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Then and now: Local historian Mike Gorman, a consultant on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln film, stands at 12th and E. Cary streets, where rubble littered the landscape in April 1865. Photo illustration by Isaac Harrell and Steve Hedberg; historic photo courtesy Library of Congress
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It is believed that President Abraham Lincoln entered Richmond in the vicinity of the pontoon bridges, near today’s 17th Street. Photo courtesy Library of Congress
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Side-by-side comparison: Houses on Governor Street in April 1865 and today. Photo illustration by Isaac Harrell and Steve Hedberg; historic photo courtesy Library of Congress
They were coming out of the Wilmer McLean house the wrong way. It was the nearly picture-perfect re- creation of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse for Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, then shooting in Maymont Park.
Mike Gorman, a Richmond historian who works for the National Park Service and an on-set consultant for the movie, went straight to Spielberg's first assistant director, Adam Somner. "You've got to stop this right now," Gorman declared.
He now covers his face, somewhat embarrassed at the memory of his abruptness, explaining how in his previous four separate days on the set, he'd remained calm. He really didn't want a bad nitpicky reputation for himself. Standing behind the scenes, Gorman had watched several rehearsals play out on a monitor — but none of them was true to history. "If you're facing the McLean house, the officers came out of a fantastical room at stage left. This was not correct."
Spielberg didn't take offense. Gorman explained his objection, complete with pictures he had brought along. The director thanked him and said something to the effect of, "Well, we nearly put our foot in it that time, didn't we?"
Based on the best-selling history Team of Rivals by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln filmed last fall in locations throughout the region. The movie opens this month in U.S. theaters.
Gorman's connection to the epic film about the final four months of Abraham Lincoln's life began with a cell phone call while he was on the job as a historical interpreter at Cold Harbor National Battlefield Park.
At first, he thought it was a friend pranking him. The caller, in a soft British accent, identified himself as one Ian Stone, an assistant director for the Lincoln film. "Heard of us?" he asked. "Would you like to come give us some historical notes?" Stone gave the production office's unlikely address as the former AMF bowling plant in Hanover County.
Soon, Gorman, who is 36, was on the film set. However, he quickly realized that one of the most important moments of Richmond's Civil War drama — when Lincoln walked the streets of the smoldering Confederate capital — isn't in the film at all.
Gorman's fascination with history actually began with the stars — the ones in the sky.
Like plenty of kids, he once thought of becoming an astronaut. By the time he was in seventh grade, he'd attended two space camps and had built a history exhibit of the manned spaceflight program in his bedroom closet, complete with interpretive signs. He laughs, "We can see a trend already."
The two major strands of his professional life — a hunger for history and a facility with computers — connect back to his parents. His father, attorney Richard F. Gorman III, made sure books were put in front of him; and his mother, Kathy, an early adopter in home computing, introduced Gorman to some of the earliest PCs, including the Commodore Vic 20 of the early 1980s, a bona-fide antique these days.
Gorman's culmination of interests led to his creation, in 1998, of a massive online archive ( mdgorman.com ) about Richmond during the Civil War. It features images, newspaper accounts and other primary source material. He took on the project as an independent obsession, he says, because of a desire to quash myths and erroneous preconceptions about Richmond related to the war.
Although he is devoted to historical research and interpretation — fascinated with a four-year slice of the American story — there's an aspect to Gorman's past that one wouldn't expect: His path to becoming a historian ran smack through the middle of a ska band, the BlueBeat Revue, which spotlighted him on lead guitar.
His musical foray came after graduating Benedictine High School and attending Virginia Military Institute, which he left in his junior year for Virginia Commonwealth University.
"I needed to figure out what I wanted to do," he says. Then two things came along in Gorman's life: Ernest B. Furgurson's history of Richmond at war, Ashes of Glory , and the BlueBeat Revue.
The BlueBeat Revue played in downtown venues near where Confederate hospitals and prisons once stood. "That history was ringing up and down the streets that I knew," he says.
Onstage, he was Mike Gorman, performer, not the compiler of an Internet archive of Civil War history. But the two paths connected in 1998 when he became a volunteer for the Richmond National Battlefield Parks and was first stationed at what was then the visitor center on Chimborazo Hill. Later, he became a paid interpreter with an artillery-gun crew, to put a bang in tourists' Petersburg battlefield experience. He started in 2000 as a seasonal employee in Richmond.
Due to his efforts on the Web, he was welcomed as a two-fer: a source of technical expertise and Civil War knowledge. The park's archives also held photographic prints of almost everything related to Richmond from the Library of Congress. Gorman went to work scanning photographs in the collection, clearing up incomplete or inaccurate captions and photographic attributions.
In 2003, when local controversy arose over the issue of installing a statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad by the Civil War visitors center at Historic Tredegar, Gorman fretted over the historical accuracy of the proposed statue. Had Tad actually accompanied his father to the smoldering city of Richmond?
After two years of anxiety over the matter, and just before a 2 p.m. tour on the day of the statue's unveiling, Gorman fortuitously found a Lincoln biography that reproduced the text of a telegram from Mary Todd Lincoln, who was in Washington on April 4, 1865, and who messaged to say how much she missed her husband and their son Tad.
"Whew!" he sighs, recalling his discovery. "So I could say, yes, he at least was at City Point [Hopewell]. And why would he leave him behind when he came to Richmond — on Tad's birthday, no less?"
This hunt for Tad led to Gorman's relentless study of the hours Lincoln spent in Richmond during his impetuous visit on April 4, 1865. Most accounts — even to recent days — follow John G. Nicolay and John Hay, close associates of the president, who published the first Lincoln biography in 1890. They asserted their own account while acknowledging that available sources didn't jibe.
In 2006, a friend of Gorman's at the University of Michigan found in the school's archives a detailed letter that journalist Charles Coffin wrote to illustrator Thomas Nast responding with details for Nast to create a "realistic" depiction of Lincoln's Richmond entrance. Coffin witnessed Lincoln's arrival on the bank of the James — near today's 17th and Dock streets and Bottoms Up Pizza — and acted as his group's informal guide from the river to about Franklin and (Old) 14th streets.
Saloons and brothels enlivened this quarter of town in 1865, and around the First Market, slave auction houses and holding pens. Not Richmond's most attractive neighborhood, nor the preferred entrance. But the bridges were blown, and Lincoln needed to find Union headquarters.
"It was all accidental," Gorman says. "If I wrote this script, that Abraham Lincoln walks off a rowboat holding his son's hand, on his birthday, into smoldering Richmond from a massive fire the night before and straight into what had been the heart of the slave-trading district and a crowd of now-free people eager to see and touch the man whose leadership ended the Confederacy — it'd get rejected. It's way, way over the top."
Some might even say downright Spielbergian.
Gorman's expertise was used to stage the passage of Confederate ambassadors to Union officials at the Hampton Roads peace conference and Robert E. Lee's departure from the McLean house following his surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Through movie magic, the River Queen, the vessel on which the discussions took place, appeared in a Powhatan County field. This is where Gorman first saw President Lincoln, or rather, his portrayer, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Hands clasped behind his back, Day-Lewis watched the goings-on around the boat, as the scene was prepared. He turned. Gorman saw him and blinked. "It was the Alexander Gardner photograph come to life," he recalls. "Not an actor in a beard, fake mole and stovepipe hat." Day-Lewis didn't drop character as Gorman tried conversation with him. "Looks as though you have matters well in hand," Day-Lewis/Lincoln said. Gorman shook his head as the actor turned away: Did that just happen?
Day-Lewis' adopted accent was not quite Southern, "a little Kentucky, maybe," Gorman says quoting a contemporary description, "not a trumpet of a voice and a bit too much of the country."
He adds, "We know he didn't have this baritone that most actors have used for him." Compared to the refined Easterners of his Cabinet, Gorman explains, "He's seen as an outsider, kind of a hick."
Gorman had other requests to critique the historical accuracy of appearances and portrayals.
British actor Jared Harris ( Mad Men's Lane Pryce), cast as Grant, carried himself like a man who'd decided to shove his head through a wall, suitable to a contemporary description, but he is physically lankier than the general. When Harris asked him how he was doing, Gorman gave an honest assessment, but added that with the beard, he "had a Richard Harris thing going on."
The actor responded: "Why would I take that poorly? He was my father."
Gorman shakes his head, raises his brows, "Of course, then, all these songs from Camelot go running through my head."
Back at home with wife Tina and son Julian, Gorman reflected on his fast and intense experience. It was all like a dream, even the plentiful and delicious food. "I don't see how anybody loses weight on movie sets," he says.
Nothing happened for three weeks until Gorman's phone rang again at Cold Harbor. He was needed the next day at Appomattox, or rather its facsimile. His supervisor, Ed Sanders, gave Gorman permission to go. It was a 6 a.m. call.
Once at Maymont, huffing across the set, he heard his name crackling across walkie-talkies, "Is anybody near Mike Gorman? We need him up here immediately!" Gorman wondered if he was in trouble.
Once he'd made it to the resurrected McLean house, Spielberg, coffee in hand, approached him. He needed to know who was standing on the McLean porch as Lee left the house. Who has swords? An American Indian man working on the set was conscripted to become Ely Parker, Grant's adjutant from the Seneca tribe.
Gorman spoke to Spielberg about the Appomattox scene, trying to remember if it'd ever been filmed before. Spielberg enthusiastically recalled that it was in the miniseries North & South. D.W. Griffith also did it in Birth of a Nation.
Gorman chuckles. Here he was, having this debate with a film geek god. He said to Spielberg, "Nobody's ever done it with an eye to historical accuracy."
The director put his arm around Gorman. "Well, you're going to help us do that today."
Some things Gorman couldn't change. Like the gender of Lee's horse — the film horse is a mare. Or the color of the general's uniform — too bright, Gorman thought, but, when under lights, that hue resolved itself. Using Gorman's advice, rather than salute, the Union officers on the porch removed their hats as Lee left. The effect on Christopher Boyer, playing Lee, was powerful. "If it'd been onstage, it would've been a ‘Whoa,' moment," Gorman says. "Looked great on the monitor."
Nor could Gorman do anything about a film portraying the last four months of Lincoln's life not including his walk in Richmond, where in his long black coat on a warm day he climbed up to 12th Street and went into the house lately vacated by his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. There, he asked for a glass of water.
"I know it's not in the movie," Gorman says. For certain, he supposes, playwright Tony Kushner would have recognized the drama of this scene. Gorman's not sure why these vital moments didn't get filmed. Goodwin's Team of Rivals gives it scant mention, perhaps because the historical record conflicts.
"On one hand, I'm glad they didn't," he says reflectively. "They would've had to simplify and compress — and maybe that's why they couldn't include it. I'd have spent the rest of my life talking about what they got right and/or what they got wrong."