History of the World According to the Movies: Part 41 – The American Civil War: Reconstruction and Other Things

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Perhaps no movie has managed to shape perceptions of Reconstruction in many people than D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, even if it was a grossly inaccurate as well as blatantly white supremacist propaganda, which made Woodrow Wilson think it was too racist (who actually was more racist even by 1915’s standards). However, despite its controversy even in its day, this is a movie that can’t be ignored when it comes to movie history. In the words of Andrew Sarris, “Classic or not, Birth of a Nation has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can’t be ignored … and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word.” Still, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to watch this movie, except film students.

The American Civil War would draw to a close in April of 1865 when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. However, barely a week later Abraham Lincoln would be assassinated by John Wilkes Booth  which would send shock waves to the nation. Still, the process of Reconstruction had begun which was said to be a time of healing factions between North and South as well as grant African Americans US citizenship and help them to carve lives of their own. Still, while the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments would pass, unfortunately, many Southern whites weren’t happy with blacks trying to live their lives as American citizens and tried to do all they can to ruin it through intimidation as well as violence. Eventually Reconstruction would end but though there was so much progress made in the South, many of the Southern whites would eventually reverse many of these changes or at least try to that by the rest of the 19th century, there would be a new system of discrimination called segregation, black codes, and Jim Crow in an era seen as the nadir of American race relations which would continue until at least the 1920s, if not the 1940s. Yet, despite setbacks, African Americans would continue to fight for their rights and would keep the spirit of Reconstruction on even if no one else did. Hollywood doesn’t treat this subject well, since it’s a controversial time in American history, yet nevertheless, there are plenty of movie inaccuracies I shall list accordingly.

The Lincoln Assassination:

Abraham Lincoln delivered the famous words to the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural the day he was assassinated at Ford’s Theater. (No, he gave these speeches much earlier. Still, what the hell D. W. Griffith?)

John Wilkes Booth entered through the door behind Mary Todd to Abraham Lincoln’s right. (He entered through the door on Lincoln’s left and fired just below his left ear. The D. W. Griffith biopic also shows him jumping from Lincoln’s box through the far left opening {facing the right}. In reality, he actually jumped through the right opening directly in front of the president, nicking the corner of Washington’s picture with the spur of his ankle. This caused him to stumble when he fell resulting in a broken leg.)

Dr. Samuel Mudd was involved in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, hence the phrase “His name is mud.” (The saying had been around for two decades before the Lincoln Assassination. Also, it’s more likely Mudd was just a man doing his job who probably knew nothing about the conspiracy against Lincoln. His only involvement in the assassination was just patching Booth’s leg.)

Abraham Lincoln was laid on a bed to the side over the covers and clothed at the time of death. (He was laid diagonally on a bed under the covers to be kept warm {since he lingered for 10 hours} which was too small for him and he wasn’t clothed so the doctors could check for other wounds.)

Frederick Aiken was a 27-year-old Union veteran and lawyer in 1865. (He was a 33 year old Democratic activist with strong Southern sympathies {yet fought for the North anyway and achieved the rank of Colonel} who had a co-counsel named John W. Clampitt who helped him at the trial when Reverdy Johnson stepped aside.)

Edwin Stanton tried to strong arm the commission into returning a death sentence against Mary Surratt. (There’s little evidence he did this.)

The Lincoln conspirators were held in a prison situated in a barren area miles from Washington DC. (They were held at the Old Capitol Prison in the middle of the city which is now the site of the Supreme Court building.)

John Wilkes Booth still had his trademark mustache when he was trapped and killed. (He had shaved it off shortly after Lincoln’s assassination so he’d be more difficult to identify. Still, he probably shouldn’t have broken his leg.)

John Wilkes Booth caught his spur on the American flag on the Presidential box at Ford’s Theater. (He caught it on a US Treasury flag.)

Abraham Lincoln was carried out of Ford’s Theater fully dressed with suit and tie neatly in place. (According to historical accounts, Dr.Charles Leale and other doctors assisting him at Ford’s Theater cut away much of Lincoln’s coat and shirt in a frantic attempt to resuscitate him moments after the president had been shot. This was done prior to his being moved.)

Secretary of State William Seward was stabbed in his bed when his room was brightly lit. (Historical accounts state that Seward’s room was quite dark accounting for Lewis Payne’s failure to kill the Secretary of State {later known to oversee the purchase of Alaska} resulting in him missing any vital areas with his knife because he couldn’t see his target very well in a dark room. Also, the elderly Seward was very thin causing Payne’s thrusts to miss the mark.)

The room Abraham Lincoln was brought to in the Peterson Boarding House was brightly lit. (All historical accounts say that the room was very dark and dim as well as being illuminated by a small gas jet fixed to a wall.)

Abraham Lincoln was placed in the bead with his head toward the wall and his feet toward the doctors. (He was placed with his feet toward the wall and his head closest to the open side of the bed so the doctors could get to him {I mean he’d been shot in the head}. A historical photograph of Lincoln’s death bed confirms this.)

Frederick Aiken’s middle name was Sebastian. (It was Augustus.)

Reconstruction:

It was the job of the Klu Klux Klan to restore honor to the South that was lost by the Northern victory during the Civil War. (In the minds of the white racist Southerners, yes, but some people have a twisted sense of honor. Had to include this because of Birth of a Nation, mostly because it depicts the KKK as white knights, which is obviously offensively false. In reality they were terrorists who wanted the freed slaves stripped of their rights as citizens and helped usher in an era of segregation, disenfranchisement, and Jim Crow.)

African Americans were unfit to exercise their political rights. (Made up by Southern whites because they didn’t want blacks to have any political power. And as politicians, blacks were no worse or than their white counterparts. Another racist lie from Birth of a Nation.)

Northerners who came to the South during Reconstruction were carpetbaggers invading happy Southern land and conspiring with blacks. (Many helped slaves get a new start in life as well as expand opportunities {like public education} and voting rights to poor whites as well as those who also didn’t have the right to vote before the Civil War began {except women}. Still, according to David Blight: “The South dearly wanted Northern investment. It’s one of the ironies of this. Early on, they wanted Northern investment. They wanted federal investment to help them rebuild their harbors and build some railroads and rebuild towns and cities, re-establish agricultural production. Most Northerners that went South and became carpetbaggers were already there in 1865 or ’66, before the radical regimes are even created. So that idea that they all went there to exploit and establish radical Republican political organization is not exactly the case.”)

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was fanatical, vengeful villain obsessed with further punishing, the poor, defeated South. (Actually, what Stevens was obsessed with granting newly freed blacks civil rights and suffrage, mostly because he saw them as human beings not as a way to punish the South. But Southern whites didn’t want that. This is another error from Birth of a Nation but Lincoln corrects this. Actually, almost everything in Birth of a Nation is while a significant film itself, one that is better described as a long KKK recruitment commercial than anything. It is one of the worst examples of historical films to date eschewing the facts to promote white supremacy as well as contained perhaps the most negative depiction of African Americans to date. Oh, and all the black characters in the film were played by whites wearing blackface. It has no historical credibility whatsoever.)

Andrew Johnson addressed his enemies in the Senate during his impeachment. (This didn’t happen.)

An ailing senator cast the vote against removing Andrew Johnson from office brought into the chamber at the last minute. (It was actually by a Republican senator from Kansas named Edmund Ross who thought that the impeachment articles against Johnson were trumped up political charges without merit {which they were}.)

Senator Jim Waters was the man who would’ve succeed Andrew Johnson had he been removed from office. (A senator named Ben Wade was.)

Most blacks were lynched over sexual indiscretions involving a white woman. (Well, these kinds of stories made sensational national headlines as well as used as a way to justify such hate crimes in movies like Birth of a Nation. However, according to muckraking journalist and an African American woman, the legendary Ida B. Wells, 70% of lynchings occurred when victims tried to vote, demanded their rights, purchased land, and owned successful businesses. So I guess Southerners were more worried about blacks exercising their God given rights than anything. Thus, most lynchings were simply hate crimes against blacks.)

Most black legislators were ignorant buffoons who looked ridiculous “playing government.” (Well, you can say the same thing about many legislators of any ethnicity. Still, while some black legislators were fresh from the farm, many were well-educated anti-slavery activists. Sorry, Birth of a Nation.)

Southern convicts during Reconstruction were primarily white. (They were mostly black who may have been incarcerated under dubious circumstances {but they were treated horribly nevertheless}. Yet, the convict whiteness serves a purpose in Gone with the Wind just to make Frank Kennedy and Ashley Wilkes squirm.)

Ulysses S. Grant helped robber barons with crooked land deals for the first transcontinental railroad in exchange for their influence in securing him in the 1868 presidential election. (Grant was widely recognized for his integrity and would never have done this. Also, by 1868, Grant would have no trouble getting the presidency because he was incredibly popular and would remain so for the rest of his life.)

The South was under oppressive military rule during Reconstruction. (According to Eric Foner: “The idea that the South was under military rule and military occupation is really a myth. The Union army was demobilized very, very fast at the end of the Civil War. Some people thought, too fast, because there was so much chaos and violence in the South. By 1866, there are 10,000, 12,000, maybe 15,000 soldiers left in the South. But most of them are in Texas, fighting the Indians. You could go for months and months in the South without ever seeing a federal soldier. There were small encampments of federal soldiers around. And if there were outbreaks of violence, they would sometimes be brought in to try to suppress it. Sometimes the Freedmen’s Bureau would call in a few soldiers to arrest a planter who refused to pay his workers or something like that. But no. Law and order was in the hands of governments, not of the army. And military rule was very, very brief. And the occupation was quite short-lived, really, in any practical sense.”)

The Klu Klux Klan wore white robes and conical hats during this period. (They did wear masks and hoods at this time but the white robes and conical hats started in the Klan’s second iteration, perhaps thanks to Birth of a Nation. So the first Klan more or less looked like the posse you see in Django Unchained than in the 1915 D. W. Griffith film. It’s said to have started as a social brotherhood in funny hats club for Confederate veterans but I’m not sure if I buy it.)

Miscellaneous:

J. E. B. Stuart, James Longstreet, George Pickett, Philip Sheridan, John Bell Hood, and George Armstrong Custer all graduated at West Point in 1854. (Stuart, yes, but Longstreet graduated in 1842 about a year before Grant, Pickett in 1846, Sheridan and Hood in 1853, and Custer in 1861. Yet, these guys all seem to be in the same West Point Class according to The Santa Fe Trail.)

Colonel Arthur James Lyon Freemantle was a total English fop. (He was a British observer on a self-funded trip to the Confederacy to shadow the army and see the war for himself. He was a pretty down to earth kind of guy whose book contained frequent references to his lack of dress clothes, his gray pants, and his dusty attire so he wasn’t wearing a shiny red outfit at Gettysburg. Not to mention, he wouldn’t be sipping a tea from a china cup on the freaking battlefield. Still, traveling all the way to see a war that will have lasting implications on how wars are fought in the future? Why weren’t other foreign officers doing this?)

Bananas were available in the US during the Civil War. (They were available after it, not during it.)

Both sides called the Battle of Bull Run by its well-known name. (Only Northerners referred to it as the Battle of Bull Run because of the Bull Run River. Southerners refer to it as the Battle of Manassas because it was the closest town. Many battles would be named after the closest river by the North while they’d be named after the closest town in the South.)

Americans during the Civil War sided with the side representative of the geographical location. (Yes, to a point for there were the Northern Copperheads like Clement Vallandingham who sympathized with the South and there plenty of people in the South who sided with the Union including a few generals. In fact, about 25% of Union Forces consisted of those from Confederate states {one of them being my 3rd great grandfather from Tennessee}. Richmond was rife with anti-Confederate sentiment that it spent much of the war under martial law and Confederate officials were suspect to attacks by pro-Union guerrilla bands. Arkansas had two governments that represented both sides. In Texas, Unionist support was endemic among the German and Mexican communities and various Unionist areas were harassed and/or massacred by local officials for it. When the draft was instated, many resistors in these communities were said to go into hiding or flee to Mexico with many hunted down or shot. Also, there was another demographic that was all too happy to don the blue uniform and that group was known as ex-slaves. Then there’s the existence of West Virginia which split from Virginia to rejoin the Union. Not to mention, the James brothers and their gang fought for the Confederacy, even though they were from Missouri.)

Robert E. Lee was a brilliant general and a saint while Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk who got lucky. (Actually Robert E. Lee wasn’t a nice guy and despite the fact he graduated from West Point with no demerits which still stands, he wasn’t the great general Lost Causers make him out to be. He was also a man of his time who could only think inside the box. I mean Lee was the one who decided to invade the North going through Maryland and Pennsylvania which resulted in the Union kicking his ass in Gettysburg. As for Grant, he probably wasn’t a drunk; he more likely had a low tolerance for alcohol for drinking was very commonplace in the military at the time, even to excess. It was said he usually drank when there was nothing going on or when he was separated from his wife. Still, as far as I’ve read on Grant’s drinking, his drinking habits don’t seem to fit those of an alcoholic. And despite the fact he graduated in the middle of his class at West Point, he didn’t help the North win the Civil War just because he had more disposable resources than Lee did and historians have called him one of America’s first twentieth century generals who won victories through his creative strategy that would be one of the reasons why the American Civil War was known as the first modern war.)

Civil War Enfield rifles had serial numbers. (Authentic ones don’t but reproductions do.)

The Civil War began with the Union Army firing on Fort Sumter. (It was the Confederate Army that fired the first shot.)

In the Civil War cannon shells that exploded on impact were not used. The cannon shells at Gettysburg had timed fuses so that the shells would explode in the air casting shrapnel downward to cause casualties. If a shell landed before exploding, it would just bury itself in the ground and scatter dirt harmlessly when exploding. In the movie, the cannon shots all explode when hitting the ground, not in the air, and are obviously preset charges. By the way, this is why the Confederates overshot the Union forces at Gettysburg. Their main supplier had burned down just prior to the battle and they were forced to use fuses from another source. The Confederates did not yet realize that these fuses burned slower than their previous ones so the shell would travel further before exploding. [This is untrue. ‘Percussion’ shells were used during the Civil War which would mean that shells would explode on impact.] (I got this from a site, but I don’t know which one.)

The barrage tactic was used in the Wilmington attack of 1865. (It was invented by the British in the 1880s and was first used in 1915.)

The Civil War was referred to this during the 1860s. (It would be referred to this a decade later and only by the North while it wouldn’t be referred to this in the South until the 1960s. At this time it was either “the war,” “the War of Secession,” or “the War between the States” since the South tried to form its own country. However, there were plenty of people living in the Confederacy who fought for the North such as the future state of West Virginia {Southern Unionists made a quarter of the Union forces}.)

Ulysses S. Grant and James Longstreet were buddies before the Civil War. (This is true but Longstreet also was at Grant’s wedding. Also, Julia Dent Grant was Longstreet’s cousin and Grant’s wife.)

Civil War doctors boiled their surgical instruments to prevent them from infecting patients. (Doctors wouldn’t do this until 1879. Also, I’m sure that Civil War doctors didn’t practice modern sanitation since clean hands and clean water for cleaning surgical instruments were optional. In fact, wasn’t the lack of sanitation the reason why so many soldiers died? I mean germs killed more Civil War soldiers than bullets. In the Civil War, it was safer to fight an entire battle than it was to be sent into a field hospital. Yet, in The Horse Soldiers, the doctors seem oddly concerned with cleanliness.)

Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were famous names at the start of 1862. (Both were relative unknowns at the time. Lee wouldn’t assume command of the Army of Northern Virginia until June of that year. Grant would win his first victory at Fort Donelson that February in which he’d get the nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant” for his generous surrender terms.)

All soldiers who participated in the Civil War lived in the modern United States. (Some 33,000-55,000 Canadians also fought in the war, but mostly on the Union side since they were more anti-slavery than many US Northerners. About 29 of them would receive the Medal of Honor. There were notable examples from other countries as well.)

The Battles of First Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville were the three major battles before Gettysburg. (There’s Antietam, the Peninsular campaigns, Battle of Seven Days, and Second Bull Run. And that’s just the battles involving the Army of Northern Virginia against the Army of the Potomac. You also have Fort Donelson, Shiloh, the Vicksburg Campaign, Farragut’s capture of New Orleans, and others.)

Soldiers on both sides always stayed loyal to the entity they started in. (A lot of POWs from both sides had the tendency to switch.)

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