Lincoln, the Movie
by William Loren Katz*
December 20, 2012
Published by Portside
Like just about everyone who has seen it, I was enthralled
by "Lincoln," the Hollywood film directed with authority and
creative license by Stephen 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 reference volumes
(most address Civil War era issues and personalities), 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
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 racist blockbuster, Birth of a
Nation (1915) caricatured him as a snarling foe of white
supremacy and champion of "race mixing." In Tennessee
Johnson (1942) he is played as a 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's 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
Also missing is the vital, rarely revealed, back-story. 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
whose members had fled to Union lines.
Then the ground beneath the President shifted. The sight of
U.S. troops triggered slave 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 slaves began to dismantle the plantation
system. The Confederacy was left without the thousands of
slave laborers upon whose backs the agricultural oligarchy
had rested. Abolitionist agitators used this news to
broadcast a louder wake-up 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. In light of fast-
moving events white people began to reconsider their
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% -- since Andrew Jackson and won a
thumping 70% 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.
During January 1865 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
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 freed slaves 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 anti-
slavery 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.
*William Loren Katz is the author of forty books and editor
of another 212, most on African American history [New York
Times]. He has been affiliated with NYU since 1973. His
website is http://williamlkatz.com/
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