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.