The US Civil War and President Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” which opens Friday is one that I plan to watch for sure. I think that Lincoln was a truly great man. It’s strange to think that there was a time when the US had an amazing giant of a man as its president, compared to whom the present leaders appear as pathetic caricatures — one of whom will be elected (or, heaven forbid re-elected) in a few days.

My fascination with Abraham Lincoln was sparked by Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War, which I first saw on PBS in the 1990s. Since then I have persuaded many friends to watch it.

Ken Burns is an amazing documentary film maker and has made many great ones but the civil war documentary is outstanding. As he puts it, what he essentially tried to do was to examine how the idea of the United States changed. Before the American civil war, you would say “the United States are;” after the civil war, it became “the United States is.”

The Civil War historian Shelby Foote, a Southerner, appears in the documentary a few times. I like his explanation of why it happened — because of a failure to compromise.

It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government’s founded on it. And, it failed.

Here’s another quote from Foote on what the civil war did:

The Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things… It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads…

Another quote:

If Americans were anything as superior as we claim to be, we would be paragons of virtue, and of course, we’re not that. But we are superior in another sense. And our superiority comes from this diversity of the way we’re made up. We can see a subject in a different way from the way a Frenchman or an Englishman or a German would see things because so many different points of view are combined in the one American mind. It gives us a view of things that’s extremely valuable to the world as well as to ourselves.

Why is the US so materially successful? It intrigues me a lot and I keep getting glimpses of the answer — or more accurately answers — in works such as the civil war documentary and from historians like Foote. I believe that part of the answer has to be that the US is a land of immigrants, and therefore as a people the Americans are more risk taking and novelty seeking than the average human.

Anyway, I am looking forward to the movie, “Lincoln.” NY Times as a piece on Daniel Day-Lewis playing the role of Lincoln.

Before I stop, here’s Ken Burns talking about the documentary.

And finally, I love the title theme song which is played 25 times in the 10-hour documentary. It was composed by Jay Unger in 1982 and is called “The Ashokan Farewell.” I thought that it had something to do with Emperor Ashoka, and then found out that “Ashokan” is a place in New York state. I wrote to Unger to tell him about Ashoka and he replied saying that he got to know about Ashoka until after he wrote the song.

Here is the song on YouTube with images of the death and destruction that the US suffered:

(If you like the song, check out the extended version.)

A few facts about the Civil War:

  • It lasted four years: from April 12, 1861 until April 9, 1865.
  • Lincoln got re-elected during the war in 1864. He was assassinated on April 15th, 1865.
  • The population of the US was around 31 million people, about 4 million of whom were slaves.
  • About 2 percent of the population died in the war — 620,000. An astonishingly high figure, comparable to a war in India in which 24 million people die. Only about 220,000 died on the battle field; the remaining 400,000 died because of disease. Remember there were no antibiotics.

Author: Atanu Dey


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