Doug Robinson: New Spielberg movie 'Lincoln' mostly accurate, expert claims

Published: Monday, Nov. 26 2012 10:20 p.m. MST

In this undated publicity photo released by DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox, Daniel Day-Lewis, stars as President Abraham Lincoln, in this scene from director Steven Spielberg's drama "Lincoln." “Lincoln” opens in limited release Nov. 9, 2012, and nationwide Nov. 16, just after the U.S. presidential election. (AP Photo/DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox, David James)

David James, ASSOCIATED PRESS

If you haven't seen Steven Spielberg's latest movie, "Lincoln," my advice is: 1) See it. 2) Arrange to have Ross Peterson sit next to you in the theater.

Peterson, who has been teaching U.S. history for more than 40 years, first at the University of Texas and then at Utah State University (now semiretired), is a Lincoln expert and fan. The shelves in his office include a bust of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg's 10-volume Lincoln biography and every other book written about the man. He once led a tour of the Land of Lincoln.

"I've always been intrigued by how America could produce such a guy with almost no background in leadership and thrust that upon him and have him rise to the occasion the way he did," Peterson says.

What did he think of the movie?

"In all honesty, I enjoyed it," he said. "I thought people would understand it better if they had know a lot of the history. They did an amazing job of casting people, creating sets and putting characters in the roles. I noticed that none of the men had washed hair, for instance. That would have been typical of the day. They were a pretty scruffy bunch, not as primped as Washington and Adams."

Whether or not you've seen the movie yet, Peterson's observations about the film, which follow, will enhance the experience.

Some people will be upset that the movie portrays Lincoln as perfectly willing to buy votes with political favors to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. "That was Lincoln to a T," Peterson says. "They paid what we would now call lobbyists to offer favors to get those votes." Lincoln believed the end justified the means. He even fudged the truth when necessary, such as saying the Southern peacekeepers were not in Washington or Virginia, which was only technically true — they were just outside those boundaries, waiting in a harbor.

If you question the accuracy of some of the dialogue or what went on behind closed doors, it is noteworthy that John Hay and John Nicolay — the president's private secretaries, both portrayed in the movie — took notes of everything. Peterson thought the film should have shown them recording the meetings.

There's a reason that William H. Seward — Lincoln's secretary of state, played by David Strathairn — disappears at the end of the film. The plot to kill Lincoln also included simultaneous, but failed, attempts on the life of Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson by John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators. Recovering from injuries suffered in an accident, Seward was at home, resting in bed when assassin Lewis Powell showed up to kill him. Powell's gun misfired, and he had to fight his way past Seward's children and guards to leap on the bed and stab Seward in the face and neck repeatedly. Thinking he had killed Seward, he fled and was later captured and executed. All five of the wounded, including Seward, survived. All this was probably too much of a tangent to portray in the movie.

At one point in the film, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant tells Lincoln, "Sir, you look 10 years older than you did a year ago." Peterson says, "That's accurate."

One of the early scenes shows soldiers, including a black man, recite sections of the Gettysburg Address to the president. Peterson strongly doubts that happened. "I've never read that," he says. Besides, he notes, "The Gettysburg Address wasn't appreciated much at the time. The other guy who spoke at Gettysburg spoke for two hours. Lincoln's speech was criticized by the press for being too short. It was later, in looking over the great things Lincoln did, that people talked about that speech."

There are two other scenes that Peterson says probably didn't happen — mixing black and white soldiers, and Lincoln riding past dead soldiers strewn on the battlefield at Petersburg. "They were very quick to bury those bodies because of disease," he says. "Even a day later, they would exchange bodies. That's why there were few counterattacks. Lincoln did go down there (to Petersburg), though. He always visited the hospitals. Almost daily sometimes. Then he would have nightmares about it."

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