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.”

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“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!

 

Being on the Battlefield

A common question I am asked is, “What is it like to be on the battlefield?” It’s a really good question, but not one that is easily answered. The answer varies depending on the battle, one’s position, and one’s rank.

 

For the basic enlisted soldier, the majority of their focus is on listening to the orders of their officers and NCOs and following them. Making sure they use their training and execute their orders well.

 

For Corporals, their job is to ensure safety, to maintain and dress the line, and complete whatever order the NCOs or officers give. They may have a squad of men assigned to them for whom they are responsible to oversee and lead.

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Photo credit: Kellie Banks

Sergeants are responsible for holding the line, keeping the soldiers where they are supposed to be in the line, and are an alignment point for the line.

 

1st Sergeants maintain the stability, safety, and structure of the unit. They make sure everyone has what they need (a Sergeant or Corporal may do this for the men assigned under them as well). They watch what the Captain or Major are doing and make sure they have what they need, as well as trying to anticipate any needs or upcoming commands to be ready for them.

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Photo Credit: Kellie Banks

Officers- roles of officers change with every rank. Captains are over Companies, Majors and Lt. Colonels are wing commanders. The Colonel commands the battalion. The officers read the enemy. They see what is coming and try to counter it. They have to think on their feet and command men, knowing the consequences of their commands – whether right or wrong. There is a certain pressure on them, because the lives of the men under them are completely in their hands.

 

Medical- Medical varies based on which role we are playing. A head surgeon or battalion surgeon is usually in the general hospital or the rear field hospital. A field surgeon may be on the field, but will be behind the line of battle, not on it (you hope. I have had the line of battle shift on me and end up right in the middle of the fighting). Vivandieres would also be behind the line of battle, but may be on the battlefield tending the wounded. Nurses would be in the hospitals, with a few exceptions, such as if one were portraying Clara Barton or Annie Etheridge, both of whom did take the to battlefield behind battle lines (these ladies were Union). Our job is to check the wounded, get them stable and back on the line, or to the hospital to the rear.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

For all of us, we learn and manage to navigate the terrain for each event, adjusting what we are doing to make sure orders are carried out correctly and we still stay safe. Everyone still feels the concussion of the cannon fire, quickly learning what to look for, and when to cover one’s ear for protection. We all quickly learn the sound of a musket volley, or fire by file and make minute adjustments as needed. The smell of gunpowder fills our noses, sounds fill our ears, and at times, senses start to overload if a lot is happening at once. It is easy to become lost in the moment, to truly be living in the battle with all the chaos, fighting, enemy movements, or hand-to-hand combat. There is excitement of the unknown, the horror of seeing fellow comrades fall.

Carrying the wounded-Shannon Herron

Photo Credit: Shannon Herron

When the first shots are fired, adrenaline kicks in. Our response varies based on our role and whether we are giving or taking orders. Some of us are more seasoned, so the musket fire does not affect us as much. Some are military veterans and the musket fire puts them back in the zone with which they are so familiar. For me, it depends on which role I’m playing. If I’m a soldier or medical corps, I’m ready for battle. I’m thinking both offense and defense. If I’m in a civilian role, it is a very different response. I know that army is coming, and I know they are up to no good. It means we need to hide our valuables, our food, our children, and if possible ourselves. The Yankees love to come in, steal our supplies and manhandle the women, who usually have no defense until the Confederate army arrives, most particularly when we are reenacting the battles in Sherman’s march to the sea.

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Photo Credit: CR Studios BW Atlanta

As a soldier, there is a particular moment when the enemy begins advancing. You watch them, you study their movements and see what they are going to do, and as enlisted, you pray your officers will give the order for you to fight, and an order that won’t get you “killed.” When they enemy advances toward you and there have been no orders for your line to advance, you can feel the anxiety building. There is an instinct in all of us to want to fight back. Some feel our breathing speed up, some get a knot in their stomach, or sweaty hands. These feelings are intensified when we are facing an opposing line of reenactors we don’t know. We don’t know how they were trained, we don’t know what they can, or will do. There’s an added level of tension there because not only do the officers have to try to read the opponent and properly counter them, but on a more basic level, we realize there is a much more likely chance of someone getting hurt. When we fight and train together often, we begin to trust each other. We know what they know and they know us. We know what they are capable of, and that we all work hard to keep each other safe on the battlefield. When we have an unknown opponent, it is much more like fighting the war itself. We know they aren’t out to kill us (unlike the actual war), but we know there is a higher risk of someone getting hurt.

 

When our officers get fired up, and begin to fight an aggressive battle, that’s when it starts getting fun! There will be lots of movement, much more determination than a predictable battle. They move men back and forth, the opposing line trying to find a weak spot to breach the line. The musket volleys and artillery fire encourage the adrenaline and our resolve. We listen over the din of battle, we taste the sulfuric grains of black powder in our mouth as we rapidly tear open cartridges and load as fast as we can. The smell of smoke fills our nostrils as the cannon blasts wrack our bodies. The gunpowder hangs in the air like a blanket, cloaking some of the movements of our enemy. Thoughts run through our heads even as we execute the commands: Are you going to run out of ammunition before they are stopped? Are you going to die today?

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Photo credit: Rebecca Partin

I’ve had a few heart-dropping moments when instances felt very real for me on the battlefield. My first was a moment fighting the battle for Atlanta, over a year into my reenacting experience. I had been in multiple battles and multiple roles by that time. During this battle, we were making our final assault on the Federal line, pushing them back hard. I was medical corps and thus on the field behind the line of battle. I had knelt down to tend one of the “wounded” when the lines clashed and moved right in front of me. As the lines collided, one Yankee private broke through the line and came right for me! As medical corps, I am considered a non-combatant, and therefore unarmed. I had no way to defend myself, and was on my knees tending a wounded soldier. I saw the Yankee private coming toward me, and in that instant, I knew I was done! If he got to me, there was nothing I could do. My heart jumped into my throat and my breathing increased all in one second. I tried to find a way to oppose him, but while he was just feet away and before I could get to my feet, one of my brothers in arms took him to the ground in epic style. I quickly looked to him, nodded my thanks, and went back to my duties with a big sigh and deep breath.

 

The second of these events was at our most recent reenactment. The battle had been going for some time, and I had been dispatched to the Confederate right flank. We were losing men as casualties, and I was checking them. With a yell and a charge, the Federals attacked our position. The lines quickly clashed, and the Federals were busting through in places before our men could shore up the line. One of the Federal officers (who is a friend of mine and fights fiercely) broke through the line with part of his company just feet from my position. All the emotions and the thoughts of that first experience came rushing back as this time many men broke through the line. I thought, “Boys, stop them or we are done!” Thankfully, our boys in gray came in before I was taken prisoner or killed.

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Photo Credit: Shelia Chasteen

Other reenactors have stories upon stories to tell. Many nights we it around the fire and tell these stories to each other. If you have the opportunity, sit and talk with a reenactor and ask what it’s like. If it’s during an event, we will tell you in the first person of the character we are portraying. If it is outside an event, we will tell you about reenacting, the history, the art, and the skill of what we do. We love to share our passion with anyone who will listen or wants to learn, and we are always learning from each other!

 

I hope this blog has given you a little taste of what it’s like to be on the battlefield during the battle, with all the sights, smells, emotions, and experiences that comes with it! If you are near the middle Georgia region this weekend, be sure to stop in at Old Clinton in Gray, GA! They will be reenacting the battle of Sunshine farms, and the Battle of Griswoldville (part of Sherman’s march to the sea)!

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