Outrageous Inaccuracies: The Grand Army of the Republic Protests The Birth of a Nation

My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog, Muster, was published earlier this week. I explore a few speeches from members of the Grand Army of the Republic in protest of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation and argue that not all white Union Civil War veterans were ready for reconciliation with former Confederates, even when they were in the seventies and eighties.

Let me know what you think!


The Indiana GAR Opposed “Birth of a Nation”

Birth of a Nation Theatrical PosterLast month, on a beautiful 63 degree day, I (perhaps foolishly) decided to go to the Indiana State Library to learn more about the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana. I found some pretty neat and noteworthy information that I hope to research further and possibly incorporate into my thesis.

In future posts I will expand further on the who, what, where, why, and how of the Grand Army of the Republic, but for now I’ll explain that each year from 1866-1949 (with the exception of 1867) the Union Civil War veterans that composed the GAR met in a National “Encampment” in which they held lavish parades, listened to speeches, remembered the sacrifices of Union veterans who had died in battle, and had “campfires” where the “Boys” had a chance to fraternize with each other and relive the experiences of war. The same “Encampment” style gathering also took place on the state level. Indiana was one of the first states in 1866 to have a functioning department of the GAR, but they fell into disrepair by 1875 and didn’t begin to have regular state meetings until 1879.

Fast forward to 1915. New technology in the form of motion picture film is beginning to gain popularity throughout the United States. A film demonstrating new camera techniques–including panoramic shots and night photography–and a captivating narrative about redemption in the wake of tragedy entitled Birth of a Nation is released and sweeps the nation to become one of the most popular, yet controversial films in cinematic history. For those not acquainted with the film, we turn to David Blight, who describes it on page 395 of his book Race and Reunion:

With its stunning battle scenes and suspenseful chases, Birth of a Nation made cinematic history… The lasting significance of this epic film is that by using powerful imagery, buttressed by enormous advertising and political endorsement, it etched a story of Reconstruction that has lasted long in America’s historical consciousness. The [Civil] war was noble on both sides, the film says, but Reconstruction in the South was directed by deranged radicals and sex-crazed blacks, especially those mulattos given unwarranted political power. The very lifeblood of civilization, of familial survival, was at stake for the exploited South; hence, white Southern men had to take law and history into their own hands. The South not only wins in the end in Birth of a Nation; it also transforms emancipation… into a reign of racial terror and the necessity of… the hooded riders of the Ku Klux Klan. When Gus, a renegade black soldier who has symbolically raped and murdered a white girl, is thrown upon the ground by Klansmen who have castrated and murdered him, the “nation” achieves a rebirth quite unlike the one [Abraham] Lincoln and [Frederick] Douglass had in mind in 1863.”

Blight goes on to point out that most African Americans vehemently opposed the film’s showing, with local NCAAP chapters throughout the country distributing pamphlets and actively protesting to get Birth of a Nation banned in movie theaters. Blight concludes with this statement on page 397, which leaves us with the impression that few others cared, including the Union veterans who played their own role in helping to end slavery sixty years earlier:

And so it was that in 1913-1915 Civil War memory was both settled and unsettled; it rested in a core master narrative that led inexorably to reunion of the sections while whites and blacks divided and struggled mightily even to know one another across separate societies and an anguished history. Reconciliation joined arms with white supremacy in Civil War memory at the semicentennial [of the Civil War] in an unsteady triumph.

To be sure, this period in American history was what James Loewen has described as “a nadir of race relations” in the United States. Over the next 35 years Birth of a Nation would make $50 million, with many whites North and South praising the film for its exciting visuals and historical accuracy. Yet Blight’s conclusion is problematic. He oversimplifies the nature of Civil War memory(ies) by suggesting that reconciliation with former Confederates necessitated the acceptance of white supremacist views and by concluding that Civil War memory(ies) were even settled at that point. They were not. Furthermore, one gets the impression from Blight that all whites accepted Birth of a Nation as the definitive film for depicting the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, when in reality that was far from the truth, especially from many Union Civil War veterans. As Barbara Gannon has pointed out, the GAR was an integrated institution in a period where segregation was the norm, and some veterans spoke out for better treatment for African Americans. They rejected the “Lost Cause” and all that entailed.

In 1916, at the annual State Encampment for the Department of Indiana GAR, comrade Milton Garrigus had this to say about Birth of a Nation and what Union veterans could do to counter it:

An exhibition of a play entitled “The Birth of a Nation,” written by a prejudiced Southerner, is traveling about the country teaching false history and excusing and justifying the horrid acts of the “Ku-Klux” and anarchistic night-riders in the South during the period of reconstruction. It poisons the minds of the people, especially the children. It was prohibited in Ohio and Kansas, but was tolerated in Indiana.

All who want to know the truth about the Ku-Klux Klan should read an interesting book entitled “A Fool’s Errand,” “by one of the fools,” which was written by a Union soldier who resided in the South when all that cussedness was carried on. It tells the whole truth and would tend to counteract the false teachings in the play alluded to.

The Committee on Reports for the Indiana GAR accepted Garrigus’s statements, so we know that at least a majority of the Indiana GAR, if not the entire department, agreed with him.

I don’t see anything about reconciliation with the South or giving into any white supremacist views here. In fact, we see a reaction against state leadership in Indiana for allowing the movie to be shown, a claim that it would “poison” the minds of children, and a book recommendation that would help readers get to the “truth.” Historians of Civil War memory(ies) have profited greatly from the work of David Blight, but it’s safe to say that we’ve still got a lot more to learn.