Historian Reacts to Courtney's Letter on 'Lincoln' Connecticut Inaccuracies

West Hartford resident Matt Warshauer, who has spoken at the Avon Free Public Library, discusses the film, Connecticut and the 13th Amendment vote in response to U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney's letter to Steven Spielberg.

U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney (D-2) released a letter Tuesday that he wrote to Steven Spielberg asking him to correct inaccuracies in his Lincoln film about how Connecticut House representatives voted.

Courtney lives in Vernon.

West Hartford historian Matt Warshauer — who gave a series of talks on the Civil War at the Avon Free Public Library in 2011 — agreed with Courtney that Lincoln inaccurately portrayed that vote. But he said that Courtney's characterization in his letter of Connecticut delegates as having “a unified front against slavery” does not reflect how divided Connecticut was on the issue.

Warshauer — history professor at Central Connecticut State University and co-chairman of the Connecticut Civil War Commemoration Commission — said that people's view of Connecticut as an anti-slavery state during the war is a common misconception.

According a copy of the Lincoln script Dreamworks made available online, two Connecticut representatives voted against the amendment that would ban slavery and one voted to ratify it in the film. Courtney wrote in his letter that Congressional records for the Jan. 31, 1865 vote verify that all four of Connecticut's representatives — "Augustus Brandegee of New London, James English of New Haven, Henry Deming of Colchester and John Henry Hubbard of Salisbury" — actually voted in favor of passing the amendment.

“I was on the edge of my seat during the roll call vote on the ratification of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery,” Courtney, who represents the Second District that stretches from Enfield to Madison, New London and Stonington, wrote to Spielberg. “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?”

While Warshauer validated Courtney's statement about Connecticut's four favorable votes, adding that the state's two senators also voted for the 13th Amendment, he said Connecticut residents weren't unified on slavery, the war or even their perspectives on Lincoln himself.

“I don’t think it’s a problem for Courtney to make the point at all that Spielberg misrepresented Connecticut," Warshauer told Patch on Wednesday. "The problem is that the broader context of Connecticut’s history doesn’t reflect what Courtney had said in his letter. The point is we weren’t unified against slavery. We didn’t primarily go to war to end slavery. And in this sense, Spielberg didn’t place us on the wrong side of history.”

The war was "not about freedom for slaves" for "most people in Connecticut," Warshauer said. Many, for instance, fought "for the idea of union," he added. Warshauer further argued that the Civil War wasn't primarily about the morality of slavery.

Josh Zembik, a media spokesperson for Courtney, clarified that the Congressman was only referring to the vote on the 13th Amendment in his reference to unity on slavery.

"The entire point of the letter is that the final vote was incorrect," Zembik wrote to Patch. "Regardless of political party, all six of the state’s Members of Congress— four in the House and two in the Senate — they all came down on the right side of history in the end."

When Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner visited Kingswood Oxford in West Hartford, Warshauer said – in an op-ed submitted to multiple media outets including Patch – that he asked him about the inaccuracies of the scene where fictitious Rep. Augustus Benjamin stands up when asked if he supported the 13th Amendment, “defiantly thundering ‘no.’”

“He (Kushner) 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,” Warshauer wrote in the submitted op-ed

In reality, James English was Connecticut’s Democratic representative in the House at the time, according to Warshauer. He was one of 10 House Democrats to cross over and vote in favor of the 13th Amendment, Warshauer said.

“They decided to change the Congressman’s name to a fictitious one, 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,” Warshauer said in his op-ed about his conversation with Kushner.

In Warshauer’s book Connecticut in the American Civil War: Slavery, Sacrifice, and Survival, he wrote that abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called Connecticut the "Georgia of New England." Warshauer wrote in the book "the simple truth is that in the ‘land of steady habits,’ one of the steadiest was a virulent racism.”

Connecticut also didn't change its constitution limiting voting rights to white people until well after the passage of the 13th Amendment and the end of the war, Warshauer said.

The Connecticut Civil War Commemoration Commission has been focusing on "telling the story of Connecticut’s role" in the war since the 150th anniversary in 2011, he said.

“I invite Congressman Courtney to join the Commission on this journey and have sent him a copy of my book in today’s mail,” Warshauer said in his article.

He stressed that he respects Courtney's service to Connecticut and that his views are nothing against him.

“He’s attempting to set the record straight and I’m doing the same," Warshauer told Patch.

Lincoln has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including the categories of Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Cinematography, Costume Design, Directing, Film Editing, Music – Original Score, Production Design, Sound Mixing and Writing – Adapted Screenplay, according to The Oscars website. The awards ceremony begins at 7 p.m. on Feb. 24 and will be televised on ABC.

A couple of hours after Zembik's dispatch, Courtney caught up with Vernon Patch via cellular phone. He was on a train heading to Connecticut in an effort to beat a snowstorm back home.

Courtney said he stands by his letter. 

Have you seen 'Lincoln'? What did you think about the portrayal of Connecticut in the movie? What do you know about Connecticut's involvement in the Civil War?


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