historian, author, film producer

Category: African American (page 1 of 4)

“Lincoln”–a brief review

Last night I went to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with my Civil War and Reconstruction class at the University of Nebraska. The theater was sold out for both showings. We actually had to sit in the very front row of the theater. I can’t remember the last time I sat in the front row–Live and Let Die, Starwars (the first, rather fourth)? Lincoln’s words and those of his opponents and supports have been in front of me lately because I am editing James A. Rawley’s last book, titled A Lincoln Dialogue. This compilation will be released posthumously next year by the University of Nebraska Press, and features many of the speeches included in Spielberg’s production.

It should be said that making biopics of presidents as commercial film is tricky business and no one has gotten it right perhaps until now. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is full of words, and yet it is gripping and humanizing. In many places it is laugh-out-loud funny. It avoids many (but not all) of the traps of this subject–such as overplaying the majesty of the office and presenting an ultimately unknowable leader. Lincoln makes none of these mistakes. Instead, this film makes us feel we know Lincoln better, more intimately, and more fully. Much of this is due to Daniel Day-Lewis, who turns in another brilliant performance here (after There Will Be Blood). When his Lincoln clasps the hand of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) as they wait in the telegraph office for the results to come in about the Battle of Wilmington, the physicality of their grip is not only authentic but truly moving. Day-Lewis has always excelled at this physical, kinesthetic acting. We too wait there with Lincoln and Stanton, and we too gradually realize that we would need another to hold us steady in the face of such anticipation of such news. This moment like so many in Lincoln is shorn of fist-pumping triumphalism. Instead, it works on our humility and common purpose. And it is spine-tingling.

Historians will be concerned that for so much of the film African American characters are observers rather than actors–they passively wait while the white politicians essentially vote them their freedom by a narrow margin. Emancipation, technically the end of slavery, is presented here as a gift to black Americans, one engineered only through shady political dealing. The subtle message is that all ennobling acts in American history, such as the passage of the 13th Amendment, are suffused with corruption, and yet therein lies the genius of the American political system, those who understand it (Lincoln), and those who created it (the Founders). In this respect Lincoln works to make many Americans proud of their history and government–indeed, the sold-out theater in Lincoln, Nebraska, last night applauded spontaneously and with gusto at the end of the film.

Black soldiers confront Lincoln in the opening scene of the film, one of them pressing for equality. A bedroom scene of an interracial “marriage” nearly closes the film–Thaddeus Stevens and his longtime lover and housekeeper Lydia Smith. Between the two scenes, however, black actors are marginal if not caricatured. Kate Masur has written about this in her recent New York Times Op-Ed on the film. Masur considers the film an “opportunity squandered.”

To my surprise Lincoln offered striking parallels to this post-election season. The film opens with his having won re-election, unsure of his second term agenda, winding down a major war, facing a recalcitrant House of Representatives, and seeing his major war measure (emancipation) open to court review and potential dismantling. Lincoln at one point says that the public had two years to consider emancipation and decided to re-elect him. The political infighting presented in Lincoln, while entertaining, suggests another missed opportunity. Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Strathairn), a former Senator from New York, and longtime political operative in the Republican Party, organizes the campaign to turn Democratic votes. But the speeches and the patronage are presented as comedy rather than what they were–knife fights in the dark. Colorful personalities aside, the idea that American politics is light-hearted mischief, eventually redeemed by the process itself, ignores not only the brutal calculations of those involved but also the depth and power of those resistant to change.

The intense appeal of Lincoln, then, over the long run will derive not from its political scenes but from its portrayal of Lincoln’s attempt to manage the political and personal consequences of the war.

This blog post was initially published November 17, 2012 and updated November 18, 2012

Master’s Graduation, August 2012

On Friday two of my students in History received their Masters. I am very proud of both of them for the hard work they put into their theses and the research they conducted. Congratulations Kaci and Trevor!

Kaci Nash wrote a terrific thesis on Northerners–soldiers, nurses, teachers, missionaries–who traveled into the South in the Civil War and the imperializing discourse they adopted in their writings. Kaci’s thesis combines traditional historical approaches and digital textual analysis for close reading. Her work is one of the first in our department to deploy Digital Humanities methodologies into the final thesis.

Kaci Nash, “On our way for the sunny south,” University of Nebraska.

One of my favorite parts of Nash’s thesis documents the ways that Northerners encountered the flora and fauna of the South: she writes “In a great display of power, soldiers often made animals targets as they traveled through the landscape on the railroad.” She quotes Rufus Kinsley near Terrebonne, Louisiana in February 1863: “From the the top of the cars where many of us stood, we saw hundreds of huge alligators, and large numbers of turtles, and a great variety of snakes, lying on large logs just above the surface of the water. We shot several, and shot at a great many.”

Kaci Nash, William G. Thomas, and Trevor Shalon, August 2012, University of Nebraska

Trevor Shalon’s Master’s thesis explores the court records of the D.C. Court of Appeals, National Archives, Record Group 21. Trevor focused on the petitions for freedom by African Americans in Washington, D.C. between 1810 and 1830, and on the early legal work of Francis Scott Key in these cases. Trevor Shalon, “A Plea for Freedom,” University of Nebraska.

Been Workin’ on the Railroad

The New York Times Opinionator Disunion series published my piece this morning “Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” This piece tells the story of Samuel Ballton, an enslaved railroad worker, who leaves slavery and joins the Union Army in the spring of 1862 during McClellan’s Virginia campaign.

For more on black railroad workers in the Civil War go to the Railroads and the Making of Modern America web site:

1. Timeline and Map of African American railroad workers incidents in the Civil War
2. The resources site for “The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America”
3. Letters, maps, documents, and images about slavery and Southern railroad development.


This past week I had the opportunity to talk with Jerry Johnston (NET Radio) about the historic significance of the year 1862, now 150 years later. We talked about the Pacific Railroad Act, the Homestead Act, and the Morrill Land Grant Act, all passed in the summer of 1862 and significant to Nebraska.

But we also discussed probably the most important event in American history–Emancipation–which unfolded across the land in a series acts by individual enslaved men and women, members of Congress, military commanders, and President Lincoln. The interview will run on NET stations in the coming week, and is available online here.

1862 was the year of emancipation. One of the most interesting parts of our discussion centered on the new AMC drama “Hell on Wheels.” Set three years later in 1865, the show has become more and more interesting and arresting as historical fiction in large part because it deals so thoughtfully with the consequences of emancipation and the aftermath of the Civil War. I was particularly impressed with the quality and nuanced portrait of this period in last episode, which begins with African American railroad worker and freedman, Elam Ferguson (played by Common), nearly lynched by Irish railroad workers for consorting with one of the white prostitutes in town. One of the important premises of the show is that the transcontinental railroad building in Nebraska in 1865 became the crossroads for so many of the promises, causes, injustices, and experiences of the Civil War. They all seemed to find their way into Hell on Wheels. We see more clearly in this show than others that time did not stop in May 1865 when the war ended. Instead, we are thrust into the middle of an incomplete transition in race relations, labor relations, and capitalist and national expansion.

The conversation with Jerry Johnston went far beyond what is included in the NET broadcast, and we have much to look forward to in 2012 as we look back 150 years to one of the most important years in American history.

Waiting for Hell on Wheels: AMC’s new drama on 1865 and the building of the transcontinental

I have to admit that I have been eagerly anticipating Sunday night’s premier of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels.” What could be better than the unheralded Anson Mount, one of the best Southern actors of our day, playing an ex-Confederate guerrilla looking for his wife’s killer after the Civil War in Nebraska, in and around the building of the Union Pacific Railroad and its rolling town of “Hell on Wheels”?

Nearly ten years ago, Mount played an FBI undercover operator in ABC’s short-lived Line of Fire. That show was set in Richmond, Virginia, and featured a mix of Southern characters much as Justified has done recently. Mount was simply excellent in Line of Fire, and so were the others (especially Leslie Hope), but the slow pace of the show and perhaps its Southernness did not connect with the audience. The Wire was able to capture for Baltimore much more of that city’s quirky and tough street life than Line of Fire could Richmond’s.

Hell on Wheels has already generated some controversy over what exactly the scene of the building of the Union Pacific might have been like and over the plausibility of the show’s mix of Union and Confederate veterans, freed slaves, Native Americans, immigrants, company executives, and town boosters. The Los Angeles Times reviewed Hell on Wheels and mistakenly referred to Colm Meaney’s character as Thomas “Doc” Duncan–it was Thomas C. “Doc” Durant. The picture of so many freedmen in the scene has prompted questions.

One controversy has erupted over whether Chinese laborers worked on the Union Pacific. The answer is no, at least not according to the Union Pacific records. Jeff Yang’s Wall Street Journal piece, “Do Chinese Pioneers Get Railroaded in AMC’s ‘Hell on Wheels’?”, examines the problem of what one commenter called “Asian invisibility.” I have found no records of Chinese laborers on in the Union Pacific payrolls in the 1865-68 period. The U.S. Census, while not the most reliable in counting some populations, recorded no persons of Chinese birth in Nebraska in 1870, nor any Chinese persons living along the counties of the Union Pacific Railroad. Yet, the U.S. Census counted even small populations of individuals, listing sixteen Chinese in Mississippi, two in Michigan, and seven in Colorado Territory that year. In 1870 the census listed 49,310 Chinese persons in California.

On the other hand, there is evidence of freedmen working on the Union Pacific as early as 1863. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior, John P. Usher, reported that year that 300 “free colored laborers” had moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to begin working on the Union Pacific Railroad. His office had been “repeatedly urged to use its influence to cause as many colored laborers as can be procured to be employed on this work.” (see John P. Usher, Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1863, p. xix, in Annual Report of the Department of the Interior)

AMC’s promotional material includes photos from the premier, and we see the black freedmen prominently in them. It would help if we could gain a renewed sense of the vast displacement and movement that came from the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Freedmen moved all over and even out of the South. Historian Leslie A. Schwalm has described the movement of freedmen into the Midwest during the war in detail (see Schwalm’s Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest). It should be no surprise that racial conflict simmered just below the surface and broke into the open at Memphis and other places, including in the North. One white former Confederate’s railroad trip in 1865, and his persistent racially bigoted views, can be found in Stephen Ash, A Year in the South: : 1865: The True Story of Four Ordinary People Who Lived Through the Most Tumultuous Twelve Months in American History (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 2004). Ash traces the story of John Robertson out of Tennessee in 1865 on his way to Chicago and then to Iowa, who finds freedmen in the depots at Nashville and Louisville and stewed that they “had forgot to get out of the way of white people.” Robertson’s annoyance at the changes all around him were further confirmed by his racial prejudices.

Whatever AMC does with this series, the Confederate gunslinging guerrilla played by Anson Mount should prove complicated. Given the recent scholarship on guerrilla warfare in the Civil War–which places the guerrilla action more at the center of the conflict and at the center of the Confederate national commitment–we might expect Mount’s character to carry the resentments and repressed loyalties of his lost cause forward. T. J. Stiles’s biography of Jesse James, for example, indicates how much of the Confederate national project came out of Missouri and continued to burn in the hearts of these men. Mark Geiger’s terrific book on Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri’s Civil War shows just how the motivations of Confederate guerrillas worked. Whether AMC will deal with the complex motivations and histories of race, white supremacy, and Confederate nationalism remains unclear. We will have to watch to find out!

In the meantime our Railroads and the Making of Modern America project includes some useful documents to put some of the AMC’s Hell on Wheels premier in perspective:

  1. Incidents of Guerrilla Warfare along the Railroads in the Civil War–Timeline and Map
  2. Incidents of Black Labor on the Railroads in the Civil War–Timeline and Map
  3. Photographs of black laborers in 1861-1865
  4. Payrolls record of the Union Pacific Railroad, 1864-1868
  5. Letters to and from Thomas C. “Doc” Durant” regarding the Union Pacific Railroad and Credit Mobilier