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

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

When the motion picture film The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, most veterans of the American Civil War were in their seventies and eighties. Membership in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—the largest fraternal organization of Union veterans in the country—had declined by that time to 160,000 members, less than half of its peak size in 1890.[1] The war had ended fifty years ago. For many Americans too young to experience it firsthand, their understanding of the Civil War era was a recipe cooked with history textbooks, monuments, literature, stories from veterans, and imagination. The Birth of a Nation soon became a central ingredient in this dish. With its dramatic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic redeemer of the defeated South against the evils of “carpetbag and negro misrule” during Reconstruction, white Americans throughout the country praised the film’s accuracy and artistry. These sentiments were so commonplace that historian David Blight famously argued in 2001 that the country’s collective memory of the Civil War and its aftermath “rested on 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.”[2]

Newspaper ads and positive film reviews like those published in The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram (Indiana) promoted The Birth of a Nation as a work of scholarship “rich in historical value.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Numerous historians have since challenged Blight’s claim with regards to the memories of Civil War veterans on both sides. Barbara Gannon, Caroline Janney, and M. Keith Harris have convincingly demonstrated that a good number of GAR veterans—both black and white—remembered the war as a fight for Union and emancipation. They continued to harbor bitter resentments against former Confederates after the war and conditioned sectional reconciliation upon a recognition of their “Won Cause.”[3] But what did the organization’s aging veterans have to say about The Birth of a Nation and its representation of the Civil War era?

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.[5]

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.[6]

Members of the Grand Army of the Republic at the 1915 National Encampment in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the most vocal opponent of The Birth of a Nation was George Raab of Flint, Michigan. A native of Germany and veteran of the 4th Michigan Cavalry that helped capture Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Raab stood before his fellow GAR members in 1915 and asked if they had seen The Birth of a Nation.[7] When another member stated that he thought the film was “fine,” Raab demanded that the Michigan GAR issue a resolution against it. “It is historically misleading, and an absolute insult to everyone of us here.” Sensing that the country’s collective memory of the war was changing, Raab argued that “thirty years ago it would have never been shown in the north.” Now it was actively being celebrated, especially by those too young to have lived throughout the period. Equally important to Raab, “the colored men went with us shoulder to shoulder and helped to put down the rebellion, and those southerners, after the war, maltreated them worse than dogs. Why should we soldiers of the north eulogize the play and spread broadcast that it is a wonderful thing?”[8]

Raab’s speech prompted impassioned support. Another comrade argued that a resolution was needed “to protect the youth and the old soldiers of the north . . . there are several things in it which are misleading in so far as the colored soldiers are concerned and also history is grossly misrepresented.” Raab responded by asserting that Radical Republican “Thaddeus Stevens [was] one of the greatest statesmen the country ever knew . . . he was in favor of reconstructing the south along patriotic lines.” Raab was encouraged by his comrades to write the resolution himself. He announced it to the membership the next day:

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.[9]

These comments complicate not just the ways historians understand how Union veterans remembered the Civil War, but also the Reconstruction era. It suggests that at least some GAR veterans believed that expanding civil and voting rights for African Americans during Reconstruction had been necessary and proper, and that their persecution by racist terrorist groups was wrong. Blacks and whites had fought alongside each other to defend the country and were now entitled to the same rights. For them, The Birth of a Nation distorted history and justified the “shameful persecution” of African Americans in the present. It also promoted a “both sides were right” interpretation of the war that many members found insulting. The children and grandchildren of the country’s Union Civil War veterans who watched The Birth of a Nation often failed to consider the protests of their elders and accepted its narrative as historical truth. The oppressive forces of racism, disenfranchisement, and political violence would become all the more entrenched in twentieth-century American governance.

 

[1] “The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies. National Encampments: Bibliography,” Library of Congress, accessed October 9, 2017, https://www.loc.gov/rr/main/gar/national/natlist.html.

[2] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 397.

[3] Barbara Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); M. Keith Harris, Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration Among Civil War Veterans (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2014).

[4] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Iowa, Journal of the Forty-Second Annual Encampment, Department of Iowa Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Marshalltown, Iowa, June 20-21-22, 1916 (Des Moines: Gordon L. Elliott, 1916), 60.

[5] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, Proceedings of Thirty-Sixth Annual Session of the Department of Indiana, Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Marion, Indiana, May 26,27,28, 1915 (Indianapolis: Sentinel Printing Co., 1915), 105; Albion Tourgée, A Fool’s Errand. By One of the Fools (New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1880).

[6] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of the Potomac, Journal of Proceedings of the Forty-Eighth Annual Encampment of the Department of the Potomac, Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Washington, D.C., February 9th, 14th, and 19th, 1916 (Washington, D.C.: R. Beresford, Printer, 1916), 20, 76-77.

[7] “George Jacob Raab,” Find a Grave, accessed October 11, 2017, https://findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi/http%22//http///%3C/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=17875568; “History of SC-134-90” (History of the 4th Michigan Cavalry Regiment), Michigan State Capitol, accessed October 11, 2017, http://capitol.michigan.gov/Content/Files/capitol/SC134_History.pdf.

[8] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Michigan, Journal of the Thirty-Seventh Annual Encampment, Department of Michigan Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Kalamazoo, Michigan, June 16, 17, 18, 1915 (Lansing: Wynkoop Hallenback Crawford Co., 1915), 97-99, 104.

[9] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Michigan, Journal of the Thirty-Seventh Annual Encampment, 97-99, 104.

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/.

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