Glenn Uminowicz - December 2007
History Written in Lightning and Bronze
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
Any justification of some parts of “The Birth of a Nation” must alone be found in the years that action took place. The people of today are broad-minded, impersonal judges of the past, who bear in mind that they are looking at a bit of strong fiction, strongly presented, but who realize that it is all of the past.
From the Easton Star-Democrat (1916)
On May 13, 1916, readers of the local Easton newspaper saw two front-page headlines. One story informed citizens that the bronze figure “portraying youthful courage” would soon arrive to be placed on the granite base of the monument erected to honor Talbot County’s Confederate “Boys in Grey.” Readers learned in the second story that 1,339 moviegoers had packed the Easton Music Hall for three screenings of D.W. Griffith’s Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Historian David W. Blight would not likely agree with the opinion expressed above that those moviegoers were “impersonal judges of the past” merely enjoying a work of fiction. In Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), Blight explores how Americans remembered their most divisive and tragic experience during the fifty-year period after the Civil War. He identifies three visions that shaped memories of that conflict. Reconciliationists sought to reunite the North and South. White supremacists hoped to create a New South along segregationist lines. Emancipationists reminded Americans that the war had been fought to achieve racial equality and the full rights of citizenship for African-Americans.
In the period from 1865 to 1915, Blight argues that the reconciliationist and white supremacist visions of the war became a potent force shaping American memory. He insisted that The Birth of a Nation did more than any other work of fiction to banish the emancipationist vision from mainstream popular remembrance of the conflict. Blight concluded, “The 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 popular view of a failed attempt at Southern Reconstruction would hold sway for decades.
Born in Kentucky in 1875, D.W. Griffith was a child of the defeated South. His father had been a power in the state during the antebellum period and served as a Confederate officer. After the war, Griffith observed an aging, wounded and impoverished parent. In 1913, he began a collaboration with Thomas Dixon to turn the latter’s novel into a film. Given his personal history, the storyline of The Clansman (1905) resonated with Griffith. He expanded the scope of the narrative to such an extent that the film was renamed The Birth of a Nation, acknowledging Griffith’s role in enlarging the plot.
The film focused on two juxtaposed families. The Camerons enjoy a genteel lifestyle on their South Carolina estate. An abolitionist congressman from the North heads the Stoneman clan. (The Austin Stoneman character was based on congressman Thaddeus Stevens, an advocate of Radical Reconstruction in the South). The two families form a friendship. During a visit to South Carolina, one of Stoneman’s sons falls in love with Margaret Cameron and her brother Ben falls for Elsie Stoneman.
With the start of the Civil War, the Stoneman boys fight for the Union while the three Cameron brothers join the Confederacy. One Stoneman and two Cameron brothers perish during the conflict. After leading a charge against a Union line, Ben Cameron earns the nickname the “Little Colonel.”
After the war, Austin Stoneman and his mulatto protégé, Silas Lynch, go to South Carolina to pursue their agenda of empowering Southern blacks through election fraud. Griffith depicted the newly elected black legislators lolling in their chairs, eating chicken and drinking whiskey. Black troops seize control of local communities and loot white households.
Ben Cameron determines to reverse the perceived powerlessness of Southern whites. The Little Colonel observes some white children under a sheet pretending to be ghosts in order to scare black youngsters. Thus inspired, he creates the Ku Klux Klan.
One of the Klan’s first actions involves an ex-slave named Gus who proposes marriage to Flora Cameron. She flees from him through the woods, reaching a precipice from which she jumps to her death. In response, the Klan hunts down Gus, lynches him, and leaves his corpse on Silas Lynch’s doorstep.
Lynch orders a crackdown on the Klan. The Camerons flee from the black militia and hide out in a small cabin belonging to two Union veterans, who agree to join their former Southern foes in defending their “Aryan birthright.” Meanwhile, Lynch abducts Elsie Stoneman and tries to force her to marry him. Her father arrives and Lynch informs him that he plans to marry a white woman. When told that Lynch’s intended is Elsie, Stoneman protests to no avail.
Disguised Klansmen discover Elsie’s plight and leave to get reinforcements. Now at full strength, the Klan, led by the Little Colonel, ride to her rescue. They also fend off the black militia besieging the cabin containing the Camerons and their allies. At the next election, a line of mounted Klansmen prevents black voters from reaching the polls, returning political control to white elected officials.
In a promotional program, Griffith explained how the film got its name. He wrote, “To the American people, the outcome of four years of fratricidal strife, the nightmare of Reconstruction, and the establishment of the South in its rightful place, is the birth of a new nation.”
In April 1916, Easton Music Hall manager Martin M. Higgins contacted the Easton Star Democrat, raising the question, “Shall the people of Talbot County have the rare opportunity of seeing that greatest of photodramas ‘The Birth of a Nation’ or shall they not?” Public response was such that the manager booked the film for May. It proved a good investment. Emma Stewart of Oxford noted in a letter that the film was playing in Easton, but observed “tickets are $1.50 so mother thinks we had better stay at home.” At the time, Easton Music Hall entertainments cost ten to thirty cents.
It should be remembered that people wanted to view The Birth of a Nation because it was among the most spectacular films of the silent era. The cast numbered eighteen thousand, in part to stage the massive battle scenes. The three-hour epic required 12,000 feet of celluloid.
Local publicity for the film stressed both the stirring battle scenes and the dual storylines involving romance among the Stonemans and the Camerons. Finally, the Reconstruction section of the film illustrated the “scourge of the period following the war, the reign of terror that enveloped the South until the clansmen, with their wonderful secret organization, swept the interlopers out of power and carried the South back to the point where it could begin again.”
Blight observes that the triumphant ride of the Klan at the conclusion of The Birth of a Nation marked a reconciliation far different from what emancipationists had in mind. In 1863, for example, Frederick Douglass met with Abraham Lincoln to discuss emancipation and a “national regeneration” that included black equality. In the 1870s, Douglass exposed Klan outrages and worried that “peace among the whites” would be bought at the price of lost black civil liberties. In the 1880s, he insisted that emancipation was not a great national failure and that freed blacks had not fallen into a “state of barbarism.”
Douglass also railed against the cult of Robert E. Lee that characterized the Confederate general as a blameless Christian soldier and a paragon of manly virtue who soared above politics. He feared that a “devoutly cherished sentiment, inseparately identified with the ‘lost cause’” might serve as a source for a Southern political revival.
Douglass lived long enough to see the Lee cult manifested in a monument to the general unveiled in Richmond in 1890. As the nation moved toward the fiftieth anniversary marking the end of the Civil Ward in 1915, symbols of reconciliation appeared everywhere. Veterans reunions and monument unveilings occurred in almost every hamlet and town, emphasizing the valor of fallen soldiers on both sides. In 1916, leaving the Easton Music Hall after viewing the stirring final scenes of The Birth of a Nation featuring the ride of hundreds of Klansmen, some moviegoers would have passed the stone base where a monument to their own Confederate heroes would soon rise.
The Talbot Boys monument on the County Courthouse Square is not just a soldiers’ monument. It represents that complex interaction between racial attitudes and the desire to bring a divided nation together. At the moment of the monument’s creation in 1916, Blight concludes that Americans’ Civil War memory was both settled and unsettled, resting on a core master narrative leading to a reunion of the sections. The “peace among the whites” that troubled Douglass, however, produced a Southern victory over Civil War memory, justifying the segregation of the Jim Crow era.
Emancipationist memory did live on to fight another day. In 1915, for example, the fledgling NAACP protested and condemned The Birth of a Nation. In response to those protests, a spokesman for Woodrow Wilson denied that, after seeing the film, the president had said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Monuments are like writing history in bronze or granite. At the end of the Civil War, Blight concluded, “The new nation awaiting rebirth had the thought of black equality on one side, the knowledge of sectional reunion on the other side, and no muse yet in the middle holding their hands.”
Currently, on the Talbot County Courthouse Square, there stands a monument identified with the desire for sectional reunion by honoring fallen soldiers who fought for the South. There is ongoing debate about also erecting a monument to the man who advocated a “national regeneration” that included racial equality – Frederick Douglass. The issues of race and reunion remain with us. In the 21st century, let us hope we can find our muse.