April 5, 2001
With the recent and widely panned, at least by reenactors, release of the “Unfinished Civil War” by the History Channel and with the several anti-Confederate moves made in the states of Wisconsin and Ohio as well as the greatly over reported and inflamed Confederate flag controversy in several southern states since 1999 It seems that we face a crisis of immediate and far reaching proportions in the hobby of Civil War reenacting today. Add to that litany of recent actions, several southern states are also banning the wearing of the Confederate flag in schools. And worse of all we are hearing rumors that the NAACP has decreed that Civil War reenacting is a “racist” endeavor. Add a generous dollop of Democrat lawmakers that want to make it harder or impossible to buy black powder firearms or own black powder and we have big troubles a commin’.
So what does this mean to we reenactors? After all, we are just putting on a pageant for the public, having a little fun and helping to further the remembrance of those fellows that came before us, right? Some might say that we have gotten a pass from the evil gaze of the radical left, as well as the far right ( Let us be sure of the definitions here… Radical Left: banners of anything having to do with the south, white people and history in general and Far Right; Those who wish to eliminate anything Not connected to the aforementioned). We have been left alone to carry on our little hobby, amuse the public and bring in a few dollars for our local governments, museums or favorite battlefield preservation society since the 1960’s. That is quite a bit longer than “they” let us carry on in 1865.
But it is coming to crunch time, folks. If the current anti-reenacting trend continues it is not very hard to imagine that we might be legislated right out of a hobby or simply just “politically corrected” to the point where governments and museums feel it just isn’t worth the protests they’ll get to put an event on. Then what? We go to all private property? Will that really solve the problem? I cannot imagine that any government will lay off us whether we are on private property or not, if it goes that far. We are in the beginnings of a bad direction for the hobby, very bad.
So what have we done wrong, you ask? We have all lost a great chance to inform the public as to just what it is we are doing, I believe. For far too long we have neglected to talk to the public and our conversations with them for their edification is the key to informing the public that we are not neo-klan members, nuts or a danger to society. Only a slobbering Klan member wishes to return to the days of chattel slavery and the days of believing that “all men are created equal” has come into it’s own to truly MEAN all men are created equal. Naturally, we do not uphold slavery and, therefore, we are not a band of Klan members bent on disrespecting the Nation’s African Americans. This HAS to be reinforced amongst the public to thwart those who wish to whitewash all allusions to southern history and the civil war. We have taken our hobby for granted for too long.
Let me say here that slavery WAS a major cause of the Civil War. But so was the tariff issue, the principles of self-government and the right of secession. We cannot and should not try to divorce the war from the issue of slavery. However, we must teach the public that the attitude between whites and Negroes is quite different today than it was in the antebellum United States and absolutely cannot be judged by the same criteria. Few white people thought that the black man was in any way equal to the white man and this attitude was pervasive in the North as well as the South. Those who imagined that blacks could attain the same rights as a white were looked upon as kooks, rabble rousers and fools. These abolitionists were widely shunned by most people. Oberlin college, a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment and teachings in Ohio had many of it’s students attacked in the streets by members of the public at large and were often looked upon as trouble makers locally. And that is just one small example.
Even many scientists had determined that the black man was the intellectual inferior to the white man in the 1800’s and this idea was held as accurate by scientists thought out the world, not just the United States. We must remember that this attitude was not changed by the conclusion of the war, either. The horrendous Jim Crow laws that survived up until this century are a post civil war phenomena not a pre war one. The level of race hatred that rose throughout the south, a hatred that transformed the Ku Klux Klan from a political advocacy group to a hate group, was a result of failed Northern governmental policy and a festering assumption of white supremacy that resulted from the assurances of a bygone era. An era that the civil war tried to wipe out and only partially succeeded in so doing. The civil rights movement of the late 50’s and the 1960’s finally began to make things right in this country and we must look with pride on that uniquely American experience, as well.
Further, let us never forget, that the Klan was not a strictly southern plague. The Northern state of Indiana, for instance, had the largest gathering of Klan members in the early 1920’s and has consistently had a larger membership for Klan organizations of any state in the union, ever. The state’s governor, senators and states officials were in the pockets of the Klan for many years until a particularly powerful Klan kingpin was accused and convicted of the heinous rape of one of his female employees whom he persuaded to accompany him on a train trip for some extra money (She commited suicide on the train after the incident because of the horrendous attack prompting the investigation). Many of the Federal government’s most stringent anti-Klan sanctions and statements were a result of the troubles in Indiana in the 1920’s, not only in the civil war or even just post civil war south. Further, it is well known that many Northern states had Jim Crow like laws previous to and during the Civil War. Illinois, for one, did not allow blacks to own property, for instance.
So, what can we do? We TALK to the public at civil war events. Sure, many of us do this already, but can you truthfully say that we ALL do it as aggressively as we must? We teach the travails of the soldier, his longing for home, the privations that he endured, the bravery of his deeds and his love of his comrades and country. And we mention that,sadly, the African American was thought to be a lesser human in those days, by most white people North OR south. We should not dwell upon the point but we have to show the public that we are not in this as advocates of racism and we cannot slide by the subject without mentioning it at all, either. We must prove to the general public that we are historians, simply presenting history, with all it’s blemishes and blotches. Not crazy nuts that seem out of step with good sense and Christian principles.We are Americans, proud of our history and trying to instill into the American public the same pride. We must not forget our history. We must not celebrate our past misdeeds lest we forget them and perpetrate them again, but we have to memorialize our forefathers lives and struggles for our American identities sake.
How should we go about confronting this issue? We should appoint at least one well informed member of our organization who has a rapport with the public to be the man who focuses attention upon the history we wish to preserve. First person characters are a great addition to the hobby but it does not work for the public unless it is clear to them exactly what is going on and why, so those elected to be the connection man between the reenactors and the public should not go into first person too often so that the public can identify with him. He should take EVERY opportunity to make presentations and have talks with those visiting our civil war encampments. Additionally, we must be sure that your “front man” is well informed about our history, not just the guy who blabs the best. Also, it is incumbent on each and every one of us to inform the public about the civil war, so we must not sit back and let the front man do all the talking, either.
This will be the key to our future in the hobby. If we cannot get the visiting public on our side we will end up on the loosing side of this battle. Benjamin Franklin was said to have remarked that the Founding Fathers had given us a republic if we could keep it. To keep it and our little slice of Americana we MUST exercise our duties as Americans and speak out. For the sake of our hobby and our history. We MUST not let it be taken away from us. To paraphrase good Mr. Franklin again, if we do not hang together with this we will surely hang separately.
by Warner Todd Huston