Southern Manhood and 'the Lost Cause'
John McGavock Grider and Elliott White Springs were both grandsons of the Confederacy and both inevitably were affected by the traditions of nobility on the battlefield that were a legacy of the Civil War. In the case of Grider, the family still remembered how Union troops had occupied the family home on the banks of the Mississippi in 1863 and '64. Springs was often a visitor at the 'veterans tent' which occupied the lot next to his father's office and where Civil War veterans such as his grandfather Samuel White often held forth.
The antics and attitudes described in War Birds. bring to mind W.J. Cash's description (in The Mind of the South) of the Southern male as he existed in the 19th century: 'To stand on his head in a bar, to toss down a pint of raw whiskey in a gulp, to fiddle and dance all night, to bite off the nose or gouge out the eye of a favorite enemy, to fight harder, love harder than the next man, to be known eventually far and wide as a hell of a fellow -- such would be his focus.'
John McGavock Grider still met this profile in 1917. According to his sister, Grider decided to volunteer for the war after a brawl on a Memphis street. In the first pages of his diary written aboard the ship taking him to Europe and the war, Grider writes 'I'm not going to lose my temper anymore. I fight too much.' The film will consider this combative streak among white Southern males of the period, examining its roots. Bertrand Wyatt-Brown in his book Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, describes a commitment to physical courage as one of the most important tenets of Southern honor. Erskine Caldwell proclaimed it was sheer ignorance that causes so many Southerners to volunteer for war. H.L. Mencken cites the capacity for believing in false messiahs, while John Temple Graves believes the Civil War, 'with its scars and memories and the introspections that came with them, contributed much to the Southern attitude. . . The psychology was one of defense and living dangerously.' Others have attributed the South's quick tempers to the frontier heritage, the isolation of its rural peoples, the cruelty associated with slavery and the region's blazing hot climate.
One probable factor in the large number of Southerners who volunteered to serve in World War I was the legend of the 'Lost Cause,' a bald attempt to rewrite the history of the Civil War and ennoble the Confederacy. According to sociologist Charles Reagan Wilson in his book Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920, when the first World War began many Southerners favored the British side because England had at least for a time sided with the Confederacy during the War Between the States. World War I -- the first major American conflict since Appomattox -- may have offered a chance for young Southern men to prove their virtue and overcome the stigma of the South's defeat.
According to his sister, John McGavock Grider was fascinated by the heroes of the Confederacy and wanted to 'grow up and fight the war all over again.' More than that, says Charles Reagan Wilson, in the 1890s adherents of the Lost Cause had come to equate the Confederacy with 'liberty' and 'democracy.' When Woodrow Wilson -- himself a Southerner -- evoked the Great War as a crusade against oppression, he found strong support in the South, where many saw in the war's high moral tone a validation of the Lost Cause.
Though Springs fit W.J. Cash's description of a Southern hell-raiser as much as Grider did, War Birds shows that he was much more of a rebel against the personal destiny laid out for him. His father, Leroy Springs, was an overbearing man who had once killed a man in a gunfight. He had built a fast-growing textile business in South Carolina and expected Elliott, his only son, to take over the business after he finished his education. Springs was just as determined to resist his father's tyranny and become a writer. Though Springs and his father engaged in a lifelong, often bitter struggle of wills, biographer Burke Davis (in the book War Bird: The Life and Times of Elliott White Springs) sees a yearning on Springs' part for his father's approval. Leroy Springs wanted to get his son a safe job on the home front during the war; Elliott as usual rejected his father's advice but in joining the air service often spoke of giving his father 'something to crow about.' Like Grider, Springs was deeply affected by the Southern code of honor and sacrifice. Despite his yearning for independence, he still felt the familial obligation expressed by poet D.G. Bickers in The Confederate Veteran in 1918: 'I am my father's son, and for that reason one may see/That something noble and heroic is expected now of me.'