The Crisis: Mississippi’s First Civil War Film

This article was inspired by a photo album I picked up on Ebay some time back that was filled with photographs taken in Vicksburg, Mississippi, during the filming of the silent movie The Crisis. This was the first feature-length film to be shot in Mississippi, a Civil War epic that was released in 1916. But before I tell you about The Crisis,  I need give just just a little bit of information about the history of the Civil War on film.

The first Civil War movies dated back to the very beginnings of American cinema – one of the earliest was The Guerrilla from 1908, directed by D. W. Griffith. The plot concerned a heroic Union soldier who broke through enemy lines to rescue his Southern girlfriend from the advances of a dastardly Confederate renegade. It seems an unlikely vehicle for Griffith, who father, Colonel Jacob Griffith, had commanded the 1st Kentucky Cavalry, C.S.A.

Another early film, and one related to the war in Mississippi, was The Girl Spy Before Vicksburg, which was released in 1910. It was one in a series of films about the exploits of “Nan, the Girl Spy,” In this film Nan played a Confederate agent who went on a dangerous mission to blow up a bridge and destroy a federal ammunition train.

There were many other Civil War themed films such as these in the early 1900s, and it’s not hard to see why they were popular with audiences. The conflict was less than fifty years in the past, and many Veterans of the war were still living. The children of those veterans, having grown up hearing tales of the war were also very interested in films about the conflict.

Without a doubt the most important Civil War film of the silent era was D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which was released in 1915. Based on the book The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., it was the story of Civil War, Reconstruction, and the restoration of white supremacy in the South through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Move Poster from Birth of A Nation

Birth of a Nation cost $110,000 to make, which was a huge sum for a film at the time – Griffith’s four proceeding films had only cost between $5,000 and $10,000 each. In filming the movie Griffith pioneered many of the techniques that are still used today. Movie historian Jack Spears wrote that Griffith’s “superb use of visual imagery, movement, stunning photography (including innovations such as irising, close-ups, and the use of stills), intelligent and refined editing, and even music, established the artistic supremacy of the director.

The film was a huge hit, making over $10,000,000 on its initial release. You would think that this would inspire other film companies to make their own high-budget Civil War films, but this was not the case. Many studios were intimidated by the huge risk involved in making a very expensive film that would inevitably be compared to Birth of a Nation, and probably be found lacking.

One studio however was willing to take up the challenge – the Selig Polyscope Company

Colonel William N. Selig

of Chicago, Illinois. William N. Selig, a native of Chicago born during the Civil War on March 14, 1864, founded the studio. The future studio executive got his start in the entertainment industry as a magician in 1894, billing himself as “Selig, Conjurer.” From this humble beginning he expanded and developed his act into a minstrel show attraction, and picked up the rank of “Colonel.”

Selig saw his first movie in 1895, on a Kinetoscope, which had been invented by Thomas Edison. It did not project the movie on a screen – it was contained in a cabinet, and the movie was viewed by looking through a small peephole. Crude as it was, Selig was inspired by the commercial possibilities of the new medium, and he decided to enter the movie industry. He began making movies in 1896, and over the next decade his studio prospered. By 1909 he had full-time movie facilities in California, Louisiana, and Illinois. Selig also had a stable of silent film stars under contract to act in his movies, including Paul W. “Tom” Santschi, who would star in The Crisis, and movie cowboy Tom Mix, who would do stunts for the film.

After seeing the success of Birth of a Nation, Selig began searching for a Civil War novel that he could turn into a major motion picture. He quickly acquired the rights to the novel The Crisis, written by American novelist Winston Churchill and published in 1901. The novel had been a best-seller, going through 34 editions, with 750,000 copies sold from 1901 – 1909.

Winston Churchill, author of THE CRISIS

In writing the book, Churchill had gone out of his way to make it as historically accurate as possible. He consulted with noted historians of the day, and read numerous letters and diaries from actual civil war participants to get the correct feel for the period. As Abraham Lincoln was a major character in the novel, Churchill contacted people who had known the president, including Congressman R. R. Hitt, who had attended the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The plot of The Crisis revolves around the coming of the Civil War and how these events affected the people of St. Louis, Missouri. The hero of the story is Stephen Brice, a young New Englander who moves to St. Louis with his widowed mother in the 1850s. Brice is given a job clerking for Judge Silas Whipple, a staunch abolitionist. The judge tries to win the boy over to the Republican Party by sending him to listen to up-and-coming politician Abraham Lincoln as he debates Stephen Douglas.

Another major character was Colonel Comyn Carvel, a staunch Southern Democrat and slave owner who is also a friend of Judge Whipple. The friends spar constantly over politics, in particular the issues of secession and slavery.

Colonel Carvel’s daughter, Virginia Carvel, is the love interest of Stephen Brice, and the conflict of the movie centers on their differences on the issue of slavery. When the war begins Brice joins the Union army and eventually fights at Vicksburg. The couple is only reunited at the end of the war through the personal intervention of Abraham Lincoln.

The thing that really makes Churchill’s novel stand out in my mind is his descriptions of the siege of Vicksburg – he did his homework, and it clearly shows, as he really makes the Civil War come to life. For example, here is his description of the mining of the 3rd Louisiana Redan and Union attack that followed the explosion:

Not an officer or private in the Vicksburg armies who does not remember the 25th of June, and the hour of three in an afternoon of pitiless heat. Silently the long blue files wound into position behind the earth barriers which hid them from the enemy, coiled and ready to strike when the towering redoubt on the Jackson road should rise heavenwards. By common consent the rifle crack of day and night was hushed, and even the Parrotts were silent. Stillness closed around the white house of Shirley once more, but not the stillness it had known in its peaceful homestead days. This was the stillness of the death-prayer. Eyes staring at the big redoubt were dimmed. At last, to those near, a little wisp of blue smoke crept out. Then the earth opened with a quake. The sun was darkened, and a hot blast fanned the upturned faces. In the sky, through the film of shattered clay, little black dots scurried, poised, and fell again as arms and legs and head-less trunks and shapeless bits of wood and iron. Scarcely had the dust settled when the sun caught the light of fifty thousand bayonets, and a hundred shells were shrieking across the crater’s edge. Earth to earth, alas, and dust to dust! Men who ran across that rim of a summer’s afternoon died in torture under tier upon tier of their comrades, – and so the hole was filled.”

William Selig was known for being very frugal with his money, and most of his pictures were made on very tight budgets. But for The Crisis he pulled out all the stops and spared no expense. The film would be the longest and most expensive that the company had undertaken up until that time. The film was directed by Colin Campbell, who was described by film historian Jack Spears as “In some respects an early but much less competent John Ford.”

Selig had a stable of stars under contract from which to choose for the movie, and he selected some of the best that he had for The Crisis. One of the most interesting was Matt B. Snyder, who played Colonel Comyn Carvel. At over 80 years old, he was the oldest member of the cast, and he was an actual veteran of the Union navy and had served at Vicksburg as a gunner on the USS Essex. The old veteran would not live to see the movie; he died in February 1917.

Photo of Matt B. Snyder taken some years before his role in THE CRISIS

The main female lead was Bessie Eyton, who played Virginia Carvel. She was a prolific actress of the silent film era, making nearly 200 films between 1911 – 1925. The main male lead was Tom Santschi, who played Stephen Brice. Born in Missouri, Santschi was a well known leading man by the time The Crisis was made – from 1907 – 1931 he made over 300 films. He is best known for the 1914 film The Spoilers, where Santschi and co-star William Farnum fought for real to make a bar fight scene look realistic.

In this studio portrait are three of the stars of THE CRISIS: Tom Santschi, Bessie Eyton (on the left) and Eugenie Beseserer (on the right)

For the part of Abraham Lincoln, Selig looked far and wide for an actor big enough to fill those shoes. He was having trouble finding an actor for the part when he received a letter from Sam Drane of Dranesville, Virginia. An amateur historian who had been studying about Lincoln for decades, he offered to play the part. In addition to his knowledge of the president, Drane also happened to look a great deal like Abraham Lincoln. After meeting with the would-be actor, Selig cast him in the role. Drane’s performance was acclaimed by many movie critics as being very authentic, but unfortunately the actor himself would not live to see it. Like Matt Snyder, Drane died shortly before the movie was released.

This image of Sam Drane dressed up as Lincoln for THE CRISIS is from the Seattle Daily Times, October 8, 1916

Filming began on The Crisis in early 1916, and most of the interior scenes were shot in Selig’s Chicago studio. The Vicksburg battle scenes, however, were shot on location in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

When the citizens of Vicksburg received word that a movie was going to be filmed in the city, they could hardly contain their excitement. The Hill City would be the first city in the state to be the location for a major motion picture. In March 1916 Selig wrote a letter to Frank Andrews, secretary for the Vicksburg Board of Trade, stating, “I have planned to come down and look over the ground in the near future: in fact, would have been down before, but though perhaps the river was rather high and wished to wait until it had receded some. Kindly let me know if it would be a good time in the near future to come down and look over the ground as to the taking of ‘The Crisis.” Mr. Andrews quickly responded, telling Selig to come to Vicksburg within the next two weeks.

To film the battle scenes at Vicksburg, Selig needed lots of extras, and found them by contracting with the Mississippi National Guard to supply 500 soldiers for one week to play the Union and Rebel soldiers. The cost of hiring the guardsmen came to $8,000, and they were led by Brig. Gen. Eric. G. Scales, adjutant general of the Mississippi National Guard.

Filming began in Vicksburg on May 20, and there was great regional interest in the proceedings. The next day headlines in the New Orleans Item read, “Work Begins on ‘Crisis’ In Vicksburg,” and the journalist noted in his article that “Vicksburg is being moving pictured today. Twenty or more actors and directors of the Selig Polyscope company arrived here Friday from Chicago and immediately started work on scenes for the ten-reel production ofThe Crisis.”

General Scales arrived in Vicksburg on May 21, 1916, with 500 men and 15 officers, only to have to march to their camp in the middle of a terrible downpour. The Vicksburg Daily Herald noted, “General Scales said that without exaggeration some of the men were over knee deep in the terrible flood, which swept through Camp Williamson bottom, and practically all of the tents which had been pitched had to be taken down in the pouring rain and placed on the hillside.” But the article went on to state: “Not the least bit discouraged over their soaking Sunday night, the plucky Mississippi boys are all ready for their ‘picture duty.”

The first battle scenes were filmed on May 23, at South Fort, in the Vicksburg National Military Park. The Daily Herald headline stated: :Startling Realism Mark Battle Scenes,” and the article went on to note: “Beneath a blue sky, singularly clear and ideal for the wonderful setting, the Selig warriors rushed upon each other in ‘deadly conflict’ near South Fort…and for hours the raging warfare for the motion picture screen was unrelentingly kept up in all its fury. Six hundred men of the national guard; equally divided in blue and gray uniforms, some badly soiled and ragged, portrayed in most graphic realism the scenes of long ago, as the fierce charges and defense on the old hill tops were fought out to the bitter end. Bursts of gunpowder, arranged so as to resemble exploding shells, fell fast and furiously in all parts of the improvised battle fields, and the awe-stricken public, standing at a safe distance gazed in amazement at the fascinating spectacle, so perfectly made to represent war.

Photograph showing one of the battle scenes filmed at South Fort in the Vicksburg National Military Park - Author's Collection

Among the large crowd of onlookers watching the filming were a number of actual Confederate veterans – the Herald noted, “Yesterday afternoon Tom Santchi made a wonderful charge up South Fort Hill, carrying the flag to the breastworks, amid tongues of livid flame, followed by several hundred wounded or infuriated soldiers, charging the ‘gray lines.’ Such grand old veterans as Col. W. A. Montgomery, who was an onlooker, wearing his gray uniform, watched the mimic warfare with eager interest, and made comments upon today and the days that used to be, where such struggles were death to thousands.”

A close-up showing the Union and Confederate infantry at South Fort

On May 25, filming of battle scenes shifted to Fort Garrott, and both the Union and Confederate extras marched through town on their way to the scene of the action. A local journalist in describing the trek through town made it very clear where his sympathies lay: “From window and doorway and down the sunny street, spectators stood and gazed – not without a curious tugging of the heart-strings at the sight of the ragged Gray – not without a fluttering and leaping of the pulse at the sound of marching feet…men from a by-gone age, whose glory still envelops the Southland, men marching to defend our own beautiful city, men whose mouldering forms sleep beneath the hills on which the play-battles are staged – it was these we watched tramping by, and not the irresponsible militia of 1916, called upon to reproduce in replica the hallowed scenes of the past.”

In addition to the filming done in the park on May 25, other scenes were shot at the courthouse and down on the levee. These scenes allowed many of Vicksburg’s citizens to become part of the film, as many extras were needed.

Some of the cast and extras of THE CRISIS posed for this photo on the grounds of the Warren County Courthouse in Vicksburg - Photo from the Old Court House Museum

On May 31, the production suffered its first casualty when Ford Dickson, a member of the Warren Light Artillery, was wounded during filming at Fort Garrott. According to the newspaper account the soldier “happened to be on the spot when a mine with several pounds of powder was touched off. His eye lashes were burned and his eyes are inflamed. His left ear was also burned.” Fortunately that was the extent of Dickson’s injuries.

Fortunately, most of the casualties on THE CRISIS set were only make-believe, like these. Author's Collection

Filming of the major battle scenes in the military park wrapped on May 31st, but Selig still needed one last major scene before the company was ready to leave Vicksburg – a naval battle scene. The company had seven barges mocked up to look like ironclads so that they could film the naval bombardment of Vicksburg during the siege. This scene was filmed on the night of June 2, 1916, and was watched by a crowd that one journalist estimated numbered in the thousands.

The Vicksburg Daily Herald said of the scene, “The seven gunboats were lined up in the middle of the lake north of the city, and the camera men, three in all, took the vivid picture from a barge which was stationed on this side of the canal, near the National Cemetery road. The fire from the gunboats came hastily, shots being sent up from first one and then another of the battery of seven in line, and occasionally volleys would roar out of the sides of all seven boats at the same time. The bursting shells, while of the fireworks type, made but little noise [but] will appear like the real thing in the picture.”

With the naval scenes in the can, filming at Vicksburg was complete, and the Selig Company left the city on June 3, 1916, much to the sadness of the local citizens. A local journalist wrote, “The Crisis’ twelve reels with a thirty piece orchestra will not get here before fall, but when it comes, there will indeed be an ovation awaiting our good friends, the Selig Company.”

One Vicksburg citizen ended up with a wonderful souvenir to remember the filming of The Crisis– a wife. Vicksburg lawyer Clark B. Coffey met the female lead of the film, Bessie Eyton, at a costume ball held by the city to honor the members of the Selig cast and crew. The two immediately fell in love, and in September he traveled to California where the happy couple were immediately married. I wish I could say that they lived happily ever after, but that’s not the case – the pair divorced in 1923.

Publicity Photo of Bessie Eyton

By today’s standards movies were edited impossibly quick, and the finished film had its first showing at the Strand Theatre in New York on September 29, 1916, for a private audience. A second private showing was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on December 22, 1916, followed by public performances two days later. Reviews of the film were very good: one article stated: “The acting is superb. The battle scenes are spectacular and finely executed. The story of Winston Churchill’s novel has been scenarioized so capably that the excellence of the original has been retained.

The first record I can find of The Crisis being shown in Mississippi is an article from the Biloxi Daily Herald dated March 1, 1917, which stated, “The Crisis will be shown at Dukate’s Theater, Biloxi, and Gulfport Opera House soon. So tremendous has been the clamor of the Mississippi public to see the big Civil War screen drama that the management has found it expedient to send the picture to a few of the better towns, even before the forthcoming engagement at the fashionable Tulane Theatre in New Orleans. The fact that the state militia were employed in filming the spectacular battle scenes, depicting ‘The Siege of Vicksburg,’ has aroused an unprecedented interest in every locality in this territory. All over the state The Crisis has created a sensation. House records in Vicksburg, Jackson and other towns were smashed, necessitating return engagements. The Governor, Adjutant General and other prominent officials are loud in their praise of the picture.”

Ad for THE CRISIS from the Biloxi DAILY HERALD, March 2, 1917

The Crisis gained good reviews from newspapers across the nation, and it did well at the box office, but it was not the blockbuster that Birth of a Nation was. There are probably a couple of reasons for this. First is the race issue – unlike Birth of a Nation that reinforced prevailing white notions of the inferiority of blacks and fitted comfortably into the “Lost Cause” interpretation of Southern History, The Crisis made slavery a centerpiece of its story – For example, here is how Churchill described in his novel character Stephen Brice’s exposure to a slave auction for the first time: “There, in the bright November sunlight, a sight met his eyes which turned him sick and dizzy. Against the walls and pillars of the building, already grimy with soot, crouched a score of miserable human beings waiting to be sold as auction. Mr. Lynch’s slave pen had been disgorged that morning. Old and young, husband and wife, – the moment was come for all and each. How hard the stones! And what more pitiless than the gaze of their fellow-creatures in the crowd below! O friends, we who live in peace and plenty amongst our families, how little do we realize the terror and the misery and dumb heart-aches of those days!” Statements such as these had to make southerners uncomfortable, and probably kept many from going to see the film.

Ad for THE CRISIS from the NEW CASTLE NEWS (Pennsylvania) March 28, 1917

Another factor that probably hurt the film was the increasing preoccupation with WW I by the American public leading up to the entry of the United States into the conflict on April 6, 1917. In advertising Selig actually tried to use WW I as a selling point – in one ad for the movie pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson were included along with the following text: “What would Lincoln have done had he been President now? What would Wilson have done had he been President then? Regardless of how clever their advertising was, the war had to be a big distraction to the movie going public.

The Crisis holds a place in Mississippi history, as it was the first feature film to be shot in the state. Unfortunately, the film is not in commercial release at this time, but it does still exist – the Library of Congress has a copy of the film, and I think several other film archives have copies of it as well. Perhaps one day The Crisis will once again be seen on the silver screen in Mississippi. I, for one, will be there if it does.

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