The gist of “Lincoln,” the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, presents fresh fare for movie goers and a hearty feast for history lovers.
Some aspects are exaggerated for humorous and dramatic effect, while other errors or omissions sneak into the story telling. Overall, however, director Steven Spielberg’s tale is true to the times, a lesson in our great democracy.
Some nits (caution: some minor spoilers ahead):
• In the president’s first scene, Cpl. Ira Clark, a black soldier, speaks to him cheekily: If Clark had really talked like that to the commander-in-chief, he probably would have been hung by his thumbs — yes, this was a standard punishment — by his outraged white officers.
This rather sappy scene, where soldiers recite the Gettysburg address before the president, may be very loosely based on Lincoln’s 1864 visit to an Army camp to get his first close look at the African-American units.
“The black troops received him most enthusiastically, grinning from ear to ear, and displaying an amount of ivory terrible to behold,” remarked Gen. U.S. Grant’s aide, Horace Porter. “They cheered wildly, crowding around Lincoln, kissing his hand, brushing his coat or his horse so that they could tell others that they had touched the president. And Lincoln was touched. His eyes brimming with tears, his voice broke as he talked with the men; the encounter reminded everyone what was at stake.”
In the scene, another black soldier says he was with the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry — unlikely, as that regiment was in Arkansas, half a continent away.
• Lincoln’s voice: Daniel Day-Lewis clearly tried to correctly modulate his voice, although it probably did not reach Lincoln’s tenor. While Americans like to think of a deep rumble coming from the gentle giant, Lincoln spoke in a “clear and high-pitched voice that reached even the outer reaches of the huge crowd,” biographer David Herbert Donald noted about the second inaugural address.
• Buying the votes of Democratic congressmen: The movie correctly has Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) saying, “The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” A significant part of the film is about the rounding up of Democratic votes by Secretary of State William Seward’s little band of lobbyists/ scoundrels.
• Their leader, Robert W. Lathram, did actually write: “Money will certainly do it, if patriotism fails,” but only a few dollars of their fabled slush fund reportedly got spent. W.N. Bilbo (a hilarious James Spader), who tried in vain to get the New York governor to lean on some congressmen, ended up getting arrested as a Southern spy and needed Lincoln’s intercession to be released.
In the end, a couple of patronage jobs probably got handed out. But Lincoln scholar Frank Williams noted, “It is doubtful that these deals were nearly as important in passing the amendment as were the above-board decisions of War Democrats and border statesmen to take a new stance on the issue of slavery.”
• Lincoln’s profanity: The president’s two “goddamns” and “get the hell out of here” are unlikely. Lincoln so rarely swore that when he once called a politician “a damned rascal,” he was taken aback by his own utterance. “God knows I do not know when I have sworn before.” He could lose his temper, though, once telling a man: “Now go away! Go away! I cannot attend to all these details. I could as easily bail out the Potomac with a teaspoon.”
• Lincoln’s dream: The president described seeming “to be in some singular, indescribable vessel … moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore.” He’d had it before, preceding the crucial victories at Antietam and Gettysburg. “Always,” he said, “it meant good news.” The last time, however, it came the night before his assassination, not weeks earlier as depicted.
Lincoln is often said to have had another, more famous and macabre dream, just a few days earlier, in which he awoke to subdued sobs and wandered to the East Room, where a corpse with covered face was laid out, surrounded by guards and weeping people. “ ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’” Historians, however, doubt the veracity of this 30-years-later account by a former law partner.
• The Capitol dome: Yes, the dome, which had been unfinished when Lincoln was first sworn in, was completed by early 1865, depicted by the film. But the House debate scenes actually were shot in the Thomas Jefferson-designed Virginia statehouse — which served as the Confederate Capitol building in Richmond — smaller and cozier for Spielberg’s cameras.
• All that fierce House debate over the 13th Amendment: Thaddeus Stevens’ words, unlike the film, were recalled as reflective, not argumentative. It was a young James Garfield who likened New York Democrat Fernando Wood to Lucifer. Lincoln did send the message to reassure wavering lawmakers that no Confederate peace delegation was in Washington. (The Southerners, he knew, were waiting for him off Fort Monroe down the coast.) “Lincoln could split hairs as well as rails,” one historian noted.
• Elizabeth Keckly accompanying Mrs. Lincoln to the House gallery: This almost surely did not happen. The first lady (Sally Field) would be unlikely to spend her time watching the lawmakers for whom she had so little regard. Although Keckly, her black dressmaker, would become a life-long confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, there’s little indication they were seen in public together in Washington. Keckly’s autobiography as an inside observer of White House happenings makes no mention of the 13th Amendment.
• Lincoln slapping his son Robert: This seems highly unlikely. The father and the first-born son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) did have a somewhat distant relationship compared to the other children, perhaps because Lincoln was often gone riding circuit in Robert’s early years. But the president’s indulgence of his children was legend. Robert Lincoln later served as secretary of war in the administrations of James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur and U.S. minister to Great Britain (before they called the job “ambassador”).
• Lincoln riding a horse through a fresh battlefield: Lincoln did go to see the results of a small battle at Fort Stedman in Virginia near the very end of the war, but he took a bumpy train and then stood on an embankment for the sad view. The rebel battle flag would not have been left fluttering; they were highly prized trophies.
• Appomattox: In this brief scene, Grant appears inaccurately in an officer’s coat and clean boots. But Robert Lincoln, serving as an aide to the Union commander, was present at Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
• Mary Todd Lincoln says in the carriage ride that she’ll be remembered as crazy: And how. Mrs. Lincoln got a lot of bad press, and she didn’t help herself. During a visit to the Army days earlier, the highly jealous first lady publicly hurled vile insults at a general’s pretty wife who rode beside Lincoln during a review of the troops. At dinner, she demanded that her husband remove the general from command. Lincoln tried to ignore her verbal abuse, which went on for hours.
• Lincoln’s death scene: He is shown somewhat like Christ crucified, twisted on the small deathbed, legs uncovered by his nightshirt. An army illustrator brought to Petersen’s boarding house, to record the scene, however, depicted the president lying straight under a cover to his chest.
• War Secretary Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) famously says: “Now he belongs to the ages.” We all like this, but some believe Stanton actually said, “angels,” a more religious, but much less profound epitaph.
Darryl Levings is the author of “Saddle the Pale Horse: A Novel of the Invasion of Missouri, 1864”