In Ben Cameron, Griffith created a born leader who exerts his dominance in both public and family life. Indeed, little power is exerted by his father and his two younger brothers. Ben’s willingness to martyr himself to any cause defines his actions over the course of the film. He inspires others with his beliefs, whether he’s recounting outrages to a group of colleagues, commanding a troop in battle, or riding the lead horse in a daring rescue attempt. Henry Walthall portrays Ben as a man of principles, a trait largely unseen in the other characters. In moments alone, he wrestles with his inner struggles. The details in Walthall’s portrayal of Ben make his character stand out. From his quivering finger pointing out newspaper stories to his sudden collapse into convulsive tears over Flora’s body, Ben becomes a multidimensional figure. The richness of his character is magnified by his unconscionable racist agenda. His scenes with Flora are quite moving, and his bruised dignity as he walks the ravaged streets of Piedmont is extremely powerful. Ben’s well-defined humanity makes his vicious racism all the more painful to watch.
Elsie’s selflessness brings her heartache when she is forced to choose between the two men she loves—her father and Ben Cameron. When a Klan outfit falls out of Ben’s coat, Elsie chooses loyalty to her father but ultimately succumbs to her love for Ben. Elsie is pure and delicate, portrayed as an angel in a daguerreotype image, or in a lily-white nightgown wearing a headpiece of flowers. Her innocence stands in strong contrast to the sexuality of the lustful blacks and mulattos of the film. Elsie is an idealized, sentimental figure who symbolizes the purity and beauty that soldiers and families on both sides of the conflict are fighting to defend. In choosing Ben, Elsie presents the South as having been on the side of righteousness all along.
Flora, whose childhood is cut short by the brutality of the Civil War, faces new struggles head-on. She responds to each challenge with a noble heart, a sense of humor, and a bottomless reservoir of emotion. Instead of holding onto her momentary depression when she gives away her last good clothes, she smoothes down what clothing she still has and giggles with glee at the imaginative potential of play-acting in them. Instead of moping at the degradation of her homestead, she improvises a new costume for Ben’s return home. Most important, instead of being holed up inside by the threat of the black militias, she gladly and innocently tramps out into the woods to fetch water, where she behaves fearlessly in response to Gus’s advances. Her playful spirit and intensity represent another facet of the South’s character: a refusal to surrender personal and cultural identity. Her premature death leaves Flora unsullied by the middling changes imposed by the North.
Griffith purportedly based Stoneman on real-life Pennsylvania Republican Thaddeus Stevens, who led the House of Representatives’ radical Reconstructionists and opposed Lincoln’s more moderate plans. Stoneman embodies the Union’s weakening will and its misguided social reforms. His vanity makes him easily susceptible to temptation, so he “unnaturally” supports Silas Lynch, disagrees with Abraham Lincoln’s policy of clemency for the South, and openly succumbs to his lust for his housekeeper. When Silas Lynch assumes power and subsequently becomes embroiled with the Ku Klux Klan, the basic premise of the reformers—that black men are equal to white men—is exposed as something they don’t truly believe in. Stoneman’s hypocrisy is revealed when he responds with revulsion to Lynch’s suggestion of marriage with Elsie. As a consequence of his weakness, Stoneman’s health deteriorates and he gradually fades from relevance.
Silas Lynch is the ultimate villain in Griffith’s melodrama. The film climaxes with Lynch literally drunk on the excesses of power. He swoons from alcohol, reels with anger and bloodlust, and stops short of raping Elsie only when her father suddenly enters. The fact that Lynch first appears in the second part of the film, just after Lincoln’s assassination, helps to establish him an evil, otherworldly antithesis to Lincoln and the values for which Lincoln stood. The biracial Lynch symbolizes the “disunion” referred to in the film’s first frame (“The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion”). He is both a literal and a figurative embodiment of relations between blacks and whites, which are depicted as inherently corrupt and ungodly. As the second part of the film progresses, Lynch’s motivations are revealed to be greedy and contrary to the ideals of the South or of any unified nation. He is a divider, not a uniter.