When I was growing up, it was considered impolite to discuss the Civil War. My grandmother gave me a talk about Yankees before I left for high school in Connecticut when I was thirteen, but that was about it. People tried to focus instead on earlier, less distasteful, periods of our history. Think Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.
I can remember making a reconstruction of Fort Nashboro, the original pioneer settlement established on the west bank of the Cumberland River in 1780, out of popsicle sticks, and I can remember learning all about Native Americans in elementary school. Within the family, we were careful to venerate the ancestors who came to Tennessee at the end of the eighteenth century. But our history curriculum left a big hole where the Civil War should be.
This situation has changed considerably in the decades that I lived abroad. Although my parents’ generation isn’t particularly comfortable with it, there is an increasing popular interest in the War, and reenactment has become a popular hobby for amateur historians.
I am going to be perfectly honest with you. I have always found this to be a bit bizarre, and I assumed that these people were just trying to find an excuse to wrap themselves in the Confederate flag. Until, that is, I met my new friend Gary Burke this weekend.
Gary, along with other reenactors, was out at Fort Negley as part of an ongoing series of events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the War. Besides being on the Board of the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, he is a leading member of the 13th United States Colored Troops Living History Association.
When Nashville was occupied by the Union Army in 1862, thousands of slaves fled to the city, where they were housed in contraband refugee camps and used as (largely unpaid) laborers during the construction of a series of fortifications, of which Fort Negley was the largest. At the same time, many, mostly free African American men volunteered to form regiments of the newly established United States Colored Troops division of the army.
The men of the 13th were among the several African American regiments who fought in the Battle of Nashville in December 1864. The battle destroyed the Confederate Army of Tennessee, led by General John Bell Hood, who at the time was staying in my great-great grandparents’ house and using it as his headquarters. Most of the 387 Union fatalities in the Battle were African American; 229 of them, including five color bearers, were men of the 13th, who died on the 16th of December attacking my ancestral home. I don’t know whether any of those men were runaway slaves from the plantation, but Gary explained that one of his fellow reenactors is indeed descended from men and women enslaved by my forebears.
So you can imagine that we had an interesting conversation.
‘Gary, I am imagining that reenactors tend to dress up as the characters that they sympathize with the most. Doesn’t this lead to, well, some tense situations?’
‘Yes. President Lincoln, for example, really has to watch his back. He gets people all the time who won’t shake his hand because their great-great-great-grandaddy was killed fighting for the Confederacy.’
‘I am guessing that this can be kind of an uncomfortable hobby.’
‘Uh-huh. A lot of my friends think I’m crazy. I was a little nervous about it at first, but then I started to see bumper stickers on Confederate reenactors’ cars that said things like, “Not Hate but Heritage”, and I began to realise that people are just trying to find ways to preserve their family stories. The majority of people are fine about it.’
Gary invited me to attend the Civil War Roundtable that meets regularly out at the Visitors Center, and then introduced me to one of his friends.
Welcome to the New South, it’s not anything like what you thought it would be.
© Copyright 2011, Southern Dysfunction