Abraham Lincoln hoped to take a relatively gentle approach to the former Confederate states after the conclusion of the Civil War, but, of course — I’m trying not to spoil the ending of Mr. Spielberg’s excellent film — he was, um, called away soon after it ended and, thus, was unavailable to preside over Reconstruction. Instead, that job fell to Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans, whose zealous opposition to slavery (represented in Lincoln by Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens) was commendable but whose harsh, ill-advised, and vengeful approach to the postbellum South was . . . not.
It’s impossible to know how American history and politics might have been different had Abraham Lincoln’s more conciliatory approach prevailed. But we do know that the Southern elite didn’t respond positively to their treatment at the hands of the victorious North. (Their reaction is sympathetically depicted in both the novel and the movie Gone with the Wind.)
And now, fortunately, we have this important documentary film footage from the immediate aftermath of the war, in which we see the origin of a very important icon of one Southern response to Reconstruction.