“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, coarse jokes (which he loved to do). 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.