Forty-five years ago today, marttin Luther King, Jr.’s life came to an end by an assassin’s bullet. Perhaps being such an iconic figure, who had accomplished so much, and often seen through old black-and-white photographs, it’s hard to connect to how young this man really was when he died. He was only 39. Were he alive today, he’d be 84.
Why the Civil War was fought will be forever debated, especially here on the internet. And usually, no one ever changes their mind in these debates. But a couple of days ago, I found the letter of a Union Private cited in the Time-Life Book Voices of the Civil War: Soldier Life. It’s great to hear what the war was about from someone who was actually there. Here is the entry as it appears in the book.
Private Orson Young, 96th Illinois Infantry
Concerned that President Lincoln might be defeated by a peace-seeking rival, Young wrote this letter to his parents in Lake County, Illinois, from newly captured Atlanta on September 22, 1864, expressing his determination to press on to final victory. Still a teenager, the writer himself was too young to vote.
It is cowardly and insulting to the soldiers to talk of peace or cessation of hostilities after such a glorious campaign as ours has been. Let us go on, till the rebels cry for peace and lay down their arms. Let us not talk of peace, if we must let the rebels come back with their institution of human slavery. If peace could be had today with all things as they were before the rebellion, I would not accept it. Slavery was the cause of all this bloodshed, and it is madness to go back to slavery.
Four millions of human beings are suffering under the chain and the lash. They have been appealing for years to the Almighty God for justice. In the anguish of their hearts, the slaves almost thought there was no God. But God heard their prayers. We are now paying the price of our national sin. Shall we be so rash as to allow slavery to continue and call the wrath of a just God upon us again?
Some men in the north are so afraid of having to come and fight that they would accept peace on any terms. I have not suffered enough yet to make me feel that way. Sometimes I have thought “what was the use of it to me, if the union was saved and my life was lost?” Then my conscience would ask me what I was born for- just to live for myself alone? No I cannot believe that.
Silly” and “probably didn’t happen” is how I’ve heard the scene in Lincoln described where the President speaks to two Black soldiers and then to two White soldiers, in two different conversations. And no surprise, a scene featuring an educated Black man confronting Lincoln about equality is dismissed by some as “disrespectful of the soldier” and “politically correct revisionist nonsense.”
I’m going to guess that the scene is fictional, especially since the soldiers recite verbatim the Gettysburg Address (one of the White soldiers begins it, gets halfway through and then leaves; and then one of the Black soldier finishes it). As immortal as those words are to us today, they were not so well known to average Americans in 1865. The Gettysburg Address, never intended to be the keynote speech of the Gettysburg National Cemetery 1863 dedication, achieved immortality in the wake of Lincoln’s tragic death.
Anyway, back to Lincoln’s “sit-down” conversation with his soldiers. Even if that scene as shown is entirely fictitious, the real questions are 1) How possible was it for a common soldier to walk up to Abraham Lincoln during the war and strike up a conversation? And 2) how and where did it happen?
The scene takes place at City Point, VA, in early 1865. City Point was the headquarters of General Ulysses Grant during the siege of Petersburg, VA. City Point also served as the port and supply hub for the Army of the Potomac. It was also used for major troop movements, as the scene shows.
I don’t know if Lincoln was in City Point at any time in January 1865. I also don’t know of any face-to-face conversation Lincoln ever had with a Black soldier, particularly like the one shown in the movie. But it’s quite plausible to believe it did happen and that there would have been opportunity for such a meeting. Soldiers of the 1st United States Colored Troops (USCT) trained and were quartered on Mason’s Island, now known as Theodore Roosevelt Island, in the District of Columbia on the Potomac River. Lincoln also visited the troops from time to time. But as far as I know, there is not much documentation of such a meeting. In any case, it’s a first for Hollywood and it was made possible by the film Glory (1989), a film about the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry, one of the first Black regiments of the war.
In Lincoln, the scene depicts the president in a conversation with Privatre Harold Greene, 116th USCT and Corporal Ira Clark, 5th Massachusetts (Colored) Cavalry. Greene talks to Lincoln about the past and the present- his experiences at the battles of Poison Springs and Jenkins Ferry; and having joined the 116th. But Clark wants to talk about the future. What’s going to happen for Black people after the war? If they are no longer slaves, what access will they have to civil rights and equal opportunities? Considering that most Civil War movies featuring slavery have focused on emancipation, this is also something not seen much before now.
The closest thing I have yet found of a USCT soldier speaking to Lincoln about civil rights, as shown in the film, is a letter by Corporal James Henry Gooding of the 54th Massachusetts. Gooding sent the letter September 28th, 1863. Unfortunately, there is no record of Lincoln having responded to it, or if he ever received it. But I would like to think that If Gooding had ever given the opportunity to meet the President, he would have had the same conversation our fictional USCT cavalryman did.
So what makes this scene work? I like that Lincoln is shown as a human being rather than as someone who seems to know that someday he will be a larger-than-life icon. Many of us cannot see him beyond delivering the Gettysburg Address, or freeing the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation or being assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Instead, he is shown arguing with his wife. Slappping his son. Using profanity and telling bawdy. And sitting down while talking to no-name common soldiers. This is a film that really takes Lincoln out of the box we’ve put him in.
One of the reasons I’m very excited about seeing Lincoln this weekend is another chance to see Francis Preston Blair, Sr. in a Civil War movie. He will be played by Hal Holbrook. To my knowledge, this is the second time Blair will be featured in a Hollywood movie. The first time was Gods & Generals and this essay is about the real Preston Blair and his portrayal in that film.
Unfortunately, that film did a lousy job portraying this all but forgotten figure. Though in the director’s commentary, he was called “the most important man never elected president [of the United States].” He was one of Lincoln’s most trusted advisors during the Civil War. And he spent a lifetime in politics and changed political parties like most of us change our socks.
I’m not sure why Blair is a forgotten figure in history. Born in 1791, the same year the District of Columbia was established to be the seat of the federal government, Blair came to Washington City, DC in 1829 at President Andrew Jackson’s request to be the editor of the Washington Globe, the media arm of Old Hickory’s administration. The newspaper made him a part of Jackson inner-circle, historically known as the “Kitchen Cabinet.” By the 1840s, Blair sold the paper and switched allegiance to the Free-Soil Party. A few years later, he switched again, becoming a founder of the Republican Party. After the war, he opposed Radical Reconstruction and went back to the Democrats. Blair founded the town of Silver Spring, Maryland, now a Washington, DC suburb. I grew up spending a lot of time in Silver Spring and never once heard of him. He first came onto my radar in 2003 when I saw Gods & Generals. He is featured in the opening scene of the film but really in name only. It is true that he was the man who personally presented Robert E. Lee with President Lincoln’s offer to command the Union army. I admit that when I saw the film, I neglected to ask the critical question: why was Blair so important that President Lincoln would ask him to speak on his behalf to offer Colonel Lee full command of the army?
The real Blair looked absolutely nothing like the actor (Malachy McCourt) portraying him in the film. The point of the Lee-Blair scene is to focus on Lee’s decision to reject the offer proposed to him. But from what I’ve learned since I first saw that scene, virtually everything about it is misleading and erroneous. And the film offers nothing about what happened after Lee left Blair’s house.
The movie gets it right that Lee came to Blair’s home (across the street from the White House). And that’s all it got right. He was actually offered the command of the force which would eventually become the Army of the Potomac, the same army he would actually oppose and attempt to destroy. Anyway, he did not decline the offer on the spot. The film also makes a huge mistake in making it look like the two men didn’t really know each other. In the real conversation, the names Robert and Preston would have been used- not Colonel Lee and Mr. Blair. Indeed, Lee seems so out of touch with Blair that he even refers to him as “general” at one point (movie goof, really). In fact, they were related through the marriage of Samuel Phillips Lee, Robert’s third cousin; and Blair’s daughter Elizabeth. The couple’s home, built in 1859, was right next door to Blair’s home. And these buildings still stand today, renovated and consolidated as the Blair House, the official guest house of the President of the United States (it was also the residence used by President Harry Truman during the renovation of the White House in the 1950s).
Blair had several other things in common with Lee. Both men were born in Virginia, though Blair would be raised in Kentucky. Both men were slaveholders. I think it’s safe to assume Lee was met at the door by a Black man. And chances are, Lee may have been accompanied by a body servant of his own. Lee tells Blair “you can see Arlington House from your front door.” Though not true now due to the obstructive view of modern buildings, at one time this was true. For whatever time Lee spent in Washington City and Arlington before the war, I believe these men were a very important part of Washington society and would certainly have connected at public receptions and events.
And what happened to Lee after he walked out of Blair’s house? The movie makes it look like he left there and went straight down to the Secession Convention in Richmond to proudly accept the command of the Virginia Militia. Actually he simply walked across the street to Winfield Scott’s office at the War Department Building, the Civil War’s Pentagon (the Eisenhower Executive Office Building is on this site today). It was his fellow Virginian and fellow slave-owner Scott whom Lee served under during the Mexican War. It was Scott, perhaps even more so than George Washington, whom Lee admired and sought to emulate. Lee told Scott he was undecided about supporting the North or the South. Scott then adamantly told him he would need to make a decision as soon as possible or he might be ordered to do things he might not want to do. And with that, Lee returned home to Arlington House, chose the Confederacy and the rest is history.
I believe Gods & Generals deliberately portrayed Blair in a false light for the sake of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War- the great and moral Robert E. Lee doesn’t fall for the schemes of some Yankee huckster. It will be interesting to see how Blair is portrayed in Lincoln. I think it will be a more accurate portrayal; however, Hollywood has yet to find an actor that actually looked like the real man.
Postscript- I saw Lincoln last night and the movie was excellent. Mr. Holbrook did a great job as Blair (Elizabeth was also featured) but I will have to do some research to find out how accurate his portrayal was.
Today is the 151st anniversary of the 1st battle of Bull Run/1st Manassas, the Civil War’s first major battle in the Eastern Theatre. I went to the 150th last year, which was a brutally hot event. I had planned to go back there today but scattered rainshowers kept that from happening. This all means that I’ll niss seeing that incredible equestrian statue of Stonewall Jackson. Incredible… but not for being a monument to the place where Jackson earned his famous nickname. Incredible for looking like Jacskon and his horse fought the Civil War while using performance-enhancing drugs.
Dedicated August 31, 1940 (picture above is from that ceremony; the monument, moments away from being unveiled, is to the right inthe picture), the 78th anniversary of 2nd Bull Run/2nd Manassas (this battle took place 13 months after the “Stonewall” legend was born), the monument was the creation of Joseph Pollia (1893-1954), an Italian-American sculptor. Nothing against Old Jack, but seriously folks… the man looks like the Incredible Hulk in a Confederate uniform.
While it’s tempting to think this statue is neo-Confederate/Lost Cause melodrama run amok (insert finger down your throat here), I think it’s actually more about the Art Deco style consistent with the late 1930s/early 1940s period it was created in. To be sure, another example of an overly bulked-up man is the Man Controlling Trade pair of statues flanking the Federal Trade Commission Building in downtown Washington, DC. These were sculpted by Michael Lantz (1908-1988) and dedicated in 1942. Maybe the “PED” look was a compensation of the Great Depression or something: for those who don’t feel strong, here is a strong man to look up to.
So maybe the legend of “Mighty Stonewall” isn’t so farfetched. Standing like a stone wall, he has control of his horse… but those other two guys are struggling, which makes them “girlie men.”
Yesterday was my birthday. I went to work, that’s it. Honestly, I was just glad to have a routine day. And thanks to all who sent birthday wishes. Every one was truly appreciated.
I’m sure all of us enjoy it when we find someone else with the same birthday we have. As I understand it, June 25th is the 100th most common birthdate of the year. I’ve met a few June 25thers over the years- at Church, at work, and a few other places. But a couple of years ago I found a story about two other June 25th birthdays. It is a sad story, but I won’t soon forget because, well, it’s June 25th.
A Heart Truly Broken
I’m not sure anymore that the information age is such a good thing. Sometimes, maybe it’s best not to know.
I started a new job in late 1977. I was 19. It was an aircraft engine maintenance job in a building with 600 other men and a tiny handful of women who worked in the office. In the mornings, when I was being dropped off at the door, I would occasionally make eye contact with a stunning young blonde. I would later learn she was only 17 years old. I was too shy to even mumble a “Hello”.
Some years later, I was engaging in my “standard” practical joke of writing my birthday on calenders whenever I visited the company offices. It was just a goofy thing I did. I would flip some strangers calender to June 25 and write “Brent’s Birthday” on that date.
One day, while working in my dirty back room covered with solvent and knee deep in engine parts, that beautiful girl walked in holding a calender and asked, “Is this you?”. She was pointing at my birthday. I couldn’t deny that I was the guy who was writing on calenders. She said, “That’s my birthday too!”.
We became the best of friends. She was an incredibly sweet and trusting girl…not something that seemed to fit her breathtaking looks. We talked to each other about the most personal things in our lives. I was surprised that a girl would trust me with such intimate facts about her hopes and fears. And, to this day, I’ve never shared details about myself the way I shared them with her.
10 years after starting with that company, I left. My other friends told me that, when I left, she wouldn’t stop crying. But, even after I left, I’d phone her at work and take her out to lunch once in awhile. One day, I phoned the company and was told she wasn’t there anymore. Odd as it may seem, I didn’t have her home phone number. After all of those years, it hadn’t dawned on me that she wouldn’t be there.
It was 20 years ago when I last saw her and a day hasn’t gone by that I didn’t think about her. I still have a couple of birthday cards she gave me. When the internet came along, I thought I’d try to search for her. It never worked. I figured she surely would have gotten married and searching on a maiden name from years ago wouldn’t do much good. But I always kept trying. I always thought it would be so much fun to see her again and I imagined that reunion would be a blast. Every few days I’d google her name. Tonight, I finally got a hit:
“After a courageous battle with cancer, on March 19, 2001, at Riverview Health Centre, Sherri Rose passed away at the age of 38 years.”
I immediately tried coming up with reasons why it couldn’t be her. But it was her. There was a photo, that birth date, the unusual middle name.
I have a stack of old day planners. I actually found my personal notes from March 19, 2001. I had written a reminder to myself to go shopping for the DVD of West Side Story.
I did more research. At the time of her death, she was involved in a long and heavily contested divorce (the records are online). Her house was ordered to be sold by the court just days before she died. She had two young children at the time. From our personal conversations years earlier, I know she had a terrible fear of cancer. She died before the divorce was granted.
I want to see the silver lining but I see none. She died from the thing she feared most. She died losing her house and leaving a young family.
I’m just sick…sick and heartbroken.
Last night we watched We Shall Remain: The Trail of Tears on the removal of the Native Americans from their lands in Georgia and other parts in the southeastern US to present-day Oklahoma. I know there are a few questions still unanswered from this program but I hope it was enjoyed nonetheless.
Actually, I don’t know that it was (and it probably wasn’t) but that is said about every other presidential election.
The illustration here is a pro-Henry Clay/anti-Andrew Jackson political cartoon from that election, where the three contenders (plus John Calhoun, who did not run for president that year) are playing three card brag, an ancestor of modern-day poker. At the table, starting from Clay, going counterclockwise we have:
- Henry Clay, Kentucky; National Republican Party;
- John Calhoun, South Carolina; Nullifier Party (a short-lived third party venture aimed at Andrew Jackson’s federalism);
- Andrew Jackson, Tennessee; Democratic Party;
- William Wirt, Maryland; Anti-Masonic Party.
Wait- who was William Wirt?
William Wirt (November 8, 1772 – February 18, 1834) born in Bladensburg, Maryland, was the 9th US Attorney General under Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. The Anti-Masonic Party (name self-explanatory), ironically nominated him as its choice for the 1832 election you see, he had been a freemason (albeit a former one) at the time… great guy, I’m sure; but probably not the best representative for something you’re trying to abolish. Especially when it is believed that he gave a speech at that party’s nominating convention defending the organization.
As for the 1832 election, Jackson won it, for his second term in office. Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, became most famous as the architect of the Compromise of 1850. Sectionalist Calhoun, tried to one-up Jackson by claiming his state would not obey federal law in 1832; even threatening secession- that didn’t work. And Wirt died in 1834. His party died four years later.
Today, William Wirt is the least remembered of the four men pictured in this cartoon. However, he made recent news in certainly the most bizarre way possible– as a victim of grave robbery (WARNING- disturbing image viewing in the above link).
Maybe the grave robbers were trying to find out if he had really been a US citizen…
Last night I watched The Mighty Casey, a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone last night. Given baseball’s current performance-enhancing drugs cheating scandals, the idea of a team using a robot to win games seems rather innocent. But it shows that even back in the “good old days,” teams were not above doing whatever it took to get an edge.
I believe that if steroids, human growth hormone or whatever had been available to players of the ’50s, or the ’40s, or the ’30s, or the ’20s, they would have used them- even knowing the side effects. To guarantee they would have a job and be a star… I don’t think they would have been above it.
Still, you wonder what Rod Serling would have thought of performing enhancing drugs or how he would have felt about players like Roger Clemens, who was acquitted yesterday on all charges of lying to Congress.