News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
A portrait of a president: ‘Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War’ traveling exhibit comes to Chatham
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
Step through the door of Chatham and—pow!—meet Old Abe.
Bigger than life, an 8-foot-high portrait of the slain president stands out in the center hall of the antebellum home rather like the mansion crowns Stafford Heights.
There’s no escaping his visual presence, which is perhaps just as it should be in the only house in America known to have been visited by both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Appropriate, too, that it is the Civil War sesquicentennial that brings the 16th U.S. president—however virtual—back here.
It was the war that caused him to come in the first place, on May 23, 1862, when he dined and met with his generals at what was then called the Lacy House. Stafford County and Fredericksburg were occupied by the Union army, and were on the front line in the war’s eastern theater.
The historic site’s new temporary exhibit, “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War,” explores the intertwined crises that Lincoln confronted as the nation’s chief executive—secession, slavery and wartime civil liberties. It tackles big questions:
Did the Constitution protect slavery?
Was a president justified in suspending the writ of habeas corpus and other liberties in time of war?
Could a president order the blockade of U.S. ports that were in rebellion against the national government?
Was a national draft constitutional?
“We face these same sort of questions today in our war against terrorism,” said Donald Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. “To see how Lincoln addressed them is therefore not only interesting but instructive.”
Though Lincoln remains a polarizing figure to some in the South, Pfanz said the exhibit deals with weighty matters in a neutral, professional but compelling way.
“Was he a calculating politician willing to accommodate slavery, or a principled leader justly celebrated as the Great Emancipator?” the show asks.
Giant graphics and rare images drive the narrative forward from before the Illinois lawyer’s inauguration to the moment he decided to free slaves in the Southern states not held by the Union army.
Visitors see reproductions of original documents, including a draft of Lincoln’s first inaugural speech, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.
People get to see how the incredible stresses of war rapidly and visibly aged Lincoln. A photo of his famous stovepipe hat is here, as is a life-size standing portrait that gives one a sense of his tall, lanky frame. (They seem a favorite of children.)
The show was organized by the National Constitution Center and the American Library Association, based on a previous exhibition of the same name developed by the Constitution Center.
It offers no easy answers.
Instead, the displays encourage visitors to arrive at their own opinions. They see how Lincoln struggled to reconcile his policy preferences with American ideals of liberty and equality.
The exhibit packs even more of a wallop coming on the 150th anniversary of the Union army’s seizure of Stafford and Fredericksburg.
Yet, Pfanz said, most visitors to Chatham are unaware that Lincoln toured war-torn Fredericksburg and Falmouth, or returned again and again to Stafford.
“During his presidency, he probably spent more time here than in any spot except Washington and City Point near Petersburg,” he said.
“Lincoln liked the feeling of being at the front with the troops. And he wanted to get out of Washington, D.C., and be face to face with his commanders.”
The experience, Pfanz believes, boosted the morale of both the president and his men in uniform.
Stafford historian Jane Conner, author of a book on Lincoln’s experiences here, said visitors are shocked to learn that the commander in chief stayed in Stafford at six different times for a total of 14 days.
He traveled by steamboat, train and wagon; spent 5 hours in one day on horseback reviewing more than 60,000 soldiers; witnessed a cavalry review of 13,000 to 17,000 troops—a greater sight than that seen by Napoleon; and crossed a towering, army-built bridge on foot (terrifying his Cabinet members), Conner said.
“His visits to the wounded after the Battle of Fredericksburg would even make the men cry,” she said. “They realized that he did care.”
What: “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War”
Where: Chatham Manor, 120 Chatham Lane, Stafford
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until Through May 28
Info: 540/654-5121; nps.gov/frsp or bit.ly/lincexh
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029
BIG MAN ON THE BIG SCREEN
Abraham Lincoln is about to dominate movie marquees everywhere this year, with two big Hollywood motion pictures. “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg and featuring an all-star cast, is sure to be an Oscar contender come winter while “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” envisions our favorite bearded president as an ax-wielding vampire hunter.
And in one of those films, Virginia will star in a major role.
For three months late last year, Steven Spielberg and his crew called Richmond home, filming scenes in historic Capitol Square, as well as Petersburg. Two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day–Lewis (“My Left Foot,” “There Will Be Blood”) stars in the epic as our 16th president. Sally Field plays his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.
But there are more big names in the impressive cast of this big-budget DreamWorks biopic: David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader and Joseph Gordon–Levitt as Abe’s eldest son, Robert Todd.
“Lincoln,” based on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, is set for a December release.
Can’t wait to see Lincoln on the big screen? “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is scheduled to open June 22 in theaters. In this highly fantasized tale, watch Honest Abe flex some muscle as he must get rid of some bloodsuckers before they take over the country. Blood is shed on Civil War battlefields as some fall victim to vampire attacks. Sorry, Edgar Allan Poe.
Benjamin Walker, who portrays the commander in chief, is no stranger to famous political figures. The Juilliard-trained actor dazzled audiences in another history-bending role as the lead in the Broadway rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” (Fun fact: Meryl Streep is his mother-in-law.)
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”), “Vampire Hunter” is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Seth Grahame–Smith, author of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”