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Discussions of modern political divisions in the United States often include comparisons to the most divisive moment in the country’s history, the years leading up to the American Civil War (1861-1865). The suggestion here is that we should probably avoid getting ourselves so tooled up that the only way to settle things is on the battlefield.

This comparison assumes, however, that the Civil War actually solved the problems that led to so much carnage. 1865, a beautifully rendered podcast series, challenges this assumption by dramatizing the political chaos that defined post-Civil War America. After only a few episodes, one can’t help but notice that the problems we face today eerily resemble those at the conclusion of that war; perhaps even more than those which led to it.* This is particularly true if you see, as I do, that many of today’s conflicts have arisen as a privileged white majority becomes threatened by an increasingly diverse and equitable society.

1865 is told primarily from the perspective of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton—portrayed flawlessly by Jeremy Schwartz—who took up the mantle of preserving the legacy of Abraham Lincoln following his assassination on April 15, 1865. Stanton’s primary rival was the feckless and corrupt Andrew Johnson—Lincoln’s vice-president—whose presidential administration is typically viewed as one of the worst in American history.**

Beginning with Lincoln’s assassination and the massive manhunt for assassin John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators, 1865 delves into the political battles that revolved around the manner in which the defeated Southern states should be welcomed back into the Union.

Edwin Stanton wanted to honor the promises made to the formerly enslaved (Freedmen). One of these early agreements offered “40 acres and a mule” which, to this day, stands as a metaphor for African American opportunity; or more often, opportunity denied. Stanton also wanted to use federal power to secure for four million souls the full bounty of American citizenship.

President Johnson—from the Confederate state of Tennessee, by the way—was inclined to offer full amnesty to Southern aristocrats in the spirit of reunification; a path forward that would allow plantation owners to reclaim their property while Southern political leaders would reclaim their positions in local, state, and national governments.

Stanton and Johnson also disagreed on whether to maintain a military presence in the South to enforce new federal civil rights measures in regards to the Freedmen. This has been a recurring theme of civil rights efforts ever since. To wit, to what degree should the federal government intervene in the states to protect the constitutional rights of African Americans?

1865 is presented as if one was experiencing a stage play cross-bred with a 1930s-style radio broadcast including sound effects and music that encourage the imagination to travel through time.

The first thirteen episodes of Season 1—each about thirty minutes and released weekly through the summer of 2019— fulfill the dynamic vision imagined by the show’s creators. While the final three episodes of the season—exploring the motivations of Lincoln’s assassin—stray from the chronology and do not include Jeremy Schwartz, they also demonstrate the willingness of the show’s producers to experiment with a format that has become one of the internet’s greatest gifts.

Season 2 of 1865 was not released until 2021 and the time off returns the storytelling to its original quality. It also moves beyond the scope of the title while accurately dramatizing the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877) who struggled to carry on the fight waged by Lincoln and Stanton.

1865 is backed up by solid historical scholarship; entertaining and informing in equal measure. At times, I wondered if the producers had introduced material from their imaginations. Upon each occasion, a quick Google search revealed that, not only did the storyline hue to the actual timeline, it acknowledged that there are significant holes in the historical record.

For example, there is a great deal of mystery surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, including whether or not the deed had been directed by Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Davis had everything to gain with a sympathetic Andrew Johnson in the White House.

Stanton capitalizes by attempting to implicate Davis in Lincoln’s death in order to discredit Johnson’s efforts to grant amnesty to the South. 1865 presents this entire episode as the historical mystery it is. It is simply not known if the Davis conspiracy is true or if it was fabricated as a political ploy by Stanton.

While Stanton is clearly the protagonist in this story, he is no saint. Yes, Johnson is portrayed as a Trumpian politician and reasonable listeners will certainly consider him a fiend. For Stanton’s part, his own ruthless behavior is portrayed more favorably and in the spirit of the greater good. Again, it appears to me that the podcast dramatizes these events in accord with history as we now know it.

1865 addresses many of the issues we are dealing with today, especially how the country goes about managing a renegade president. The similarities are undeniable. President Andrew Johnson’s “base” of support resided within a dispossessed Southern aristocracy attempting to regain their positions of power. Indeed, this fight to “Make the South Great Again” was being fought before the war was even over.

Just as we have recently seen in our own time, President Johnson was obsessed with the manner in which he was portrayed in the newspapers. And, so as not to be troubled with cumbersome tasks, the papers were read to him by his aides. Johnson peddled in rumors and deceptions. He admired President Andrew Jackson who famously defied the legitimacy of the judicial branch. Johnson claimed to be treated more unfairly than any other president. He used political power to award supporters and silence detractors. And, if that weren’t enough, Johnson is known to have consorted with prostitutes. 

We somehow survived him, though. Perhaps we can do it again. In the meantime, I suggest educating and entertaining yourself with 1865.

*However you access 1865, you should contribute the few coins necessary to listen commercial-free.


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