Hal Holbrook on Playing Lincoln

 

Hal Holbrook starred in a miniseries back in 1974 where he played Lincoln.  The series was based on Carl Sandburg’s romantic, if dubious historically take on Lincoln in his Pulitzer winning biography.  The episodes in the miniseries do not tell the entire life of Lincoln, but rather focus on vignettes from Lincoln as a young lawyer up to his years as President.  The series had its moments, Holbrook being an actor of considerable ability, but I chiefly remember it for the makeup job of Holbrook as Lincoln:

 

It simply didn’t work for me.  It struck me as fake looking, although I admit that your mileage may vary.  A decade later Holbrook would portray Lincoln in the soap operish look at the War in North and South, and I thought the makeup was much better done:

 

 

 

Playing an historical figure who has become a national icon is rough, and especially so with Lincoln who had a strikingly unique appearance and mannerisms, and who lived before the time of audio or film recording.  It is no wonder that efforts to capture the man on stage or on film so often meet with negative or mixed results.

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Published in: on January 16, 2019 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lincoln and the Creation of Thanksgiving

 

 

In the midst of this, however, He, from Whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared, and will be duly promulgated.

Abraham Lincoln, from his last public address, April 11, 1865

Abraham Lincoln frequently throughout the Civil War called for thanks giving for Union victories and for prayers and repentance for national sins.  The idea however of an annual Thanksgiving did not spring from him but from Sarah Josepha Hale, a noted literary figure who, among other accomplishments wrote the child’s poem Mary Had a Little Lamb.  Born in 1788, for years she had led a movement for a national day of Thanksgiving to be observed annually. (more…)

Published in: on November 22, 2018 at 6:02 am  Comments Off on Lincoln and the Creation of Thanksgiving  
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Gettysburg Addresses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presidents during their presidencies make hundreds of speeches.  Most are utterly forgotten soon after they are delivered.  Even most of the speeches by a president who is also a skilled orator, as Lincoln was, are recalled only by historians and trivia buffs.  Yet the Gettysburg address has achieved immortality.

 

Lincoln was invited to say a few words at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863.  The featured speaker was Edward Everett, one of the most accomplished men in American public life, who gave a two hour oration.  It is a fine example of nineteenth century oratory, full of learning, argument and passion.  It may seem very odd to contemplate in our sound bite age, but audiences in America in Lincoln’s time expected these type of lengthy excursions into eloquence and felt cheated when a speaker skimped on either length or ornateness in his efforts.

Lincoln then got up and spoke for two minutes.

We are not really sure what Lincoln said.  There are two drafts of the speech in Lincoln’s hand, and they differ from each other.  It is quite likely that neither reflects precisely the words that Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address.  For the sake of simplicity, and because it is the version people usually think of when reference is made to the Gettysburg address, the text used here is the version carved on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle- field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow…this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here was the masterpiece of Lincoln’s passion for concise, almost terse, argument.  No doubt many in the audience were amazed when Lincoln sat down, probably assuming that this was a preamble to his main speech.

“Fourscore and seven years ago”

Lincoln starts out with an attention grabber.  Rather than the prosaic eighty-seven years, he treats his listeners to a poetic line that causes them to think and follow Lincoln back in time to the founding. (more…)

Published in: on November 19, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Gettysburg Addresses  
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Abraham Lincoln’s Ghost Walks at Midnight

Tragic is the only word to describe the life of Vachel Lindsay.  Perhaps the greatest of the poets of Illinois, he deserves his appellation the Prairie Troubador, his life was haunted by mental instability and money woes.  He committed suicide at age 52 in 1931 by drinking a bottle of Lysol.  His last words indicated the paranoia that beset him at the end:  “They tried to get me; I got them first!”

A sad life, but a great talent.  In 1914, anguished by the outbreak of World War I, he wrote this haunting homage to Lincoln:

(more…)

Published in: on October 31, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Abraham Lincoln’s Ghost Walks at Midnight  
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The Almighty Has His Own Purposes

 

The American Civil War has become such a part of American folk-lore, and so romanticized by reenactments, films, movies, etc, that we sometimes risk losing sight of just how dreadful it was.  The death toll in the war would be the equivalent of us losing some six million killed in a war today and some ten million wounded, many of those maimed for life.  One quarter of the nation devastated, and a huge war debt.  Americans tend to be optimists and to view themselves as blessed by God.  How had this dreadful calamity come upon the nation was the cry from millions of Americans at the time.

Lincoln also asked this question.  In 1862 he and his wife had suffered the death of their 11 year old son Willie on February 20, 1862.  This was the second son that the Lincolns had lost and the death of Willie left Lincoln and his wife shattered with grief , almost sending Mary over the brink into madness.  The war was going badly for the Union, with many defeats, endless casualties and no end in sight.  No wonder that Lincoln began to think hard about why God was allowing these terrible events to  occur. (more…)

Published in: on September 27, 2018 at 3:30 am  Comments Off on The Almighty Has His Own Purposes  
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The Kansas Nebraska Act and the Great Change in American Politics

 

An excellent presentation in how the Kansas-Nebraska Act reshuffled American politics.  This happens periodically in American politics.  American politics seems geared to two great parties fighting it out for political dominance, and it can often seem that nothing can change in the face of such a monolithic standoff.  However the Kansas-Nebraska Act demonstrates the factors that can lead to rapid political change.  Some of the factors are:

 

  1.  Some great issue arises that the conventional political parties seem helpless to deal with.
  2. The great issue cuts across the traditional two parties.
  3.  In confronting the great issue new political alignments are formed.
  4. Out of this maelstrom one party presents to the public some hope of resolving that issue and that party goes on to achieve political dominance, usually for several decades.

When Senator Douglas dreamed up the Kansas-Nebraska Act he predicted it would raise “one hell of a storm”.  Douglas never spoke more prophetic words.  His great antagonist Abraham Lincoln immediately grasped the great significance of what had happened and he noted it in a speech on October 16, 1854:

 

It is an aggravation, rather, of the only one thing which ever endangers the Union. When it came upon us, all was peace and quiet. The nation was looking to the forming of new bonds of Union; and a long course of peace and prosperity seemed to lie before us. In the whole range of possibility, there scarcely appears to me to have been any thing, out of which the slavery agitation could have been revived, except the very project of repealing the Missouri compromise. Every inch of territory we owned, already had a definite settlement of the slavery question, and by which, all parties were pledged to abide. Indeed, there was no uninhabited country on the continent, which we could acquire; if we except some extreme northern regions, which are wholly out of the question. In this state of case, the genius of Discord himself, could scarcely have invented a way of again getting [setting?] us by the ears, but by turning back and destroying the peace measures of the past. The councils of that genius seem to have prevailed, the Missouri compromise was repealed; and here we are, in the midst of a new slavery agitation, such, I think, as we have never seen before.

 

The Compromise of 1850 seemed to ensure the maintenance of the political status quo.  Kansas-Nebraska revealed that the old political order was dying and a new one was in the process of being born.

Published in: on August 22, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Kansas Nebraska Act and the Great Change in American Politics  
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August 17, 1864: Lincoln to Grant

Lincoln and Grant

The gaunt man, Abraham Lincoln, lives his days.
For a while the sky above him is very dark.
There are fifty thousand dead in these last, bleak months
And Richmond is still untaken.
                              The papers rail,
Grant is a butcher, the war will never be done.
The gaunt man’s term of office draws to an end,
His best friends muse and are doubtful.  He thinks himself
For a while that when the time of election comes
He will not be re-elected.  He does not flinch.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

In August of 1864 the bottom seemed to be giving out from underneath the Union war effort.  Grants’s drive against Richmond and Sherman’s drive against Atlanta seemed to have stalled, with Confederate armies holding tenaciously to both cities.  Casualties, especially in the eastern theater of the War, had been appallingly high since the campaigning season opened in April, and after a massive effusion of blood the War seemed no closer to a Union victory.  Northern governors feared draft riots in their cities in the face of a growing conviction that the South could not be conquered.  On August 15, Grant wrote to Chief of Staff General Henry Halleck, in response to proposals that troops could be sent from the Army of the Potomac to put down draft riots:

CITY POINT, VA., August 15, 1864-9 p. m.

Major-General HALLECK,

Washington, D. C.

If there is any danger of an uprising in the North to resist the draft or for any other purpose our loyal Governors ought to organize the militia at once to resist it. If we are to draw troops from the field to keep the loyal States in harness it will prove difficult to suppress the rebellion in the disloyal States. My withdrawal now from the James River would insure the defeat of Sherman. Twenty thousand men sent to him at this time would destroy the greater part of Hood’s army, and leave us men wherever required. General Heintzelman can get from the Governors of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois a militia organization that will deter the discontented from committing any overt act. I hope the President will call on Governors of States to organize thoroughly to preserve the peace until after the election.

U. S. GRANT,

Lieutenant-General.

Lincoln responded to Grant, and, if the anachronism may be allowed, his message back had a Churchillian ring to it: (more…)

Published in: on August 17, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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August 8, 1862: Executive Order

Presidents have been issuing executive orders since 1789.  Prior to the Lincoln Presidency, the Executive Orders tended to be fairly rare, often only one or two a year.  Often they dealt with fairly trivial matters.  When the Marquis de Lafayette died, President Jackson issued an Executive Order saluting Lafayette as a friend of liberty and America and detailing the way in which the United States armed forces would honor his passing.  During the Civil War, Executive Orders were quite common, and often had a major impact on the people of the United States.

The Executive Order issued on August 8, 1862 is fairly typical.  The draft was proving unpopular and the Executive Order issued on August 8, 1862 dealt with attempts to evade it.  Note the suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus for all people arrested for draft evasion, along with all people guilty of “disloyal practices”.  Unlike critics of Lincoln, I believe that such measures were necessary for the preservation of the United States.  However, no one can deny that both the Union and Confederacy in that time of national crisis ran roughshod over rights and procedures that Americans hold dear.  Here is the text of the Executive Order: (more…)

Published in: on August 8, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments (5)  
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August 3, 1864: Lincoln to Grant

Anti-Lincoln Cartoon

The gaunt man, Abraham Lincoln, lives his days.
For a while the sky above him is very dark.
There are fifty thousand dead in these last, bleak months
And Richmond is still untaken.
                              The papers rail,
Grant is a butcher, the war will never be done.
The gaunt man’s term of office draws to an end,
His best friends muse and are doubtful.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

By the beginning of August 1864 Lincoln began to suspect that he was going to lose re-election and the Union was going to lose the War.  Grant, at an immense cost in blood, had pushed Lee back to Richmond and Petersburg, but both cities still were controlled by the Confederates and Lee’s army was still a force to be reckoned with.  The North was still reeling from Early’s victories in the Shenandoah, his daring raid on Washington and his burning of Chambersburg on July 30.  In the West the Confederate Army of Tennessee still clung to Atlanta, and the Confederacy still controlled almost all of its heartland.  The War seemed to be entering a stalemate, and if it remained so until November, Lincoln would be a one term president and the Union would be permanently sundered.  With that on his mind, Lincoln sent a warning telegram to Grant.  Lincoln never lost his faith in Grant, but clearly he wanted Grant to understand that unless victories were forthcoming the Union was in peril.  Ironically, in this telegram Lincoln approves Sheridan being place in command in the Shenandoah, and it was Sheridan’s string of victories in the fall that probably ensured Lincoln’s re-election:

 

(more…)

Published in: on August 3, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on August 3, 1864: Lincoln to Grant  
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July 11, 1864: Battle of Fort Stevens

 

 

The culmination of Early’s raid on Washington, the skirmishing at Fort Stevens, one of the many forts guarding Washington, on July 11-12, really didn’t amount to much, Early quickly realizing that the fort was now manned partially by veteran troops of the VI corps from the Army of the Potomac, dispatched by Grant to guard Washington, and that whatever opportunity he had ever had to seize Washington by a coup de main was now gone.

battle-of-fort-stevens-925

Early withdrew on the evening of July 12 and by July 13 was south of the Potomac, his raid on Washington becoming simply a matter for historians.  The attack on Fort Stevens is now chiefly remembered for the visit by President and Mrs. Lincoln during the engagement, and Lincoln becoming the only American president during his term of office to come under combat fire. (more…)

Published in: on July 11, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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