In “The Conspirator,” a new film by Robert Redford that dramatizes the trial of a woman executed for allegedly participating in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, there are some notable missing characters. Lincoln himself is seen, but not heard, and then not even seen whole: The camera focuses on his head, the target for the assassin’s bullet, and his feet, when he was laid out to die on a bed across the street from Ford’s Theatre. There are also no African American roles, except for a doorman outside an exclusive Washington club. Scrubbed from the film is the man who articulated the evolving purpose of the Civil War, first preservation of the Union and then liberation of the slaves, and the former slaves whose freedom has redefined the United States unto the present day.
The film, which opens April 15, uses the Civil War as an excuse to tell a different story, about what the director sees as the injustice of contemporary military tribunals, indefinite detention and the legal ambiguities of prosecuting the war on terror. The movie’s archfiend, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, even looks a bit like former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But Redford’s opus, which argues passionately that a Southern-sympathizing woman was unjustly convicted of involvement in the Lincoln conspiracy, asks viewers to do something that has become almost a cliche of art and literature of the Civil War: to set aside judgment on the war itself, to rise above sectional sympathies or thoughts about the causes and purpose of the war and participate in a long history of forgetting and oblivion. And this in a film by a director known for his liberal politics.
Civil War Battles and Casualties Interactive Map
That history of oblivion has taken many forms, and it continues today. When Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) announced Confederate History Month last year, he not only forgot to mention slavery but also forgot that earlier governors hadn’t always been so forgetful. When one predecessor, James S. Gilmore III (R), issued a Confederate History Month proclamation, he acknowledged that “the practice of slavery was an affront to man’s natural dignity, deprived African-Americans of their God-given inalienable rights, degraded the human spirit and is abhorred and condemned by Virginians, and likewise that had there been no slavery there would have been no war.”
McDonnell apologized, but the damage was done, because for a state governor to forget something as elemental as the manifest cause of the Civil War isn’t like forgetting one’s keys, or blanking on the name of a book you once read. In the symbolic landscape of Civil War memory, selective amnesia is an act of rebellion, a rear-guard repetition of ritualistic forgetting that keeps the war alive in all its ambiguity, distorted meaning and misapprehension.
Memory and revisionism
A passion for reconciliation (often premature) and selective forgetting have gone hand in hand, even from before the end of the war. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York displayed a painting called “The Consecration” by George Cochran Lambdin, part of the exhibition “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life.” For most of Lambdin’s career, the popular and successful Philadelphia artist painted trivia, little girls with dolls, dogs and kitties, and some decorative but insignificant images of flowers. But during the Civil War, he rose from polished mediocrity to paint several strikingly powerful images, including “The Consecration,” which shows a woman in gray kissing the sword of a handsome young Union soldier. The standard reading is one of farewell, a maiden reenacting an ancient gesture of fidelity to her beloved as he heads off to war.