LANCASTER, Pa. — On April 4, 1865, just one day after Confederate soldiers abandoned their capitol city, Richmond, Va., President Abraham Lincoln arrived at nearby City Point.
As Lincoln debarked from the sidewheeler River Queen, he passed silent rows of cannons, some owned by the U.S. Army, others captured from the rebels.
That event is a historic fact.
In the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln,” which opens nationwide on Friday, many of the cannons on display during the recreation of that scene are the property of former Lancaster Mayor Charlie Smithgall.
Smithgall, who has perhaps the most extensive privately owned collection of antique cannons in the country, furnished 12 guns for use in the movie. These included his huge 30-pound Parrott gun and massive 4 1/2-inch rifle. Mounted on heavy wooden carriages, each weighs about six tons.
Smithgall said he was contacted last fall by Dreamworks, Spielberg’s production company, about supplying cannons for the movie.
“The art director came here and picked out what he wanted,” Smithgall said. “We went through the garage and I explained to him what the guns were.”
Patting the two big guns, Smithgall said, “He loved these.”
In addition to the two large pieces, the art director also selected a 24-pound howitzer, a 12-pound howitzer, two 12-pound Napoleons and a 10-pound Parrot. (The word “pound” refers to the weight of the projectile.) Five 3-inch Ordnance Guns, with “inch” referring to the diameter of the bore, also were chosen.
Filming took place between Oct. 17 and Dec. 19, 2011. About two weeks before Thanksgiving, Smithgall, assisted by Barry Reynolds, Jimmy Murray and Billy Bertz, loaded two leased flatbed tractor-trailers with five guns each, placing two more guns on Smithgall’s small trailer.
Smithgall said hauling 12 Civil War cannons along I-95 caused “quite a stir.” Truckers on CB radios were “going nuts,” he said. Word moved ahead, reaching the ears of a friend in North Carolina, who called Smithgall.
“He heard about all these guns being moved, and he knew it was me,” Smithgall smiled.
Principal filming was done near State Farm, Va., about 30 miles west of Richmond. The property consists of thousands of acres of open ground, as well as the Powhatan Correctional Center. The land also was used as a backdrop for the 2008 HBO miniseries “John Adams.”
Smithgall’s guns were involved in three scenes. The first was Lincoln’s arrival at City Point, Va., where the guns were lined up hub-to-hub.
“They had an original photograph and they were trying to duplicate it,” Smithgall said.
During a break in the filming, Smithgall said he and the art director sat down and ate lunch at the table where, in the movie, Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), would confer.
“One of the honchos came in and started yelling at us, and we said, ‘We aren’t hurting anything,’” Smithgall said
Another part of the movie set represented the Petersburg, Va., battlefield, which Lincoln toured on horseback. Some of Smithgall’s guns were placed inside Union earthworks.
The third scene was in Richmond itself, where the original Confederate White House was given a temporary portico to make it resemble the White House in Washington, D.C. Again, Smithgall’s guns were used as background.
At no time during the six weeks the guns were on the set were they fired, and at no time did Smithgall move them himself.
“It was a union set,” Smithgall said. “If a gun had to be moved even six inches, I couldn’t push it myself. The union guys had to move it.”
Smithgall supplied some of his historical knowledge as well. For example, after they finished filming the scene at the White House, Smithgall pulled his Napoleons and howitzers from the film for the purpose of authenticity.
“I told them they wanted to use only Ordnance Rifles,” Smithgall said. “Grant, after the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864), sent back all the cannons except for the Ordnance Rifles.”
During his time on the set, Smithgall never saw Spielberg.
“I was used to the ‘Gettysburg’ movie, where (director Ronald F. Maxwell) took an active part,” Smithgall said. “When Spielberg’s people set a scene, that’s the way he films it. He comes in, shoots it long, hard and fast, and then he leaves. He trusts his people.”
Smithgall was happy to lend his expertise to a prestigious filmmaker like Spielberg.
“It was a unique opportunity for me to be able to supply the cannons and help, in a small way, Spielberg make his movie on Lincoln,” Smithgall said. “I can’t wait to see it.”