"The Conspirator," a movie about former President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, is in theaters. More Lincoln flicks, including a fictional account that makes him into a vampire hunter, are in the works.
The nation paused April 12 to mark the 150th anniversary of the fateful morning when secessionist forces fired the first shots of the Civil War at Federal-held Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
America, confused as it was about the conflict, would never be the same. More than a century later, people are still mixed up about the Civil War, myself included. I aced AP American history. I've read many Michael and Jeff Shaara titles. I've visited Gettysburg National Military Park multiple times. But I still feel like an idiot on the subject.
Thankfully, Alan Axelrod, Ph.D. and author of the recent release "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Civil War, Third Edition," set the facts straight during a recent interview.
Myth: America was a united nation after the Revolutionary War.
Fact: The Civil War was the conflict that really helped forge a nation, Axelrod said. At the time, there was serious contention about whether America was a federation of states or a united nation.
Yes, the revolution brought the states together for a mutual cause, but beyond that, they acted as individual political units.
During the better part of the 19th century, people thought of themselves as New Yorkers or South Carolinians rather than Americans, Axelrod said. He added that even Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, wrote that he fought for his native Virginia.
Lincoln kept the war effort going because the Constitution said that states were not allowed to secede.
"His greatest contribution was (that he) realized what the real mission was - Preserve the Union," Axelrod said. "I don't think democracy would have survived if the nation split."
Myth: The issue of slavery was not central to the Civil War.
Fact: Most of us learned that the Civil War was fought over slavery, but in recent years people have challenged that.
The North and South had opposing mentalities on various topics. But Axelrod said slavery was the issue that drove both sides to war.
"The nation would have never gone to war just over some abstract issues," he said. He added that many criticized Lincoln for not coming out strongly against slavery at the start of the Civil War. But said the Constitution protected slavery, Lincoln wanted to avoid having the issue decided by the Supreme Court.
Axelrod said it's wrong to assume that everyone in the South was devoted to the pro-slavery cause. Only about 1,800 families at the time owned 100 slaves or more, meaning their lives and livelihood depended on the practice. Many Southerners, especially the poor, didn't own slaves. Some of those men fought simply to protect their families.
Myth: Military leaders knew what they were doing.
Fact: "It was a very chaotic time," Axelrod said, even for those in charge.
Officers in command - on both sides - lacked experience. Soldiers had even less. Some were immigrants who didn't speak English.
Axelrod said scholars figured out that it took about 900 pounds of lead to kill a single soldier. That's because most shots fired never hit their intended mark. When people collected weapons at Gettysburg, they found many unfired guns and even more loaded with multiple rounds. Some soldiers were so unnerved or inexperienced, Axelrod said, that they kept loading the gun without firing it.
There were some great tacticians and strategists in the war, including Lee. But ambiguous orders often caused chaos, especially at Gettysburg. However, one of Lee's best moves came at the end of the war when he persuaded those under him not to keep the conflict going.
It was largely because of Lee that the Civil War ended instead of dragging on as a guerilla conflict for decades.
Myth: Everyone in the North was against the South and vice versa.
Fact: "Politically, people were very confused," Axelrod said.
Some in the North felt that the South should be able to secede, including Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward.
There were draft riots in many cities including New York City, Axelrod said, and many people in the North were fearful that they would lose their jobs if all of the slaves were freed and started looking for employment.
The war tore former allies apart. James Birdseye McPherson, a Union general, was killed by a man under the command of John Bell Hood, a Confederate general. McPherson had helped tutor Hood at United States Military Academy..
The war tore families apart. Kentucky Sen. John J. Crittenden, famous for drafting the last-ditch effort to prevent the war, The Crittenden Compromise, had one son who became a Union general and one son who became a Confederate general.
Myth: Confederate leaders conspired to kill Lincoln.
Fact: Axelrod said he doesn't believe that John Wilkes Booth acted at the behest of Jefferson Davis or the Southern cabinet.
There was a lot of espionage during the Civil War, and most of it originated from the South. There were also people on both sides of the conflict who wanted Lincoln dead, Axelrod said.
"I don't think Booth was a madman," he said. "I think he thought of himself as a Southern patriot."
Earlier in the war, Booth concocted a plan to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom. But as the war dragged on, it was clear that the South was losing and there was no point to hold the president ransom.
Davis knew Lincoln well, Axelrod said, and he realized that the best deal the Confederacy would get at the end of the war was with Lincoln as president. Others in the Republican Party were seeking harsh punishments for the South.
Myth?Lincoln would have survived the Civil War.
It is impossible to tell, but Axelrod is skeptical that Lincoln would have lived to see all of reconstruction if he hadn't been assassinated.
He suffered from Marfan syndrome - a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that can affect the heart. Since the ailment went untreated in the 1800s, most people died by middle age. (Lincoln was 56 when he was killed)
He also suffered from severe depression. Axelrod said that it was reported that when he was a young man in law school, he gave his friend his pocket knife because he was afraid he was going to kill himself.
Lincoln was concerned with healing the country, not punishing the South. But the stress of reconstruction could have proved to be fatal.
PopEye is a bi-weekly column focusing on the ever-changing landscape of popular culture. To reach writer Erin McCracken, call 771-2051 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
York County Has Ties to the Lincoln Conspirators
There are two (ties) that I know of, and they are intertwined. One is Ned (Edmund, Edman, Edward) Spangler, the son of a former York County sheriff, who was the stage carpenter accused of trying to help John Wilkes Booth escape Ford's Theatre. He will be the subject of my May York Sunday News column and several blog posts.
Spangler did know Booth. He reportedly worked as a carpenter at the Booth home near Bel Air, Md., (might) have lived near him in both Baltimore and Washington (D.C.) But he could have possibly even known Booth in York.
York seemed to be a good area for boarding schools. They drew . . . many students from Maryland. In the 1850s, one of these schools, the Sherwood School, run by Charles H. Bland, had a soon-to-be-infamous student. Around 1853, John Wilkes Booth attended Bland's academy, at least for a short time. A former schoolmate later remembered "Jack" Booth as a bully. The school is said to have been housed in a building originally belonging to an ancestor of Ned Spangler.
- June Lloyd, Universal York blog, www.yorkblog.com/universal
'Civil War Voices'
Authors Scott Mingus and York Daily Record/Sunday News editor Jim McClure, in conjunction with the Daily Record, York County Heritage Trust and Pennsylvania Civil War 150, published "Civil War Voices from York County, Pa.: Remembering the Rebellion and the Gettysburg Campaign."
It includes letters, diaries, oral histories and newspaper accounts that tell the stories of York County area Civil War soldiers and civilians, of their experiences on the battlefield and here at home during the Confederate invasion. Read excerpts from the book Mondays in the York Daily Record/Sunday News.
"The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Civil War, Third Edition": idiotsguides.com
"The Conspirator": www.conspiratorthemovie.com
Gettysburg National Military Park: www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm
More Civil War history: www.yorkblog.com/cannonball
More York County history: www.yorkblog.com/yorktownsquare
Download the "History 3D: Civil War" app from iTunes for $1.99. More than 20 3D images held by the Library of Congress are presented with commentary.