OUTRAGEOUS INACCURACIES: GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC MEMBERS PROTEST THE BIRTH OF A NATION


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Pat Young

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The GAR met as an organization in annual national and state conventions. The national “encampments” in 1915 and 1916 avoided making a statement about The Birth of a Nation, suggesting that the organization’s leaders may have wanted to avoid making any politicized statements about the film one way or the other. At least four local encampments during this time, however, protested the film’s showing and the messages it conveyed to viewers.

In Iowa, the Commander-in-Chief of the Sons of Union Veterans complained to a large crowd of GAR members that the film was unpatriotic. A.E.B. Stephens praised the states of Kansas and Ohio for banning the film and argued that it “tells the wrong story; it teaches the wrong history.” The meeting’s official recorder noted that Iowa GAR members loudly applauded Stephens.[4] In Indiana, GAR member Milton Garrigus argued that the film was “written by a prejudiced Southerner.” The Birth of a Nation taught “false history” and justified the “horrid acts” of the KKK. As the head of the Indiana GAR’s Department of Public Instruction, Garrigus warned that the film “poisons the mind, especially the children.” Instead of taking the family to the theater, he recommended that “all who want to know the truth about the Ku-Klux Klan” should read A Fool’s Errand by Albion Tourgée, a Union veteran who moved south and fought the KKK as the 7th District Superior Court Judge in North Carolina during Reconstruction.
 

Pat Young

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The D.C. wing of the GAR adopted a remarkable resolution that Sacco describes:

Black and white members of the GAR Department of the Potomac (Washington, D.C.) expressed horror at the thought of The Birth of a Nation showing in the nation’s capital. Veteran Arthur Hendricks read out a resolution to the encampment during their 1916 meeting. The resolution expressed “firm and unalterable opposition to the public sentiment” of local residents in support of the film (perhaps including President Woodrow Wilson), which the GAR believed would “debauch” the city. “The Birth of a Nation distorts all history, holds up to praise men guilty of the cruelest and most cowardly persecution of the lately enfranchised race, and slanders men and leaders who saved the Nation’s life at infinite cost to themselves,” it proclaimed. Overall, “The play is exceedingly dangerous in every respect, since its tendency is to pervert the mind of the young into glorification of a shameful persecution of the colored race; of glorifying men who resorted to cowardly midnight raids, and it slanders outrageously the loyal men who fought for the Union,” both black and white, North and South. This remarkable resolution was adopted unanimously by the Department’s members after Hendricks’s reading.
 
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So what? Cinema figures took Birth of a Nation shined it up, made the protagonist a young woman, wonderfully portrayed by a great actress, put Gone With the Wind in theaters and made lots of money on the idea that the ante bellum south was a paradise for white people and friendly blacks.
The point that was missed was the only character with 2oth century sensibilities condemned the myth at three different points in the story.
Face it, white supremacy without secession was an extremely popular movement in the 20th century.
 

Northern Light

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Thanks for posting this, Pat. I find it interesting that despite what we are told about the conciliatory nature of discourse regarding the War by this time, the Union veterans put definite limits on how far they were willing to forgive and forget. I appreciate that you have brought their concerns to our attention.
 

Pat Young

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Thanks for posting this, Pat. I find it interesting that despite what we are told about the conciliatory nature of discourse regarding the War by this time, the Union veterans put definite limits on how far they were willing to forgive and forget. I appreciate that you have brought their concerns to our attention.
Thanks.
 

Pat Young

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So what? Cinema figures took Birth of a Nation shined it up, made the protagonist a young woman, wonderfully portrayed by a great actress, put Gone With the Wind in theaters and made lots of money on the idea that the ante bellum south was a paradise for white people and friendly blacks.
The point that was missed was the only character with 2oth century sensibilities condemned the myth at three different points in the story.
Face it, white supremacy without secession was an extremely popular movement in the 20th century.
The article shows resistance from old soldiers to the Lost Cause narrative.
 
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The article shows resistance from old soldiers to the Lost Cause narrative.
But Hollywood never met them at the gap. Only the movie Horse Soldiers presents the Union soldiers as other than arsonists and murderers.
It seems to be unexploited territory, but apparently not commercially viable.
I think that between BofaN and the Burgess/Dunning interpretation we were about the enter the maelstrom unrestricted racial extermination, and somehow we turned away from that contingency.
I appreciate your postings, as always. Both the political ethos behind your work and its 21st century proficiency are impressive.
 
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So what? Cinema figures took Birth of a Nation shined it up, made the protagonist a young woman, wonderfully portrayed by a great actress, put Gone With the Wind in theaters and made lots of money on the idea that the ante bellum south was a paradise for white people and friendly blacks.
The point that was missed was the only character with 2oth century sensibilities condemned the myth at three different points in the story.
Face it, white supremacy without secession was an extremely popular movement in the 20th century.
By 1915 there were only so many Civil War vets alive. Average life expectancy for males was about 65 and the average age of Civil War era vets by 1915 should be 70 plus.
It's ironic that it was the political right not left which first exploited then only ten year old film technology. The first commercial movie and a short one at that was "The Great Train Robbery " of 1905.
Birth of a Nation is arguably the first full length political propaganda movie and it' s influence most likely will never die.
Perception is reality and movies always triumph over small civic organisations.
Leftyhunter
 
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I like the word "Photoplay" it obviously did not catch on but interesting way to describe a movie...

Raab's Statement:
Whereas, the photoplay called The Birth of a Nation is misleading even in name and falsifies events following the War of the Rebellion, and is an insult to some of the statesmen of those stirring days, a slander on the colored race of this country, and an insult to all loyal Union Soldiers who participated in the war of the rebellion.

Therefore, Be It Resolved by the Department of Michigan, in convention assembled, That we protest against the presentation of this infamous play in the State of Michigan, and earnestly request all our friends to refrain from patronizing this commercialized travesty of truth and justice.

Let's think of it this way films/movies were a new media for the masses to learn to interpret in 1915. Its like we all are learning to navigate the web and social media today.

 

John Hartwell

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By 1915 there were only so many Civil War vets alive. Average life expectancy for males was about 65 and the average age of Civil War era vets by 1915 should be 70 plus.
There were well over 150,000 living ACW veterans in 1915. Some 30,000 of the Federals marched in the G.A,R. parade in Washington on Sept. 27. But, they faded quickly after that. By 1938, there were only 10,000 left, 20 years later there were none.

This was a period of very poor race relations in the United States, it has often been claimed that racism was pervasive. Given that I think the unanimous resolution of the 20 G.A.R. Posts in the Department of the Potomac is all the more striking:

[Birth of a Nation] is exceedingly dangerous in every respect, since its tendency is to pervert the mind of the young into glorification of a shameful persecution of the colored race; of glorifying men who resorted to cowardly midnight raids, and it slanders outrageously the loyal men who fought for the Union.”
 
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#17
There were well over 150,000 living ACW veterans in 1915. Some 30,000 of the Federals marched in the G.A,R. parade in Washington on Sept. 27. But, they faded quickly after that. By 1938, there were only 10,000 left, 20 years later there were none.

This was a period of very poor race relations in the United States, it has often been claimed that racism was pervasive. Given that I think the unanimous resolution of the 20 G.A.R. Posts in the Department of the Potomac is all the more striking:

[Birth of a Nation] is exceedingly dangerous in every respect, since its tendency is to pervert the mind of the young into glorification of a shameful persecution of the colored race; of glorifying men who resorted to cowardly midnight raids, and it slanders outrageously the loyal men who fought for the Union.”
Good points. There was about 2 million men total enlisted in the Union Army but some for only three months vs 9 months vs 3 years. If we subtract deaths then by the end of the Civil War something like 1.4 million Union vets were alive vs 150k by 1915

Leftyhunter
 
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I didn't have time to watch all three hours (!!), but after skimming through a few scenes just to sample the movie, I have to ask: was this a drama or a comedy? I'm sure we have a far different mindset in 2018, but I couldn't stop laughing at the antics onscreen. It's hard to believe anyone took this seriously.
 
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Glad I stumbled upon this thread, and I've never seen "Birth Of a Nation", and I finally realize why in some old local stories that the old Confederate vets disliked the movie for being completely wrong. As someone who has recently finished working on a movie as the weapons coordinator and historical consultant, and been asked to work future films (a budget western, and I didn't want the credit as historical consultant lol), I spent a lot of time working alongside the director, (who was also the screenwriter), and actually learned a lot that could shed light on why Hollywood "screws the pooch" with history.

Directors and productions love something they call "creative license", to them it is not so much getting history right as it is making something that will sell, because as in any business one must not only get their money back, but also make a profit, the greater the profit, the more chance for future business, and I see no reason why the situation would have been any different with "Birth of a Nation". In the end it doesn't play too much a factor if a group of vets up North are upset, because the movie was gonna sell like hotcakes in the South, and among younger generations, all over the country, and possibly overseas, the basic premise I see with this movie, is two groups of people share a country, that's invaded and conquered, and one group sides with conquerors, and the righteous ones fight back. A bare basics premise such as that one will appeal to paying audiences, which will outnumber the non-paying audiences, so really in the end, its not so much about the truth, as much as it is, showing a certain point of view that'll sell.
One great example of what I said, is that while working on the recent movie, I was re-reading a book on the Republic of Texas Navy, and while doing my work, I had left the book out, several of the crew looked through it from where I had left off where Sam Houston essentially disavowed the Navy and left them to there fate, while they were doing their duty, following orders from the previous administration. The folks loved it, for they saw the potential it would have for a future movie, and make money, without to much creative license. In the end I think more than a few "movie makers" would love to do something 110% correct, but in order to reach a wider audience, they have to alter the facts for the movie's sake, because in the end, its all about money.

I hope I haven't ruffled any feathers, and I would like to thank Pat Young for putting the original movie up to see, (I was pleasantly surprised they actually used my favorite flag, the "Stars and Bars" or first National, I didn't see that one coming),
on another note, I've always heard that when they filmed the Pancho Villa movie after this one they re-used the "Confederate uniforms" form this movie.
 
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#20
Also on a side note with the movie, I find it hilarious, the US troops are wearing straight up, (most likely surplus) Indian Wars, and Spanish American War uniforms and accoutrements, with CW era fatigue caps, (bummers), while the CS troops are wearing what appear to be full on basic UCV uniforms, and some officers having jackets that greatly resemble the German "waffenrock" uniforms from before 1915. Even "Horse Soldiers" had their uniforms more right than this!
 



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