Many people ask us why we do what we do. Why did we choose to be reenactors and living historians? Why do we choose to represent an unpopular war, especially in this day and time? Why do we choose to represent the Confederacy? Don’t we know that we shouldn’t have anything to do with the War Between the States?
The truth is, the answers vary as much as the people they represent, yet they all follow a few themes: Bravery, honor, respect, remembering men of every color who fought (that includes white, black, and red), remembering our ancestors, learning our family history, coming to terms with unpleasant facts, protecting the memory of the brave black men who fought for the Confederacy as well as for the Union, learning from a war that changed the face and future of this country, honor among enemies, and more.
This topic is one about which we are very passionate, and one that garners great emotion. You see, as living historians, we experience these things in a way that few people do. We don’t just live and learn the customs of the times, we BECOME these people and experience part of what they experienced. Searching primary documents to understand everything from the politics of the day, to the correct color or trim on a uniform, to getting inside the mind of a particular person who lived through this horrible war, we slowly understand who they were and why they did what they did. It gives us a unique insight into the war and people of a lost and largely misrepresented era of history.
For many of us, the fight began to honor our ancestors, for some to find out who they were. Many of us grew up knowing we were the descendants of a Civil War Soldier, but either needing to know more, to understand, or to find them, led us down this path. There is no better way to understand history than to touch, taste, wear, and smell it. It becomes a time portal to the time in which they lived, and to experiencing one small taste of what they lived through.
For the majority of us, we fight to protect the name and honor of our ancestors-BOTH Northern and Southern, but particularly our Southern ancestors for they are the most under attack. Contrary to popular belief, we fight to honor all colors and peoples who fought in the war. In the Confederacy, we have records of whites, blacks (both FREE and slave), Irish, British, Jewish, Scottish and other Europeans, and they were in integrated regiments! The Union created segregated units for their black soldiers, but here they fought side-by-side with whites and others. Jews fought on both sides of the war, but were celebrated and remembered in the Confederacy whereas General Grant expelled them from his army. We fight to remember them.
Many blacks fought on both sides of the war. Many people are familiar with the movie, “Glory” which is about the formation of an all-black Federal unit, and it should be remembered! But what about all the black men who fought for the Confederacy? There is a first-hand account of a black Confederate who had become the last man standing in the area. His uniform was bedraggled and nearly in rags, shoes were falling apart on his feet. He was approached by Union forces toward the end of the war and asked why he was fighting. His response? “Because you are HERE.” He was fighting for his home! One of our reenactors fights to remember his ancestors who fought side-by-side with black men who ”willingly went into battle because the cause was just and true. They didn’t fight because of slavery, so therefore, I fight to preserve their memory; to teach people the true past of our nation.” There are account after account of Southern blacks screaming, “The Yankees are coming!” and running in fear, and there are also stories of those who chose to take the underground railroad to freedom. ALL of their stories deserve to be told.
Some of us come from families who were divided. Imagine my friend’s shock after having known about his Confederate great-great grandparents, he found out he also had Union great-great grandparents! Literally, his great grandfather and great grandmother’s fathers fought against each other during the war, but were able to see past that and allow their children to marry! When asked why he reenacts, he says, “only for a few reasons. I would like to see my family history kept alive and shared. I can’t imagine how much information would have been lost if I had not started my search many years ago. It gives me joy to see a child’s eyes light up when they can talk to a soldier. When they can ask questions, touch a saber, learn the soldier’s daily life. I want to honor those men that marched off to war for what they believed in. To remember the families that were left behind to try to survive. The people of that time endured suffering that we could never imagine. Lastly, I do not know if the scars from that war will ever be completely healed; but the county was not torn badly enough to keep a man who’s father fought for the north and a girl who’s father fought for the south to come together and make a family… my family.”
Some of us (in fact, many of us) are veterans, and miss the structure and camaraderie of military life. For some, it allows them to step back into that role, to deal with death during war in a “safe” place, because this time, their buddy will stand up and live again at the end, where they know all too well the opposite happens in war. It allows us to know and understand first-hand the choices they made and the effects of those choices. To quote one of our veterans, “These were real flesh and blood soldiers. They had mothers and fathers back home, brothers, sisters, and friends. They each had hopes and dreams for their lives after the war. For many, those dreams where cut short by shot and shell. I think that because I served in the modern military it gives me a certain kinship with those who served in the past. It gives me a way to place a face and feelings to the dusty old tintypes you see in the books. I reenact because I want to learn how these soldier’s lives where similar and different from our own. The more I learn about the history and the time, the better I can answer questions from those who see me in my uniform and ask. I do it for their memory- for the men in both Blue and Gray. I do it so their memory doesn’t fade away. Their story will live on through me, and others like me who tell these stories. Take it from a soldier who has “actually seen the modern elephant.” There is nothing worse for a soldier then to have his deeds forgotten.”
Many may be unaware that by an act of Congress in in 1957, all Confederate soldiers, sailors, and Marines that fought in the Civil War were made U.S. Veterans (U.S. Public Law 85-425, Sec 410, Approved 23 May, 1958; http://uscode.house.gov/statutes/pl/85/425.pdf). That means, to disrespect and dishonor Confederate veterans, one would be dishonoring AMERICAN veterans. We must represent and portray both, otherwise, how will we understand the war?
Many of us find they remind us of who and what we should be: honorable and brave. As our battalion commander so eloquently stated, “Brave and unafraid to stand up and fight for our homes, our families, and our neighbors, in spite of the entire world bearing down on us… I have always revered and respected the soldiers and citizens of both the Confederacy and the Union during the defining moment in our history as a Nation. War, any war, is a terrible abomination begat with sacrifice and suffering that consumes both sides with hate and distrust that last generations after the treaties have been signed and the troops returned home. I hope that many in the living history community feel as I do by presenting the War in a rational, fair and balanced, and most of all intelligent way to anyone they converse with on the subject…In reality the reason I fight [is because], our enemy is ignorance.”
We fight for honor. Not just to honor our ancestors, but learning honor from them. Robert E. Lee was the commanding General of the Confederacy. However, once he signed the armistice in the parlor of the McLean house on April 9, 1865, he became the largest proponent of restoration. He stated, “The interests of the State are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote; and elect to the State and general Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself.” (Letter to former Virginia governor John Letcher (28 August 1865), as quoted in Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1875) by John William Jones, p. 203. Retrieved from: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_E._Lee#1870s). In one instance, a Southern woman was teaching her son to hate the Union troops after the end of the war and asked General Lee for his help in the matter. He responded, “Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.” (quoted in The Life and Campaigns of General Lee (1875) by Edward Lee Childe, p. 331. Retrieved from: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_E._Lee#1870s).
What about the honor and respect shown between Confederate General John B. Gordon, and Union General Joshua L. Chamberlain at the final surrender of arms on April 12, 1865? Chamberlain wrote, “Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper…but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!… They fix bayonets, stack arms; then, hesitatingly, remove cartridge-boxes and lay them down. Lastly—reluctantly, with agony of expression—they tenderly fold their flags, battle-worn and torn, blood-stained, heart-holding colors, and lay them down…”
In response, General Gordon stated what he witnessed, “When the proud and sensitive sons of Dixie came to a full realization of the truth that the Confederacy was overthrown and their leader had been compelled to surrender his once invincible army, they could no longer control their emotions, and tears ran like water…” (Retrieved from https://historicaldigression.com/2015/04/09/generals-joshua-l-chamberlain-and-john-b-gordon-at-appomattox/). These two men, two opposing Generals who had fought fiercely against each other, whose armies had tried to destroy each other, now faced one another in a time of greatest victory (and for a lesser man what might be a time of gloating), and a time of utter crushing sorrow. Yet, these men showed each other – their enemy until just 3 days prior – the honor and respect shown no greater man. These men, and their actions, deserve to be preserved and remembered as well.
Another reason we fight is to remember the history so that we do not repeat it. Would it be easier to sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened rather than coming face-to-face with the uncomfortable and unpleasant facts? Of course it would! As living historians, we have to face these unpleasant facts head-on. We have to acknowledge them, and even portray them, in order that the truth be told. Would we like to erase slavery? Yes. Would we like to forget the atrocities committed on both sides of the war? Yes. Would we like to forget our homes burned, our women ravaged, and our land and communities destroyed first by war and then by carpet baggers and martial law? Absolutely. At times, it’s like a bad dream from which you want to wake. But it IS what happened! We can’t change what actually took place in history. We need to have it in the open so that we, and others, may learn from it.
We do these reenactments, we support the monuments, and preservation of our flags, artifacts, and battlefields as a way to say, “This should never happen again!” We should learn what was accomplished for good, we should hear the stories of those who overcame unbearable odds, and we should hear of the cold-blooded atrocities on both sides, and learn from them. No one in that war or around that war came out unscathed. The war broke our country in two, and it was rebuilt differently than it had been before. It changed the landscape of America politically, topographically, and historically. Therefore, we too, have not escaped the touch of the War Between the States.
I will end with the first-hand story shared with me by my good friend, Dave Chaltas. His story moved me to tears, so I wanted to share it as he relayed it to me. These are his words:
“When I was a lad, I lived with my uncles for a while. All three of them had served in the military…Uncle Charlie served in World War II and was severely wounded. Uncle Arlie was in World War II and wounded in Korea. He received the Bronze Star for Valor along with the Purple Heart. Uncle Arnold served in World War II and was awarded three Bronze Stars. I vividly recall one summer evening sitting on the porch listening to them reflect. Uncle Charlie called me over and told me to sit beside him on the steps. He began talking about my ancestors from the Revolutionary War up to the current time. He was filled with emotion and then hesitated before continuing. When he regained his composure, he shared with me the following story.
“He talked of a grand reunion fifty years after a battle known as Gettysburg. Now, I had no clue where Gettysburg was located, nor was I very interested at that juncture. My uncle continued talking and said that, in 1913, men who wore the Blue and Gray gathered to mark the locations of different battles and to reflect upon the sacrifices of American lives. Someone suggested that these old men recreate the fabled Picket’s Charge. Those men, who had [been] lads of twenty were now seventy. Men of thirty were in their eighties, some were in their nineties. They consented to do so with the spectators following. Old men stepped out in columns, as the drums of a distant war once again guided their movements. Descriptions of the march toward the angle were described in detail. When they reached Emmitt’s Fence, a grand cannonade was presented. As the rebels reached a certain point, the weathered Federal forces were given the signal to fire.
“I can recall the tears trickling down my uncle’s face as he continued and I can quote his words verbatim. He said, “There went across the land a great gasp that meandered across the field, but it was not the spectators. It was the Union soldiers. Realizing the significance of the moment, those soldiers guarding Cemetery Ridge threw down their weapons, crossed the breastworks and as quickly as their aged bodies could go, ran to the embraces of the Rebels who had been their enemies but now were brothers once more. And from the ages rose the Phoenix.”
“My Uncle stiffened with pride and I will never forget his words and his charge to me. He said, ‘Some of our kinfolk were there, and it falls upon our shoulders to remember the sacrifices of both.’
“At that moment, the mantel of enlightenment fell upon my being and I became a new creature. I vowed to find out more of my ancestors and to honor them and more importantly stand in their shoes while they rested in the land they loved. Since that time, I have discovered that a person will never truly know who they are until they know who their ancestors were, for it is in history that gives us hope. I stand to honor God, Country, and the memory of all my ancestors who have served. I revere their monuments and honor their Veteran Memorials and Monuments. I follow the wisdom of the Bible when it says in Proverbs 22:28, “Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.” It is my duty. It is my honor. It is my responsibility to guard the stones of yesteryear so that the rising generations will remember and not be condemned to commit the mistakes of the past. Therefore, I stand for those who cannot.”
I could not have said it better myself.
***In preparing for this article, I have spoken to many reenactors and heard from their own mouths the reasons why they fight and reenact the War Between the States. I have included some of their stories in this article, and want to thank each one for their time and feedback. To your honor, gentlemen, and the honor of those who went before us!