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Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South
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Elizabeth D. Leonard: A Historian’s Review of ‘The Conspirator’

Well, I’ve just seen the new Robert Redford film, The Conspirator, and I’d like to offer some comments based on my knowledge of the historical events that the film depicts. I should begin by noting that in 2008, like a number of other historians of the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath, I was asked by the American Film Company to read and critique the script. As it turns out, I had a number of strong criticisms, some of which had to do with specific details.

For example, in the script, prosecutor Joseph Holt was identified as the “chief adjutant general” of the U. S. army rather than, properly, as the army’s judge advocate general, head of the War Department’s Bureau of Military Justice, and the preeminent arbiter of military law during the war (and after, until his retirement in 1875). Others of my criticisms of the script were more significant, having to do with the tone of the script and its apparent message. In my opinion, the original script rather bluntly—one might even say recklessly—attempted to portray Mary Surratt as the innocent, motherly representative of the poor, vanquished Confederacy, and the federal government—particularly through the characters of Edwin Stanton and Joseph Holt—as the purely vengeful, bullying victor, determined, for whatever reason, to continue punishing its now helpless and compliant former enemy. I expressed these criticisms as diplomatically as possible to the film company. They thanked me, and that was the end of my contact with them.

Having now seen the film twice (once on DVD, during which I stopped it every few minutes to take notes, and once straight through with an audience in a local theater), I can happily report that some of the details that were simply wrong in the script have been righted: Holt, for example, now appears as the judge advocate general; numerous other similar errors of detail are also no longer in evidence. Moreover, certain silly and even offensive portions of the original script have been removed entirely, such as a scene in which Mary Surratt seemed, bizarrely, to be trying to seduce Frederick Aiken in her cell!

But the film still has problems, some of which, it seems to me, remain in the realm of not terribly significant historical detail, even if I personally found them annoying. For example, Mary Todd Lincoln has to shoulder the blame for dragging President Lincoln to the theater that night, though it is safe to assume that he made the decision himself (did you catch that?).

Some problems are embarrassingly anachronistic. On this score, the most notable example has to do with Holt’s explanation to Stanton regarding the decision of five of the military commissioners to recommend that Mary Surratt’s death sentence be converted to life in prison. In the film, instead of saying that the commissioners based their decision on “her age and sex,” which is how the actual commissioners put it, Danny Huston’s Holt says they were persuaded by her “age and gender.” Once used only in relation to grammar, the term “gender” was recast by feminist scholars in the late twentieth century to distinguish between biological sex and the social construction of male/female identity. It just makes no sense whatsoever for Holt, in 1865, to have used this term as a substitute for “sex,” and I frankly can’t see why he was made to do so.

There are more troubling aspects of the film to think about, too, however: more troubling because they seem designed intentionally to convey a distorted message about this crucial event in American history. I’ll mention two of them here (though my own list is considerably longer). First, there is the whole issue of the film’s emphasis on Mary Surratt’s separateness from the rest of the prisoners at the bar. Indeed, the film makes it appear as if, although the other alleged conspirators were also present in the courtroom, Mary Surratt was on trial by herself, when in fact all eight were tried together. And in the actual trial she certainly was not seated separately at a table with her own private lawyer (incidentally, she also did not lift her veil, speak, or have a series of emotional outbursts such as we see in the film). Rather, she sat with the group and was treated, for the most part, as one of them. That the film pictures the trial differently is, I think, extremely important: I would argue that it becomes that much harder for audiences to understand the weight of evidence that fell on all of the eight collectively.

Moreover, the film suggests that Mary Surratt was set apart not just physically from the seven unequivocally despicable male defendants, but also morally. In contrast with them (and with the government’s prosecutors), she appears as a noble woman driven only by her maternal instincts to try and save her son. I don’t buy it. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to determine how much Mary Surratt knew about either the kidnap plot or the assassination plot. But I think the film has done audiences a disservice by casting her in this light.

The other point I’ll mention here has to do (not surprisingly, I’m sure) with the film’s depiction of Joseph Holt. Along with Kevin Kline’s Edwin Stanton, Danny Huston’s Holt ends up playing a villain perhaps even more unsavory than John Wilkes Booth, who at least gets credit for having a moral compass, even if one disagrees with his devotion to the Confederacy. The fictionalized Holt, however, is caricatured as a grinning but cynical, malevolent scoundrel. He not only has the commissioners (and all of the key) witnesses in his pocket, but he also shapes the trial as he sees fit—justice be damned—for no other reason than to inflict even more punishment on this broken-hearted representative of the already subjugated South which, one is encouraged to assume, was eager for peace and reconciliation with the North.

Now I would be the first to admit that Holt was a highly skilled and determined prosecutor, and he certainly believed that all eight of the defendants were guilty and hoped they would be convicted. I would even admit that during the real trial of the assassins Holt willingly (and foolishly) made use of some corrupt witnesses, particularly in his efforts to tie the assassination plot to Jefferson Davis. But to say these things is quite different from saying that Holt fiendishly and singlehandedly (or even with Stanton’s help) manipulated the trial and its outcome to suit his own vengeful ends.

I suppose that if the purpose of The Conspirator is to encourage sympathy for the defeated Confederacy in the face of the postwar North’s unbounded rage, well, it makes sense to portray Holt in this way. And if this is the case, then I think it’s no coincidence that Danny Huston’s Holt sounds like he was born and raised in the North, whereas the historical Holt was actually a native of the slaveholding South. There is no doubt in my mind that the historical Holt’s patterns of speech and his accent would have reflected the fact that he lived the first fifty years of his life in Kentucky and Mississippi.

But I can only presume that the filmmakers thought it would be simply too confusing for their oversimplified story line to portray Holt as he really was—a Southerner and former slaveholder who, at great personal cost, abandoned the South and slavery in order to defend the nation, its president, and Lincoln’s wartime policies (including emancipation) against all of the enemies who were arrayed against them.

Elizabeth D. Leonard (photo by David DeTurk)

Elizabeth D. Leonard is the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History at Colby College. She is the author of several books, including Lincoln’s Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War (W. W. Norton). UNC Press will publish Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky in October 2011.

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7 comments to Elizabeth D. Leonard: A Historian’s Review of ‘The Conspirator’

  • Fred Borch

    Hi Elizabeth:

    I guess we just haven’t seen the same film — and I guess we have been studying different history as well. “The Conspirator” is not an apology for the Confederacy and the movie I saw doesn’t have a “Lost Cause-ish” message. But we can certainly disagree about that.

    However, I’ve studied Holt just as long as you have and the fact is that both he and Stanton were determined to get quick and harsh results in the trial. Stanton wanted the conspirators tried and hanged before Lincoln was buried (and he said so). Holt agreed, but there had to some sort of trial.

    Stanton and Holt knew that a civilian trial would be a disaster because they couldn’t control the results; there is no question that they lobbied Attorney General Speed to arrive at a legal opinion that required trial by military commission—with its non-existent rules of evidence, majority vote for conviction and no right to appeal. You will remember that Holt wanted a secret trial (and only grudgingly decided to open it to the public).

    Holt hand-picked the jury. Holt presented perjured testimony at trial (and he knew it was perjured or else he was reckless, as you know). Holt participated in the commissioners’ deliberations to guarantee that they made the correct decisions.

    He wanted Mary hanged — and he got his way. But he didn’t do this because he was a vengeful or evil man — or a “fiend” as you put it. Rather, both he and Stanton genuinely believed that the assassination was part of a diabolical plot that included Jeff Davis and other Confederate leaders. And the only way to deter future similar attacks was to come down hard on the conspirators. And that is why Holt manipulated the trial of Mary and the other conspirators. Finally, having Danny Huston adopt some fake Southern accent really wouldn’t have changed much about the film.

    Full disclosure: I was one of the three history advisors on the film — as you know — along with Prof. Jim McPherson (Princeton) and Prof. Tom Turner (Bridgewater). So I guess all three of us — in your opinion — did a really poor job advising The American Film Company on this film.

  • Elizabeth Leonard

    Hi, Fred,

    As I wrote on the American Film Company’s blogsite about the film in response to your concern about my comments:

    “perhaps we really do see some aspects of the film quite differently, and even read aspects the historical record differently. And of course I respect your years of research on Holt! Moreover, there are certainly many important points of contact between us, and I agree with most of what you wrote! I would certainly agree that Holt and Stanton sought a harsh verdict for Booth’s co-conspirators. And yes, Holt did use flawed witnesses (Conover chief among them), but these witnesses were deployed to prove his grand conspiracy theory and implicate Davis, wouldn’t you agree, not Surratt? Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that in the film both Stanton and Holt seem to me to be completely two-dimensional villains, whose reasons for seeing things the way they arose only from malice, not even vaguely from their devotion to the Union (though it’s true, the film’s Stanton does make one comment about Union, but Huston’s Holt is offered no such opportunity to explain himself). I would like to have seen more explicit appreciation on the part of the filmmakers of the view that I believe Holt and Stanton both held, that such a hard war would almost certainly have to be followed by a hard peace. Instead, I think their possible motivations were distilled down to simple vengeance, and that really bothered me. Still, I am willing to entertain the possibility that my own tone in attempting to explain this view was perhaps a bit harsh!”

    The following day I added these comments:

    “I ran out of space on my last posting, and woke up this morning thinking of something that I really need to add with regard to my concerns about the portrayal of Stanton and Holt. These concerns go beyond the issue of their motivations, as they are portrayed in the film. They also include, significantly, my concern that the emphasis on Stanton and Holt’s apparent malice and steely manipulation seems to crowd out any real possibility that Mary Surratt, who is depicted, in contrast, as a pious and long-suffering mother, was rightly found guilty! Instead, the possibility of her guilt (at the very least, of knowing collaboration with Booth and her son in the developing conspiracy) is clouded by the clear “evidence” of Holt’s and Stanton’s corruption and lack of moral or professional principles, and this seems highly problematic to me.”

    I do want to add one more thing here, which did not come up in our conversation on the other website: I most certainly do NOT think that you and the other historians who consulted on the film did a bad job! My own experience of having most of my advice be dismissed by the filmmakers indicates to me that they had their own agenda, which overrode all other considerations about historical accuracy. I have complete confidence that you and Jim and Tom all advised them wisely and thoroughly–if perhaps differently in some ways than I did when I read the script–and that they chose to accept some advice and reject other advice according to their own plans. I am extremely grateful to everything you and the other historians did to try and make this film as accurate as possible, and do not hold you responsible in any way for its flaws!

  • [...] of ”Learn Our History” or The American Film Company (recently produced “The Conspirator”).  By becoming involved in the making of these films and series, historians can make more of an [...]

  • Mrs. Leonard,
    Would you please email me at lanceheads@sbcglobal.net, or contact me through my website. I have a few questions.
    Thank you,

    Randal Berry

  • John E.

    Hi Col.Borch,

    While I respect your service to the country and expertise as a historian, you and I don’t agree on many things and I welcome your rebuttal. It seems to me that your comments are based more on opinion than fact. I’m not a historian, so please feel free to correct me where I am wrong.

    I have you seen you state on many occasions that Holt or Stanton hand-picked the military commission. Can you please clarify Andrew Johnson’s May 1 Order:

    It is ordered: 1st. That the Assistant Adjutant-General detail nine competent military officers to serve as a Commission for the trial of said parties…

    Secondly, you and I disagree as to Stanton’s intent when he allegedly (according to Gideon Welles) stated the “tried and executed” line. To me, it was an emotional response to having his friend and President assassinated. At that point, there was little doubt to most that the conspirators were guilty (kind of like OJ Simpson) and that the trial and execution would be a formality. — I’d love to know your source of where “Holt agreed” with his comments.

    In any case, it was obviously beyond Stanton or Holt’s control as the trial didn’t begin until May 9 and lasted nearly two months. In addition, Holt wanted the trial to be secret because there was still an ongoing investigation as to Jefferson Davis’ involvement. It was hard to deny the country (and newspapers) its desire for “transparency” in the proceedings and concessions were made to open the trial to the public and print the day’s testimony in the daily papers.

    So now we have: A military trial, where defendants are REQUIRED BY MILITARY LAW to have legal representation (not the case in a civil trial in 1865), a military commission selected not by Stanton or Holt but by the Asst. Adjutant General and transparency in the press.

    If Stanton and Holt were so powerful, why weren’t these issues squashed ?

    Once the military commission was approved by Andrew Johnson (at Attorney General Speed’s suggestion), justice was given its due course. ** Again, please cite your source for Stanton and Holt lobbying Attorney General Speed for a military trial. If it’s a matter of opinion, then please state so.

    The Attorney General’s role was to advise the President, not the other way around. And why would Johnson even ask the AG for his ruling when he could have ordered it to begin with ?

    As for Holt’s role as adviser to the military commission, it was his responsibility to make sure the commission arrived at decisions correctly, not that they arrived at the correct decisions.

    To imply that Holt bullied or coerced a commission made up of 8 Generals and one Colonel into making the decisions he wanted is pure speculation (unless you have proof of course).

    In fact, its a bit of a disservice to say that these field officers who laid their lives on the line in battle would cower to Holt and do as they were told, even if it went against their better judgement and responsibility. –> That’s the stuff of Movies (wink, wink). These were men of honor in a time when honor meant something.

    You should know better than anyone how damaging false and unfounded accusations can be. Your resignation from the Guantanamo hearings after being falsely accused of trying to manipulate the military commissions is well documented. If I recall, you stated the accusations by three different people were “Monstrous lies”.

    In the end, only 4 of the 8 conspirators were executed, proving again that justice and the rule of law prevailed against what you claimed Holt and Stanton wanted.

    Thanks in advance for your rebuttal.

    John E.

  • John E.

    I forgot to mention that despite the liberties taken to tell Mary Surratt’s story, I was thrilled to see it come to the big screen.

    I give plenty of kudos to the American Film Company and its entire team for bringing this little known story to the American Public.

    If it encourages people to learn more about American history and search for their own conculsions, then it did a wonderful service.

  • [...] pious and long-suffering mother, was rightly found guilty!” You can visit here for a full review: http://uncpresscivilwar150.com/2011/05/elizabeth-d-leonard-a-historians-review-of-the-conspirator/ Yes, unfortunately there appears to be an interest in smearing the memory of the great patriot, [...]

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