Segment from Mission Accomplished

Appomattox: The Director’s Cut

Michael Gorman, an historian and consultant for the film Lincoln, compares Spielberg’s take on Robert E. Lee’s surrender, and how Union soldiers may have really reacted.

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ED: We all have images in our mind of how wars end. If you saw the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, you might remember this image of how the Civil War ended. The two General Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, they’ve agreed to terms of surrender. The heroic music swells in the background. Lee mounts his white horse. Grant stands silently before him, then slowly takes of his hat.

Almost in unison, the US troops behind him also lift their hats to the gallant, defeated general. Lee turns and rides off. And that’s it. The war is over.

This story comes largely from one source, a Union soldier named Horace Porter. Porter was Grant’s personal aide, and he had been present at Appomattox in 1865. But he didn’t publish his account of that day for another three decades. So how close his version is to reality, well, that’s an open question.

MICHAEL GORMAN: Nobody ever corroborated this or said, you know, I saw this too.

ED: This is Mike Gorman, an historian who consulted with the Spielberg team on Lincoln.

MICHAEL GORMAN: Not that I think he’s outright lying. I just think he’s looking back with, I call it, memory eyes.

ED: Gorman’s job was to help the filmmakers get the history right. So we figured, OK, Porter isn’t the most reliable source. Even though he says all those Union soldiers took their hats off to Lee, maybe we shouldn’t put that in the film.

MICHAEL GORMAN: So I talked to Spielberg at the production meeting. And we sort of walked through what we wanted to do. And I said, you know, Horace Porter is here. I have some issues with it. I’m going to work them out. It’s going to look great. Give me about half an hour to work this out, and you can come take a look.

BRIAN: Gorman headed out to the house, where a group of actors in costume were waiting to film the scene.

MICHAEL GORMAN: So I started rehearsing with the actors. And I decided we would try a tip of the hat kind of thing. And then randomly, as Lee passed by, everybody would just acknowledge him with a manly tip of the hat or something like that. I had it looking great. I’m here to tell you. I mean, I was so happy.

See, the problem was, when you’re rehearsing actors, everybody wants to do it on cue. And action, and hat tip. So I had them all random. Some of them didn’t notice that Lee passed by, or they were talking to their buddy, and then they realized [INAUDIBLE]. Well, Spielberg showed up and said, well, you’re the one who gave me the account. It says they took off their hats. I want to have them take off their hats.

ED: And not surprisingly, they took off their hats.

MICHAEL GORMAN: And so of course, Spielberg completely overrides me. He’s Steven Spielberg. I think he can do that. So now we have them all taking all their hates in very emotional, dramatic way. And thus, we have Horace Porter on screen.

BRIAN: Now we can assume that Steven Spielberg wasn’t trying to misrepresent history. He was probably just looking for the best shot. But perhaps one reason that this shot of Union soldiers doffing their hats to Lee seemed so compelling was that it fits into the story we’re used to hearing about appomattox. You know, the idea of a gentleman’s agreement. That Grant respects Lee, and Lee respects Grant, and everybody else respects both of them. And the war ends– well, it ends with a handshake.