The debate over the language of Lincoln

First off, it’s good to be back to blog with you all, as the last few weeks have been extremely hectic for me preparing for my doctoral comprehensive exams, which I am now through the written portion (cue Hallelujah Chorus). Thanks to intrepid fellow CWH blogger Walter Coffey for keeping up some interesting posts the last two months.

Now, I did find a little time to go see the Spielberg film Lincoln with my two friends and fellow reenactors Stuart Lawrence and Den Bolda. Den dressed in period civilian trappings, while I dressed as a soldier for the event (Hey, if folks can go to comic book movies, etc. dressed as the characters from those films, why not us?), which was fun, as one couple who were visiting relatives in the area, but were from Indiana took their picture with us.

My thoughts on the film are mixed. I felt that Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Honest Abe was pretty good, aside from being a departure from the classic Hal Holbrook rendition in North and South, or Gregory Peck in The Blue and the Gray (which were good also, but not necessarily as accurate). I also enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stephens.

I would have liked to have seen a bit more on Lincoln’s conduct of the war as Commander-in-Chief, which did not have to mean another Civil War film full of battle scenes, but just more on the course of his presidency. I thought the debate over the 13th Amendment was interesting and one of my colleagues noted that he hoped it would get people into the documents surrounding the debate on that legislation. Den and I both enjoyed the costuming, as the material culture presented in the film was quite good. Overall, I thought the film presented a real conception of Lincoln, more human as opposed to being on such a pedestal.

That said, one other area that I thought was a bit off, and has apparently became a topic of debate between historians is the foul language that appears a few times. Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book Team of Rivals was an inspiration for the movie did not have much problem with the profanity used in the film. In contrast, James McPherson argued that Lincoln did not approve of such language and likely did not use it to the degree that was portrayed, especially the utterance of “f—” by W. N. Bilbo, one of the lobbyists for the 13th Amendment. Another who argued that Lincoln likely did not swear as much as was portrayed in the movie, but would not have had as much issue with swearing around him was University of Richmond president Edward Ayers.

Overall, I have to agree with both McPherson and Ayers on their assessment of Lincoln and colorful language. I wonder if Spielberg chose to keep such language to resonate with modern audiences, who are used to such things, and if that is so, what does it say about our society. Further, the movie would have been just as good without it, which would have allowed parents to take younger children to see the film. One wonders how many stayed away because of the language issue. It would have been interesting to see, were he still alive, what David Donald would have said about this issue.

While swearing has become increasingly pervasive in our culture, this does not mean it was so in earlier times. I think the work by Richard Bushman called The Refinement of America is particularly relevant. While focused on the eighteenth century, it also explored the nineteenth century, charting the desire of Americans to achieve elements of refined culture, which extended to personal behavior, including manners and decorum.

It is interesting that this has become a mini debate among respected scholars, but it is good, as it allows historians to interject their knowledge and insights on a given topic into the larger culture. Much like the earlier kerfuffle over how Day-Lewis vocalized Lincoln, the issue of swearing by Abe will be another in a series of appraisals on the film in the coming weeks. Such is the nature of the beast when movies based upon historical events and actors are produced. I encourage everyone to at least go and see Lincoln, but also pick up a good biography of him (I recommend Lincoln by the late David Donald).

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Presents Death and the Civil War

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Presents Death and the Civil War

Premieres Tuesday, September 18, 2012

8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS

From acclaimed filmmaker Ric Burns, Death and the Civil War explores an essential but largely overlooked aspect of the most pivotal event in American history: the transformation of the nation by the death of an estimated 750,000 men – nearly two and a half percent of the population – in four dark and searing years from 1861 to 1865. With the coming of the Civil War, and the staggering and completely unprecedented casualties it ushered in, death entered the experience of the American people as it never had before – on a scale and in a manner no one had ever imagined possible, and under circumstances for which the nation would prove completely unprepared. The impact would permanently alter the character of the republic, the culture of the government and the psyche of the American people – down to this day.

“Transpose the percentage of dead that mid-19th-century America faced into our own time – seven million dead, if we had the same percentage,” says author Drew Gilpin Faust, on whose groundbreaking book, This Republic of Suffering, the film is based. “What would we as a nation today be like if we faced the loss of seven million individuals?”

Death and the Civil War tracks the increasingly lethal arc of the war, from the bloodless opening in 1861, through the chaos of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and the unspeakable carnage of 1864 – down through the struggle, in the aftermath of the war, to cope with an American landscape littered with the bodies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, many unburied, most unidentified. The work of contending with death on this scale would propel extraordinary changes in the inner and outer life of all Americans – posing challenges for which there were no ready answers when the war began – challenges that called forth remarkable and eventually heroic efforts on the part of individuals, groups and the government – as Americans worked to improvise new solutions, new institutions, new ways of coping with death on an unimaginable scale.

Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries in America. No provisions for identifying the dead, or for notifying next of kin, or for providing aid to the suffering families of dead veterans. No federal relief organizations, no effective ambulance corps, no adequate federal hospitals, no federal provisions for burying the dead. No Arlington Cemetery. No Memorial Day. Death and the Civil War will premiere on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 from 8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam – to this day, the single bloodiest day in American history.

RIC BURNS (Producer/Director)

Ric Burns is best known for his acclaimed series New York: A Documentary Film, a sweeping chronicle of the city’s history, which garnered several honors, including two Emmy Awards and an Alfred I. DuPont- Columbia Award. Burns’ career began with the celebrated series The Civil War, which he produced with his brother, Ken Burns, and co-wrote with Geoffrey C. Ward. In 1991, Ric founded Steeplechase Films and has since written and directed a number of award winning films for PBS, including Coney Island, The Donner Party, The Way West, Eugene O’Neill, and Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film. Most recently, for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, Burns wrote, produced, and co-directed Tecumseh’s Vision, part two of the groundbreaking five-part miniseries We Shall Remain, and a film about the history of the whaling industry,

Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. A graduate of Columbia University and Cambridge University, Burns lives in New York City.

DREW GILPIN FAUST (Author, This Republic of Suffering) took office as Harvard University’s 28th president on July 1, 2007. A historian of the U.S. Civil War and the American South, Faust is also the Lincoln Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She previously served as founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (2001-2007). Before coming to Radcliffe, Faust was the Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of six books, including This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (January, 2008), which was awarded the 2009 Bancroft Prize, the New-York Historical Society 2009 American History Book Prize, and recognized by The New York Times as one of the “Ten Best Books of 2008.” Faust’s honors include awards in 1982 and 1996 for distinguished teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994 and the American Philosophical Society in 2004. She received her bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr in 1968, magna cum laude with honors in history, and master’s (1971) and doctoral (1975) degrees in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania.


Television’s most-watched history series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been hailed as “peerless” (Wall Street Journal), “the most consistently enriching program on television” (Chicago Tribune), and “a beacon of intelligence and purpose” (Houston Chronicle). On air and online, the series brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 14 George Foster Peabody Awards, four DuPont-Columbia Awards, and 30 Emmy Awards, including, most recently, Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking for Freedom Riders. Exclusive corporate funding for American Experience is provided by Liberty Mutual Insurance. Major funding provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Major funding for Death and the Civil War provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. Additional Funding provided by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Dedicated To Strengthening America’s Future Through Education; the Nordblom Family Foundation and the Gretchen Stone Cook Charitable Foundation, members of the Documentary Investment Group; and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Television

Viewers. American Experience is produced for PBS by WGBH Boston.

Publicity Contacts:

CaraMar Publicity

Mary Lugo   770-623-8190

Cara White  843-881-1480

Abbe Harris 908-233-7990

For further info and photos visit

Review of the film Gods and Generals

Civil War historian Dr. Steve Woodworth at Texas Christian University, reviewed the film Gods and Generals for the Journal of American History in 2003. The American Historical Association (AHA) recently posted a copy of that review that appeared on the website I have met Dr. Woodworth in the past and have found him to be a friendly and capable scholar, and enjoyed his take on the movie, as he summed up many of the problems with the film. Being in both the reenacting community and the scholarly community, I have heard both extremes on the film, with reenactors, especially Confederate, being largely praiseworthy, while scholars are more critical. I feel that this review is a rather balanced evaluation of this Civil War film.

Click here to read the review

By the way, this is the 250th post on this blog!

Review of the film “Gettysburg” that premiered on History tonight

Well, my attempt at live blogging was interrupted by the weather, but I wanted to try to sum up my feelings on the movie, some of which were covered here and here.

Overall, I felt that the program was quite interesting and a stark departure from recent Civil War films of the silver screen. Naturally, the best comparison for this film is Gettysburg (1993). In this History special, there is no Sam Elliott, Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, or Jeff Daniels. It does not discuss Buford’s cavalry, the death of John Reynolds, or Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top. While the elements chosen for this film were not as much a focus of the theatrical movie, I was looking forward to see how the Scott brothers would cover those parts of the battle. There is less rich drama, mostly gritty emotional turmoil that illustrates the sheer horror of the battle and the larger war. It has some solid educational qualities to it, though.

The coverage of the first day centered around the story of the Iron Brigade’s role in the battle and the fighting inside the town. The coverage of the second day revolved around the Wheat Field and Culp’s Hill, while the third day focused on Pickett’s Charge, but lacking the sweeping dramatic panoramic shots of Confederate troops marching out, or Union forces behind the stone wall. The main difference was showing the horrors of the weaponry used against the troops on the charge. The scenes showing the charge lacked some of the power due to a lack of numbers used, but the idea the producers attempted to show seemed to be met.

The film pulled back to cover broader subjects of medicine, civilian involvement, and African Americans as they all related to the battle and war, which was a nice touch. Personal stories relating to soldiers involved did an excellent job of providing an intimate view of the battle, making the viewer feel as if they are next to the person. The live action scenes were one of the most detailed features of the film and truly gripping, with some fairly violent scenes demonstrating the carnage of the Civil War battlefield.

In addition, the film utilized computer generated graphics and images to discuss the technology used in the battle, specifically weapons and the effects on the soldiers, as well as illustrate the lay of the land in and around Gettysburg. This effective blending of graphics and live action adds to the films’ educational qualities.

One thing that separates this production from the theatrical version is a lack of focus on the major players (Generals Lee, Longstreet, Hancock, Buford, and Meade), except for Dan Sickles. Most of the characters focused on in the film are common soldiers, or brigade commanders, placing the battle around the actions involving their own individual units.

The Scott brothers created a production that illustrated a gruesome war, deviating from a largely romanticized and glorified portrayal of the war, even on History. While I hoped to see their portrayal of Joshua Chamberlain, I was generally pleased with the effort. I do hope that this is the beginning of more productions of this nature on other major battles of the war, especially from the Western Theater.

This film is part of a week-long series of programs on History on the war, including a program Tuesday evening called Grant and Lee. In addition, special episodes of Pawn Stars and American Pickers will deal with Civil War items, so be sure to check them out. Finally, thank you all for making today our busiest day with over 350 hits.

My thoughts on the History film “Gettysburg”-Part I

This will be a live blog as the film progresses through the first hour. I will post another posting over the second hour, followed by a brief review after the film. One piece of information about the film is that the executive producers are the brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, whose credits include such films as Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down.

Live blog:  8:05PM

After the first five minutes or so, I am so far impressed with the effects used that detail the horrors of war. In addition are the inclusion of quotes from veterans of the battle. In addition, graphics of maps and CGI of the battlefield provide useful visual aids and serve to contextualize the battle within the larger war. As of the first commercial break, I am pleased, though parts of it are making me think of the movie 300.

8:15 PM

With the second segment, the focus on the fighting inside Gettysburg, with gripping brutality that goes beyond some of the battle scenes in movies like Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. The film discusses the situation of civilians in the town, including the plight of African Americans. In addition, the medical situation and the Confederate troops roaming through town provide a realism left out of many films. So far, the first half hour has yet to really disappoint me, except for the lack of mention of John Buford’s force and the death of General John Reynolds.

8:30 PM

The coverage of the end of the first day deals with the unique subject that can become a dominant concept in counter-factual history, the failure of General Ewell to follow Lee’s order and seize the high ground. There is a wonderful segment on the role of technology, especially how rifled muskets and conical minie balls made the war deadlier. One wonders if they read Earl Hess’s solid book on the subject of rifled muskets in combat.

8:45 PM

This section uses animated battle maps and covers the actions of the second day of the battle. The controversy of the failure of Stuart’s cavalry is highlighted and how it influenced the course of the battle. Further, the role of the telegraph and wig-wag signal flags (shout out to Rene Tyree and her blog named Wig-Wags). Daniel Sickles movement of his corp is shown and how dangerous it was for the Union position that day. The brief discussion of the rebel yell is unique, if a bit much.

So far, the first hour of the film has been good and hopefully the second hour will be as good.