Finding Columbia in The Birth of a Nation

In a previous blog, I introduced the idea that South Carolinians read the Ku Klux Klan depicted in the film The Birth of a Nation (BOAN) as a reproduction of the Red Shirts’ role in overturning Reconstruction in 1876. I also gave the example of the State House replica to demonstrate how a real South Carolina emerges at times within the film. However, other manifestations of South Carolina surface, several specifically connected to the capital city of Columbia.

I first began to develop this argument as a result of my work developing the tour for the Woodrow Wilson Family Home (WWFH). In February 2014, Historic Columbia reopened the site as a house museum of Reconstruction. The final room’s exhibit tackles the memory of Reconstruction and Wilson’s relationship with BOAN. After screening the film in the White House, Wilson reportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightening. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”[1] Most likely fabricated, the misquote endures, partly because Wilson’s work as a scholar is evoked by Griffith through various title cards to give greater historical weight to the film.

Wilson heel of Black SouthWilson KKKWilsons American People

The tour’s conclusion also attempts to place the epic blockbuster within the context of Columbia’s Reconstruction history. The challenging conversation surrounding BOAN recently sparked a second revision of the WWFH film shown at the end of the tour, which will debut this spring.

When I first watched this film, a question vexed me. Where is this urban Cameron family plantation, the location of much of the main action of the film? The fictional community of Piedmont, historically a region in South Carolina, transforms to an urban environment under D.W. Griffith’s direction.

Notice the church and street lamp?

The front of the urban “Big House,” typically reserved for the rural plantation, features prominently in numerous scenes. Occasionally, the film invites the audience to explore a mysterious and hidden plantation behind the Big House, complete with cotton fields and slave quarters.

Like the church and a street lamp, the bonfire celebrating the beginning of the Civil War all suggest the Cameron’s live in an urban space.

Griffith’s selection of an urban setting makes perfect sense given his urban audience.[2] When Griffith created an imaginary South Carolina city, he invited residents of Columbia and perhaps the entire state to envision the city in their reading of the film. When watching the burning of Piedmont and the Cameron Big House, South Carolinians most likely recalled the burning of Columbia on February 17, 1865, the 150th anniversary of which is being commemorated as I write this blog. Griffith blamed guerillas. Columbians condemned Gen. William T. Sherman. Rather than a specific order, burning cotton and the effects of liquor provided fuel for winds that ultimately destroyed a third of the city.[3]

Several more subtle clues and settings indicate the presence of a Reconstruction-era Columbia, the center of state and federal power for South Carolina. The most obvious is the circa 1870 State House replica previously mentioned, but Griffith’s incorporation of a strong federal presence in Piedmont around the same time point once again to Columbia. By late summer of 1868, the army maintained only three posts in the state: Columbia, Charleston and Aiken.[4] The largest number of troops stationed in South Carolina occurred before the passage of the 1868 state constitution.[5] The frequent reoccurrence of federal troops in the film hails one of these three cities. The scene below could easily represent the Eighth Infantry stationed in Columbia.[6]

Additionally, the short-lived Freedmen’s Bureau’s last headquarters before it was abolished in 1869 was in Columbia.[7]

To be sure, I still see South Carolina when I watch the film. I see the Deep South too. Nevertheless on this 100th anniversary of the film’s release, I see Columbia. At first, her appearance was but a cameo. Now, looking closer, she is everywhere.

[1] Andrew Scott Berg, Wilson (New York: Putnam, 2013), 349.

[2] Anna Everett, Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism, 1909-1949 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001), 89; Amy Louise Wood, “With the Roar of Thunder: The Birth of a Nation,” in Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, New Directions in Southern Studies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 147.

[3] Allen Wallace, “Columbia Unveils Marker Commemorating 1865 Burning of City,” ColaDaily.com, February 17, 2015, http://coladaily.com/2015/02/17/columbia-unveils-marker-commemorating-1865-burning-of-city/; Jeff Wilkinson, “Who Was Really Responsible for the Burning of Columbia in 1865?,” The State, February 7, 2015, http://www.thestate.com/2015/02/07/3959380/who-was-really-responsible-for.html.

[4] Richard Zuczek, State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 50.

[5] Walter B. Edgar, South Carolina: A History (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 397.

[6] Zuczek, State of Rebellion, 65, footnote 15.

[7] “Records of the Field Offices for the State of South Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872,” 3, http://www.archives.gov/research/microfilm/m1910.pdf.

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