Congressman Joe Courtney recently wrote a letter to director Steven Spielberg insisting that he had made a mistake in his film "Lincoln":
"I was on the edge of my seat during the roll call vote on the ratification of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. But when two of three members of the Nutmeg State's House delegation voted to uphold slavery, I could not believe my own eyes and ears. How could congressmen from Connecticut — a state that supported President Lincoln and lost thousands of her sons fighting against slavery on the Union side of the Civil War — have been on the wrong side of history?" Courtney expressed serious concern over Spielberg's lack of accuracy and requested that the mistake be corrected before the film is released on DVD.
Although I truly appreciate Congressman Courtney's enthusiasm and defense of Connecticut, his version of history isn't terribly correct — and he's not alone on this.
It's true that Spielberg, or more correctly screenplay writer Tony Kushner, got Connecticut's vote wrong. No one in the Connecticut delegation voted against the proposal to outlaw slavery. Congressman Courtney was right to protest the inaccurate depiction of events in "Lincoln." But he was off in describing the mood in Connecticut about slavery.
Kushner was recently at Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford, and I had the opportunity to ask him about this mistake in the movie. He readily admitted two things: 1) He initially didn't understand that Congress voted by last name alphabetically, not by state, and realized it only after the scene had been filmed. 2) Kushner and Spielberg needed to create some sense of drama and because Connecticut begins with a C it voted early and a resounding "No" created that drama. They decided to change the Connecticut congressmen's names to a fictitious ones, and did the same for a number of other congressmen so that the film might avoid the very controversy in which it is now embroiled.
So what's the problem with Congressman Courtney's version of our history? He insisted in his letter to Spielberg that "Connecticut provided a unified front against slavery," and that "placing the state of Connecticut on the wrong side of the historic and divisive fight over slavery is a distortion of easily verifiable facts and an inaccuracy that should be acknowledged."
What we know, however, is that Connecticut most certainly did not provide a unified front against slavery, and the real distortion of the American Civil War is that so many people today think this is the case, and more broadly that it reflects the North as a whole. These are easily verifiable facts.
Connecticut was hugely divided over fighting the war and over slavery. I document this history in my book, "Connecticut in the American Civil War: Slavery, Sacrifice, and Survival." I found that America's most famous abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, referred to Connecticut as the "Georgia of New England" and that "the simple truth is that in the 'land of steady habits,' one of the steadiest was a virulent racism."
This is a tremendously important history that every resident of Connecticut should learn, lest we whitewash our past and thereby fail to do justice to the still-lingering problems of race.
Since the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in spring 2011, the Connecticut Civil War Commemoration Commission (www.ccsu.edu/civilwar) has been focused on this story and the wider history of the war. We still have a long way to go in understanding the bloodiest war in American history, why we fought it, what it did to our nation, and its lasting legacies.
I invite Congressman Courtney to join the commission on this journey and have sent him a copy of my book. Perhaps I should mail copies to Spielberg and Kushner, too.
Matthew Warshauer is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and co-chairman of the Connecticut Civil War Commemoration Commission.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun