The Hampton Roads Conference — 156 years ago today

Historians call it the Hampton Roads Conference. It happened 156 years ago today. Not far from where I live now, near Fort Monroe, Virginia, on February 3, 1865, Abraham Lincoln met with commissioners from the southern Confederacy to discuss a possible peace agreement.

The conference is dramatized in the Oscar winning movie Lincoln. The movie, of course, cannot give us all that was said during a roughly 4 hour meeting. What the film maker does in this scene is give us the core sentiments of the negotiating sides, creatively summed up in this short scene:

Hampton Roads Conference scene from Lincoln

“How have you held your union together? Your democracy? How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration. Your union sir, is bonded in canon-fire and death.”

Lincoln’s reply brilliantly turns those words back on Alexander Stephens. Yes, the sacrifices had been immense, but these sacrifices will ultimately be proven worthy because they were made not just for our democracy but for democracy as an idea itself. “But say all we’ve done is show the world that democracy isn’t chaos. That there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union. Say we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere. Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to? Eventually to become worthy of? At all rates whatever may be proven by blood and sacrifice must have been proved by now.”

Again, the movie clip above is a creative dramatization. Stephens and Lincoln didn’t, as far as we know, actually say these lines, but if you read the correspondences related to this meeting and the various written recollections, you can see how what’s said could be interpreted as representing the central position of Stephens and Lincoln.

By the time of this meeting it was clear the Confederacy was defeated. It was over. The Hampton Roads Conference wouldn’t lead, however, to the Confederate government surrendering. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, would continue to allow southern troops to fight and die in a hopeless cause. The Civil War would end only when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865.

Our life’s work is an act of daily creation

“We are your opus. We are the music of your life.”

My wife and I watched Mr. Holland’s Opus the other night. Over the years I’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie but never watched the entire film. Typically, when you hear someone reference the movie, which is rare these days, it’s usually a movie critic or, at best, someone over 40 remembering it as “a classic.”

When someone calls a movie “a classic” I can’t say exactly what they mean, but to me calling something a classic means it’s good art. The philosopher Roger Scruton captured it fairly well when said that “art…reconciles us to human life, gives us a sense that life has an intrinsic meaning and as such is justified in itself.” This reconciliation to life’s turns and the intrinsic meaning to be found in it is exactly what we find in Mr. Holland’s Opus.

So what’s the film about?

Glenn Holland (played brilliantly by Richard Dreyfus) is an aspiring artist who dreams of writing a great symphony and becoming a renown composer one day. But, as is often the case, life has different plans. Holland takes a job as a high school music teacher to pay the bills. He thinks he’ll do this teaching gig for a few years, save some money, and hopefully break into the music business as a successful composer. He figures he’ll do the teaching job during the day and compose during his off-time, his “spare time.” Or so he’d hoped.

But of course life is rarely that simple or cooperative. Holland’s life and job become ever more consuming: He and his wife have a child; the boy turns out to be deaf and requires special–costly–services. They buy a new home. Holland must work during the summer breaks for extra money. Holland takes on tutoring some of his students before and after class. He’s placed on various after-school committees, and he’s put in charge of the marching band. Spare time, he finds, is a commodity he has very little of for composing music.

Gradually Holland’s dream of writing a great symphony, of becoming a great artist, fades in the careless flow of time. He accepts he’s not going to be a great composer of music, at least not now. But without quite realizing it Holland had been artfully composing something all along, just not music.

After 30 years of teaching music Holland is called in and told his career as a teacher has come to an end. The school system is cutting the music program. As Holland is leaving the school for the last time he hears noise in the auditorium and goes to find out what’s happening. As he (his wife and son) enter a filled auditorium the faculty, students, and many former students from over his career, stand and cheer him. It’s a surprise retirement party. They’ve all come together to celebrate Holland’s career. Glenn Holland, like so many of us, hadn’t achieved that youthful dream. He hadn’t written that great symphony, but he had been creating a master work all along. It would be realized in the cheering and smiling faces all around him.

Holland wasn’t able to give the world a great musical symphony, but he’d given his students something very valuable. He had given himself. He had given that most precious of human gifts that one human being can give to another: caring and attentiveness. He hadn’t realized it but throughout his years of teaching he’d been composing all along, but his symphony wasn’t of musical notes and beautiful sounds, it was a grand symphony of hope and inspiration.

The final scene of Mr. Holland’s Opus

The film is a classic because it’s good art: it reconciles us to life’s realities, and allows us to see (and feel) the intrinsic meaning in this reconciliation. Like Holland, many of us have had grand dreams about what we’d hoped to accomplish in our life but it didn’t work out, or at least not in the way we’d envisioned. Instead life took us in a different direction, and, is often the case, we found happiness, success, and meaning along this different path.

It wasn’t until the end of his career that Holland recognized the impact he’d made on so many lives. The writer of this film, the artist, wants to remind us that life itself can be a work of art. It’s ultimately up to each of us to recognize the artful impact of our daily life, and decide with each daily act and choice what we’re creating and what we’d like to be remembered for.

“the true meaning of Christmas lies…

The Polar Express — “The North Pole!”

Like so many of you, I’m sure, we watch a lot of Christmas classics during the season. Last night we watched the Polar Express. You know it’s amazing what you can learn when you’re not distracted by so many other things and actually paying full-time and attention to the entire movie! Of course the kids are typically glued to what’s happening, they’re taking it all in, and while younger children can’t usually tell us afterward exactly what the message of the movie was, they do know how it made them feel…which, of course, is what all good Art is ultimately about—affecting our feelings (our heart), and thus hopefully our perspective…and from that flows our behavior and actions.

The Polar Express is about faith and the power of imagination, and how these can sustain each of us in a world where magic is still possible, in a world where we can still believe in a deeper, more connected meaning to our lives and the world around us. The Christmas season is reminder that it’s up to each of us to keep and sustain this faith.

“Just remember,” Santa said, “the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart.”

Free State of Jones

While walking through the Gettysburg battlefield museum this past June, I noticed something I hadn’t during my previous 6 or so trips: a display listing the total number of white southern men, per confederate state, that had fought for the Union and its army. The total number was over 100,000 men. That’s basically a large army of southern men rallying to Old Glory and President Lincoln. The largest number, I noticed, came from the southern state of Tennessee, where about 42,000 southern white men joined the Union army ranks. This gives a whole new meaning to the motto “the volunteer state.”

No doubt these southern men were labeled “traitors” by many of their fellow southerns. But these Southern Unionist or, more aptly, Union Loyalists, might have reminded their secessionist brethren that they had rightfully acquired that label first.

I had always known there were white southerns during the American Civil War that didn’t support secession, but they got outvoted. I think one might argue that most southerners got out-maneuvered politically and psychologically as well. Many got pulled into the war by the southern planter class who benefited the most from slave labor and the wealth it generated for their vast plantations.

This brings me to a civil war era movie I watched on Netflix the other night. It’s based on a true story. This particular story had escaped my readings over the years until the other night when I saw the movie the Free State of Jones. I hadn’t known that men (and women) in the deep southern state of Mississippi had taken up arms against the confederacy—a rebellion within a rebellion you might say.

Newton Knight was their leader and in the movie he’s played by Matthew McConaughey. Knight was a confederate solider who got furloughed by General Braxton Bragg to go home and to be with his dying father. (The movie has Knight leaving the army to bring his cousin’s—killed in battle— body home). But back home, in Jones County, Mississippi, Knight found the confederate army was confiscating food and other supplies from the locals, and not necessarily in nice way either. And of course the confederate army was hunting down deserters…at gun point…and hanging some of them, too.

On top of that, the confederate government had recently passed a new conscription law that favored wealthy southern families. The law said that for every 20 slaves a family owned, one of its male draft age members was exempt from conscription—the draft. Well…of course…it was mostly wealthy southern planters who owned 20 or more slaves. Almost needless to say the vast majority southern men (didn’t own more than 20 slaves, if any at all) in the confederate army and many weren’t pleased when the word got out about the new law. This aristocratic exemption only added to the confederate army’s desertion rate. On top of that, the whole idea of seceding from the Union hadn’t been particularly popular with many Mississippians anyway.

So Newton Knight, along with a growing band of confederate army deserters, and a number of local run-away slaves formed their own resistance army in Jones County, Mississippi. Basically, at first, their intent was to assist the Union army. They began ambushing confederate army wagon-trains and skirmishing with confederate army troops. Ultimately Knight and his band ran the confederate army out of Jones County and seized Ellisville, the county seat. Initially, Knight tried to get help from the Union Army, but he and his rebel band weren’t happy (at least in the film) with the answer they got from General Sherman. So Knight and his band declared Jones County Mississippi the Free State of Jones. They held on to Jones County until the war ended. Of course after the war you had the continuation of war (against the freed black population) by other means: the rise of the KKK, lynchings, voter suppression, etc, etc, and all kinds of other cruelties by white southerns determined to keep blacks disenfranchised.

It’s well worth your time to watch the Free State of Jones. Overall a good historical drama. A pretty good movie about an interesting aspect of Civil War history.

Dunkirk

930At the last minute I decided to go see the movie Dunkirk. The movie is based on the mass evacuation (26 May to 4 June 1940) of British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during the opening stages of WWII.

Before the Russians and the yanks got involved, the German army was pretty much taking whatever they wanted and crushing all resistance. They were steam rolling the continent. The French and British armies, woefully unprepared to face Hitler’s military juggernaut, had been pummeled and forced to retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk and wait to be evacuated to England before the encircling German army killed or captured them.

This is a war story, so one should expect the typical motifs of war and warriors: sacrifice, endurance, honor, courage, fear. They’re all here in abundance and they give to the film, as such emotions do, a raw energy, mostly dark, but with the occasional piercings of light.

The tempo of the movie is fast—rightfully so when soldiers are cornered, beaten, tired, afraid and being constantly strafed by German airplanes. The movie is told through 4 perspectives.

There’s a British army private and his attempts to get off the beach anyway he can, even if it means using deceptiveness to cut in line to board a transport ship—from which he barely escapes after the ship is sunk by a German bomb just after departing. There’s the British Navy admiral, played perfectly by Kenneth Branagh, standing stoically at the end of a long pier, directing the orderly loading of troops onto transport ships, and refusing to leave until all the troops, British and French, are evacuated. There’s the British father and son, who join the thousands of other British civilians, using their personal boats and braving the bombs and machine guns of German planes, in order to help evacuate the British army stranded on the French beach just across the English Channel.

And then, lastly, there’s the British Spitfire pilot. He was my favorite character. Alone and running out of fuel, after having his two wing men shot down, instead of turning around and returning to base, he continues to engage the enemy, fighting until the last drop of fuel is gone. Leading up to this, there’s a defining scene in the movie where this British Spitfire pilot is staring at his gas gauge. He knows if he doesn’t turn around now, he can’t make it back to England. His face is covered by a flight helmet and mask so all you see is his eyes. And that’s all you need. In those eyes you see the brief moment of struggle, the thousand yard stare as his mind hovers between two loves and two duties, and then the decision, his eyes relax, and we see a man embracing his fate. He pushes the throttle forward to chase a German bomber in the distance. He’s not turning back. No. His countrymen are on that beach getting shot at and every man must do his duty.

If you’re looking for complex character development this isn’t your movie. At the opening of the movie you’re dropped into a quickly evolving situation and you’re carried along on a fast ride. The movie is more about action and scene than dialogue and personal connection. The emotional connection you get is from the pathetic spectacle of watching men fight for their lives against the odds. To survive is to win! A terrible sense of doom lingers over those beaches, and the only thing those soldiers have is their fighting spirit and the faith in their fellow countrymen to rescue them.

About 338 thousand allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk. Over a hundred thousand by citizens coming to the rescue with their own boats. The battle was a big defeat for the allies, and yet, for the British nation it was a defeat that served the needs of the moment. The French, beaten and battered, would ultimately surrender. But the British, led by Winston Churchill, would take from this defeat the spirited determination, the fearless resolve, to fight on regardless of the odds. (Ahhh, and unlike the French, it helped—a lot—that Britain is an island nation with a channel holding back the German invasion force.)

On a scale of 1 to 5, five being the best, I’d give Dunkirk a 3.5. It lacked in a few areas in my view but overall it was a good movie and I recommend it.

If you go see it, please come back and let me know what you think.