Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Los Angeles Civil War Roundtable

I will be speaking at the Los Angeles Civil War Roundtable of on Wednesday, October 17th at 7:00 p.m. on Mary Lincoln's belief in Spiritualism during the Civil War--just in time for Halloween!

At the Clubhouse of the Villa Velletri
4330 Glencoe Avenue
Marina del Rey, CA 90292
(310) 570-9223 or (310) 804-0403

I just want to say thank you to the California Civil War Roundtable for welcoming me into the Civil War community.  You have all been gracious not only to me but to my Mom providing dinners and wonderful audiences. 

If you have an interest in the Civil War, please consider joining your local Civil War Roundtable they are a nation wide organization that encourages and welcomes the latest Civil War scholarship.

For more information about the Los Angeles Civil War Roundtable please visit: http://www.lacwrt.org/

Friday, September 14, 2012

Lincoln Movie Trailer

Yesterday, after months of speculation the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s latest film Lincoln was released.  After watching (and re-watching) the trailer I thought I would share some of my thoughts about the trailer and what I think might be in store for viewers when the movie premiers in theaters on November 16, 2012.
            The trailer opens with Abraham Lincoln, played by Daniel Day Lewis, reciting from the Gettysburg Address.  “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,” Lincoln intones as images of combat flash across the screen.  The film is based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s mammoth book Team of Rivals, and Spielberg has wisely chosen to take only a portion of the book as the basis for his movie.  Instead of focusing on Lincoln’s role as a wartime president, Spielberg is focused on the last months of Lincoln’s life (and the Civil War), highlighting the president’s role as the Great Emancipator.  This is made clear to the audience with the next scene, as Lincoln concludes, “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” as the President is shown interacting with an African American solider. 
Folks, this is not your grandfather’s Lincoln movie.  Instead of a folksy, “aw shucks,” type of Lincoln that has come down to us in such films as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940).  Rather we are going to see a fiery and determined Abraham Lincoln who is willing to do anything—including insuring the emancipation of Southern slaves—to bring the Civil War to a close.  While the movie is devoted to showing Abraham Lincoln as an emancipator, Spielberg willingly display’s Lincolns flaws, beginning with Lincoln’s attempt to negotiate peace with the Confederacy while at the same time supporting the fledgling 13th Amendment.  At the Hampton Roads peace conference in February 1865, Lincoln in a desperate attempt to end the war offered the South a gradual, voluntary emancipation.  The trailer shows what many historians have viewed as a contradiction (even hypocrisy) in Lincoln’s dealing with the abolition of slaves.  Instead, I believe that the trailer is trying to show that while Lincoln was determined to end the war, underscored by images of a burning Southern city, he was not going to sacrifice the abolition of slavery.
The trailer then moves into the heart of the movie as the viewer sees clips of the divisive and racially charged battles over the 13th Amendment that occurred in the Senate with a glimpse of Mary Lincoln (Sally Fields) and Elizabeth Keckly (Gloria Reuben) watching from the spectators gallery.  The debate in the Senate is compared with the debate raging within Lincoln’s cabinet with one of the Secretaries declaring, “Leave the Constitution alone!”  To this declaration, Lincoln lashes out at his cabinet declaring that after so much bloodshed the time has now come to make the losses stand for something.  In a scene made to show that Lincoln was very much in control of his “Team of Rivals.”  “We’re stepped out on the world’s stage now.  The fate of human dignity is in our hands.  Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment! Now!  Now!  Now!” an impassioned Lincoln declares, pointing at his cabinet.  We see a Lincoln who is committed to his principles as he laid out in the Gettysburg Address.  The war may have begun as a debate over Union, but will end as war over emancipation with Lincoln taking the lead to insure the passage of the 13th Amendment.  The final minute of the trailer reinforces that the film is going to focus on Lincoln as emancipator and as the healer of the nation.  “No one’s ever been loved so much by the people, don’t waste that power,” Mary Lincoln is shown begging her husband.  The trailer concludes with the question about what made Lincoln great.  Was he born great or was he made great by his actions?  “Can we chose to be born or are we fitted to the times which we are born into?” Lincoln asks a Union officer.  “Well, I don’t know about myself, you maybe,” is the reply.
In conclusion a number of things struck me about the trailer.  First, the Abraham Lincoln that is being portrayed is a completely different Lincoln than has been seen in the past.  While past films have focused on the folksy, joke loving Lincoln, Spielberg’s film shows a skilled and passionate politician committed to fulfilling the promise of the Civil War as laid out in the Gettysburg Address as underscored by the trailers opening vignette.  This is the Lincoln that so many Americans have come to revere and honor to the present day.  While the film shows Lincoln’s failings, it uses his shortcomings to show the dramatic personal transformation that occurred that made Lincoln the Great Emancipator.  That is the Lincoln that I love—a flawed person who allowed himself to move past the prejudices of his era and in the process made the United States what it is.  The second thing that stood out to me is Sally Field’s performance of Mary Lincoln.  Originally, I was dismayed about the casting of Sally Field’s as Mary Lincoln because I believed that the actress was too old to play a character that was only in her early forties during the Civil War.  For months my friends and family have heard my complaints that there was “no Boniva in the Lincoln’s White House,” but I have to admit that I was wrong.  Sally Field’s appearance as Mary Lincoln is striking and the clip of Mary offering advice to her husband leaves hope that Spielberg will present a well rounded view of the complex first lady.  Mary Lincoln was more than just the crazy “hell-cat” that has been portrayed in popular culture.  Yes, she had her faults, namely her free-spending habits and her jealously.  But she was also a devoted and loving wife and mother who loved her family with all of her being.  Mary Lincoln served as one of her husband’s chief political advisors before the Civil War and continued to serve in that capacity (with mixed results) during Lincoln’s presidency and opened the White House to political outsiders (African Americans and Spiritualists) who interacted with her husband. 
The trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln shows promise.  I believe we are going to see a new Abraham Lincoln and in the process be forced to challenge our past perceptions of the 16th president.  Only time will tell if my initial observations are accurate, but I am hopeful that movie goers are going to see in November a smart and insightful film about Lincoln that will inspire others to read more about this remarkably period in our nation’s history.    

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: Abraham and Mary Lincoln

Abraham and Mary Lincoln by Kenneth J. Winkle (Carbondale, IL: Southern University Press, 2011).
            Abraham and Mary Lincoln remain one of the most enigmatic historical couples in American history.  Since their marriage in 1842, the couple has perplexed both contempories and historians alike.  It is little wonder that a marriage that caused such consternation upon its commencement still fuels debate today.  Kenneth J. Winkle aptly summarizes the public perception of the Lincoln marriage stating, “for a century and a half, the prevailing image of the marriage of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, among both historians and the American public in general, has included disagreement and discord between the two as its central motif” (Winkle, 1).  This perception has continued due to the fact that on the surface the marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd appeared to have united two individuals who were total opposites in personality, appearance, and social standing.  Historians have not aided the public’s understanding of the couple by creating two divergent interpretations. 
More cynical historians, including Michael Burlingame and Daniel Berry, have suggested that the Lincoln marriage was based solely on the political ambitions of Abraham and Mary.  This thesis hardly brings honor to either party.  First it portrays Mary Todd as the nineteenth-century incarnation of Lady Macbeth, the scheming and manipulative wife of Shakespeare’s tragic villain.  Secondly, it portrays Abraham Lincoln as an equally scheming politician who willingly engaged in a loveless marriage in order to advance his political career by uniting himself with the wealthy and influential Todd family.  This interpretation is countered by more sympathetic historians, including Ruth Painter Randall, Jean Baker, and Catherine Clinton, see the Lincoln marriage as a genuine love match.  True, they argue, politics did play a role, not as the center of which the marriage was built upon but as a uniting factor that brought the couple together.  In fact, it was politics that brought the couple back together in 1842 when Mary Todd with the aid of a female friend teamed up with her former fiancĂ©, Abraham Lincoln, to write a series of scathing anonymous letters against their political rival James Shields.  With such divergent interpretations, it takes a brave historian who is willing to dip into such muddy waters.  Fortunately for Lincoln scholars, Kenneth J. Winkle was not deterred and has produced the wonderfully readable and thought provoking Abraham and Mary Lincoln as part of the Concise Lincoln Library published by Southern Illinois University Press.
            At only a hundred and forty-seven pages Abraham and Mary Lincoln is intended to be an introduction to the Lincoln marriage.  As part of the Concise Lincoln Library the intention of Kenneth J. Winkle’s book is to give “readers the opportunity to quickly achieve basic knowledge of a Lincoln-related topic,” according to the series message statement.  What could have been a brief and didactic biography became under the skillful hand of Winkle a fascinating examination of the Lincoln marriage within the context of the Victorian era in which they lived.  During the period in which the Lincolns married and raised their family the middle-class in which Abraham and Mary precariously resided in was going through a complex series of changes.  This naturally brought challenges into the Lincoln marriage as both Abraham and Mary struggled as they tried to fulfill the duties society prescribed for their roles, as Winkle writes, “both Lincolns strove to lead a respectable middle-class marriage, which was, after all, the ideal for Americans of their age.  Yet Abraham Lincoln continually reverted to the traditional patterns of family life in which he had been raised, while Mary Lincoln continually attempted to reproduce the upper-class lifestyle that she found so familiar” (Winkle, 61).  Despite the challenges brought into the Lincoln marriage from society and their own disparate background the couple flourished and thrived.  For Abraham Lincoln his marriage brought him the comfort and stability of a home with all of its benefits.  Lincoln’s contemporaries even remarked on the positive effects Mary had on her husband, one acquaintance remembered, “Mrs. Lincoln, by her attention, had much to do with preserving her husband’s health.  She was careful to see that he ate his meals regularly, and that he was well groomed” (Winkle, 61-62).  The marriage also brought benefits for Mary, a fact that historians have surprisingly neglected to note.  Her marriage not only gave her children to raise and love and gave her the freedom to indulge in her passion for politics by living vicariously through her husband’s political career.  No marriage is perfect, as Winkle illustrates in his study, but the Lincoln marriage should be admired for their ability to stay united in their love and devotion for each other despite the challenges they faced.
            Structured like a tradition biography, Abraham and Mary Lincoln opens with a lengthy examination of the family origins of the Lincoln and Todd families followed by an interwoven account of Abraham and Mary’s childhood focusing on the different social worlds the children resided in.  Winkle then delves into the reasons that brought Abraham and Mary to Springfield, Illinois in the 1840s.  Through their childhood and early adulthood Abraham and Mary mirrored the complex transformation in Antebellum America.  Both the Lincolns and the Todds moved repeatable West seeking economic and political advancement.  In fact, it was for economic reasons that both Abraham and Mary arrived in Springfield around the same time.  Winkle then moves his narrative forward by uniting the central characters of his book together.  In the second chapter Winkle delves into the heart of his argument that despite their differences and the challenges that the marriage faced Abraham and Mary remained committed to their union.  This challenges the prevailing view of the Lincolns marriage of one of unending torture for both participants.  True, they struggled in their society proscribed roles and often argued about their roles within the marriage, but they (unlike the Antebellum Union) were able to forage a compromise that benefited both resulting in a remarkable resilient union. 
This union would be tested as never before following Abraham Lincoln’s election and the resulting Civil War which is covered in the third chapter.  Winkle highlights that the challenges that Abraham and Mary experienced during their marriage life was only heightened during the Civil War.  Both struggled in their ability to confine to the standards of middle-class behavior.  While Abraham Lincoln’s homespun appearance became a cherished facet of American life, Mary Lincoln’s strict adherence to Victorian gentility brought her condemnation and charges of “fiddling away while Rome was burning.”  Instead, Winkle argues, Mary Lincoln was attempting to preserve the status of the White House and the Union through her costly redecoration and elaborate entertainments.  The Civil War placed a heavy burden on the Lincolns both personally and politically.  Devastated by the death of their son Willie in 1862 the Lincolns began to drift emotionally apart, though their devotion to each other never waned.  In the end it would take an assassin’s bullet to permanently separate the couple.  Winkle concludes his study with the tragic ending of Mary Lincoln who followed Queen Victoria’s example and embraced a rigid system of mourning that would make her a virtual shut-in for the remainder of her life.
Though brief, Kenneth J. Winkle’s Abraham and Mary Lincoln is an insightful examination of a complex couple who resided in an increasingly complex and divided America.  This short introduction into the Lincoln marriage introduces a number of insightful interpretations which place Abraham and Mary within the context of their era.  Abraham and Mary Lincoln simultaneously accepted and rejected their roles within American society.  Naturally, this duality brought tension into their married life, yet it was their ability to work through their work through their differences that made the Lincoln marriage a success.  Winkle’s prose is lively and engaging which makes Abraham and Mary Lincoln assessable for both the general reader and the professional historian.  While not perfect, the lack of source notes make it difficult to examine some of the questionable statements, such as that the Lincoln’s had Rose bushes in front of their Springfield home (this claim is not supported by the photographs taken of the house in 1860).  For personal reasons I respectfully disagree with Winkle’s interpretation of Spiritualism.  Based on my research there is no evidence to support the statement that the President, “after his wife offered him political and military advice on the basis of her contact with the other side, Lincoln used his presidential power to curb the visits and warn off the spiritualists” (Winkle, 101).  Compared on the whole, these little complaints do not diminish the value of Winkle’s study.  For those who are interested in the Lincolns and the Civil War, Abraham and Mary Lincoln earns a place on their bookshelf.
To Purchase:
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Abraham-Mary-Lincoln-Comcise-Library/dp/0809330490/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1343160707&sr=8-2&keywords=abraham+and+mary+lincoln
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/abraham-and-mary-lincoln-kenneth-j-winkle/1101041379?ean=9780809330492
Southern Illinois University Press: http://www.siupress.com/catalog/CategoryInfo.aspx?cid=152

The Concise Lincoln Library: http://www.conciselincolnlibrary.com/

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Orange County Roundtable

Happy Summer everyone!  I am pleased to announce that I have been invited to speak at the Orange County Civil War Roundtable in Huntington Beach on July 17, 2012.

For more information and directions please visit: http://www.cwrtorangecounty-ca.org/

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Civil War Round Table

Hi everyone!  I am pleased to announce that on February 23 I will be the featured presentor at the Civil War Round Table of the San Gabriel Valley.  I will be lecturing on Spiritualism during the Civil War and I will be presenting my findings that is the basis of my master's thesis.

When: Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Hastings Branch Library 3325 E. Orange Grove Blvd, Pasadena, CA