Elvis, Hollywood, and the Civil War

love_me_tenderFor all the years I’ve listened to Elvis Presley, for all the years I’ve studied the Civil War, and for all the years I’ve lived in Hollywood…I’m a little embarrassed to reveal that I had no idea Love Me Tender was (sort of) a Civil War film. That’s right – the King’s 1956 acting debut was set during the Civil War. The rough plot: Clint Reno (Elvis) stays behind to watch over the family while his brothers go off to fight for the Confederacy. When Vance Reno returns from the army, he discovers (much to his irritation) that his younger brother Clint has married his sweetheart, Cathy. You see…the family thought Vance had been killed in battle so Clint made his move. As you might guess that leads to some uncomfortable scenes. I won’t spoil the ending – but things get ugly.

There’s more too. All of this takes place against a backdrop of high drama. You see…the Reno brothers, serving as Rebel Cavalrymen, had robbed a train carrying a Federal payroll jut one day after the end of the war (imagine that!). A moral dilemma ensues…do they return the money or keep it as spoils of war? You’ll just have to watch the film to find out.

And just for fun, the film’s title song – a HUGE hit for Elvis – is actually set to the music of Aura Lee, an 1861 tune written by George R. Poulton and W. W. Fosdick. Have a listen…it might sound familiar.

And of course…Elvis

With compliments,

A Few Words About Blogging and History

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Discussing blogging with Brooks Simpson and Kevin Levin at Gettysburg College.

Recently, historian Heather Cox Richardson posted on The Historical Society blog a brief summary of the benefits of blogging, tweeting, and texting for the historian. The post quickly caught on among those scholarly types who are Internet savvy and interested in such things. I picked it up from a Twitter retweet and retweeted it myself, and then several of my followers proceeded to retweet it too. I guess you could say that the post went about as viral as it can in our little world.

I found her points to be right on the money. In sum, and I am paraphrasing here:  blogging is short, sweet, and relatively easy when compared to writing an article length or longer academic piece. It’s fun (yay), it forces you to write clear and concise prose, and it allows for a sense of humor. Bloggers do not need to be overly theoretical or use jargon and esoteric language. Both blogging a tweeting provide the platform for an author’s personal style to shine through. Both are informal – and who doesn’t love informality? Finally, she notes that blogging, tweeting (and I suppose texting) allow historians to share their enthusiasm with a larger audience. Yes indeed.

But I would add just a couple of other things to the list. First, blogging and tweeting can (and often do) function as extensions of what historians do. I speak, naturally, of primary research. I use my blog and twitter account for historical inquiry – engaging archivists, specialists, and other historians who have access to documents that might take me months or years to find (or not find) through traditional research methods. While I relish days spent in dusty special collections departments (I am not being sarcastic here, I think we all have a thing for crunchy old documents) sometimes I need information faster than it would take to get the funding and fly wherever to sift through archival boxes for something that may or may not exist. A blog post or a quick tweet generally yields results within twenty-four hours – if not sooner. Second, I use both blogging and tweeting as a teaching platform. I receive questions from people who are interested in history, other teachers, and high school and college students regularly. So regularly in fact, that I created a Youtube program called Office Hours designed specifically to address some of the questions. The show (usually a few minutes in length) got such a good response that I am developing an extended half-hour format with a real studio setting, editing, and everything (stay tuned).

I am pleased that social media have found a home in academia and that (many) historians are embracing the possibilities that social media offer. We are finding ways to incorporate Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc, etc for the benefit of historians and students alike. And…this is just the beginning. My next book will be in many ways a reflection of the scores of conversations of have had with both colleagues and an informed public on Twitter, Facebook, and in the comments section of this and other blogs. And of course…I will discuss this at length in my acknowledgements section.

With compliments,

The Birth of a Nation – an Unfavorable Contemporary Report

I have received a few questions lately about the unfavorable reports of D. W. Griffith’s epic 1915 film about the Civil War and Reconstruction, The Birth of a Nation. So often, modern scholars suggest that this film stood for the broad consensus at the time of its premiere. Granted, a fair number of Americans North and South saw this film as accurate history – that the well worn Lost Cause narrative and the travails of Reconstruction rang true in this film adaptation of Thomas Dixon’ s novels, The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman.

But despite the film’s popularity and a certain level of acceptance for the film’s analytical bent, others did not take so warmly to Grifith’s “sensational photoplay” at all…especially Union Picture 2veterans. The clip above is one of the film’s most notorious – it depicts a legislative session in the South Carolina statehouse during the Reconstruction period. Here we witness what some would claim was the absurdity of Black legislators. The racist stereotypes are all there – black lawmakers, shoeless, intoxicated, eating chicken and leering at white women. The hall erupts in near riotous fervor at the passing of a bill allowing interracial marriage – what white South Carolinians feared most.

To underscore reactions by those who had fought for, and thus celebrated Union and Emancipation, I have included a report from the magazine, The Moving Picture World – dated August, 1915.

A state-wide fight on “The Birth of a Nation” is urged by Col. J. M. Snyder, of Canton, 111., who is department commander of the Grand Army of the Republic In Illinois. Three reasons are offered for Its suppression, one of which is that it is not fair to the Union soldiers.
A copy of a resolution passed by a Chicago post has been sent to every post in Illinois with a request from the state commander that a similar resolution be adopted. The resolution is as follows:
“The George H. Thomas Post, No. 5, Department of Illinois. G. A. R., protests against the exhibition called ‘The Birth of a Nation.’
“First. Because It contains slanderous representations as to the soldiers who fought to preserve the Union, and caricatures the history of the war.
“Second. It represents the infamous Ku Klux Klun as a society of patriotic and chivalrous men.
“Third. Its whole Influence Is to excite and Intensify hatred of the negro race and to perpetuate sectional bitterness.”

The GAR were hardly impressed by this film, which is not hard to imagine.

With compliments,


I Can’t Let Tara Go…


Well, Scarlett – I’m afraid Tara is gone…long gone. And it never stood in Georgia either. But it did eventually (sort of) make it there. Yes indeed – the old Tara set, really just a facade, stood for quite some time in a horrible state of disrepair on a David O. Selznick studio back lot in Culver City, California. And it remained there after the lot changed hands from Selznick to RKO to Desilu.

In 1959, the set was dismantled and shipped to Atlanta for use in a theme park that never came to be – the plywood and paper pieces were stored in a barn for years, where – as the story goes – they deteriorated beyond any usefulness to anyone. I know not what became of the remnants. For all anyone knows, they still rot away in some barn in Georgia. Tara’s front door and the large oil painting of Scarlett have found a home in Atlanta…at the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum.

For all of you film buffs, the old Selznick Studios main building still stands – now the Culver Studios – in Culver City. The building was used in the film, but only during the credits as the backdrop for the David O. Selznick logo.The entryway was used for the formal walk up to Scarlett and Rhett’s new Atlanta home and is virtually unchanged. You won’t see the building, though – it was covered by a giant matte painting. Below is a video clip of Culver Studios today

With compliments,


Civil War Los Angeles – A Tour?

db-exterior-image-largeI live in the land of tours, tourists, and all things touristy. Hollywood, California: home to many, many spots of historical and cultural significance – especially if you are interested in the movie biz. There is an entire industry here built around the idea that people will exchange their hard-earned vacation dollars to have an expert (usually someone who arrived in the southland approximately two weeks before) show them around town. Do you want to know where Brad Pitt lives? Just walk down Hollywood Blvd and you will be approached by someone who, in some gaudy van, will take you there…and many other places of note – Pink’s Hot Dogs (where nobody famous ever eats…ever), the iconic Hollywood sign, or super swanky Rodeo Drive.

Perhaps this is just wishful thinking…but Los Angeles has a pretty rich Civil War era history – so why not a Civil War themed tour? I know, probably not. How would such a tour compete with a potential (never gonna happen) Paris Hilton sighting? But still, there are plenty of places one could visit to add visual depth to an exciting 19th century story. Downtown LA’s plaza near Olvera Street was once the site of heated secessionist activities. Federal soldiers had to be dispatched to calm the would be rebels and perhaps even force them into submission. Their quarters – Drum Barracks – still exist in Wilmington – just outside of Long Beach.  This site served as the Federal headquarters for Southern California and the Arizona territory from 1861 to 1871.

If plazas and old buildings don’t grab your attention – maybe a classic Civil War themed film tour would do the trick. Gone With the Wind was filmed down the road from Hollywood in Culver City (David O. Selznick colored the California dirt red to look like Georgia). Culver Studios, formerly Selznick studios, stands to this day – the entry path from the main studio gate is in fact the very same walkway to the Butler’s Atlanta mansion. And there’s more. The Birth of a Nation was shot in a number of locations around town: Whittier, San Bernardino, Burbank, and elsewhere in the San Fernando Valley (where D. W. Griffith made no effort whatsoever to reproduce a South Carolina or Virginia landscape). Hmmm – well, at least I would like to see these spots.

My entrepreneurial spirit says if you see a need for something then you ought to provide it – for a fee of course. But I question whether or not the average LA area vacationer would care to see and understand the Civil War from a Southern California perspective in either history or popular culture.

What do you think??

With compliments,