Lincoln – A Crack in the Myth


Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is great entertainment and worth seeing in a theatre for the usual rich visuals of a Spielberg movie.  Do be ready for the sappy movie score that in this film is similar to the strings in Saving Private Ryan with perhaps a bit more syrup at dramatic moments.

The real draws are the extraordinary performances from Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln and Sally Fields as Mrs. Lincoln. They are remarkably accurate portrayals of a once deified president and a once demonized first lady.

I grew up in a South just beginning to get over its own Civil War mythology and went to college for a double dose at Washington & Lee where Robert E. Lee retreated after the war. Throughout that time and beyond I have found the Civil War to be one of the most difficult areas of history to break through to the actual facts and data.  It is the ultimate in victor’s history.

Spielberg’s movie follows on late 20th Century historical writing that broke through the mythology around Lincoln to present the actual historical record. And for the very limited window of time in 1864 and 1865 that Spielberg’s movie covers we see the real Lincoln and the real Mrs. Lincoln.

When Lincoln speaks to African-Americans in the movie he is refreshingly shown not as LBJ, but  an enlightened racist for his time. As he said to the assembled black leaders during the war: “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether is it right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both.” Mrs. Lincoln is revealed not as an insane albatross around Lincoln’s neck, but as a mother haunted by the death of her child and worried about her husband’s life and place in history.

It is a welcome break from the Lincoln history industry that to this day constantly portrays Lincoln as our greatest wartime leader and Mrs. Lincoln as perpetually insane. A canard of the highest order and one that has done great damage to the United States over the years. For Lincoln’s war record is not one of competence but rather bumbling, indecisiveness, and the unnecessary slaughter of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen.

There can of course be no question that Lincoln’s oratory, not just brilliantly at Gettysburg and his Second Inaugural, but throughout his legal and political career demonstrated a remarkable ability to express ideas at the highest level that all Americans regardless of race or class could understand. His commitment to the Union and belief in its ultimate victory was a rock upon which the South broke. But so much of that brilliance was necessary only because of his abysmal record as Commander-in-Chief.

Due to the limitations of time in the movie we see Lincoln, as Daniel Day Lewis exclaims, “clothed in immense power”. But that was in 1864 as General Grant gave the first real leadership to the Army of the Potomac opposite Richmond. Lincoln’s Presidency was saved not by some great citizen love for their President, but by General Sherman’s timely taking of Atlanta right before the 1864 election.

Before 1864 Lincoln’s Commander-in-Chief performance was three years of unmitigated disaster. His incompetence in failing to convince Lee to lead the Union army, his selection of McDowell, Hooker, McClellan, and Burnside, including McClellan a second time after the South had decisively whipped him in the field, was gross negligence. Contrast that record of failure to FDR’s selection of Marshall, King, Nimitz, and Eisenhower, who served brilliantly from before the war until final victory.

Lincoln’s forces in 1861 and the material resources of the North were overwhelming. But because of Lincoln’s inability to judge his generals, the South was able to defeat the Union until 1864. Even the Union’s victory at Gettysburg was turned into a strategic draw.  General Meade’s failure to pursue and destroy Lee’s army as it retreated without ammunition and supplies back into the South is inexplicable. It was not that Lincoln did not understand what needed to be done – he urged Meade repeatedly to finish Lee. He simply did not have the ability to impose his will on the war until late in 1864.

Lincoln did win in the end and saved the Union. That is the final verdict. But to look behind that victory is important. It is important to make clear to future Presidents that Lincoln’s performance is unacceptable. It is no wonder President George W. Bush looked to a fellow bumbler in Lincoln for courage to continue his own war in Iraq.  The North during the Civil War was plagued with incompetent generals, a failure to create a true war economy, and strategic incoherence.  But worse it was plagued with a President unprepared and forced to learn on the job for three deadly years.

Spielberg’s movie shows us the nuanced master politician that was Lincoln. It shows, perhaps indirectly, the importance of General Grant at Petersburg as Lincoln tours a siege battlefield covered in body parts and destruction. This was Lincoln’s true act of greatness – the belated selection of Grant. It was Grant who understood that Lee could not defeat him in a campaign. Grant attacked in the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 and lost the battle. The next morning the Union army that had retreated under his incompetent predecessors was astonished when Grant ordered an advance. Grant saw what Lincoln had never implemented. The Union simply had too many men and too much material to deploy on the decisive front before Richmond.

Grant advanced all summer, all fall, took horrible casualties, invested Petersburg, and then advanced into Richmond on his way to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It was Grant and Sherman and the heroes under them, so ill served by years of incompetence under Lincoln’s leadership, who freed the slaves and saved the Union. What Spielberg shows us is the political process for the formal freeing of African-Americans. What really freed the slaves in 1865 was Grant’s army’s performance. Without it the 13th Amendment process was irrelevant.

So enjoy Lincoln as a great movie, but do not fall for the usual palaver of Lincoln as our greatest wartime president. Because of ultimate victory he may have been better than Johnson or Bush, but his example is not one to emulate.


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