Living With War
by J. Tobias Beard
A visit to a Civil War reenactment near Barboursville, VA. Published in C-VILLE 9/29/2009.
“It’s not about slavery. It’s not about racism. For a lot of us it’s about ancestors.” Amanda Kutch is a United Daughter of the Confederacy and on Saturday morning, September 19, she’s dressed like one. Blonde, fair, and outfitted in a blue, flowered dress with a white blouse and a crocheted hairnet, Kutch is getting ready to re-enact the Battle of Rio Hill and the Battle of Stanardsville. A genealogist by hobby and an office manager and academic services coordinator for UVA’s School of Continuing Education by day, Kutch has traced her family in Albemarle County to 1760, and to the Civil War, where they fought in the 19th Virginia, Company E, “The Piedmont Guard.” Recently, she has been campaigning to preserve confederate graves on the UVA campus. “The past is the past,” she says. “There’s nothing that I can do to change it.”
Her sensitivity to how her hobby is perceived will be echoed throughout the day as re-enactors slide in and out of their historical personas to field questions from a reporter and photographer, who are themselves, as per the rules of engagement, tricked out in period clothes.
The sky is clear and the sun is shining as the 19th Virginia Regiment Company B, a.k.a. “The Albemarle Rifles,” goes through morning drills, a line of men in grays and muted browns marching over a green field just off Route 33 in Greene County. They cycle endlessly through the same five years. It is currently 1864.
“These folks,” Kutch says, gesturing towards the Albemarle Rifles camp, “they’re really good friends. We’re family.”
Captain Pat Knowles, from Natural Bridge Station, leads the 19th Virginia, Company B. A 45-year-old contractor for Columbia Natural Gas Transmission, Knowles has been re-enacting for 13 years, but he dates his interest in the Civil War to his early teens. He began as a private in the 19th and worked his way up through Sergeant and Lieutenant to Captain. In real life, Knowles had family in the 17th Carolina. He points out that now, as a re-enactor he outranks them. He seems proud of this.
“Once I’m here,” Knowles says, “I don’t leave. I like to forget the present day. This is how I unwind.”
Indeed, today’s actual battle will last only one hour. For the re-enactors, most of the day is spent sitting around camp, gossiping, talking about military history, and messing with gear. It’s like any camping trip; only instead of Patagonia it’s Cold Mountain. “A week of doing this and I go home friendly and happy and all of the stress of the modern world is gone,” says Robert Pugh, an Albemarle Rifle who serves as Chaplain for the whole army. “If you’re out here on a damp morning and you’ve got a cup of coffee cooked over wood, you’re in another world.”
A weekend-long Civil War re-enactment is kind of like a 19th century rock festival. Immediately beyond the parking area and ticket table ($6 for adults, $3 for kids), food vendors sell hot dogs, funnel cake and lemonade in huge neon plastic cups. Past the food court, two rows of tents house living history demonstrations, such as a working blacksmith and the great General R.E. Lee himself, and then more commerce, but of the old-fashioned variety. Sutler’s Row it’s called, sutlers being the merchants who followed in an army’s wake during the Revolutionary and Civil wars, setting up their mobile stores in or near camp. The modern version is very similar, providing an extraordinary array of period goods for the re-enactors to purchase, from clothes to camp equipment to weaponry. They also sell souvenirs for visitors from the modern era—R.E. Lee action figures, toy guns, “The South Will Rise Again” bumper stickers and fake severed hands. Beyond Sutler’s Row, a rope divides the spectator area from the Confederate camp, an orderly cluster of white canvas tents separated from the Union troops by a long swath of soon-to-be-killing field.
Spectators’ two most frequently asked questions at Civil War reenactments are “Is it hot in those uniforms?” and “Do the guns fire real bullets?” These questions are easy to answer. The uniforms are made from heavy wool, and when re-enactors come off the field their shirts are soaked with sweat and their faces are red. The guns can shoot real bullets, but re-enactors load them with black powder charges that make a lot of noise and smoke and emit a burst of flame. They can also, however, burn your fingers, take out an eye, even maim or kill at close range.
Other issues come to mind, too: Is this any way to spend money and time? For men, just the uniform alone can exceed $1,000. A good rifle costs about the same. It doesn’t stop there, of course. It never does with any serious hobby. One soldier claims he has more than $15,000 worth of Civil War equipment. Campsites are elaborate and comfortable with chairs, tables and lanterns—everything made of wood and metal. Civilian re-enactors cook an abundance of food over open flames and, post-battle, contraband beers emerge from hidden coolers.
Past all that, there’s the vexing matter of motivation. A century-and-a-half after the fact, tens of thousands of Americans put up with the scorn and suspicion of their neighbors, family and co-workers (“Let’s not go there,” says Amanda Kutch, when the subject comes up) to relive the most devastating war this country has ever seen. Why?
At 2:30, the Albemarle Rifles don their jackets, grab their rifles and bayonets, and take to the field. In 1985, about 25 people gathered for the first time to re-enact the Battle of Stanardsville. Today, some 400 spectators line up along a rope and aim cell phones and video cameras at around 700 re-enactors. Over a booming PA, an announcer narrates the spectacle. “What a great country this is,” he says, “where you can re-enact a revolution.”
Everywhere you look, people are living with war. Kids stand on the sidelines with toy rifles and blue or grey Civil War hats. Some re-enactors fight in multiple eras. Knowles also re-enacts World War II battles and Kutch used to take part in medieval recreations in high school. Seemingly to a person, the re-enactors have had ancestors in the military, or are veterans themselves, or both. Staff Sergeant Wayne Ellyson, for example, tall and saber thin, currently serves in the Army with the 529th out of Virginia Beach. He survived a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2004, went back in a year later, and is about to leave for his third deployment. Re-enactments, he says, are a way to show respect for the soldiers who came before him.
The Union and the Confederacy face each other in parallel lines. Muskets spitting out smoke, they fire in unison. After about 15 minutes some re-enactors start to fall to the ground. The crowd responds with an “Oooooh!”
Here’s another pressing question: How does a re-enactor know when to die? At first, because everybody wants a chance to fire his gun, no one takes a hit. But after a while if a soldier sees the enemy pointing his gun right at him and firing, the soldier is kind of honor-bound to fall down and play dead. Then there are those people who just get tired and decide to call it quits. In Stanardsville, one soldier declares to a buddy, “I’ll take a hit tomorrow. My wife is here today!”
After an hour it’s all over. The Federal Army surrenders to the Rebels.
The true Battle of Rio Hill was more of a skirmish. It took place in February 1864 when General George Armstrong Custer led Union troops on a raid of a Confederate Camp outside of Charlottesville (to see the actual spot where it happened, head to Kroger in the Rio Hill shopping center). Three months later, Generals Lee and Grant met 50 miles north between Orange and Spotsylvania for the Battle of Wilderness, where more than 30,000 Americans were either killed or wounded. You may have heard of Wilderness: It’s where Wal-Mart fought hard to build a 138,000 square foot Super Center, with the blessing of the Board of Supervisors. The store was never built, but the attempt pissed off a lot of people. “Progress is nice,” Knowles says, “but once a battlefield is gone, it’s gone forever.”
Virginia paid a heavy toll in the true Civil War. Over half of all battles were fought here and some 7,000 Virginians are thought to have died or been wounded. John Dungan, who’s been with the Albemarle Rifles for 20 years, has an enigmatic answer to why the Civil War ought to stay alive: “Winners write the history.” From there, he recites a simpler version of the standard Southern history lesson. The war wasn’t about slavery. It was about state’s rights. You were a Virginian first, an American second. “You didn’t know nothing about Washington. You were worried about where you lived,” he says.
Three hundred fifty of Dungan’s ancestors fought in the Civil War—on both sides. Ultimately, he says, he’s just honoring them. But it’s more relevant than that, he suggests, with a rueful laugh. “The way things are going today,” he says, “there’s gonna be another Civil War.”
“The haves and the have-nots.”
As night approaches, the subject of politics becomes unavoidable. “I voted for Jefferson Davis,” says Greg, from “over in the valley” as he sits around a fire. His friends laugh and shake their heads, beer cans barely disguised in period mugs. “It’s just half time! The North 1, the South 0.”
“People think we’re all Klansmen,” someone else says, “but we’re not.”
Karrin Temple, a middle school teacher from Madison with degrees in history and political science, has spent most of the day in camp cooking. She was a spectator at this same event last year, but by the end of the day she was in period dress and had joined the 19th Virginia. She’s been interested in the Civil War for years. That surprises a lot of her friends. Temple’s father is white and her mother is black. “Do they make you play a slave?” her friends ask.
What’s a nice black girl doing joining the Confederate Army? “I like broadening people’s perspectives, ” she replies.
Temple admits that as a Democrat she voted for Obama. “We just don’t talk about [politics],” she says of her Confederate brethren. When it comes to re-enactment, apparently such differences don’t matter much. “I love it. It’s almost like coming home, in a weird way.”
The camp at dusk is painted with yellow candle flame and hazy smoke. The ladies and girls duck into tents and emerge dressed in silks and pearls and fringe for the celebratory ball that caps the evening. At a Richmond artillery regiment, there’s kielbasa and cabbage and beer for supper. Dan Redfearn sits with his 11-year-old son James on his lap. Twenty-three of his and James’ ancestors served in the Civil War, but only six survived. Over dinner, Redfearn complains about how frustrated he was earlier with the shopkeeper down the road who didn’t speak much English. He’s polite about it, but some of the others around the fire aren’t. As they toss out the inevitable “They oughta learn our language” comments, the specter of a post-race re-enactment culture fades quickly. When Redfearn was young he knew exactly where he was heading; school, then the army, then a successful career, then family and retirement. But the world has changed and he’s not sure what to make of it. The future belongs to his son James, who spent the day ferrying charges to the cannons, as comfortable with computers as he is with 19th century warfare.
It’s fully dark now. The soldiers fire the cannons one last time to say goodbye to the remaining spectators. There seem to be many reasons that people dress up in hot, expensive costumes and recreate the past. It’s family recreation, a history lesson, and a way of honoring our war dead all rolled into one. “We just don’t want to forget what people have done for us,” Dungan says. Or as Pat Knowles succinctly puts it, “If we didn’t do it, who would?”
Here’s another theory: Some people re-enact the Civil War because they believe that how our country was then can tell us something about how our country is now, or how it ought to be. There’s a similarity between the frustration that the South felt in the 19th century and the frustration that some people feel now, a sense that if back then they “didn’t know nothing about Washington,” then today Washington knows nothing about us. One hundred and-forty-five years ago, geography placed Virginians on the same side in the Civil War. Today, politics threatens to pit them against each other. Around the camp, as night sounds thicken, it’s easy to imagine that when the last spectators have gone home, the electric lights are dimmed, and there’s nothing left but campfires and candlelight, that maybe then our country’s ghosts will finally rest.