Civil War re-enactors respond to criticism
PARKERSBURG — Most Civil War re-enactors say their effort is about heritage and history, not bigotry and hate.
With the debate on removing Confederate monuments and whether people should fly the Confederate flag taking up a lot of attention across the country, in West Virginia, for the most part, Civil War re-enactors haven’t had to deal with much criticism, but the issue has popped up at some of their events.
Groups such as white supremacists, Neo-Nazis and people referred to as the “Alt-Right” marched through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 11 after the city council there approved plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park. Many people carried variations of the Confederate flag, which has become a popular symbol for such groups. One woman was killed and 19 others injured when a car was driven into a group of counter protesters.
The Historic Zoar Civil War Re-enactment at Zoar, Ohio, is addressing security needs with police to protect re-enactors during the event Sept. 9-10. Another re-enactment in Manassas, Virginia, was canceled due to increasing security costs and concerns about what had happened in Charlottesville. In Newton, North Carolina, a man was arrested for pepper-spraying Confederate re-enactors in a parade.
During the Parkersburg Homecoming Parade on Aug. 19, as members of the local Civil War re-enactment group Carlin’s Battery D marched down the street, a woman in the crowd said to them, “Do you really think that is a good idea?”
She apparently referred to the Confederate flag that was being carried by the procession — made up of members dressed as Union and Confederate soldiers.
Jim Miracle of Vienna, one of the leaders and organizers for Carlin’s Battery D, said there are a number of events re-enactors participate in that have been impacted by the tone of recent events.
Miracle said it is a shame people are trying to do away with history and the lessons it can teach.
“History is history,” he said. “You can take down all the monuments and flags you want, but it doesn’t change the history.”
Re-enactors are trying to preserve the lessons of history.
“People today are not responsible for what happened then, but we shouldn’t forget our past,” Miracle said.
Carlin’s Battery D has a roster of 18 members and the group is planning soon to increase its numbers.
The recent actions against some re-enactors have prompted some to join up.
“Many still want to remember where we came from,” Miracle said.
Carlin’s Battery D is planning to attend the Blue and Gray Days in St. Marys over Labor Day weekend.
“We will go on,” Miracle said. “We hope nothing happens.”
John Haddox of St. Marys, who helped organize the Blue and Gray Days, said he had some groups who contacted him who would not be able to attend, but did not know the specific reason they would not be attending.
So far, he has not seen a lot of backlash in regard to Confederate symbols used by re-enacting groups in West Virginia.
“I have not come across it,” he said. “I am a re-enactor, not a protester.”
Haddox had ancestors who fought on both sides during the Civil War and he has portrayed both sides as needed.
From the various reasons for fighting the Civil War to the goal of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, “People are not reading history or interpreting it,” Haddox said.
He is interested in history and presenting it as a way for people to learn, like many re-enactors do. He knows people who regularly portray Union soldiers when he portrays a Confederate at battle re-enactments.
“We are all still good friends when we are done,” he said.
Bill Beardsley Sr., who lives about 20 miles north of Marietta, was marching in the Homecoming Parade with Carlin’s Battery D and heard the comment from the crowd.
People who know nothing about the Civil War will look at the Confederate flag and just assume all white people who carry it are racist, he said.
“It surprises me,” Beardsley said. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
He and most re-enactors do not support the aims of white supremacists, he said.
When they do re-enactments, there are times when one side won’t have enough people, and people will be asked to fill out the numbers so the demonstration can go forward. Many re-enactors have uniforms that represent both sides.
Beardsley is a Vietnam War veteran, having served in the Army from 1969-72, and saw the bad treatment many troops received after coming home from an unpopular war. He has lived in the South and seen how things have been changing and improving over the years.
For him, re-enacting is about the history.
“If they don’t talk about what happened, what lessons are learned?” he asked. “We learn from history. If we don’t learn, things like this can happen again.”
He cited the Civil War and the Holocaust as examples of history from which people must learn a lesson.
Most re-enactment events are family events.
“We have a good time, we do cookouts,” he said. “We like history and to study history books.
“I can’t see that being racist.”
The current climate of political correctness encourages people to have a limited view of history, Beardsley said.
He had three ancestors who fought in the Civil War on both sides. Many people involved with re-enacting have ancestors who were in the Civil War.
They have given demonstrations at area schools and in public venues. Although they can’t bring weapons to schools, they have brought pictures and tried to convey what life was like for Civil War soldiers through the equipment they used and how they lived. At public venues, they have been able to display period weapons.
Many re-enactors give of their time freely
“We want to explain what life was like day-to-day for them,” Beardsley said. “I am a history buff and I like to give demonstrations.
“We are trying to keep history alive and we are always looking for new people.”
Fred Cordell of Harrisville said they haven’t seen many problems for re-enactors in West Virginia. He has been doing re-enacting since 2002. He has been involved with Carlin’s Battery D and the 17th Virginia Cavalry Company F.
It is not about what uniform people wear now, it is putting the conflict into a perspective people can learn from, he said.
“We’re not racists,” Cordell said. “We want to keep history alive.”
In West Virginia, many re-enactors portray Confederate soldiers.
“It is hard sometimes to get Union soldiers,” Cordell said. “In Ohio, they have the opposite problem. They can’t get enough Confederates.”
So Cordell has played many roles from a soldier to an officer. He said groups have taken the Confederate flag and turned it into a symbol of hate, which in turn gets certain groups upset with re-enactors.
“We are not a symbol of hate, but of heritage,” Cordell said. “We (in West Virginia) are proud of our heritage.” West Virginia was the only state born out of the Civil War.
Eric Saho of Parkersburg has been doing re-enacting for almost five years. He is involved portraying a captain in the 17th Virginia Cavalry.
The person’s comment at the Homecoming Parade was the first flak he had encountered.
“I can tell when I portray the Confederacy, people disapprove,” he said. “There is a lot of misunderstandings about the Civil War and its causes.”
“As our last presidential election has shown, there are a lot of issues that go into something,” he said.
If he could respond to the woman in the crowd at the parade on whether the Confederate flag was appropriate, he would say it was. At the time the Civil War broke out there was a Confederate recruitment office in Parkersburg along Market Street. There were a lot of people in Parkersburg who joined the Confederate Army.
“There are a lot of people in Parkersburg who don’t know that,” he said. The 17th Virginia Cavalry was made up of people from Wood, Wirt, Jackson and Roane.
It was his son who convinced him to get involved in reenacting and it has allowed them to bond, he said.
As their procession walked down Market Street in the Homecoming Parade, the American flag maintained the position of honor, with the Confederate battle flag to the left and lower.
“We all marched together in solidarity,” Saho said adding people need to do that across the country.
“The solution is for us to come together,” he said. “You can take down all of the monuments, but it won’t solve the problem.”
However, people see the Confederate flag and automatically think of racism.
“People think I am a racist, I am not,” Saho said.
People yelling at each other right now is not solving anything, he said.
“Many (re-enactors) would rather sit down and just have a conversation,” Saho said. “That is what we do.
“We teach history, not push a political agenda.”