New Civil War Blog
The Battle for Historical Accuracy
A Brief Note About Memorial Day
As citizens head to Civil War commemorations this Memorial Day weekend, it’s appropriate to ask – was Memorial Day a Civil War holiday? Yes and No. No, because it wasn’t organized until years after the war. Yes, because it originally was intended to be a commemoration of Civil War dead. The first large observance was at Arlington National Cemetery, which was established on Robert E. Lee’s plantation as a cemetery during the war and held the remains of 20,000 Union and several hundred Confederate dead. Such "Decoration Days" had been held on a local basis in several places even before the war was over.
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations that designated the day as Memorial Day. After World War I, the day was extended to honor all those in the American wars and Memorial Day became a national holiday in 1971. In addition, many Southern states also have Confederate Memorial Days held on other dates.
Reenactments vs. Symposia
West Virginia became a state in 1863 after breaking away from Virginia and joining the Union. A hundred and fifty years later, the Civil War is still a source of contention there, but not because of the North-South dispute. This time, the fight is between reenactments and symposia.
Four of the eight members of the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission have resigned because they didn’t like the commission spending the money allocated by the state legislature on local re-enactments and festivals. They were hoping the money would fund at least one major symposium per year during the four-year commemoration of the Civil War. Other West Virginians think the commission's main focus should be on the founding of the state.
The commission, sans the four members, carried on awarding grants for Civil War-related events. The commission’s chairperson, Kay Goodwin, said in a statement: “There is no question, however, that assisting local sesquicentennial commemorations falls squarely within the commission's mission: to promote awareness, celebrate the unique creation of the state of West Virginia and the role of its people during the Civil War era, and its continuing effect on our people."
The commission forthwith awarded a grant to the Corricks Ford Battlefield Association for a June 24-26 reenactment, as well as grants for a smart phone and walking tour and a auto tour- living history program. On the educational side, it granted West Virginia State University’s history department $1660 for a historial narrative student project.The commission tabled a proposal for an event that would include controversial keynote speaker, pro-Confederate author and lecturer H.K. Edgerton, fearing that if it funded the Guyandotte Civil War Days Festival in which he is involved, it could be accused of supporting his views.
Reenactors are chronically plagued by complaints that their presentations are inaccurate, sanitized representations of a horrible, bloody war and that some of the events in which they are involved celebrate a four-year bloodbath.
Historical sites are addressing the issue of how to provide a pleasant but accurate Civil War experience for the public and incorporate reenactors into their commemorations. The Ben Lomand Historic Site in Manassas, Virginia, was a Confederate field hospital in which hundreds of wounded Confederate soldiers were operated on. On May 21, the site opened an exhibit that is a representation of the field hospital. It is anything but a celebration. The exhibit includes an operating room with simulated blood stains all over straw on the floor and in a basin as well as splattered on the walls. In another room, Confederate blankets are spread as beds for the wounded on straw on the floor. On one is a basin with simulated bloody rags in it.
Another stab at realism is a project by reenactors from the 69th Pennsylvania Irish regiment to find the burial spots of Civil War members of the original regiment whose families could not afford gravestones and place gravestones on their graves. They research Philadelphia death records and look up cemetery plot maps. When they find a soldier, they file the required paperwork to get a headstone for the unmarked grave.
About half of the regiment’s 1400 Irish volunters from Philadelphia now have headstones – 700 people. The reenactors hold a ceremony when placing a gravestone with prayers, holy water, Irish and American flags, and three volleys of rifle shots over their graves. They also read a brief biography about each soldier and sprinkle soil from Ireland around the graves.
The U.S. Veterans Administration signs the legal papers to place the gravestones. The men must have a living descendant who requests a stone. As some of the men who died had no children, the regiment is not able to have a gravestone put on their graves.
Other reenactors have tied their commemorations to specific historic figures in order to add to the authenticity of their activities. At the historic Hampton military outpost at Fort Monroe, Virginia, , for example the 150th anniversary of a decision by three runaway slaves to seek out the Union troops was commemorated this month. The three men’s action forced the North to take a stand on slavery.
Many re-enactors play the part of specific historical figures – some famous and some otherwise. Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant as well as other famous generals are among the favorites, depending on where the re-enactments are held. Others include Confederate senators. For some actors, such performances have become a career. They travel to different reenactments almost yearound. Re-enactment can be a major investment – with reproduction guns selling from $500-$800 each and uniforms selling for several hundred dollars.
Currently, local reenactments of rallies calling troops to march off to war are in vogue, as the nation commemorates both Northern and Southern callouts of troops in 1861. At one in Evansville, Wisconsin, last week, a crowd held umbrellas in the rain as young men were asked to step forward and join a volunteer company of soldiers. Jim Brooks, who gave a speech at the rally, said much of it was gleaned from newspaper accounts of an original patriotic rally and others like it in Wisconsin communities. Re-enactors held a parade, marching to the local library where the original rally was held. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas impersonators participated, although they didn’t actually speak at Evansville. The community also had a Civil War beard-growing contest, with six categories named after Civil War soldiers known for their creative facial hair.
At the Lake County History Center in Ohio, authenticity has been addressed by giving patrons a hands-on look at the war. They can tap out Morse code on an original telegraph key so that someone sitting 40 feet away can get the message. They can see how women wearing hoop skirts managed to get through doorways, view an 1860s kitchen, see slave shackles and go through the recruitment process of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. They can see a dress shop of the era. In a Death and Mourning Room, they can view a black-veiled widow and two children standing near a pine coffin. The center plans a battle reenactment in June.
Volunteers at the center have chronicled the names and service details of nearly 1700 local men who fought in the Civil War and those who want to research their ancestors who fought in the war can use the center’s library by appointment to do so.
The West Virginia minority view on reenactments is obviously not shared by Virginia. The planned battle re-enactment of the First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run in Prince William County, Virginia, promises to attract tens of thousands of re-enactors. The city of Manassas will hold a free four-day living history event at Camp Manassas. Impersonators of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s generals will give presentations and the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 will be performed by actors playing Lincoln and Douglas. Union and Confederate cavalries will re-enact the battle, and a Civil War medical triage will re-enact 1860s-era doctors and nurses performing amputations and other surgeries. . A slave cabin with 20 slave re-enactors will be on the site. See www.manassascivilwar.org. Don Warlick, owner of Secret Passage Ranch in Fort Valley, i who is known for having directed the 140th anniversary of Gettysburg, is directing and managing the Manassas reenactment. He has also helped create war reenactments for movies such as Gods and Generals and Gettysburg. Patrick Gorman, the actor who played Gen. Hood in "Gods and Generals," is expected to attend. Authors of Civil War books will be on hand. An 1860s-era gas balloon, embalming display and telegraph demonstrations will be there, along with period cooking demonstrations. A reenactment of the first National Jubilee of Peace will be held on July. A reenactment of a Civil War reunion in which Civil War veterans met with President Howard Taft will be held as part of a ceremonial peace reunion on the steps of the Old Courthouse in Old Town Manassas where the first peace reunion was held. A Blue and Gray Ball with period dances and instructors teaching the Virginia reel, walt and other popular dances will be held.
If some people in the National Park Service get their way, live fire will be used at Moncacy National Battlefield near Frederick Maryland, Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg and Manassas National Battlefield Park in northern Virginia again - against local deer herds. The Park Service held public hearings this week on a proposal to use sharpshooters on the battlefields to control the deer, which are trees and vegetation. Gettysburg already is using sharpshooters for that purpose.
How technology is being used to commemorate the war
The Virginia Legacy Project to gather photographs and scans of Civil War objects that are in private collections has already yielded some fascinating objects, including a well-preserved, folding camp chair with embroidered upholstery and a wooden frame that were brought to the archivists to be photographed in Bristol, Virginia.
The Library of Virginia, Tennessee State Museum, and the Tennessee State Library and Archives, are jointly doing the project. Project archivists are visiting sites in various counties and photographing or scanning Civil War artifacts. The photographs will be available on the Library of Virginia website. Other items that have been photographed include a prosthetic leg and various photographs, letters and other documents. Among them was a diary that was in the pocket of a man who fought at Gettysburg. A bullet went through the diary and saved his life. The archivists have visited 35 places and posted more than 11,000 images.
In Indiana, the Vigo County Civil War Sesquicentennial Digitization Project by Wabash Valley Vision and Voices has put more than 1,200 historical items including letters, artifacts, medals, Grand Army of the Republic membership applications and artwork on a searchable database.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has assembled a special collection of maps, charts and documents prepared by the U.S. Coast Survey during the war years, called Charting a More Perfect Union. The maps are available free on the NOAA’s office of Coast Survey website.
The NOAA is recommending that people traveling to Civil War sites download the historic maps before they go so that they can see what happened in the location they are visiting.
As the commemoration has kicked off, the musical Civil War is being performed by various community and high school groups. "The Civil War" written by Gregory Boyd and Frank Wildhorn, with lyrics by Jack Murphy and music by Wildhorn, premiered on Broadway in 1999. It was nominated for a Tony award for best musical. It is a series of vignettes based on Civil War letters, diaries and other accounts and speeches and uses a multi-media projection of photos, paintings and letters.
How the war is being taught
The Center for Historical Preservation is offiering a four-day professinal development institute for K-12 teachers sponsored by the Civil War Trust, America’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Civil War battlefields. The event will include discussions on the use of photography from the Library of Congress in the classroom, battlefield presentation, and using language arts to teach about the war.
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