I’m happy to announce that this week I started a new job as Research Historian for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. While I’ll miss my colleagues at The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, I’m delighted to enter a position that allows me to do more public history and help promote this amazing institution. I was involved with a few programs and exhibits at ALPLM during my time with the Papers (including the a very cool exhibit on the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry coming this spring), and it really opened my eyes to the potential for places like this to educate the public and spark interest in the past. It’ll be great doing that same kind of stuff full time. Read More
Reviewing Shenandoah made me realize something: wow, there are a lot of sad sack leaders in Civil War fiction. In that film, it was George Kennedy’s Colonel Fairchild. He only gets one scene but spends all of it in a seemingly deep state of depression. His tone is muted, his eyes are downcast, and his whole demeanor suggests he’s lost faith in the Union cause.
Free State of Jones is only a week away and the New York Times ran a fascinating interview Wednesday with its director, Gary Ross. I was especially struck by Ross’s investment in establishing the film’s historical bona fides. He claims to have researched his subject extensively and consulted with multiple historians, many of whom appear in the article. He even took a pseudo-seminar with John Stauffer. Most remarkable of all is this website that essentially footnotes the film, explaining script choices and providing access to relevant primary documents and secondary citations. As a historian, I find all of this very commendable. As a critic, it makes me a little nervous. Read More
As many of you know, my office is located in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Those of you who know me well also know I was once a great admirer of Robert E. Lee. One of the best aspects of working at ALPLM is its vast cohort of enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers. Last year, I was invited to do an educational program for them on Jefferson Davis. I jumped at the chance and the program had a large and engaged audience. I got invited back this year and was able to pick whatever Lincoln-related topic I wanted, so I went with Robert E. Lee. This is a very personal choice given how my perspective on Lee has changed over the years but, unbeknownst to me until a few days ago, it has also proven to be a controversial choice among the volunteers themselves and not in the way you might think. Apparently, many people around here are concerned about how Lee iconography is currently under assault in places like New Orleans and Charlottesville. Having written the talk two weeks ago, I’m now wondering how much I should tailor it to this new context and what that says about my own feelings about the man and his image. Read More
Update: McClanahan has written an additional response back at the Abbeville Institute. Given its tone, I think it’s pretty clear where this is heading, so I’ll happily give him the last word. Also, it looks like the Maryland legislature is going to let the issue lie until the next session, so we’ll see if it gets any legs next time around.
I was wondering if my article on “Maryland, My Maryland” that Time.com picked up would drum up some opposition from the neo-Confederate crowd, and it looks like this article by Brion McClanahan for The Abbeville Institute fits the bill (I’m unfamiliar with the institute, but the fact that it’s pushing a book titled, Emancipation Hell: The Tragedy Wrought by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, tells me all I need to know). Besides McClanahan immediately casting doubt on his research skills by calling me “James McWhirter,” he speciously tries to undermine my argument that any state should have an official song as openly dissident as James Ryder Randall’s poem. I’m not going to dissect each of his points, but I’ll draw your attention to a few juicy bits. Read More
As some of you know, I have the privilege of serving as editor for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. I’ve only overseen 5 issues so far but, during that time, I’ve tried to expand the journal’s scope by incorporating various aspects of Lincoln’s life and legacy. One of the things I’m most proud of appeared in last summer’s issue. It’s is a roundtable featuring four scholars giving their opinions on The Better Angels. I reviewed the film on this blog back in September, but the roundtable gives a much fuller analysis and just became available on the journal’s website.
I tried to get four scholars with different academic backgrounds and points of view and that really paid off. William E. Bartelt, Jackie Hogan, Megan Kate Nelson, and John Stauffer not only approach The Better Angels from very different directions, they also disagree on the basic fact of whether or not the film is any good—with the boys generally liking it and the ladies largely unimpressed. Regardless, all four give interesting takes. Since I wasn’t editor when Spielberg’s Lincoln came out—or ever Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—here’s hoping I’ll get additional opportunities to put together similar pieces in the future
Mercy Street. “The Diabolical Plot,” Season 1, Episode 6. Directed by Jeremy Webb. Written by Lisa Wolfinger, David Zabel, and Jason Richman.
Release Date: February 21, 2016.
I don’t think historians or critics ever reached a consensus on Mercy Street. This is probably a good sign. It means the show was at least interesting. I generally enjoyed it but, even when I didn’t, the history was solid enough that viewers at least learned something. Yesterday’s finale generally followed this pattern, despite its fictional inclusion of Booth and Lincoln. The eponymous “Diabolical Plot” didn’t really grip me, but the episode had enough solid dramatic and historical moments to keep away the sour taste in my mouth I’d been afraid of since the storyline originally leaked. That allowed me to be objective in my evaluation of Mercy Street as a whole, and my final take is generally positive. Read More
Last night, while you guys were watching the worst/greatest debate intro in history, I was attending a piano concert at Edwards Place here in Springfield. It commemorated the recent restoration of the Edwards Family piano, which the patriarch, Ninian Edwards, acquired sometime in the 1830s. Mary Todd was a relative of the family and stayed with them when she moved to town. Lincoln also came into their orbit as a rising young lawyer. Mary and Abraham would have frequently heard the piano during their courtship and it likely provided the music for their wedding. The instrument had been unplayable until a recent kickstarter raised enough money to restore it. I did a small part to help by co-authoring this newspaper article with the home’s curator Erika Holst on 19th Century parlor piano culture. This is how I got invited to the premiere performance. For someone interested in Lincoln and historical music, it was a double whammy and sparked a couple of thoughts I want to share here.
Abraham Lincoln. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Written by Stephen Vincent Benet, John W. Considine, Jr., and Gerrit J. Lloyd.
Release Date: November 30, 1930.
This was a hard film to review because it required me to modify my perspective in two ways. First, although it’s impossible to ignore D. W. Griffith’s earlier, highly controversial and influential Civil War film, Birth of a Nation, I wanted to judge Abraham Lincoln on its own merits. Second, this film is 85 years old and Hollywood stage conventions were very different then, so I attempted to take the purple prose and overacting in stride. I think I failed on both counts because the film’s artistic sensibilities really did seem alien to me and the history wasn’t much better. This made watching it interesting, if not particularly enjoyable. Read More
The Conspirator. Directed by Robert Redford. Written by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein.
Release Date: April 15, 2011.
I should start this post with an admission: I avoid the Lincoln assassination like the plague. It’s not that I don’t understand its historical importance—obviously it’s a huge deal. What I mean is, I avoid the details and literature about the act itself. There seems to be a subculture obsessed with the minute details of presidential assassinations with little regard for genuine historical context, and that turns me off. Nevertheless, I’m aware there’s legitimate work being done on the subject. For instance, it’s clear I don’t know enough about the trial of the assassins, especially the controversy surrounding Mary Surratt. Thus, I approached The Conspirator with a pretty open mind and I did manage to learn a little about Surratt. Unfortunately, I also found myself doubting the script’s veracity because it’s clearly far more interested in constructing a parable for post-9/11 America than a historical drama about the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s death. Read More