As debate around the Confederate flag has roiled on the national stage, I was reminded of how, when I was in sixth grade in Virginia, a Confederate Civil War reenactor visited my American history class to tell us how fun it was to dress up in a grey wool uniform, eat hardtack, and painstakingly stage 19th century battles in the stifling Piedmont humidity.
According to author Sue Eisenfeld, Civil War reenacting began before the war even ended. These “sham battles” were not only a popular form of entertainment, but a way to communicate the experiences of soldiers to civilians far away from the front lines. Interest in Civil War reenactments was renewed during the Civil War Centennial in 1961. Today, tens of thousands of people participate in the multi-million dollar industry.
I decided to talk to one of them. John, 45, is a historian and Civil War reenactor who works at a living history museum near Richmond, Virginia. He asked that I not use his last name or the name of his workplace.
How did you first get involved in the reenactment community?
Growing up in the Hudson Valley, I was always brought to Revolutionary War sites and reenactments and then eventually to Civil War reenactments hosted by the 124th New York Volunteers, a created regiment in Orange County, New York. I decided when I was a junior in high school to do this interesting educational hobby, and “enlist.” They always spoke to veterans’ groups and schools, and did programs pretty much everywhere, a dozen parades a year. It seemed fun and noble at the same time.
You dress as both a Confederate and a Union soldier. Why?
I portray a Confederate soldier with my group, The Palmetto Guards, out of South Carolina and the upper South. We understand that the history of the Confederate soldier is still interesting to many Americans, and often what they are taught, which is little to nothing, is wrong. People are not sure what they looked like, who they were as people, and then how they conducted themselves as soldiers. Their motivations for fighting were many, and we attempt to expose those motivations with a proper context, with as much objectivity as we can. They were amazing soldiers, they had, as one Northerner said, “a dash about them” that the northern men lacked. Maybe that is it. But I had a few Confederate ancestors from Arkansas. You want to give them some appropriate remembrance, I suppose.
I portray a Union soldier because my modern roots were around monument after monument in every town where I grew up. The Union soldier, when as a civilian, was not much different than his southern cousin, but they had different perspectives, different motivations, and so when portraying a soldier from the North, I illuminate and interpret his clothing, his weapons, and his history almost identically as the Confederate.
But this is fun in the South, because you are the away team, and so many Southerners have misconceptions, and I love presenting these men fairly and openly. They were often, from a period perspective, just as talented a soldier as their American cousins, but they eventually crushed the Confederacy, but it took 300,000 deaths to do it. They deserve equal respect as the Confederate soldiers, and because they became the great emancipators of slaves, though many of them shared the same views on race as the Johnnies, sometimes worse, there is an interesting dualism that I like interpreting.
I love the songs of both sides, and in the songs, you find the culture. I enjoy period music more than anything.
Some people only do Confederate reenactment. Is there a particular allure to dressing up a Confederate soldier?
As stated above, there was a “certain dash” that the northern men lacked. The Confederate troops had a “rebel yell” and U.S. troops had the “Yankee Hurrah.” I think the rebel yell, the individualism of the Confederate soldier—Johnny as we call them—the uniforms and clothing were more diverse and interesting, and just his absolute steadfastness to the defense of his home against overwhelming odds, all these things have parts in that answer. Some people cannot afford to do both sides. Some people honor and appreciate the Northern soldier but feel that because their ancestors fought and bled against the North, they could not wear that uniform. I do not feel that way. It is a common heritage to me, and you are teaching about the war through two sets of values.
Do you find that people who dress as Confederate soldiers tend to be sympathetic to the Confederate cause? Or is it just a way to act out something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience, or a hands-on way to explore history?
Ninety percent of the Confederate reenactors I know are sympathetic to the cause of the average Southerner, and his “cause” was his “to each his own.” Reenactors are usually not at all cozy with the continuance of slavery as part of the establishment of the Confederate States of America. They deplore it. We understand history is history and the “cause” of the Confederate soldier is not often the same as the Confederate States government.
It is a complex dualism that often occurs when discussing the Confederacy. Almost all want to feel what the history books talk about–marching, rations, camping, and singing. Nobody wants to be shot at or stabbed, and since a good number of veterans are reenactors and portray Confederates, it is not that they do not understand fighting and dying, but it is an immersive and expansive portion of being a Civil War intellectual. Many of the guys and gals I reenact with know more than most college professors regarding the average experiences of these people. It comes from reading every diary, letter, and journal you can find, and then recreating the experiences.
What roles are available for people of color in the reenactment community? Are roles delegated only to people who would have realistically held them at the time (i.e. black reenactors can only play members of black regiments or slaves) Could there be a black J.E.B. Stuart or an Asian Stonewall Jackson?
Whether portraying a slave, a refugee, a free black laborer, an artisan, northern press, a wagon driver, musician, or in the case of the Union Army, 1864-1865, a soldier, they can do any and all things that their heart desires. They are always appreciated and respected. I have always had great experiences having the layers of history mixed and presented side by side.
The reenactors I know prefer to tell all the stories and only wish more of the black community would be involved. It is their heritage just the same, and we all want the stories told equally. As far as portraying someone–you can do what you want with yourself, but like society, if you say or do something not appropriate, you will hear from the masses. If we are teaching and recreating the past, visual and contextual understanding is huge. Most reenactors would say no to a black J.E.B. Stuart or an Asian Stonewall. They would find it inappropriate and politely let you know that.
What are your opinions on the Confederate flag debate? Is displaying the flag innately offensive and representative of slavery and racism? Should it be respected as part of history and Southern heritage? Could the flag—and Confederate imagery in general—actually serve as a reminder of the shameful legacy of slavery and unresolved conflicts stemming from the Civil War and its aftermath?
My opinion is that the flag changed meanings through 150 years. To me, I see it from a soldier prism from the Civil War, which is not a flag of hate and intolerance to black civil rights. I see it in 1865 as a bloodied banner carried by fighting regiments, the soul of those men who fought. There was not “hate” in that flag at that time. In 1965 it was used by intolerant racists across the South to stop equality under the law during the Civil Rights Movement. It was used to scare, intimidate, and do harm to the black community. Like the American flag, it was used by hate groups, like the KKK, so the meaning changed.
Most people I know see that it has various reminders, many of them painful to the black community, so most of the reenactors I know, feel it should not be used on government buildings and should be kept only at historic sites and memorials, including cemeteries. The flags of Confederacy are several dozen–the one that upsets people is the variant battleflag styles. So we need to display Confederate flags of different types in those places of public view. It is being reverent and compassionate, all at once. It allows for those people with Confederate ancestors to keep their respect and reverence but also show their fellow Americans of color that they understand their passions, too.
What do you think is the role of Civil War reenactment in contemporary political and historical discourse?
Reenactors can be the best forms of filters interpreting the history of the Civil War. Families love to come and see the events, and all demographics can learn by asking questions, observing, hearing, and smelling the past. History books come alive and are 3-D. It can be the best way to learn and question, depending on your interests.
Not all reenactors are experts, as it takes years of research to do the best interpreting, but because schools and government are failing at teaching or promoting the heritage of the country, it may be left to historical sites and reenactors. Americans are now poorly educated in their own history so, if nothing else, maybe reenactors are great for initiating that honest conversation about the past and encouraging and guiding people where to begin that journey.
Photo: Confederate reenactors march back to camp after a re-enactment of the Battle of Appomattox Court House as part of the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House in Appomattox, Va., Thursday, April 9, 2015. The battle was the final battle of the army of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee before his surrender to Union troops. Via AP.