Steven Spielberg’s bioepic “Lincoln” opens in most theaters later this week, and the experience may be as impactful, in its way, on parts of Virginia as the real President Abraham Lincoln was 150 years ago.
Although the movie’s setting is in the District, notably the White House, parts of Richmond and Petersburg fill in for much for the Nation’s Capital. When filming began a little more than a year ago with the enthusiastic support and the financial help of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, 1,200 local people were hired as extras.
Star-watching at local restaurants for Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones became a hot fad. One extra, a local editor who had grown thick mutton chops for his part, texted his friends, “Spending the afternoon hanging with Steve.”
McDonnell’s office says “Lincoln” has been good business for the state. Film-makers spent $32.4 million in Virginia, for a total economic impact of $64.1 million. Some 23,580 rooms in hotels or apartments were rented.
There’s something oddly ironic about all this. Such Lincoln fervor is wildly out of synch with the real history of places like Richmond, the former Capital of the Confederacy that was burned to ashes by Union troops in 1865 on Lincoln’s command. Petersburg, which has the largest collection of antebellum houses still standing, was the scene of much bloodshed.
Lincoln’s true goals were to crush the Confederacy and seize Richmond. Freeing slaves was a secondary aim, despite what the movie might suggest. In the process, both sides acted with tremendous inhumanity.
One of Richmond’s James River Islands was a notorious Confederate prisoner camp, where many Northern troops died of disease or starvation. In the Church Hill section of town, Chimborazo Park, named after a volcano in Equador, turned into a massive Confederate Army hospital filled with thousands of wounded and dying soldiers.
Post-war history was likewise quirky. After Union occupation troops finally left, white leaders got busy with Jim Crow and conjuring romantic dreams of the past.
One priority was erecting grand statues to Confederate leaders. The first was of Robert E. Lee. When it was unveiled on May 29, 1890, some 100,000 people were on hand. More followed on elegant Monument Avenue.
History, of course, had to be reshaped. Newspaper editor and writer Douglas Southall Freeman started writing laudatory histories of Lee and his lieutenants. Some local families actually refused to celebrate the Fourth of July. As late as the 1960s, coming out parties at the tony Hotel Jefferson featured young men and women dressed in “Gone With the Wind” costumes.
Perhaps the excitement over the Spielberg movie, unveiled at a special Richmond showing Nov. 9, shows badly-needed progress. Not that long ago, the ancestors of the slaves Lincoln freed were considered irrelevant and kept under tight control. As for Lincoln, his name was mentioned rarely, if at all.
Correction: Risejugger’s comment below brought to my attention a problem with how I worded the sentence on the Richmond fire. There has long been speculation as to why the city burned, but the commenter is right that most historians say it was started by retreating Confederate troops.