students decide for themselves.
Stories like this one and many others like it that help bring to life Lincoln and the Civil War provide the animating spirit behind our latest project –the creation of a new multi-media edition of Lincoln’s Writings that we are launching on July 7, 2013 (marking the 150th anniversary of Lincon’s “first draft” of the Gettysburg Address). The multi-media edition will include 150 of Lincoln’s documents that I have dubbed his “most teachable.” The pages of this site will be populated with all kinds of digital tools, such as audio recordings of the documents in Lincoln’s voice (by Dickinson College theatre professor Todd Wronski), interactive maps, clickable word clouds, and videos of me conducting close readings of the top 25 key documents (starting with the Gettysburg Address, ranked naturally as #1). This has been a big project with excellent work from many people, most notably House Divided co-founder John Osborne, our technical director Ryan Burke, and Dickinson College undergraduates Russ Allen and Leah Miller. The multi-media project itself will then become the focal point of the “Understanding Lincoln” open, online course that we are currently preparing to offer this summer and fall in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Students in that course will work toward building out the Lincoln’s Writings website with an anticipated first-stage completion date of November 19, 2013 (not coincidentally marking the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address). Registration for that course closes on July 19, 2013. A full credit graduate section is available and designed especially for K-12 educators. Please check out the new Lincoln’s Writings website and watch specially designed close reading videos, like the one below, with me explaining Lincoln’s writing process for his Gettysburg speech and the Wilkeson connection to the Address:
Standing on the ground at the battlefields of Gettysburg is both a breathtaking, yet unsatisfying experience. Realizing that your feet are touching the same ground as men who died for a heroic cause brings humility, perspective, and a strong connection with history that cannot be experienced in an ordinary classroom. However, there remains a sense of disconnect from the souls of people, which site-seeing itself cannot satisfy. This missing connection, perhaps, is one that can only be attained through the careful teaching of stories that invoke that which will unite humanity for all time: emotion. When placed in its proper context, emotional stories not only bridge the gap between past and present, but also provide a better understanding for the events themselves. With the powerful combination of primary sources and modern technology, teachers are able to use these types of stories today more effectively than ever before from their own classrooms.
As a summer intern for Professor Pinsker at Dickinson College, I had the privilege to travel with him to Gettysburg as he led a group of high school teachers from Oklahoma on a tour of the battlegrounds. Before the trip, he asked me to be thinking about a story that I believe is especially impactful, and how I would use it to teach high school students about history and the Civil War. After some of the more well-known sites, we eventually stopped at a fire station on Stratton Street. It was here that I first heard the story of Amos Humiston, a soldier who died on that very ground almost 150 years ago, with a photo of his three children clutched in his hand. Humiston’s emotional story immediately interested me, and after talking with several of the high school teachers there about the needs and struggles of their students to understand history, I realized that Amos Humiston could potentially fill the gap. A little known story from the Battle of Gettysburg, his is one that nonetheless can be used to capture both the context of the times and heart of a soldier, while also providing opportunites for students to take a historians approach to the past.
To gain initial background and perspective, students should become familiar with a textbook explanation of the Battle of Gettysburg. To add interest and depth, media sites such as Google Earth show fantastic views of the landscape, and maps or pictures from sites like House Divided show the military strategy and devastation of the battle.
Once students have grasped an overall understanding of the Gettysburg Campaign, provide the students with a copy of an article from the October 19, 1863 Philadelphia Inquirer titled “Whose Father Was He?” Have the students analyze the document, and write down what they think it tells them about the war, family, and religion at the time.
For more background and better analysis, the students could also read several paragraphs on pages 6 & 7 from Drew Gilpin Faust’s book titled The Republic of Suffering. In it, she explains the meaning and importance of “The Good Death” during the Civil War, describing how soldiers sought to be at peace with God and die honorably.
Relating to the Past
Once the students complete this task, go on to identify the unknown soldier from the Philadelphia Inquirer as Amos Humiston, and explain his story. A detailed version of the story can by found in a five-part blog post by Errol Morris for the New York Times titled “Whose Father Was He.” In addition, a shortened handout version along with a brief video can be found on the Day 1 Gettysburg Virtual Tour for the House Divided website. Use photos of he and his children as visual aids, and provide the students with examples of his letters and poems. In addition, students could even write thier own poem or letter to thier family as if they were a soldier at the time. These devices and techniques are very helpful in getting students to empathize with people from the past, and provide a strong connection to their emotions.
Writing Like Historians
After the students have gained an understanding of the context in which Amos Humiston lived and have identified with him emotionally, they must then begin to write as historians. Have them use everything they have learned thus far about Humiston from primary and secondary sources, and instruct them to write a brief memorial about him for the Gettysburg Battlefield. While brief, it will allow them to think critically about how to approach the past, and provide them with writing techniques that will be beneficial in future research papers. To conclude, a picture of the actual Gettysburg monument to Amos Humiston can be shown and read in class.
While there is no real substitute for a field trip to Gettysburg, modern technology has provided an opportunity for individuals to engage the past in significant ways. The high availability of primary and secondary sources over the internet allow teachers to present history to their students both accurately and creatively. Captivating stories such as Amos Humiston allow for the perfect combination of these sources and show students (if only a glimpse) of how real historians operate.
For even further reading on Amos Humiston, see:
Mark H. Dunkelman, Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death and Celebrity of Amos Humiston (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999)
As a summer intern with the House Divided Project of Dickinson College, I’ve been assigned the task of coming up with a lesson plan for the incredible story of how the tragic death of Bayard Wilkeson during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg touched our nation. Make sure to read the full story contained within one of our previous posts, or take the virtual “teacher’s tour” of Gettysburg to find out more.
The (Brief) Story:
On the first day of the Gettysburg campaign (1 July 1863), nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson was severely wounded in the leg at Barlow’s Knoll. Medics carried him off the battlefield to the Adams County Alms House where they attempted to amputate his mangled limb. Unfortunately, the Alms House was overrun by Confederate troops and the surgeons fled, leaving young Wilkeson to amputate his own leg with his own knife, from which he died of shock several hours later.
His father, Samuel Wilkeson, was a war correspondent for the New York Times, and he arrived at Gettysburg on 2 July and began to look for his son. He found Bayard’s body in the Alms House a few days later, and wrote a report of the campaign which was featured in the Times on 6 June. According to Professor Matthew Pinsker, the director of the House Divided Project, Wilkeson’s concluding words, “Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh have baptised with your blood the second birth of Freedom in America, how you are to be envied!” may have influenced the conclusion of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Why Teach It:
The story of Bayard and Samuel Wilkeson is a small but powerful episode of the Gettysburg campaign not taught in most textbooks. It emphasizes the emotional side of the battle, the side that tore apart families and took the lives of young men. Bayard Wilkeson’s young age will allow your students to identify more easily with the story, imagining themselves in his position as he fought courageously, was severely wounded, and desperately mutilated himself in an attempt to save his own life. The New York Times article written by Samuel Wilkeson conveys the emotional intensity of a father who had lost his son to what he deemed a noble cause, and the conflict of interest there. Most importantly, Samuel Wilkeson was a top war correspondent for the New York Times; his story was first published in the Times but later was reproduced as a pamphlet entitled, “Samuel Wilkeson’s Thrilling Word Picture Of Gettysburgh“. Many people would have been familiar with the story, including President Lincoln, who had been friends with the Wilkeson family. Lincoln ended his most famous speech, the Gettysburg address, with these words:
“It is rather for us [the living] to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”
which seem to have been directly derived from Wilkeson’s famous article.
Tools for Teaching Bayard Wilkeson:
It could be a means to introduce the topic by discussing the casualties in the Battle of Gettysburg. A great and impacting illustration of the Union casualties is in this diagram of the layout of the Gettysburg Civil War Cemetery; your students can see in picture-form which states lost the most amount of men, and how many men were buried unidentified. The largest section of graves, on the outer edge of the semicircle, belongs to New York, where Bayard Wilkeson was born. The second-worst case was Pennsylvania’s. From here you could lead into the story of Bayard Wilkeson, whose death represented so much for the American people, and Lincoln himself.
Below is a simple interactive map I’ve created for the story using GoogleMaps. It could be a helpful tool for your students to see the Confederate and Union lines across the battlefield and the modern-day town of Gettysburg. Important takeaways include the distance between where Bayard was injured at Barlow’s Knoll and the Alms House, where he was carried, as well as the proximity of the delivery of the Gettysburg Address, meant to evoke the well-known story of Bayard’s death and emotional memories that accompanied it.
It is too easy to forget that the past was often not at all like the present. To remind your students of this, and to provide helpful context for the story, you could briefly describe Civil War era medicine. For example, here is a link to a site on Civil War era medicine. Take note of the establishment of a system for wounded-soldier evacuation, the techniques for field dressing, and the description of field hospitals. Here is a link to mid-nineteeth century medical equipment, including tools used in the performance of amputation.
On the other hand, the Civil War era press was different from our newspapers of today. Most newspapers did not contain images, so stories like Samuel Wilkeson’s were meant to paint a picture of the events at Gettysburg. The Civil War was also the first major war in which families could find out about the death of their loved ones before the war was over (and they just didn’t come home), and newspapers played a critical role in that respect. Here is an article on the conflict between the military and the home front regarding the issue of press censorship in the Civil War.
It would be most useful to show Samuel Wilkeson’s article and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address side by side to show the relationship between the two. Lincoln’s Address, which was meant to evoke sentiment rather than statistics, draws upon the emotional intensity of the Battle of Gettysburg, just as Samuel Wilkeson’s article raved passionately about the loss of his son. It is very important that your students see the connection between Lincoln’s phrase, “It is rather for us [the living] to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…” evokes Samuel Wilkeson’s phrase, “Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh have baptised with your blood the second birth of Freedom in America, how you are to be envied!” (emphases added), including the idea that what the soldiers died for was worth it.
Finally, I’m including a handout created by House Divided director Matthew Pinsker on the Bayard Wilkeson story. It would be useful for your students to have a physical copy to include in their notes.
One of the several critical strands in the “Lincoln” movie concerns the controversy surrounding the Hampton Roads peace talks (February 3, 1865), where President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward met with Confederate envoys Alexander Stephens, John Campbell and Robert M.T. Hunter for secret discussions about how to end the war on board the River Queen in Union-controlled Hampton Roads, Virginia (near Fortress Monroe). No transcript exists for their conversations that day. Lincoln and Seward died before leaving any recollection of the affair. So historians have mostly relied upon on the dubious reminiscences of former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Partly for this reason, many Civil War historians consider the Hampton Roads talks as little more than a sideshow –one of several improbable efforts undertaken in the last year of the war to end the conflict. According to this view, Francis P. Blair, Sr. (Preston Blair / Hal Holbrook in the movie) was just one of several foolish old men (including the famous and eccentric Horace Greeley) attempting foolish things in the name of peace but having little effect. Both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were implacable in their positions by the war’s end. Lincoln, for example, made his preconditions for peace clear from July 18, 1864 forward –an end to the rebellion, the restoration of the union, and the abandonment of slavery. Those three conditions never changed, making true “peace talks” impossible. Yet other historians are more willing to take the Hampton Roads conference seriously, since it did result in a real meeting between Confederate envoys and President Lincoln. Doris Kearns Goodwin takes the conference seriously in Team of Rivals (2005), but one of the best accounts available online which considers them significant and details the events surrounding the peace talks comes from an article by William C. Harris in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.
The article helps illustrate ways that the movie takes major liberties in presenting Hampton Roads. The movie has Lincoln meeting with Preston Blair and his children at the Blair House in early January, reluctantly agreeing to secretly “authorize” an unauthorized trip to Richmond for the elder Blair in exchange for their support with the antislavery amendment. In reality, Blair and Lincoln met alone at the White House in December. Lincoln authorized a pass for Blair to travel into enemy lines but not to make any peace overtures. Blair began his journey on January 3, 1865, arriving in Richmond by January 12 and proceeded to outline a wild scheme to Jefferson Davis that included an end to the war followed by a joint expedition of former Confederate and Union troops to remove the French occupation in Mexico. Davis rejected some of Blair’s ideas but agreed to the possibility of talks for ending hostilities between the “two countries.” Blair returned to Washington on January 16 and met with Lincoln on January 18, 1865. The president agreed that Blair could take back to Richmond a message that the president would receive envoys who would be willing to secure peace for “our one common country.” Blair then presented this message to Jefferson Davis on January 21, 1865. Davis subsequently met with Alexander Stephens on January 27. Stephens was his Vice President but also one of his biggest critics. Davis appointed Stephens and two other notable critics of his policies, John A. Campbell and Robert M.T. Hunter, as his envoys (a sign for some historians, by the way, that he wasn’t serious himself about the talks, but wanted to show up his critics). Regardless of the motives, the men traveled toward Union lines on January 29 and met with General Grant on January 30 before they eventually spent the morning of February 3 with Lincoln and Seward.
The movie accelerates and rearranges this timeline pretty ruthlessly. It ignores the fact that Blair took two trips to Richmond (and most of that month) and instead presents him reporting back to Lincoln on or about January 10, 1865 with news that Davis had already appointed his three peace commissioners. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) then agrees to proceed with the talks if Blair (Holbrook) lobbies for the antislavery amendment. Blair objects to the “horsetrading” but accepts the condition. The next day, Seward (David Strathairn) reveals to Lincoln that he has found out about this deal with Blair and that he objects to it bitterly. ”It’s either the amendment or this Confederate peace,” he says sternly. ”You cannot have both.” This is a central premise of the movie –one only made possible, however, by rearranging historical chronology and omitting contradictory details. If the movie had accepted the actual timeline of events, then the connections between the peace talks and the amendment would not be so obvious, nor would the motivations of the key figures appear so starkly at odds. In other words, there would be less conflict, less drama and eventually less satisfaction in the movie’s resolution.
The movie also ducks the biggest historical controversy over Stephens’s account of Hampton Roads –one which definitely undermines a key element of the Spielberg message. According to the former Confederate vice president, Lincoln offered to allow southern states to reenter the union by ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment “prospectively,” suggesting that they could take up to five more years to put it into effect. Stephens also claimed that Lincoln offered payments of up to $400 million for the South to abandon slavery. Historian William Harris also cites recollections from the other commissioners Campbell and Hunter indicating that Lincoln offered compensation. There is no corroboration for Stephens’s outlandish claim about prospective ratification (which would be utterly unconstitutional) but there is contemporary evidence that Lincoln did consider paying southern states to end the war and abandon slavery. He drafted such a proposal and presented it to his cabinet on February 5, 1865, which unanimously opposed it. Lincoln then dropped the plan. Whether or not he was serious remains an open question. But it’s revealing that this idea –which certainly threatens to complicate views about Lincoln’s support for abolition– does not appear in the “Lincoln” movie at all. Doris Kearns Goodwin addresses it in her book, Team of Rivals (2005) and William Harris analyzes the issue extensively in his article and in subsequent book, Lincoln’s Last Months (2004), but here perhaps is a good illustration of the difference between works of history and historical fiction.
(This post has been excerpted from a longer essay, “Warning: Artists at Work,” that appears in “The Unofficial Guide to Spielberg’s Lincoln” which is part of the House Divided Project’s new Emancipation Digital Classroom).
Image courtesy of Dreamworks
According to the “Lincoln” movie script, Friday, January 27, 1865 was an action-packed and pivotal day. It was the day of Thaddeus Stevens’s controlled performance in the House, declaring himself strictly for “equality before the law.” It was also the day marked by Abraham Lincoln’s bitter argument with his oldest son Robert and then his subsequent clash with his wife Mary after he finally decided to concede to Robert’s desire to join the Union army. And it was in the evening of the 27th that both Mary Lincoln and later dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley urged the president to abandon his hidden-hand approach and provide more decisive leadership in the fight for the antislavery amendment. All of those “events” are fictional, but they are essential for understanding the film’s point-of-view –namely, that Lincoln interjected himself at the end of the battle for the constitutional amendment in a way that proved decisive.
The next several scenes subsequently show Lincoln meeting for the first time with the Seward lobbyists, cajoling support for the amendment by himself or with Secretary Seward, and then on the night of Sunday, January 29, 1865, holding an intense penultimate strategy session in the White House with Rep. James Ashley, Preston and Montgomery Blair, Secretary of State William Henry Seward and aides John Nicolay and John Hay. This is one of the scenes that has been featured in the movie’s trailers, showing an angry, forceful Lincoln demanding action “Now now now!” and memorably declaring, “I am the President of the United States, clothed in immense power!”
All of these scenes are entirely fictional (see previous posts here for details on Stevens and here for details on the Lincoln family), but that memorable quotation from Lincoln actually has its roots in a real primary source. Rep. John B. Alley (R, MA) claimed more than twenty years after the fact that he had heard from some unnamed person during the battle for the amendment that at some point the president had called into his office two congressmen in order to tell them that only two more votes were needed for passage and that they “must be procured.” Then Alley’s recollection provided a lengthy verbatim quotation (86 words) which he attributed to Lincoln that culminated with the ringing phrase, “I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power” (note that the script silently changes “clothed with” to “clothed in” –a more fitting usage). The problem is that this quotation is almost completely useless as historical testimony. Alley was recalling events from two decades past that he had apparently heard about second- or third-hand. There are no names, no dates, and the only specific detail –two votes short of the required two-thirds super-majority– seems suspiciously like the final vote tally (two more than needed). Regardless, nobody can be trusted to remember verbatim quotations of such length. Yet Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes the entire passage in her book, Team of Rivals (p. 687) and it appears it was from this account that Kushner got the raw material for his script, which he then embroidered by placing at the very end of the lobbying effort and in a meeting with several of the movie’s principal characters, not simply two unnamed congressmen.
The vote for what ultimately became the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did occur on January 31, 1865 and the “Lincoln” filmmakers worked diligently to recreate that moment in its full historical grandeur. But they also employ here, as elsewhere, various types of artistic license. None of the floor exchanges from the movie actually match with the official accounts in the Congressional Globe. Instead, the movie takes as its dramatic centerpiece for that day the story of President Lincoln’s evasive reply about impending peace talks. This story derives not from the official record but rather from a recollection by Rep. James Ashley and from copies of notes he claimed he wrote to the president and to which the president replied. According to Ashley, he wrote to the president on January 31:
“Dear Sir, The report is in circulation in the House that Peace Commissioners are on their way or are in the city, and is being used against us. If it is true, I fear we shall loose [sic] the bill. Please authorize me to contradict it, if not true. Respectfully, J.M. Ashley.”
On the reverse side of this note, Lincoln wrote:
“So far as I know, there are no peace Commissioners in the City, or likely to be in it. Jan. 31, 1865. A. Lincoln”
The filmmakers present this exchange in the most dramatic fashion possible, having Democratic leader Fernando Wood (D, NY) first disrupt the proceedings, allegedly waving “affidavits from loyal citizens” confirming the existence of secret peace talks. This creates chaos on the floor of the House that leads a fictional “conservative” Republican named Aaron Haddam to indicate (after receiving a critical nod from Preston Blair, perched in the gallery) that the “conservative faction of border and western Republicans” could not support an amendment “if a peace offer is being held hostage to its success.” Then there is a mad footrace from the Capitol to the White House, involving Lincoln’s aides and the Seward lobbyists. John Hay, the president’s young assistant private secretary, heatedly warns him against “making false representation” but Lincoln crafts his reply (technically true but obviously deceptive –since the commissioners were on their way to Hampton Roads, VA) and hands the note to seasoned lobbyist William N. Bilbo (James Spader). Bilbo then delivers it to Rep. Ashley who reads it with a flourish to the entire House. There is no record of any of this in the official proceedings. Nor does Ashley claim in his recollection that he read the note from the president on the House floor. Instead, it seems he may have simply showed it to some key figures. Bilbo was not even in Washington at the time (see previous post here). There was almost certainly no footrace. And no contemporary or historical account has Preston Blair in the gallery giving directions to conservative congressmen. Aaron Haddam is a fictional character, listed as a Republican from Kentucky, with no obvious historical counterpart. All of these details are included in the film for dramatic effect but without any real documentation –beyond the notes which Ashley claimed to have in his possession but which are not apparently available in their original forms, and his recollection of the episode, which most historians have accepted as credible.
Then there is the matter of the roll call. It was an unusual affair. The House galleries were crowded, anticipation was high and the celebration afterward was unprecedented. Newspapers and magazines all took note of the revolutionary nature of the moment. Even the Congressional Globe invested this particular roll call with special drama, recording as it rarely did, outbursts of “considerable applause” when certain lame duck Democratic members, such as Rep. James English (D, CT), voted “ay” for the amendment. This has particular meaning in today’s context since there has erupted a small degree of controversy about Connecticut’s votes in 1865. In the “Lincoln” movie version of the roll call, two fictional congressmen from Connecticut cast the very first votes on the amendment –both nays. Yet in reality, the roll call proceeded in alphabetical order by congressman (not by state) and the entire four-man Connecticut delegation actually voted in favor of abolition (because of English’s critical switch). This second fact helped convince modern-day Connecticut congressman Joe Courtney (D, CT) to demand an apology from Steven Spielberg in early 2013 and to request a promise for a correction to the DVD edition of the movie. Scriptwriter Tony Kushner quickly dismissed the request and the affair struck many as a publicity stunt, but New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd then sided with the congressman with an op-ed provocatively headlined, “The Oscar for Best Fabrication.” What Dreamworks might do in the DVD that it promises to make freely available to every middle and high school in America remains to be seen.
Courtney was not the only figure upset by the filmmakers’ decisions regarding the roll call. The script altered dozens of names of representatives in the 38th Congress, some for obscure reasons. The filmed version of the final vote, for example, is full of fictitious names and invented dialogue. One of these characters –Walter H. Washburn of an unidentified state– casts a vote against the amendment. The problem is that there were two Washburns in the 38th Congress –a William Washburn and Elihu Washburne –both Republicans who voted eagerly in favor of the amendment. And naturally, their descendants are now disturbed by the implications of the movie and also want changes or corrections.
Most academic historians are less concerned about the name changes (although they seem strangely unnecessary) and have been more fixated on other minor differences from historical reality. There is the problem of the voting by state (which is a convention of political movies but not the historical Congress). Then the movie has figures in the gallery who were almost surely not there –such as Mary Lincoln and Preston Blair– but omits identifying figures we know to have been present, such as Frederick Douglass’s son, Charles, who wrote a touching letter afterward about the experience to his father. The film also attempts to enhance the suspense of the moment by cutting away to places such as Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia, where there is depicted a telegraph reporting in real time about the voting –something that did not actually happen. And finally, there is the curious decision to have Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) take the official copy of the amendment from Edward McPherson, the House clerk, claiming that he will “return it in the morning. Creased but unharmed.” One suspects that scriptwriter Tony Kushner must have some kind of source for that unique story –but if so, it is not yet apparent.
(This post has been excerpted from a longer essay, “Warning: Artists at Work,” that appears in “The Unofficial Guide to Spielberg’s Lincoln” which is part of the House Divided Project’s new Emancipation Digital Classroom).