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Spielberg Film Festival: Lincoln

Steven Spielberg is being honored by the Foundation for the National Archives for his film legacy, which has brought history to life on the big screen. The National Archives is celebrating the award with a film festival. Lincoln is the last film to be screened. Join us tonight, November 18, at 7 p.m. Tickets are free and distributed an hour before the screening. For details on the award, go here.

Among the official Civil War records preserved by the National Archives is a series of telegrams sent by President Lincoln during his Presidency, including this “bull-dog” telegram to General Grant.

Ulysses S. Grant earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant during the Civil War after his 1862 victory at Fort Donelson in Tennessee. For his proven military skills and for his bulldog determination to destroy the Confederate armies, President Lincoln picked Grant in March 1864 to be Lieutenant General of the U.S. Army, making him commander of all Union forces.

In June of that year, Grant set out to capture Petersburg, Virginia, the hub of a railroad system that carried food and supplies to the Confederate capital city of Richmond and to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army. Although the Union’s initial assaults failed to capture the city, they did sever some of these railroad lines. By July both Confederate and Union forces had dug in for a long, slow battle of attrition.

In August 1864, Grant protested a proposal that some of his troops be removed from Petersburg, arguing that it would weaken his hold on the city. The President agreed and sent this message to Grant offering words of encouragement.

“Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew & choke, as much as possible,” wrote the President.

Telegram from President Lincoln to Lieutenant General Grant, August 17, 1864 (National Archives Identifier 301640)

Telegram from President Lincoln to Lieutenant General Grant, August 17, 1864 (National Archives Identifier 301640)

The Confederates’ condition steadily deteriorated as Grant attempted to cut off their lifeline of supplies, while the Union forces enjoyed a constant stream of food, men, and armaments. The grim siege, which took place in a snakelike system of trenches, lasted nearly 10 months, ending just days before Lee surrendered his army to Grant.

Did Spielberg read any of these telegrams? Was he inspired by any correspondence in particular? Now is your chance to ask him a question on Twitter using the hashtag #askspielberg!

Ken Burns will handpick several tweets and share the questions with the movie director. Spielberg will answer the questions at the Foundation for the National Archives 2013 Gala and Records of Achievement Award ceremony at the National Archives, and we’ll tweet out the answers on @USNatArchives and @archivesfdn.

Or, leave your question in the comments below.

This blog post is based on the online exhibit “American Originals.”

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