Why We Fight — In Their Own Words

The issue of why we fight and reenact is very passionate and extensive. If you saw last months post, there are many reasons why we fight, and many you may not have expected. Last month’s post was so well received that it was picked up by the Camp Chase Gazette, and the Civil War Courier. I must thank the editor, Ms. Jessie Greene, for publishing it!

Reviewing the interviews I did for “Why We Fight,” I realized there were so many stories that were incredible, and so many good things people had to share, that I regretted I could not use them all. So, for the first time ever, I am continuing a theme for a second month and want to introduce you to several amazing men and women. I want you to hear their stories, in their own words…

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

C. Harris–Cpl, 53rd GA, Co. K
“A friend of mine asked my why I do it. Why do I get dressed up in a wool uniform, carry an 8 pound rifle, and march around? My answer to them is always the same thing. I do it because I have questions. I want to understand the war from the perspective of the common soldier. I know that I will never truly grasp the fear and the horror of what they saw 150 years ago. But to take a small glimpse into the past and see how they cared for their uniforms, cooked and ate food, drilled and marched, and that the way they did it then is similar and also different from the way our modern military does things now. I often find myself accidentally throwing in “modern” military terms when speaking to other reenactors. I spent four years in the United States Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom and words like “Roger that” and “Hooah” always seem to keep drifting in.

“I reenact because in a way, I miss the structure and the camaraderie of the military. I get this in reenacting without the real death and loss of friends that came with being in active duty. I also do this because of the history. When I was in school, we had boring history teachers who read dry facts from a textbook and acted like they wanted to be anywhere else but there reading from the book. I found history to be more than that. I looked at history as more of a collection of stories about people and events. The choices they made and the effects of those choices. These were the 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 were 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 soldiers’ lives were 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 (note: this is a term we use to note when a reenactor has had an experience as if they were actually there and fighting the war itself).” There is nothing worse for a soldier than to have his deeds forgotten. It’s the same as the old quarterback who threw the game-winning pass on homecoming his senior year in 1997. He will talk about it for years because it was his moment. A lot of soldiers are like that as well.

“This leads me to another topic that brings bad feelings: Our Civil War monuments are in danger of being removed because some feel that they offend people. What these people fail to consider is that a lot of times, these monuments were likely the only thing that a lot of families had left of their fathers and sons who fought and died so far from home. Many who were killed in action, both North and South, were buried in mass graves and their bodies were never returned home (Note: there are also many accounts of the Federal soldiers being buried and the Confederate dead being left to the animals, and there are photographs to prove it). This was a time before soldiers ID tags were in use. Communities back home would have fundraisers and charities to raise money for a monument for their loved ones. In many cases, whole towns had lost fathers and sons because they served in the same unit. Our Civil War monuments were a physical line to those who paid the ultimate Soldiers’ Sacrifice. To remove these statues is to remove a part of our history. To remove these statues is to tell those loved ones left behind that their fathers and sons, who died for their cause, were meaningless and their deeds should be forgotten. We shouldn’t allow this to happen. I would hate for 60-years from now [to see] a group removing monuments with the names of my friends who had died in Iraq because their war was “unpopular” and causes hurt feelings.”

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

J. Palmquist–Pvt, 61st GA, Co. B

“The reason I do this is because of my ancestors. They fought 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. To show them how soldiers actually lived back then.”

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

L. Shockey–Nurse, 5th GA/53rd GA, Co. K
“History was ingrained into my brain since I was little. It has always been one of the many things that my dad and I have always bonded over. It was my favorite subject in school. I love reenacting because I always wanted to do it. I wanted people to know that there are two sides to the story, and whoever wins the war isn’t always right. I want people to know that you can’t get rid of history. You instead have to learn from it. The Bible is history and it is the best historical book in the world. If you try to get rid of history, that is like trying to get rid of the Bible and I am sorry – but that will never happen. Plus, if we don’t learn from history – we will repeat it! I believe in preserving history and honoring my ancestors – my family to be exact. My ancestors fought in many wars and I support them all. They laid their life on the line for me and that means the world to me! When people judge the Confederate flag, or a monument – I take it personally. That’s an attack on my family – one that I won’t stand for! So, if dressing up in 6-7 layers of clothing and wearing a very uncomfortable corset will get my point across – well then that is what I will do!”

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Photo Credit: Sherry Frazier

B. Nelson–Cpl, 16th Ga, Co G.
“We fight to protect the name and honor of our ancestors-both North and South, and protect what they stood for – particularly our Southern ancestors. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t over slavery. Slavery was an aspect of the war but it wasn’t a major issue of the war. It was an issue politically, not on the battlefield. In the Confederate army you had different ethnicities and races. You had Native Americans, Irish, British, Jewish, German, Italian, African Americans, and more-and they were integrated into white regiments, unlike the Union which made them into their own separate units and brigades and segregated them. In the South, most of them were fighting to protect their homes and their neighbors. This isn’t just the slave, this is the free man too – fighting for the Confederacy! African Americans had a major part in the Confederate Army. We fight to PROTECT that fact!

“Unlike what the media says, the battle flag is not a racist symbol! [General] P.T.G. Beauregard made the Confederate battle flag a symbol of religious, Christian beliefs. Nothing about the flag is racist at all! It is being hijacked as a racist symbol by the KKK and the neo-Nazis. Then that stereotype spreads that it was about racism and protecting the slaves, but that is not the case. We fight to protect that true fact, and to protect the memory of a war that made so much significance in our history! With the American government today trying to white-wash the American population with a history that isn’t true, basically, they are wiping the Civil War from the face of the earth as if it’s irrelevant.

“That war did so much for us. It meant so much- It divided the country! It showed us that we are not perfect as a country. It saddens me that they are trying to wash away all that we cherish. Look at what they are doing in Spotsylvania. Almost all of it has become front-line property. Recently Nash Farms is being taking away from us. It might become the same thing as Spotsylvania. Everything is becoming lost to us. We are losing monuments, we are losing all of this, because of the simple fact that they want to erase a nation that was apparently racist. That wasn’t the case during the time! They were a country separating themselves from a tyrannical rule! A tyrannical rule they saw as it was!

“It angers me that this is what’s happening. Because without our history, without knowing who we were, it’s taking away from what it means to be an American, to be free, to know where you came from! I know where I came from. I know I have ancestors in both the South and the North that fought through the War Between the States. It’s like trying to forget a bad dream. But this is what happened! You can’t change history. Those monuments should be left there as a sign saying, “This shouldn’t happen again!”

“I really hate what is happening. We need to fight. We need to go to events. We need to bring the attendance up and let people see that we love what we do! It’s like Irwinville – If we can’t get those numbers up, we’ll lose places like Irwinville [Note: Irwinville, GA is the location of the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis], we’ll lose Pickett’s Mill. We’ll lose all of those places. We’ve seen what happened at Nash Farms, and that’s something we need to think about as reenactors. What will be next? Clinton? Olustee? Manassas? Andersonville? Which ones? It’s something that every reenactor needs to think about. And it should spark a movement that every reenactor should embrace. We need to keep teaching, we need to keep going to these events, so that the memory of these soldiers will survive. Without those memories, we won’t be able to know where we came from. America has a terrible past, we know that, but it’s our duty to teach it so that history does not repeat itself. Because it is my opinion that history does repeat itself. ”

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J. Smith- Pvt, 16th GA, Co. G
“You know, when I first started reenacting, it was just because I like history and it was fun, and when I found out about my lineage, it was a way to honor my ancestors. Now it is to protect our honor, history, and culture. To fight back against the lies and hateful attacks set against us simply because we are different. The more they push reconstruction, the more proud I am of who I am and where I come from. So in essence, it is having the opposite of the desired effect. From now on, I will be more proud every time I put on the Gray.”

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Photo Credit: Jerry Chesser

J. Reno–Capt. 5th GA Vol. Cavalry
“Thirty-five some-odd years ago, I decided to dive into my ancestry and genealogy. This was a time before computers and Internet. It was a time of family Bibles, census reports and microfilm. The history I have found on my hunt for my ancestors has been incredible; and the journey is not over.

“Being born in Atlanta, Georgia… seeing Gone With The Wind in the Fox Theatre on grammar school field trips… and walking the battlefields of North Georgia with my family… I always considered myself a Confederate; just like everyone else.
As a youngster, I was fascinated about the War Between the States, this War of Northern Aggression, the Civil War. I was told amazing stories by my grandmother -stories of men [who were] veterans of that war. Stories of my ancestors that were deaf from service in the artillery, stories of Confederate uniform trousers that were made into kid’s pants after the war, the story of my great grandmother who watched all of her worldly possessions be destroyed by the Yankees, minus a glass cream pitcher she clung to in her arms.

“My family had lived in Eastern Tennessee and Northern Alabama. I learned my Alabama ancestors were dedicated Confederates. Private James Beard, 26th Alabama Infantry, captured during the Fort Henry & Donaldson campaign, died of smallpox as a prisoner of war at Camp Douglas, Chicago, Ill. Sergeant Samuel Green, 55th Alabama Infantry, captured after watching his unit be shot to pieces at Peachtree Creek during the Battle of Atlanta. Brothers in the 4th Alabama Cavalry – their families being severely punished by the Yankees for being “secessionist.”

“My Eastern Tennessee kin were harder to find. I ran into dead end after dead end during my search. Then on a trip to Chattanooga I was given a copy of a document belonging to an ancestor. Discharge papers, from the Federal Army. My Tennessee kin had joined with the Yankees? I could not believe it. Not only my GG Grandfather, but his whole family (males of military age) had joined the 9th Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry, U.S., in September of 1863.

“Then I stumbled upon a most interesting fact. My Great Grandparent’s fathers served on different sides during the war. Could it be? A husband and wife who’s fathers fought each other during the conflict? It was true; Elbert Reno, son of Private William Reneau (Reno) of the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, U.S., married Mary Posey daughter of Private Hesekiah Posey of the 35th Tennessee Mountain Rifles C.S. and William Reno and Hesekiah Posey were from the same neighborhood, Hamilton County, Tenn.

“So I am asked, why do you fight (reenact)? I would answer “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 who 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.”

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Photo Credit: Sheila Chasteen

S. Chasteen- Pvt, Cobbs Legion
“Well, I fight because I have such a deep rooted connection with the war. I feel like people now forget about the war and the individuals who fought in it, so there is some duty and obligation that you get when you start reenacting. This war is a big section of my life and what defines me as a person because it’s my history. It’s what makes me who I am today, and I plan on preserving the memory because if I don’t, I’m doing them a disservice. As an American, this is something we should all strive to do –remember – and that’s why I fight.

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Photo Credit: Kenny Stancil

K. Banks, Pvt, 16th GA, Co G
“Growing up, reenacting wasn’t really my thing. Being in a family who forced me to always go since I was a baby, I really had no choice. To be honest, I flat-out hated it. I hated the outdoors due to the gnats and other bugs during the warm months; and I hated having stiff joints during the cold months. But, the one thing I hated all year around was packing for events. Once I matured, I understood the life a lot more. I grew to love it. How? Because there’s a bond among one another within my unit. That’s what I grew to love. Then I started thinking, “I want that. ”

“So, at 15 years old, I shocked my family and took up arms and joined my guys on the field. Never have I regretted the sweat, blood, and tears on the field (that’s when the best battles happen). Nor have I regretted sitting around behind the lines cracking jokes with the guys. There are times where the battle seems so real that when I see one of my guys fall, my heart screams. That’s how it was back then. They had a close family. There were disagreements, but which family doesn’t have some kind of issues?

“I get told a lot that, “you’re as good as any man that ever tore a cartridge.”  Words cannot explain how much I hate being told that. Hear me out: Once you start the hobby (yes, I said hobby), those words mean a lot. Feels like you’re doing great in the ranks and it boots up your confidence. However, once you get past your big arrogant, know-it-all, newbie phase, you’ll find out that those words are a flat-out insult to those men who actually went through hell on earth.

“Aren’t those the men and women we are supposed to honor? I fight and I do what I do to honor them! But, it’s more than just dressing out and doing memorial services now, it’s in the heart.

“People these days are literally trying to erase history but it’s always going to be there. Always. Even dressed up as a lady, on the field as a nurse, or in full uniform with my guys, I’m still doing my part. I maybe a “soldier” but never will I compare to those people 150+ years ago. My over all job isn’t to be a soldier- my job is to keep the memory of my ancestors and the unknown graves alive.”

Credit Becky Maddox

Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

J. Morgan, Major, PGL Left-wing commander

“I started Re-enacting at the age of 14. I have always been interested in the War of Northern Aggression, the “Civil War.” I started re-enacting because I love being on the line and firing my musket. Now I do it to educate the public on the truth about the War. I want to preserve our Southern Heritage.

“As an officer, I have a responsibility to the safety of my men. But at the same time, I have to focus on the field and how the Federal and/or Confederate counterparts are moving around the field so as to see how to respond to their movements. I have to remain cool and focused.

“Since my time in the U.S. Army, this hobby gives me a since of purpose and camaraderie. These special people have become my family. No matter the race, creed, or faith, these people are my family. I do it for them, and to honor my ancestors.

“I remain your humble servant, Major James C. Morgan, Phillip’s Georgia Legion, Left Wing Commander.”

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Photo credit: Heidi Edge

H. Poythress- Commanding Colonel, Georgia Volunteer Battalion
“Not long after I left the modern military, I was a student at Georgia College in Milledgeville. I commuted daily from Macon that spring quarter. One afternoon in early May I was passing through Gray on my way home and saw the tents set up in the fields for Old Clinton War Days and decided to go into town and see up close what was happening. That was in 1991…..

“Since that day I have totally and whole heartedly committed to the reenacting community in my home state of Georgia, and in many ways far beyond. I have traveled all across the American Civil War sphere of influence, ranging from the great pilgrimages, to the fields and stone walls of Pennsylvania, to mud holes in Mississippi and Arkansas, in the quest to absorb, consume, reflect on and protect every morsel of the Civil War experience; and it has blessed me beyond anything I can imagine.

“The events of the last few months and the actions of the haters of the “Left,” the “Liberals,” and the “Progressives,” toward Confederate history have left me angry and more determined than ever to buckle on my armor and prepare myself for what has become an unabashed and unrestrained genocidal drive toward the South and the memories of its fighting men of the 1860’s. These events are not new: Over the years I have marched in parades where opponents of anything and everything Confederate lined the sidewalks and hurled insults toward us and threatened boycotts on local business where the parade was being held. I have been denied the opportunity to present a complete presentation on the War to school children by being told that weapons or flags or the mention of certain figures could not be a part of the program. I have participated in rallies when State flags were being changed without the consent or will of the majority of its citizens. Even friends of mine as deeply rooted in the same cause of historical awareness and preservation were denied service at restaurants.

“But it is different now. Most recently, I have watched with sadness and a heavy heart [to see] the desecration and removal of monuments to the South’s Heroes-the one defining icon reminding us of what makes us who we are and what we should strive to be:

Brave.

“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 seriously doubt those people who are so offended by these monuments have taken the time to truly educate themselves on the history of the War, its causes and its aftermath on the South; and I seriously doubt any of them really care to, or ever will. All they see is the modern one-dimensional “insult” of being offended. The feelings of anger and helplessness that many of us feel as these events continue to occur with deliberate belligerence and impunity with no end in sight or possible compromise with the enemies of our history and culture will, in time, force many of us in a position to act.

“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. We in the Civil War historical community are, at times, are our worst enemy and do much more harm to our cause, our ancestors and our culture, when we do not take the effort to educate ourselves completely on the War. Everything we do is stereotyped by others who do not understand or appreciate what we do, or why we do it. Everything from the smallest detail of our impressions when displaying ourselves to the public to understanding the facts of the War’s politics, events, timelines, and outcomes is imperative and crucial to our credibility. That is in reality “why I fight.” Our enemy is ignorance.

 

 

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Why We Fight

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.

Confederate Jews

 

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.

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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.”

My friend the enemy by Mort Kunstler

“My Friend the Enemy” by Mort Kunstler

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.”

711_Kings_of_Kernstown-by John Paul Strain

“Kings of Kernstown” by John Paul Strain

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…”

Salute_of_Honor-Mort Kunstler

“Salute of Honor” by Mort Kunstler

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.

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Photo Credit: David Chaltas. Fiddler’s Green, 2016.

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.

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Dead Confederate Soldier, Harris Farm, Spotsylvania. Colorized by Shelby Chasteen, (used with permission).

 

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.”

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Union and Confederate Veterans at the Wall after Pickett’s Charge reenactment 1913. Photo Credit- The Guardian.

 

“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!

 

Elements of Reenacting

What do camp fire smoke, sweaty wool, gunpowder, wet canvas, freezing cold, fainting heat, and the great outdoors all have in common? Well, if you are a living historian, they are all things you experience and love.

Yes, love.

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Photo credit: Robert Carswell. Nash Farms Battlefield 2015-Atlanta Campaign

 

Some call us crazy, some call us impassioned, some say we live in the past (you think? ;D), some say that we can’t let go, and some say a whole lot of other things which shall not be repeated by a lady such as myself. Something special happens when one decides to become a living historian. We sign up for days of hardship, nights where one cannot get warm, heat that puts grown men down, marching in Brogans until our feet feel as though they will fall off, and days without running water, plumbing, or electricity. Yet, we thrive on it. We can’t get enough of it, and when there is an extended time between events, we miss it.

Kaitlyn, CSA at Old Clinton 2016

Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

We have a saying when someone comes to take part in an event and leaves with the passion coursing through their veins and a gleam shining in their eyes, that “they have been bitten.” At times we teasingly warn them that if not treated, it becomes a full-blown illness from which they cannot recover. My company teases me that I came in already “bitten,” and in a way, it was true. It had been slowly festering in me since my childhood with my first doses of living history, particularly with the War Between the States. Once I took the field at my first event as a reenactor, it was like a second dose. By that second event, there was no chance. I was hooked! It had bitten me so well that not only did I know it, but my company and reenactors from other companies could tell as well! Smells, and other sensory triggers that were once less than desirable, such as sweaty wool, now smell wonderful to me. Recently I drove by a location where they were clearing land and burning a pile of wood. That smoke wafted in through the air vents in my car with the fresh air, and all I could think about was being in the field with my company.

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Photo Credit: Les Patton. Occupation of Sandersville.

These weekends are not only about the events, and the fun we have, they are about so much more. There is a brotherhood among many in the reenacting world, particularly among certain groups. There is a family bond for others, like those in my company. I have friends across company lines, and many of them are quite close. I talk to some of them weekly, if not several times a week! But we also realize we are there for a purpose. We don’t just go out there to play soldier or hang out with our friends, we go to honor those who went before us. We go to honor those who fought, sacrificed, and died- on both sides.

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Photo Credit: Les Patton

My reason for being there is many-fold. First, I LOVE the history. I have been studying about it diligently for more than a decade and a half! Once that interest started, I have never fully been able to get over it. I have read, studied, explored, visited museums and battlefields, just because I love it. However, for me there is a special niche within the history that particularly holds my heart, and that is medicine. So many of the changes within the medical profession can be traced back to the War Between the States, whether surgically, women becoming nurses, the formation of an Ambulance corps, the skill of triage, creation of dog tags and so much more, all have their roots in the WBTS.

 

Second, depending on the event, I portray either a nurse, or medical corps. While I love nursing and think of these women I portray nearly like sisters, I find that I prefer being medical corps for many reasons. First of all, I get to be near the action. I hear the shouted commands, feel the concussion of the artillery, and I get a nose full of the smoke from the black powder as a volley is fired. I get to be in the thick of it, you might say. Being part of our medical response team, it also means that I am close to our guys if anything happens for real, and it certainly has! I am close enough I can monitor them and watch over them along with my fellow nurse, Lisa. But we are also there adding another layer to the event which was not present regularly, until the last year or so, and that is representing the wounds of battle and their care. Sure, guys would get “shot” and fall, and you would see many men “dead” on the field, but now we get to show the audience one small taste of what that carnage may have been like. Now they see guys go down and bandages applied with blood staining them, checking wounds, getting some men back on the line, and some drug to the rear. Some of our guys are good actors and will be screaming and writhing when they get hit and while we are treating them. We hear reports of audience members talking of how real it makes everything seem. All of a sudden, they aren’t watching a performance, it’s as though the guys really are shot and down. Suddenly the war seems just a little bit more real, and that makes it worth it!

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Surgery after battle and out of chloroform. Photo credit: Sheila Chasteen.

So how do all the smells I listed at the beginning apply? The campfire smoke means camp with your second family. It means evening time without the rush, sitting around the fire telling stories, trying to stay warm, or sharing our latest research so that everyone can learn from each other. It means food full of flavor, coming off the open fire and having a delightful meal.

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Photo from Chuck Harris

Sweaty wool reminds us of marching, suffering under the heat, and a brotherhood brought about by mutual sacrifice and sometimes misery. It means living in our ancestor’s footsteps for a few days, and getting a very small taste of what it was like for them and all they suffered during this second War of Independence.

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Photo Credit: Shannon Herron, edits by Shelby Chasteen.

Gunpowder means battle and fighting a common foe. It means adrenaline, fear, ire, and passion all rolled into one. It means trying to do justice to our ancestors in how they fought and who they fought, as well as how they died. It means dealing with the carnage of war in a safe place, where the buddy you just shot will get up once the battle is over, whereas our ancestors were at times fighting and killing their own flesh and blood.

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Photo Credit: Les Patton

Wet canvas means days of camping in all kinds of weather. Rain, snow, heat, and glorious weather have all played upon those surfaces. It means a few days getting back to the basics and back to nature. It means a few days disconnected from the 21st century and its technology and being able to slow down, take a breath, and really live again.

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Nash Farm Battlefield-Battle of LoveJoy Reenactment 2016

Freezing cold, fainting heat, and the great outdoors – well, that just means reenacting! Would I do it again? Absolutely. Every chance I can, whether through lectures, living histories, or reenactments. But as we must still hold down jobs and life in the 21st century, I am grateful for the chance to time travel several times a year, to spend time living before the era of technology, spending time with my second family, and getting back to the basics and one of the topics I truly love. Until my next event, I will have to remember the memories that are brought on by the smell of burning brush, or the black powder smell after fireworks are fired, or smelling the well-used (and full of odors) uniform coat that sits in my office even as I write this. Until then, I wish my reenactment family many blessings. To all of you, my readers, I hope I have inspired a passion for the history of this nation all the way back to its founding, and a gratefulness for all our ancestors- who sacrificed and died for their beliefs. To those who came before and fought this terrible war, both Federal and Confederate, I hope to continue to honor you well.

Getting Into Character

One part of reenacting is becoming the person we are representing. Some may think this is easy, but it is not always. We are representing people from a completely different time and culture from ours, as well as a nation at war. Friends and relatives were either fighting beside each other, or against each other. Motivations were as varied as the people in the ranks.

 

To truly reenact the war, we have to have reenactors in nearly every category: Confederate and Federal from infantry, cavalry, and artillery, medical corps, civilians, merchants, chaplain, and more. Each of these areas requires a different character, and a certain mindset and responses.

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Photo Credit: Heidi Edge

There are lots of ways we learn about our characters, and how to portray them. For most of us, we are always reading, whether journals, letters, autobiographies, manuals, or records – any primary document that will help us understand the events, what the participants had, how it impacted them, their thoughts, responses, and more. We look at personal accounts of the role we are playing and try to understand what they went through. My friends who portray solders study them, the military, the orders and rule of camp, the command structure, what they would have done, how they lived in camp, what they did between battles, what their duties would be (and are) depending on their rank, how they interacted with civilians, and more.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

Those portraying civilians study what it was like whether they were in town or following the army. Were they an army wife, mother, or child? Were they married to enlisted man or an officer? What point in the war are we portraying? How long would we have been blockaded here in the South, or are they portraying a Union wife with very little affect of the war on their way of living?

 

Those of us who portray doctors and nurses study the life and journals of those who were there. We study the medical procedures of the time, what they had to work with, what was known and unknown during the war, and what was changing. This could become important depending on whether you are portraying Federal or Confederate, and what part of the war is being lived. Some procedures did not exist at the beginning of the war, but were becoming commonplace by the end.

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Photo Credit: Sheila Chasteen

Everything changes when we get into camp. There we are living out of what we bring and can throw together with other reenactors. We are affected by the elements, and at times, by lack. We live in tents and have to warm ourselves by the fire. Life in the 21st century ceases to be in many ways. Once we put on the uniform, things change even more. You move differently, you feel different, you respond differently. I have friends who will be Confederates at one event and I’ll walk up, hug them, shoot the breeze with them, and at the next event when they are Federal, they are the enemy! We will call each other names, raid each other’s supplies, give them a wide birth, and of course shoot at each other! There was one event in 2016 where we had to split up part of our company, and some of us had to fight for the North. My Colonel, of whom I think very highly, had to galvanize. I was in gray, and as he was pulling his blue coat on, I told him, “I’m going to really not like you for about an hour, Sir.” That statement was very true, for I shot him three times on the field! (Thank goodness we are only using black powder).

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Photo Credit: Les Patton

I have friends who portray some of the best darn Yankees I have met. Trust me, my ire certainly rises seeing them across the field, and I do NOT want to mess with certain ones in camp when they are in Federal blue. There are others I want to rile beyond words! For one of my friends in particular, there is a certain je ne sais quoi about him when he takes the field in Blue or in Butternut – and it’s different depending on which role he is portraying. I once asked him why he played Yankee, and why he was such an absolute rapscallion when he did. I love the answer he gave, and I will try to do it justice here: “Because I have to represent who they were, and the brutality they brought down here. If I don’t, then I do an injustice to my family, and our ancestors who fought them, and I can’t do that.” He does a very good job at it, almost maniacally at times! When he is in Butternut (Confederate), I have seen him stand tall in the face of a Yankee onslaught. He is not easily moved or impressed by their tactics, always wanting to counter them and take them down, even under fire.

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Photo Credit: Sherry Knight Frazier

My beloved Captain is a little different. He loves the South, though he does have to galvanize occasionally. He is the constant Southern officer, runs a tight camp, shows respect to his fellow officers and those who outrank him, is a good leader to the rest of us (though to be truthful, Stephanie runs the camp). He loves our history and our heritage, and wants to see it portrayed well. He is calm and level headed at all times, which is good because we have some hot-tempered ones in the bunch! He’s very inviting to all, and encourages those who are interested to come to an event and see if this is for them. I would not be a living historian on a battlefield were it not for Stephanie’s invitation to come talk to them, and his invitation to join the 53rd GA for an event. Oh how immensely glad I am he offered!!!

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

Our member, J.R., is a filmmaker and is making a documentary about what it was like for the more than 400 women who disguised their sex and fought as men, and what it is like to portray them. That is her role in our company and on the field. She fights, marches, drills, and performs her role in camp just like the men. She is honoring those women, about whom few people are even aware. (Shout out to Reenactress Documentary!)

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Photo Credit: Reenactress Documentary

Mindset is everything. For some, the mindset starts before we get to the event. Some watch Civil War films such as “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals,” “Shenandoah,” or “Field of Lost Shoes.” Some listen to music from the war, performed by some of the historic bands such as “The Unreconstructed,” or the “97th Regimental String Band.” Many of our men are military veterans. They tell me they go back into military mode mentally. They know we are about to face an enemy and their training, both from the real military and our training as soldiers of the War Between the States, kicks in, just at a lower level than when they were in combat. Others have been reenacting so long that it has become second nature! For these, once they are in uniform and it’s time for action, they are in character.

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

For most of us, things change even more when we go on the battlefield. For those who have been reenacting decades, they think not just about the battle, which by now is like second nature, they are also always thinking about the safety of the men and horses, as well as putting on a good show for our audience. Many of those portraying Federal troops go from relaxed, to cocky, troublemaking good-for-nothings (and I mean this in the nicest way possible, guys), to fierce, aggressive fighters on the battlefield. There are a few in particular I look for when we are opposing them, because I know the most ferocious fight will come from their part of the field. All compassion is gone, only a determined enemy there to wipe out the South. For many of our Georgia reenactments, and depending on the battle we are recreating, some of the Federals decide to fight like they were under W. T. Sherman and his ruthless band of soldiers.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

For the Confederates, particularly at the reenactments here in the deep South, we are constantly in mind of the fact that this war was fought on OUR soil against our homes and families. We know when the Federals come through and man-handle the women, and raid the buildings (yes that is part of some of the reenactments- I’ve experienced it!), those were our women, homes, and lives destroyed. There is the feeling of the home guard, the last stand between victory and annihilation, and the last hope of keeping the Federals at bay. At times, there is desperation, at times anger, and at times, the intensity of “you will only get through over my dead body.”

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Photo Credit: Les Patton

For me, I become a mixture of modern times and the 19th century. My job as medical corps is to truly monitor our men and make sure everyone is okay, and that is real job in itself! But I also watch and act with those who are “wounded” by the battle, or get wounds of war, such as this last event where a guy “lost his leg” from a cannon shot. I jump in to determine if they are alive, dress the wounds, and see if I can get them back on the line or if they have to be moved toward the rear and medical care. My mindset is always on how to treat their wound with what I have, and what could have been done on the field, verses having to be performed in an actual hospital.

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Photo Credit: Les Patton, Editing credit: Shelby Chasteen

We act in ways we hope is both accurate and honoring to those who lived it. We set our mindset on the way the person we are portraying, or our ancestor, would have thought and felt. We strive to do our job well, whatever that role may be. We feel a great responsibility to make sure we tell the REAL story to the audience, and give the public some small taste of the real war, in all the unadulterated facts. Most of all, it is our passion that makes us who we are. Our passion for our history, our passion for honoring those who lived it, our passion for reenacting!

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

I hope this gives you a small look into the world of reenactors and all that we do. We are not simply people play-acting and shooting guns and cannons. There are many historians in our midst, and a love and connection to the history and to each other, which runs deeply through all of us.

 

*Please be sure to check out our photographers and the Reenactress Documentary! You can find them on Facebook, and you can find Reenactress Documentary here: https://www.facebook.com/reenactress/app/216201571807288/