National Treasure and the Civil War

The movie National Treasure - Book of Secrets is based on allegations that the hero's ancestor was a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  The story takes us from Washington to Paris to Mount Rushmore in search of evidence that will show that Ben Gage's great-great grandfather was not involved in the plot to kill Lincoln.  The following comments are intended to elaborate on the historical elements in the story and foster further reading on those elements.

4Read more about it: National Treasure - Book of Secrets - The Official Website


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Brig. Gen. Albert Pike

In the movie the Jeb Wilkinson, Ben Gage's opponent in the search for the truth about his ancestor's role in the Lincoln assassination, was an ancestor of General Albert Pike.  Pike was indeed a Confederate Civil War general and interestingly  was appointed as Confederate envoy to the Native Americans.  In this capacity he negotiated several treaties, one of the most important being with Cherokee chief John Ross, which was concluded in 1861.  Pike was commissioned as a brigadier general on November 22, 1861, and given a command in the Indian Territory. With Gen. Ben McCullough of Texas , Pike trained three Confederate regiments of Indian cavalry, most of whom belonged to the "five civilized tribes", whose loyalty to the Confederacy was variable. 

Pike's unit was initially successful at the Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern) in March, 1861,  but  was defeated later in a counterattack. Pike came had conflicts with his superior officers and drafted a letter to Jefferson Davis complaining about his direct superior.

After Pea Ridge, Pike was faced with charges that his troops had scalped soldiers in the field. Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman also charged Pike with mishandling of money and material, ordering his arrest.  Although these charges were found to be unfounded, Pike escaped into the hills of Arkansas and resigned from the Confederate Army on July 12.  He was arrested on November 3 under charges of insubordination and treason, but his resignation was accepted on November 11 and he was allowed to return to Arkansas.

Pike was a Mason and was extremely active in the affairs of the organization, being elected Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite's Southern Jurisdiction in 1859. He remained Sovereign Grand Commander for the remainder of his life and devoted much of his time to developing the rituals of the order.

4Read more about it: Albert Pike

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Britain and the Confederacy

In the summer of 1862, from Europe's perspective, the Confederacy was beginning to look  like it might win the war. The Union's attempt to capture Richmond had failed, and the Confederates were on the offensive. The Union government was concerned that the British government might offer to mediate the war South, which would be a polite but effective way of stating that in the opinion of Britain the fight had gone on long enough and ought to be ended by giving the South its independence.

After news of the Second Battle of Bull Run reached London, the Prime Minister, agreed that there should be a cabinet meeting at which Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary would ask approval of the mediation proposal.  There was an implicit understanding that if the United States government should refuse to accept mediation, Britain would recognize the Confederacy.  The proposal was postponed until Britain received information about  Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North. If the Northerners were beaten, then the proposal would go through; if Lee failed, then Britain would wait before taking any action.

The British working class, most notably the British cotton workers during the Lancashire Cotton Famine, remained consistently opposed to the Confederacy. But the decisive factor, in the fall of 1862 and increasingly thereafter, was the Battle of Antietam and what grew out of it.  Antietam showed that Lee's invasion was not going to bring that final, conclusive Confederate triumph which had been anticipated.  It became obvious in Britain that the tide had turned in the war.  Britain concluded that it would not be advisable to offer mediation-recognition.

Far more significant than Antietam, however, was the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln  believed that the Northern government must officially declare itself against slavery. Lincoln prepared a speech but wanted a major victory to make the address. Antietam gave Lincoln that victory, and on September 22 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which said  that on January 1, 1863, all slaves held in a state or a part of a state which was in rebellion should be free.  The Union was committed to fighting for union and for human freedom as well.

In Europe the American Civil War had become something in which no western government dared to intervene. The governments of Britain, France, or any other nation could play power politics as it chose, as long as the war meant nothing more than a government's attempt to put down a rebellion; but no government that had to pay the least attention to the sentiment of its own people could take sides against a government which was trying to destroy slavery.

4Read more about it: Britain in the American Civil War

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Resolute Desk

The Resolute desk is a large nineteenth century partners' desk that is frequently selected by U.S. presidents for use in the White House Oval Office. It was a present from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880, built from the timbers of the British ship HMS Resolute. Every President since Hayes, except Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, has used the desk. President George H. W. Bush had the desk moved to the Treaty Room in the Executive Residence, but President Bill Clinton returned the Resolute to the Oval Office.

4Read more about it: Resolute Desk

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Statue of Liberty

Liberty Enlightening the World (French: La liberté éclairant le monde), known more commonly as the Statue of Liberty (Statue de la Liberté), is a large statue that was presented to the United States by France in 1886. It stands at Liberty Island, New York in New York Harbor as a welcome to all visitors, immigrants, and returning Americans. The copper patina-clad statue, dedicated on October 28, 1886, commemorates the centennial of the United States and is a gesture of friendship from France to America.  Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi sculpted the statue and obtained a U.S. patent used for raising construction funds through the sale of miniatures. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (designer of the Eiffel Tower) engineered the internal structure. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was responsible for the choice of copper in the statue's construction and adoption of the repoussé technique.

Discussions in France over a suitable gift to the United States to mark the Centennial of the American Declaration of Independence were headed by the politician and sympathetic writer of the history of the United States, Édouard René Lefèvre de Laboulaye. French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi was commissioned to design a sculpture with the year 1876 in mind for completion. The idea for the commemorative gift then grew out of the political turmoil which was shaking France at the time.

There is a sister statue in Paris and several others elsewhere in France, including one in Bartholdi's home town of Colmar, erected in 2004 to mark the centenary of Bartholdi's death; they also exist in Austria, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, and Vietnam; one existed in Hanoi during French colonial days.

4Read more about it: Statue of Liberty

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John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth (May 10, 1838 – April 26, 1865) was an American stage actor and Confederate sympathizer who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865.

Booth and a group of co-conspirators led by him planned to kill Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in a desperate bid to help the tottering Confederacy's cause. Although Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered four days earlier, Booth believed the war was not yet over since Confederate General Joseph Johnston's army was still fighting the Union Army under General Sherman. Of the conspirators, only Booth was successful in carrying out his part of the plot.

Following the shooting, Booth fled by horseback to southern Maryland and eventually to a farm in rural northern Virginia, where he was tracked down and killed by Union soldiers two weeks later. Several of the other conspirators were tried and hanged shortly thereafter.

On April 10, after hearing the news that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Booth told Louis J. Weichmann, a friend of John Surratt, and a boarder at Mary Surratt's house that he was done with the stage and that the only play he wanted to present henceforth was Venice Preserv'd. Although Mr. Weichmann did not understand the reference, Venice Preserv'd is about an assassination plot.

On April 11, Booth was in the crowd outside the White House when Lincoln gave an impromptu speech from his window. When Lincoln stated that he was in favor of granting suffrage to the former slaves, Booth declared that it would be the last speech Lincoln would ever make. "Our cause being almost lost", Booth wrote in his journal, "something decisive and great must be done."

On the morning of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Booth learned that the President and Mrs. Lincoln would be attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. He immediately set about making plans for the assassination, which included a getaway horse waiting outside, and an escape route. Booth informed Powell, Herold and Atzerodt of his intention to kill Lincoln. He assigned Powell to assassinate Secretary of State Seward and Atzerodt to assassinate Vice-President Johnson. Herold would assist in their escape into Virginia.

By targeting the President and his two immediate successors to the office, Booth seems to have intended to decapitate the Union government and throw it into a state of panic and confusion. Booth also planned to assassinate the Union commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant; however, Grant's wife had promised to visit family and so they were heading to New Jersey. Booth had hoped that the assassinations would create sufficient chaos within the Union that the Confederate government could reorganize and continue the war.

As a famous and popular actor, Booth was a friend of the owner of Ford's Theatre, John T. Ford, and had free access to all parts of the theater. Boring a spyhole into the presidential box earlier that day, the assassin could see if his intended victim had made it to the play. That evening, at around 10 p.m., as the play progressed, John Wilkes Booth slipped into Lincoln's box and shot him in the back of the head with a .44 caliber Derringer. Booth's escape was almost thwarted by Major Henry Rathbone, who was present in the Presidential box with Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln.

Booth then jumped from the President's box and fell to the stage, injuring his leg when it snagged a U.S. Treasury Guard flag used for decoration. Witnesses said he shouted "Sic semper tyrannis" (Latin for "Thus always to tyrants", the Virginia state motto) from the stage, while others said he added, "The South is avenged."

Booth's diary was found after he was killed and it was discovered that a number of pages were missing. 

4Read more about it: John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln Assassination

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Knights of the Golden Circle

The Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) was a secret society originally founded to promote the interests of the Southern United States and prepare the way for annexation of a "golden circle" of territories in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean which would be included into the United States as southern or slave states.

During the American Civil War, Southern sympathizers in the North, known as "Copperheads," were accused of belonging to the Knights of the Golden Circle. By 1863, membership in organizations influenced by it came to include many citizens and active politicians north of the Ohio River. The association was founded by George W. L. Bickley, a Virginia-born doctor, editor, and "adventurer" who lived in Cincinnati. He organized the first castle, or local branch, in Cincinnati in 1854 and soon took the order to the South, where it was well received. Its original object was to provide a force to colonize the northern part of Mexico and the West Indies and thus extend pro-slavery interests, and the Knights became especially active in Texas. Bickley's main goal was the annexation of Mexico. The South’s secession and the outbreak of the Civil War prompted a shift in the group's aims from freebooting in Mexico to support of the new Confederate government.  In late 1863, the Knights of the Golden Circle was reorganized as the Order of American Knights and again, early in 1864, as the Order of the Sons of Liberty, with Ohio politician Clement L. Vallandigham, most prominent of the Copperheads, as its supreme commander. In most areas only a minority of its membership was radical enough to discourage enlistments, resist the draft, and shield deserters. T

There are reports of the KGC continuing after 1864 as a secret group which planned to start fighting the Civil War again, as soon as a generation or two had passed and they had regained their manpower and resources.

4Read more about it: Knights of the Golden Circle

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Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon, located near Alexandria, Virginia, was the plantation home of the first President of the United States, George Washington. The mansion is built of wood in neoclassical Georgian architectural style, and the estate is located on the banks of the Potomac River.

Speaking of homes, there is an interesting connection between George Washington and Robert E. Lee.  George and Martha Washington had an adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.  Custis was the son of John Parke Custis who was a child of Martha Washington by her first marriage and a ward of George Washington.   George Washington Parke Custis built a mansion on a Virginia hillside rising above the Potomac River and overlooking Washington, D.C.  The mansion, which was intended as a living memorial to George Washington. Arlington won out as a name over Mount Washington, which is what George Washington Parke Custis first intended calling the 1,100-acre tract of land that he had inherited at the death of his father when he was three. 

George Washington Parke Custis and his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh (whom he had married in 1804), lived in Arlington House for the rest of their lives and were buried together on the property after their deaths in 1857 and 1853, respectively.  Custis' only child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married her childhood friend and distant cousin, Robert E. Lee. Lee was the son of former three-term Virginia Governor Henry ("Light Horse Harry") Lee and was himself a graduate of West Point.  Under the terms of her father's will, Mary Anna Custis Lee was given the right to inhabit and control the house for the rest of her life. Custis' will also stipulated that upon Mary Anna's death, full title would pass to her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee.

Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna, lived at Arlington House until 1861, when Virginia ratified an alliance with the Confederacy and seceded from the Union. Lee, who had been named a major general for the Virginia military forces in April 1861, feared for his wife's safety and anticipated the loss of their family inheritance. Following the ratification of secession by Virginia, federal troops crossed the Potomac and, under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, took up positions around Arlington. Following the occupation, military installations were erected at several locations around the 1,100-acre estate.

The property was confiscated by the federal government when property taxes levied against Arlington estate were not paid in person by Mrs. Lee. The property was offered for public sale Jan. 11, 1864, and was purchased by a tax commissioner for "government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes."

Arlington National Cemetery was established by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who commanded the garrison at Arlington House, appropriated the grounds June 15, 1864, for use as a military cemetery. His intention was to render the house uninhabitable should the Lee family ever attempt to return. A stone and masonry burial vault in the rose garden, 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and containing the remains of 1,800 Bull Run casualties, was among the first monuments to Union dead erected under Meigs' orders. Meigs was buried within 100 yards of Arlington House with his wife, father and son; the final statement to his original order.

Sixteen-thousand Civil War soldiers were buried at Arlington National Cemetery including the following notables:

  • Capt. Robert Todd Lincoln,  Secretary of War, son of president

  • Capt. Edward P. Doherty, Captured President Lincoln's assassin

  • Brevet Brig. Gen. Abner Doubleday, Union Civil War general

  • Maj. Gen. Philip Kearney, Union Civil War general

  • Gen. Philip Sheridan, Union Civil War general

  • Lt. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, Confederate Civil War general, U.S. congressman

  • McCullough Brothers,  Four brothers who fought in Civil War

  • 482 Confederate graves around the Confederate Monument

  • U.S. Colored Troops (blacks who served in the Union Army) whose headstones are marked with the Civil War Shield and the letters U.S.C.T. Three of these men were Medal of Honor recipients.

  • Maj. Alexander T. Augusta was the first black surgeon in the Army.

  • Five Jewish soldiers who fought and died during the Civil War serving in the Union Army.

4Read more about it: Mount Vernon, Arlington National Cemetery and Arlington House

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Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the de facto national library of the United States and the research arm of the United States Congress. Located in Washington, D.C., it is the largest by shelf space and one of the most important libraries in the world. Its collections include more than 30 million catalogued books and other print materials in 470 languages; more than 58 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America, including a Gutenberg Bible (one of only four perfect vellum copies known to exist); over 1 million US Government publications; 1 million issues of world newspapers spanning the past three centuries; 33,000 bound newspaper volumes; 500,000 microfilm reels; over 6,000 comic book titles; the world's largest collection of legal materials; films; 4.8 million maps; sheet music; and 2.7 million sound recordings.

4Read more about it: Library of Congress, Civil War Collections in the Library of Congress, and Civil War Stereographs - Enter "stereographs+civil war" in the search field - Library of Congress.

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Great Seal of the United States

The Great Seal of the United States is used to authenticate certain documents issued by the United States government. The phrase is used both for the physical seal itself (which is kept by the U.S. Secretary of State), and more generally for the design impressed upon it. The Great Seal was publicly first used in 1782.

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Revised 01/28/2011