In the opening scenes, Virgie is celebrating her sixth birthday. Unfortunately, her sixth birthday happens to be April 12, 1861 (what are the odds?). Captain Herbert Cary goes off to war, leaving Virgie in the care of her mother and their happy, happy slaves. The Cary family owns a number of slaves, but the two main ones are Uncle Billy, a tap-dancing butler played by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and James Henry, who is portrayed as The Ditz. The damn Yankees show up and are mean, except for their leader, Colonel Morrison, who is a Friendly Enemy. Somehow, it all ends up with Virgie sitting in Abraham Lincoln's paternal lap and convincing him to grant presidential pardons to her father and Colonel Morrison.
The movie is an adaptation of a 1911 play of the same name, which was earlier adapted as a silent film in 1914. This 1935 version takes the original play, a serious drama about the toll war takes on an innocent little girl, and turns it into a family-friendly musical because why not. Well, family-friendly except for the racism. It is this movie's whitewashing of slavery and sympathy of the Confederacy which makes it the most controversial entry in the Shirley Temple canon.
This film provides examples of:
- Blackface: At one point, Virgie dons blackface to disguise herself as a slave.
- Been There, Shaped History: In an earlier version of the script, Virgie gives Lincoln the inspiration he needs to write the Gettysburg Address. A script doctor made them get rid of that, saying "if you ever even suggest that Shirley Temple was the inspiration for the Gettysburg Address, they'll throw rocks at us".
- Daddy's Girl: Guess
- Happiness in Slavery: All the slaves are happy under the Cary family and fear the Yankees. When James Henry suggests the Yankees are coming to free them, it's treated as another moment of him being an idiot.
- Lighter and Softer: The original 1911 play was more serious (and more racist) than this film is.
- Missing Mom: Halfway through the film, Virgie's mother (who apparently doesn't have any name beyond "Mrs. Cary") is Killed Off for Real.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Neither Shirley Temple nor anyone else attempts a Southern accent.
- Politically Correct History: Not politically correct for now, of course, but politically correct for 1935.
- Title Drop: At one point, Colonel Morrison refers to Virgie as "the littlest rebel of them all". For her part, Virgie insists in an earlier scene that, "I'm not a rebel! My daddy said so. I'm a Confederate!"
- Truth in Television: They got one thing right. Abe Lincoln's favorite snack was apples.
- Uncle Tomfoolery: James Henry, full stop. Uncle Billy was this trope in the source material, but the film gives him more dignity while still having him be loyal to the Cary family.
- War Is Hell: A theme repeated throughout the film, helped along by its assertion that slavery was totally okay and that there was therefore nothing worth fighting over. The message is a little strange considering the movie portrays the Civil War as an almost genteel affair. The closest thing we get to a wartime atrocity is some rowdy Yankee soldiers causing mischief in the Cary household and they're quickly sorted out by their commander. If other anti-war films portray two enemy sides which are equally cruel, this one portrays two enemy sides dominated by nice people who should just forget the war and be friends.
- You Got Spunk: Colonel Morrison tells Virgie this in their first encounter.