The other day, I concluded the first of a four-part lecture series on the American Civil War for Brookdale. We started with the causes of the war and ended right at the start of the Peninsula Campaign. When it was over, a few participants came up to me to chat. Mainly a greeting, maybe saying they enjoyed it, or shared a trip they took to a battlefield. But the last person waited until everyone was gone. She said she had a question. “I didn’t want to ask this earlier because you know how people get, but do you see any similarities between now and right before the Civil War began?” My short answer was yes. She was no doubt referring to a few slides I had covering the antebellum years of our history, regarding differences in society. We seem to forget that the lines were not just drawn between pro and anti slavery, but the differences in lifestyles and views aside from that were just too great. Part of me wanted to relate it to now, but it was the first class and, well, you know how people get.
On April 5th, the Indiegogo campaign for a new Civil War short film titled Our War will be marching into action, in need of fan support to help subsidize the cost of production. The movie is to be directed and co-written by J.D Mayo, who has extensive work with independent films, as well as Civil War historian and reenactor Steven Hancock, who will be producing the film as well as writing the screenplay. Having known Mr. Hancock for many years, I can attest that his passion and knowledge for the American Civil War will make for an interesting film project, which we can be sure will be as authentic and historically accurate as possible. Pre-production has already been underway, with the filming of a teaser trailer featuring the star of the film Ryan Daniel Thompson, who appeared in two episodes of the hit AMC historical drama Turn: Washington’s Spies.
Made during the turn-Lincoln-into-anything-you-want phase that was popular for about fifteen minutes back in 2012, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies is a typical Asylum film destined for endless showings on the Scy-Fy Channel, meaning yes, it is a bad movie—a very bad movie. With a title as such, let’s not even pretend this film ever had a chance of being good, or be pretentious enough to actually sit down and take it seriously. Even with me being highly defensive of how the Civil War is portrayed on film, all I can do here is laugh and grunt “Oh my God” every other scene or two. Putting aside the fact that Bill Oberst Jr., who plays Abraham Lincoln, is an acquaintance of mine, he actually does a great job here, considering what he has to work with. He takes his role seriously amidst the chaos of a zombie apocalypse set in 1863, where both Union and Confederate soldiers are coming back to life.
I was first introduced to George Ryan by my friend Jeff Huber about five years ago. We all served on the board of trustees for a museum, which sometimes was the equivalent of fighting a war. If there was ever something that needed to be said, or something right that needed to be stuck up for, George was the one to do it. We quickly became friends, all three of us sharing a love of the American Civil War. He oversaw accounting for the museum and soon became my family’s accountant. I don’t think there are many people who looked forward to seeing their tax guy in April as much as me, because every time was cause for a conversation about the Civil War in some way. His office contained paintings and artifacts which I used to marvel at. He could talk about anything to anyone, but we more often than not got on the subject of Gettysburg. He used to take scout troops out there camping, and always looked forward to it.
I bet you missed it, didn’t you? How lucky you are. As I sit down to write this, I am indeed still wondering if fortune smiled down upon me whilst I was looking through the channels for programs to DVR and saw an Ancient Aliens episode flip across the scene, and somewhere, my brain caught the words “Civil War”. Ha! I thought. It must have just been something else. That is how my eyes saw it. As I continued to scan, I decided to go back, and sure enough there was the episode from this latest season titled, “Aliens and the Civil War”. I gasped. I laughed. Then, I cried. I decided to save it for a later date so I could sit there, laptop in hand, and devote my entire attention to a minute-by-minute blog of what was going on during the show. It was in 2011 when I took this same approach, after stumbling on “Aliens and the Old West”. It was this episode which tried to argue that Harrison Ford’s newly released Cowboys and Aliens might be more fact than fiction. If you think that previous post and this one coming up now are all part of some gigantic, three-weeks-late, history-nut April Fool’s Day joke, you are wrong. These episodes really did air. You can catch them on re-runs.
Nearly 150 years after his death, Abraham Lincoln remains a polarizing figure. To some, he is the greatest president the United States of America ever had, a man who freed the slaves and saved the Union. To others, he was a power-hungry tyrant, who invaded his own country and used back-room, sometimes scandalous politics to get what he wanted. No matter what one’s personal view of him, however, all can agree on two things: he was a master politician, and a deeply conflicted man, both internally and his public persona. No person of such high standing in American history has had his views gradually change to the point of nearly a complete reversal. No president has ever been in office in the midst of such terrible and chaotic internal strife.
It is difficult today to look back upon Abraham Lincoln and give him a singular label for what he should be remembered for, but almost always, it boils down to the slavery issue, and how he had the Emancipation Proclamation drafted and then his fight to get the 13th Amendment passed to free the slaves prior to the conclusion of the American Civil War. However, as is the case with many figures when studied through the looking glass back through history, people see what they want to see. Lincoln is a much more complicated figure to study, because at the same time this country was experiencing its single greatest moment of political dissent, Lincoln was dissenting against his own government and party, and sometimes, even himself. His views, which began as quite simple ones began to change and morph over time to what we know them as today, but to ignore the journey that he went through would be a disservice to both the man and the history of this nation.
I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. There are also a lot of people who have wanted me to do this for a long time. This afternoon, on a whim, I decided to finally go through an American History textbook and pick apart everything it had to say regarding the Civil War. While there were some facts and items strewn throughout that I liked or thought were fair, the overwhelming feeling I have for this book is one of disappointment. This is a standard middle school-level social studies textbook, used throughout the state of New Jersey and the northeastern United States. All historians understand that most textbooks are full of inaccuracies, exaggerations, and sometimes, flat-out lies. In an unrehearsed fashion, I decided to film my meandering through this book, which is open for criticism like every other literary work or piece of media available to the general public. I thought a video would be more entertaining than me just writing about it. It was very hard to keep this at a PG-13 level, but yay for me, I held back and focused on the content. Please enjoy this little rant:
With more than a hundred film credits to his name, actor Bill Oberst Jr. is a well-known star on the B-level horror circuit, cranking out what seems like an endless amount of movies every year, each one portrayed with his legendary creepiness. He has been honored by almost every horror movie organization out there, and has even been nicknamed the contemporary “Man of a Thousand Faces”. Even with solidifying himself to a genre where he is instantly recognizable, Bill is no stranger to American history, and the Civil War in particular. In 2007, he played Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in the History Channel documentary Sherman’s March, and in 2012, more comically, he appeared as Abraham Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. Even with such a title and content, Bill was determined to play Lincoln in a dignified manner, because as he explained when I interviewed him two years ago, “I really don’t like to see historical figures played for laughs and stripped of their dignity. As I saw it, I had been given a chance to play one of America’s great heroes and I was going to do that, regardless of the bizarre context. So I guarded the character against anything that would make him look ridiculous…”. Now, after many horror films in between, Bill is set to return to the screen in a “normal” role, again, in a Civil War-related movie called The Retrieval, which was made last year and has had a limited release, but is hoping for a broader one this coming spring.
I know what you’re thinking: you’re the biggest Civil War buff on the planet, right? You consider yourself a hardcore fanatic, who eats, sleeps, and breathes Civil War. Well, maybe there are a few things for you to ponder before you declare yourself king. Reenactors notwithstanding, because those people really are in a world of their own, this list is designed to draw the line between the casual reader/enthusiast and the obsessed!