The Union soldiers fall back into the treeline and after a short respite, the command echoes down the long gray line: “Brigade … battalion … company … advance!” In the dying light, hundreds of gray-clad soldiers march across a short patch of grass to the trees. I’m in front with the Color Guard, and the Confederate battle flag marks our company’s place in the line. Slowly, we permeate the woods of Culp’s Hill. The light is dim, and blue-white gun-smoke tendrils drift in the air. There’s no sign of the Yankees. Roots and rocks threaten to trip us. A few rebel yells echo from our left, ghostly in the shady woods. After a couple minutes of slow progress uphill, we can see the Union soldiers, aiming down at us from a stone wall. Then the flashes, the smoke, the echoing cracks of the rifle, and we form a line and prepare to return fire. Our sergeant shouts encouragement. “Come on, Fifth Virginia. Do it for Jackson, boys.”
I’m not here as a tourist. Or spy. I’m not a Confederate reenactor. I’m not even sure I’m a real Southerner. I was born in Virginia, a bastion of the Old South and Confederacy, but now considered suspect by many in the Deep South. I’m from just outside a college town, Charlottesville, which even many people in the surrounding counties don’t consider Southern. Go back more than two generations and all of my ancestors are from above the Mason-Dixon line or immigrated to the South directly from Europe. So even though I’m geographically from the South, I’ve always felt disconnected from Southern culture.
But a pop-culture controversy in 2013 got me thinking more about white Southern identity: the flap over Brad Paisley’s collaboration with LL Cool J on the song “Accidental Racist.” The song depicts a white Southerner attempting to explain to an African-American barista at Starbucks that the Confederate battle flag on his shirt is meant to be an expression of Southern pride, not an expression of racism. Some critics saw Paisley and LL Cool J as well intentioned but hopelessly naïve in their attempt to reduce hundreds of years of racial history to a few platitudes about getting along. And they were right. But despite the song’s false equivalencies and muddled message, the central image—a white man considering his decision to wear a Confederate flag on his shirt—felt powerful and familiar.
When I was growing up in Virginia, I didn’t think the Confederate flag was about race. Every week I saw the Confederate flag on television in The Dukes of Hazzard, a show that glorified hot rods, moonshine culture, and neighborly values. It was set in a mythical South in which bad guys come in twos, bullets never hit anything, and the issue of race rarely comes into play. I saw the same flag on album covers and T-shirts from bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Alabama. I learned to associate it with pride in rural identity: bumper stickers on the backs of pickups and rusty Trans-Ams. Later, in school, I learned about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement and saw images of segregationists waving the battle flag, but even with that exposure to the intersection of the Confederate flag and racism, it was only in my college years that I realized how uncomfortable, unwelcome, and angry the flag made other people feel. That changed how I felt about it.
So after the controversy surrounding “Accidental Racist” spread, I remembered a group of Confederate reenactors I had met, back in 2011 while on assignment in Waynesboro, Virginia, for a radio program. At the time, they suggested I come with them to the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, coming up in July of 2013, but I hadn’t really thought about it since. The Battle of Gettysburg turned the tide against the Confederacy and was a moment when Americans could glimpse an imminent end to slavery. The 150th anniversary might provide an opportunity to talk with Southerners about the relationship between the Civil War and Southern identity, and the reenactment might bring me into contact with Southerners who have thought long and hard about their relationship with the Confederacy and its symbols.
Remembering the invitation was one thing. Actually tracking down the same reenactors proved more difficult. I had a few names from my recordings, but no phone numbers, and they weren’t in the phone book. I remembered one reenactor, Waverly Adcock, had told me it’s common for Confederate reenactors to “galvanize” for the day and portray Union soldiers in order to make sure there are enough Union troops on the field. To make the experience tolerable, they livened it up with “Union names.” I found the recording. Adcock’s was “Ralph McChumly,” which he had earned the tumultuous morning after a night of heavy drinking. There was “Howie Felterbush,” “Petty McGroin,” and “Colonel Francois de le Merde,” presumably a Franco-American from New England. One reenactor, who worked as a golf pro at a course in Central Virginia, was “Strokes Mulligan.” I called the golf course, and sure enough, Strokes Mulligan answered the phone and put me in touch with Waverly Adcock.
When I called Adcock and explained I was interested in doing an article about the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, he enthusiastically told me I could take the place of a reenactor who had dropped out. I would borrow some clothing and therefore “embed” in Adcock’s company, the West Augusta Guard. I didn’t even need to bring food, he said. They would feed me.
Thus began my travels between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.
…we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
—Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
On June 28, 2013, I arrive at the site of the Blue-Gray Alliance Gettysburg Reenactment. The 150th anniversary might have been the biggest reenacting event ever, except that, given a disagreement over the amount and uses of registration fees and other issues, one group of reenactors had seceded from the main body. These renegade reenactors were sponsoring a competitive event on another weekend, thus dividing the constituency. Despite the reenactor schism, the Blue-Gray Alliance event drew an estimated 11,000 reenactors and 10,000 spectators. Even on the second day of a four-day affair, the pastures—a few miles from the town of Gettysburg—are already torn up from the passage of hundreds of cars, trucks, and trailers. In the vast field that makes up the Confederate parking area, I notice one Confederate flag waving above the thousand or so vehicles, mounted on somebody’s pickup.
On my way to the Confederate encampment, I pass an old-growth glade in which the Confederate cavalry is encamped, horses placidly chewing on hay. In a path by the trees are about fifty Union “soldiers,” forming into a double file by a line of blue and gray port-a-potties. A late-model pickup passes by, on the way to the Confederate encampments, and the Union soldiers boo and shout “Farb!”—the slang word for a reenactor whose poor sense of authenticity ruins the nineteenth-century illusion.
Asking around, it takes me about twenty minutes to find the West Augusta Guard (or WAG) resting under a white tarp in a forest of tents and tarps. Waverly Adcock introduces me to the group: about seven “soldiers,” and a handful of friends and family who hang out in camp in nineteenth-century civilian garb. Adcock is Falstaffian in both demeanor and shape. It turns out he’s from White Hall, just down the road from Charlottesville, and in comparing notes, we realize we probably went to the same rock shows in the nineties. He went to the seminary as a young man, but it wasn’t for him, so he tried out a variety of trades and professions throughout his twenties and thirties. In his late thirties, he attended Mary Baldwin College, usually an all-women’s school, through its adult-degree program. Now he works as a phlebotomist in Waynesboro, drawing blood from a steady stream of elderly women. “I call them my eighty-year-old girlfriends,” he jokes.
The WAG is scheduled for “The Battle of Culp’s Hill,” which was an important defeat for the Confederacy. Although the battle was fought during the day as well as at night, the reenactment takes place only at night. Late in the afternoon, Adcock starts to embody his role as a Confederate First Sergeant: a cross between a line boss and a mother hen. “Okay, we should start thinking about getting into our gear and accoutrements.” He asks the soldiers if their rifles are clean; if they have cartridges; if their canteens are full. Then, away from the tent, Adcock directs the reenactors of the WAG to form up into a single-file rank, including nine men and one woman, Sarah Smith, who reenacts as a man, with her long braids tucked into her hat. Another small company combines with the WAG to make a double rank.
Adcock walks down the line, moving more experienced reenactors to the rear rank (“They’re less likely to deafen somebody firing over their shoulder”) and making small suggestions. He tells one inexperienced soldier, Ken, that he need only button the top button on his coat, leaving the others open. “In this heat, it’s more important that you’re comfortable than proper.”
Then, he shouts to the small company, “If the flag falls, who’s gonna pick it up?”
“I will, sir!” the entire company shouts.
“If the flag falls, who’s gonna pick it up?” Louder this time.
“I will, sir!”
“If the flag falls, who’s gonna pick it up?”
“I will, sir!”
Adcock’s combined company marches to a nearby pasture to join several other units to form General Ewell’s Division. This entire process takes about an hour, most of which we spend hugging the narrow shade of an oaky treeline. Everybody is wearing wool over cotton “bloomers,” and the heat is in the upper nineties, and humid. We all drip sweat, and dehydration and heat exhaustion are real dangers. Since I’m “embedding” as a journalist, marching with the reenactors right into the heart of the battle, it’s required that I wear nineteenth-century clothing. A veteran reenactor, Captain Hank Prasse, kindly outfits me with a “Georgia Coat,” cotton shirt, and wool pants from a wardrobe he keeps in a travel trailer.
With time to kill, it falls to Adcock to entertain the company. The somewhat shy seminarian turned phlebotomist has a particular brilliance for the kind of jocular exchange best described as locker-room banter. I’ll spare you the details, gentle reader, but while the banter is anachronistic in content, I suspect it’s historically accurate in spirit.
Finally, we begin the mile-long march to the meadow where the battle will begin, and we walk in lines of four, officers—and journalists—taking the lead. As we head down a long gravel road, other Confederate reenactors, camped on the sides, tip their hats and say things like “Steady on, Virginia. Give ’em hell.” However absurd, I feel something stir at that gesture—some dim echo of the pride and fear experienced 150 years ago.
My ears perk up when another grizzled-looking reenactor yells in a husky voice, “Give ’em hell, boys. States’ rights!” invoking the “Lost Cause” narrative, a story that explains the Civil War in terms of complicated economic issues and a disagreement between North and South over whether sovereignty lies with the individual states or a federal government. It’s an explanation that relegates slavery to the role of secondary cause, and while it’s now out of favor with most serious scholars, it had traction among respected Southern historians well into the twentieth century. The war cry makes me wonder how popular the Lost Cause is among most Confederate reenactors.
Our regiment crosses into a meadow and then executes a series of marching maneuvers—turns, wheels, oblique advances—pauses, rests, maneuvers again, crosses a creek, maneuvers, and rests again. It’s now about 7 p.m., and the July sky is beginning to color. Big white-pink thunderclouds are visible in the far distance, and we can see blue silhouettes at a distant treeline, a quarter mile away. “What was the weather like at the original battle?” I ask Adcock.
“Just like this,” he says, sitting heavily in the pasture and wiping sweat from his brow. Adcock first got interested in reenacting eleven years ago, after he read Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. He felt a little intimidated by the descriptions of “hardcore” reenactors like Robert Lee Hodge, who starved himself in order to obtain the gaunt look of Confederate soldiers late in the war. “I thought you had to be one hundred twenty pounds, soaking wet, and then I met the guys I reenact with now. It helps with authenticity, sure, if you’re not rotund like most of us are, but it’s really about a mindset. It turns out that Rob Hodge and I have become friends. We did a movie shoot in Lynchburg a few years ago, and he actually complimented me on my kit. My kit is my, you know, my uniform and all that. And he loved our flag, because we have a really nice flag.”
When he was just getting started, Adcock was still attending classes at the all-women’s Mary Baldwin College. So there he was: the only man in a classroom full of twenty-year-old women, rotund, bearded, thirty-eight, obsessed with the Civil War. On Fridays, before reenactments, he came to class in his Confederate uniform, so he could leave directly after class and not have to change in the heat. “Most of them were pretty cool about it. There were a couple of black girls. They were like, Hey, you know … different strokes.”
Like many reenactors, Adcock is constantly questing for what are called “bubble” moments. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be in a battle, you can be doing something as menial as labor, but you’re in your nineteenth-century persona. You get this overwhelming sense that you time-traveled back to the nineteenth century. The battle is raging. You almost feel like the bullets are coming at you. You’re breathing the smoke and the sweat. Your adrenaline is pumping. You can feel it pulsing in your ears. And you just let it go. You just go with the feeling.”
Now, Confederate cannons are firing over our heads, and in the distance, we can see the blue silhouettes bustle, and smoke from several cannons as they return fire. It’s battle time, and I feel strangely nervous. Our colonel shouts: “Fourth Battalion, attention!” We snap into place. “Shoulder harms … At the right oblique … march.” We move as one wavering line, with our color guard, captain, and me out front, leading the way, the sergeants and officers shouting directions to keep the line tight.
“Don’t drift off! Let’s go!”
“Careful, boys. Careful across the creek. Remember, we’ve got loaded muskets!”
“Reform! Back in the line! Reform quickly.”
A Confederate general rides by on a horse, apparently making sure our battalion is more or less in the right place, moving in the right direction. One soldier from another company says, “That dang fool’s gonna get shot off his horse. Who does he think he is, Napoleon Bonaparte himself?”
Adcock quips, “More like ‘boner part.’ ” The jocularity seems entirely appropriate. We are marching into battle, after all. Who does that dang fool think he is? The bubble is forming, and we feel exposed in our open ranks. Ahead, blue-white blossoms of smoke appear, the sound of gunfire reaching us a moment later. The Yankees are shooting at us, but nobody falls. The color guard gets too far ahead. Adcock shouts, “Get back in your positions, goddamnit! Pay attention!”
“Fire by brigade” is a distant call. Somebody echoes it nearby. “Fire by brigade.” Then “Colors to the rear!” The color guard with the battle flag backs through the line of soldiers. “Jesse!” Adcock shouts. “Get out of the way.” Then, more kindly, “You might want to stay in the back from now on.” The soldiers have raised their rifles, the rear rank aiming their rifles over the shoulders of the soldiers in front.
“Ready!” shouts the Captain.
“Ready!” answers the line.
The captain’s command is drowned out by the discharge of twenty or more rifles in a very rapid staccato. The Union soldiers are firing back. I hear the colonel yell, “Captain Prasse, I need half of your company to deploy skirmishers to the treeline.” The sound of gunfire is now steady, a constant cracking sound like popcorn, the occasional chest-shaking boom of the cannons, and more rifle volleys. A thin line of Gray soldiers run about half the distance between us and the treeline and kneel and begin shooting. The fife and drum start playing “Dixie.” The bubble is in effect.
Shortly, the entire Confederate line marches toward the trees, with strained shouts of “at the double quick.” We stop, the brigade fires another volley, and the soldiers are getting into it, whooping and congratulating each other: “Good volley, boys!” Blue-white smoke hugs the ground, and after two more volleys, the Union soldiers break from their position and retreat into the woods. The Confederates celebrate with the historically accurate rebel yell—two yips (one high, then low) followed by a longer scream. Revealed by Union soldiers’ absence are several large flats of small water bottles, anachronisms in blue and clear plastic.
Adcock shouts, “We need a runner!” and several “scouts” are dispatched to acquire the water. “Bring some of that Yankee water back here,” somebody shouts with a manic laugh. I wonder if he’s thinking about how his fellow reenactors, on the Union side, probably purposefully left the water behind in sympathy for the Confederates who had to form up in the hot sun for hours, while the Union soldiers got to wait in the shade. “Courtesy of Abraham Lincoln, boys!” somebody shouts, when the water has made its way back to the Confederate line. I gratefully drink an entire bottle on the spot, and stick another in one of my pouches. “Keep your water bottle, boys. Don’t litter!” Adcock shouts.
Then we march into the trees, and just like that, we’re in another world, like we’ve stepped into a movie. Dim light. Smoke. Echoes of rebel yells. Our eyes search the gloom ahead for the Union line. When we see them—dug in behind a stone wall—we form our own firing line behind a downed log, and the battle is joined again. Loud staccato cracks. Sudden volleys. Shrieks, yells, whoops. Each army is firing as fast as the soldiers can reload and aim. Adcock shouts encouragement to the WAGs, “Keep it hot boys! Do it for the Fifth!”
Occasionally, a Confederate takes a hit, clutching his chest or arm and dramatically slumping over the log, “dead.” I see one soldier, apparently battle crazy, climb over the log and rush the Union line with his bayonet out before taking several hits and crumpling to the ground. One soldier who appeared “dead” a few moments ago has apparently recovered enough to shoot his rifle again, although he takes care to move stiffly, as though he’s been grazed in the shoulder. I see Adcock behind the lines, hands on his knees, gasping to catch his breath. A few moments later, he’s back on the line, shouting more encouragement.
After what seems like endless firing, shouting, swearing, and whooping, the order comes to fall back, and the Confederate line backs away from the tree, retreating slowly, individually, emerging back into the pasture where the smoke from the engagement poured out of the trees like fog. We’ve lost the engagement. The sun is down and the company fires their rifles into the dark-blue sky to clear any dangerous material from the barrels. Adcock is enthusiastic: “I’ve been doing this for eleven years, and that was the best goddamn fight I’ve ever been in.”
We march back to camp through a steep, wooded jeep trail that takes us past the Union encampment. In the deep dusk, we can see white tarps and tents, lit with lanterns, and the silhouettes against them. A few Union soldiers stand on the side of the path, and brief compliments are exchanged. “Nice job, Johnny.” “Good job, Billy, you may have hit one or two of us.” “You guys sure looked fine out there.” By the time we arrive in camp, sweaty, dirty, exuberant, the heat has finally broken.
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’
on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between Southern pride
and Southern blame
—Brad Paisley, excerpt from “Accidental Racist”
Sarah Smith, her auburn braids tucked into her slouch hat, served as the WAG’s flag bearer for the reenactment of the Battle of Culp’s Hill. Her great-great-grandfather, Henry N. Smith, fought in the original as a sergeant major for the 25th Virginia. He was about twenty at the time and was wounded during the three-day engagement at Gettysburg, very possibly at Culp’s Hill. Smith works as an occupational-health nurse at a poultry-processing plant in Harrisonburg, Virginia, treating workers for repetitive-motion injuries and knife trauma.
Smith is relatively inexperienced as a soldier. When she sees a reenactor “take a hit,” her nurse instincts kick in and she wants to stop whatever she’s doing and help him. She’s been coming to reenactments since 2001, when an ex-boyfriend told her she should come to the annual ball at the Gettysburg reenactment. She brought a hoop dress and had a fabulous time. She says carrying the flag at the Battle of Culp’s Hill was a huge honor. “I’m glad Waverly asked me. I still don’t quite feel comfortable carrying a rifle, so it was an easy way for me to take part. Technically, I should have been dead yesterday. I refused to take a hit.”
Smith is proud that her great-great-grand-father, who served for at least three years during the war, made it back home to take up farming and lived to be at least eighty-seven. “That was one of my bigger reasons for coming yesterday and playing a guy. I had goose bumps.” She has at least one other forebearer who fought in the war, and I asked her why she thinks they went to war. She says, “For them, slavery was not an issue. They didn’t have them. They worked their own farms. Both of my grandfathers. For them, I think, it was a states’ rights issue, I can only assume.”
Since Smith proudly carried the battle flag in the context of reenactment, I ask her how she feels about displaying it outside of reenactments, like on a bumper sticker.
“Well, they’re on the back of my truck,” Smith says. “I think people need to realize it’s a history—not hate—issue. It’s part of history. And those who don’t remember are doomed to repeat it. I think too many people get caught up in the symbol. For us, it doesn’t mean the same thing it means to other people.”
The next day, I skip the battles and walk around the encampment—a vast maze of tents, tarps, trailers, and campfires—taking notes and conducting interviews. There is the occasional bubble-bursting pickup, but the general activities of being in camp—cutting wood, warming up coffee, firing up a camp stove, pulling a cold beverage from a well-concealed cooler—all are comforting and pleasurable, and it’s easy to see why so many people do this on the weekends. The battles are a rush, but they’re exhausting, sweaty, and stressful, whereas hanging in camp, stripped down to muslin shirts and bloomers, is truly relaxing.
As I’m walking to my truck, a man named Rex from Utah recognizes me as the guy with the camera at Culp’s Hill and approaches to ask if I can send him the photos I snapped. He had four ancestors who fought in the war: a father and three sons. They lived in eastern Tennessee where loyalties were divided, and the father and one son fought for the Union while the other two sons fought for the Confederacy. Only one of the sons survived the war. The father was murdered off the battlefield by a party of home-guard irregulars, which probably included some distant cousins.
I ask, given his divided heritage, if he would ever reenact as a Union soldier. “Oh, no, I couldn’t. I relate to what the South was fighting for. Small government. States’ rights. Self-determination.” When I mention that a lot of people see the Confederate flag as a racist symbol, he nods. “I totally understand that. Black people see that flag and they imagine people hanging from trees behind it. If I was black, I’d be pissed off, too. About slavery and putting people in chains. Instead, I get pissed off about states’ rights and burning the crops and burning cities. I don’t support slavery. Who does? It was a 500-year-old institution that needed to end and that generation paid for those sins with their blood,” Rex notes, even though his figures on the years of slavery in North America are not accurate, given that there was no Atlantic slave trade in the 1300s. “But yes, I stand by the Confederacy. I believe in states’ rights and local government and smaller government. You know, Obama and this secret wire tapping … and trying to take my guns. We’re not going to rebel, but if they take our guns, we would. That’s the line in the sand.” Rex chuckles, as if to acknowledge and soften the hint of irrationality that has crept into the conversation.
“But that’s a different thing than those boys who charged up Culp’s Hill. They didn’t own slaves and that’s not what they were fighting for. It was about states’ rights. Do you think you would get shot at, get your arm shot and sawed off, just to own somebody?”
The reasons Confederate soldiers fought are varied, complex, and have changed over the years. One reason that reenactors don’t seem to mention very often is that few had a choice. The Conscription Act, passed in April of 1862 once the Confederacy realized they were in for a long war, required all healthy, eligible males between eighteen and thirty-five to serve for three years. There were exemptions for those who could afford to hire substitutes, or worked in certain trades, but a poor white farmer who wanted to avoid conscription had very few options. Some, like Rex’s ancestors, chose to join the Union army instead, and many were killed in the attempt. The “boys” who charged up Culp’s Hill might not have had slavery in mind at the moment, but I doubt they were much concerned with states’ rights, either.
Not that the individual motivation of any given soldier matters much in making sense of the causes of a war. Several weeks after my trip to Gettysburg, I share some of my interview excerpts with Ed Ayers, the president of the University of Richmond, a leading scholar of the Civil War, and somebody who talks a lot with white Southerners about the legacy of the war. He says white Southerners (and their diaspora) very much want to be proud of their Confederate ancestors, but are troubled by the centrality of slavery to the Civil War. So they imagine their ancestors out of the context, as valiant individuals, not personally invested in slavery. “We don’t have an essential self that’s out of historical context. We all live in history. Every day. The Confederate soldier lived in history. He was the inheritor of millennia of slavery, and that was at the moment it came to conflict, and he was on the side that would have perpetuated it.” That doesn’t mean we have to imagine Confederate soldiers as evil, but it does raise the question of what we celebrate when we celebrate them.
Southerners are very strange about that war.
—Shelby Foote, novelist and historian
“What to me is important is that a nation could split in half over an idea. Not over money. Not over despotism, or anything like that, but it was over an idea of freedom. But at the end, when the surrender happened, the nation came back together, and it was proof that our democracy is the best democracy around.” Waverly Adcock is sitting with his foot propped up on a stool. We can hear the sounds of a distant battle where the rest of the company is on the field, but Adcock is out of action, a true casualty of yesterday’s Battle of Culp’s Hill. Moments after the battle, exhausted and with his adrenaline draining, he rolled his ankle and had to sit and wait for a ride. “Each side had their definition of freedom. I’m not saying the South was right. I’m not saying that the South was fighting for states’ rights or the institution of slavery. Or whatever.”
Adcock is fascinating to me because he combines a strong sense of affiliation with the Confederacy—he is a member of Sons of the Confederacy—with a well-researched, complicated, and thoughtful view of the war. He has several ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, and is proud of them, but tells me, “I think it ended the way it should have ended. Aside from Lincoln being assassinated.” He’s a little more politically correct than a lot of the reenactors, choosing not to display the battle flag outside of reenacting events. “I’m not really a fan of seeing it plastered on the back of somebody’s truck or plastered on T-shirts and all that.” When I ask him why, he says it’s partly out of sensitivity for how it might affect others, but partly because he feels it’s disrespectful of the flag itself.
“I do a lot of school groups and things like that, and we take our flags with us. We’ll explain exactly what the meaning of the flags were. Because the battle flag itself, to me, was used nothing more than to mark a position on the battlefield. Now, the men revered their flag. Or, you knew it was special because it designated your unit. So I explain to the children that this is not a flag of hate. It really has got the wrong connotations nowadays. It wasn’t until the 1950s that it became a symbol of hatred for the Ku Klux Klan and all.”
Adcock says that on visits to schools, in his Confederate uniform, children have asked him if he supports slavery. “I say I think slavery was an abomination. It was a terrible and awful thing, and it tore the country apart. Here’s why: The North was equally guilty of slavery as the South. The North benefited from slavery equally, from the cotton, the indigo that drove the factories. There was none [sic] in this country that was innocent in slavery. Everybody profited from it.”
Words like “everybody,” “equally,” and “none” exaggerate the point that Adcock is driving at: that the South alone often gets tagged with the moral burdens of slavery and racism. If everybody was “equally” guilty of slavery, then fighting for the Confederacy can’t be about slavery. The war can’t be about slavery. The flag can’t be about slavery. “To say the flag has taken on additional incrustations and connotations over time is also true,” says Ed Ayers. “And it’s also true to say that it took on many more of these in the 1940s and 1950s than it had before. The point is true here, and it’s healthy to implicate the whole nation in the issue. So I think there’s a willful innocence.” Ayers suggests that Adcock and the other reenactors might not want the flag to stand for racism, slavery, and segregation, but that it has taken on those meanings and can no longer go back to being just “a flag that marked a place in the battle.”
“The South still lies about the Civil War” reads the title of a March 16, 2013, excerpt in Salon from journalist Tracy Thompson’s book The New Mind of the South. The book, informed by recent scholarship and the author’s reporting, is much more sophisticated than the headline suggests. It would be more accurate to say “The South clings to an inaccurate understanding of the Civil War,” and more accurate still to say “Many in the South cling to an incomplete understanding of the Civil War, and so do many in the North.” The two regions differ in the depth and character of their misunderstandings.
Generally, it drives white Southerners crazy to hear people claim that the Union army was fighting to end slavery. And for the most part, they’re correct; the Union army wasn’t fighting to end slavery. It was fighting to preserve the Union, and against the aristocratic culture of Southern oligarchs. There were exceptions. Many Union soldiers felt a more ardent abolitionism after witnessing the effects of slavery during the Southern campaigns. And the African-American soldiers who joined the United States Colored Troops regiments had the goal of ending slavery at the top of their list of priorities, as did many of their white officers.
But even Lincoln, a moderate abolitionist, would not have waged a war to end slavery. He would never have been elected with such an agenda, and he saw, quite accurately, that such a war would be a bloody catastrophe. It wasn’t until 1862 and the Battle of Antietam that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and even then, it was a strategy to undermine the South’s economic and social structure. It wasn’t until 1864, after the tide turned at Gettysburg, and after key victories at Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley, that Lincoln had the momentum he needed to press for an amendment to abolish slavery forever. As a pragmatist and opportunist, Lincoln bent his efforts to achieving that goal. Confederate reenactors understand the timeline and understand it better, they feel, than most Northerners who try to claim that the Union was the good guys: The North didn’t go to war to free the slaves. You were just as racist as we were.
What Smith, Rex, and even Adcock don’t directly confront is that the Confederate army was fighting to preserve an economic system based on slavery. It was fighting for the freedom to build a new country, which would be the fourth richest in the world, based around a slave economy. “States’ rights” was the legal justification for this, in the same way that a “right to privacy” can be the legal basis for pro-choice positions. It was a term for lawyers and politicians. “States’ rights” might have been an honestly held value of many Southerners, but the value would not have seemed so relevant if the South didn’t perceive that the North was trying to take away their “right” to slave labor.
In fairness, many of the Confederate reenactors I met would probably agree with the scholars on these basic facts when pressed, although they may draw different conclusions. All are quite willing to talk about history, and they know a great deal about the history of the Civil War. But they would rather focus on the individual reasons that their individual forebearers fought—because most of them were not slaveholders. My great-great-grandfather didn’t have slaves, so how could he be fighting for slavery? He must, therefore, have fought to preserve his land, and for his country, for Virginia. It’s true as far as it goes, but as Ayers told me, “Getting into questions of the individual heart. It bypasses how history actually works.”
…When your past changes, your identity changes.
—Tracy Thompson, The New Mind of the South
Saturday afternoon, the day after the Battle of Culp’s Hill, I speak to two Germans from the vicinity of Bavaria, Dusty and Christian, who are obsessed with the Civil War, and plan to spend several days after the reenactment touring the battlefields of Virginia. When I ask if they have a preference between Union or Confederacy, they tell me hands down it’s the Confederacy. As Bavarians, they relate to the Confederacy, because around the same time, 1866, Bavarians fought for independence from Prussia. “We really want to reenact as rebels.”
I ask them what Europeans think the significance of the war was, and Dusty tells me that it’s thought of as the first “modern” war, due to new weapons and the increased use of trench warfare tactics toward the end. Dusty also says, “Many people think that the main cause was slavery, because you read this in schoolbooks and medias [sic]… . If you are well informed and read between the lines, you have a different opinion.” Slavery was a cause, they acknowledge, but they say the economics of tariffs and the South’s desire to trade with Europe was the more important cause.
I sit in with a group of musicians who gather under a tarp along the main wagon trail to play guitars, a mandolin, banjos, and sing Civil War-era songs with lovely harmonies. After singing a few iconic Confederate songs—”The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Dixie”—the leader of the jam offers to sing a “Union song” for my recorder. An older musician from Schuyler, Virginia, with a rough, Piedmont accent protests, “Noooooooooo. Not a Union song.”
“All right, we’ll do a neutral song, then.” The musicians perform the ballad “Tenting Tonight,” a song sung by both sides during the Civil War. As they sing, I watch reenactors straggling up the steep hill, sweaty and exhausted from the afternoon’s battles. The three-part harmony drifts from the tarp, sung with an Irish inflection, and I imagine how in the midst of the terror and violence in the war, it must have been re-humanizing to take refuge in the momentary beauty of a campfire song. When they reach the last chorus, I’m completely in the bubble, and my eyes are ringed with tears.
Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts looking for the right,
To see the dawn of peace.
Tenting tonight, tenting tonight
Tenting on the old camp ground
Dying tonight, dying tonight,
Dying on the old camp ground.
Later that afternoon, I speak to Bobby Compton, a good friend of Adcock’s. Most people, when they look at Compton, see a black man, but as he points out, he’s not African American. Ethnically Hawaiian, he was adopted in Honolulu by a white couple from Bedford, Virginia, and lived there for many years. His accent and culture are that of a white man from Bedford, but his skin tone has allowed him—or cursed him—to see the underbelly of racial prejudice in a way that many of his white friends don’t notice.
Compton got involved with reenacting when he was fifteen, when his Junior ROTC commander suggested he would like it, since he liked history. Compton was nervous. He told his commander, “I’m not white like you guys are. And I’d be the only … Are there black soldiers out there? He says, ‘Oh yeah.’ I was pretty nervous at first, but once I came out, I’ve met a lot of great, intelligent, non-judgmental, non-discriminatory people here. If I had experienced anything out of the way, I would just be out of here.”
Compton possesses a wicked sense of humor, and when not fighting in battles, enjoys dressing in some of the more colorful nineteenth-century fashion. When we talk, he sports a red fez and gaudy striped trousers. “Well, my favorite part is seeing all my friends. Like seeing Allan Jackson here.” He points to two Confederate soldiers, passing by. “What’s my name?” he shouts.
“Bobby,” comes the reply. Duh.
“I’m famous, ain’t I, Carl?”
“Yeah, Bobby.” Again, duh.
Compton recognizes that apart from his personality, some of his fame comes from the fact that he reenacts as a black Confederate, almost as rare a site in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth. He never considered affiliating himself with the Union. “I have so many strong ties to Virginia that to be in the North is just, no … no … you know. It’s a loyalty to the state where I’ve lived for most of my life.”
Growing up, Compton associated the Confederate battle flag with racism. Now, he “fights” under the flag, and when he sees it on T-shirts or pickups, he shrugs it off. “Symbolism can be used for good or evil, no matter where you go. But once you have a stigma like that, it’s hard to get rid of that notion. And once you have a little more education you can say, ‘Well, the South was wrong’—in hindsight—in our thought process about slavery and what it meant for states’ rights, and the states’ rights to own slaves. It’s just through more education and time … each generation continues to be more open and open-minded and more encouraging, I think.” Given Compton’s ethnically ambiguous appearance, he also notes, “I’m pleased to know that my daughter won’t have to go through some of the same things I went through, being the only nonblack, nonwhite person in a predominantly white Southern area.”
Compton says that reenactors talk about the causes of the Civil War from time to time; late nights, around the campfire, over libations. The talks are “never heated. It’s always a sensing session.” I tell him I wish I could sit in on those conversations, and he nods sympathetically, but he also suggests I might be missing the point. Most reenactors aren’t here because they care about the cause. They’re here because the war itself has a kind of magnetism, and they’re connected to that through their forebearers. “I don’t have ancestors, so I don’t feel that. But those fellows that do that for their ancestors, they have a strong commitment to a sense of pride that what their ancestors did here was epic and monumental, and will probably not ever happen again. It’s almost like saying that every person that was your great-grandfather was a famous person, just because they were there; because it was so significant.”
The Civil War is not over, until we today have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War Generation fought it.
—Barbara J. Fields, Professor of History, Columbia University
During the controversy over Paisley’s “Accidental Racist,” it became clear to me that many non-Southerners assume that when white Southerners display a Confederate battle flag, they must intend it knowingly as a racist symbol. The truth is a little more complicated. Some display the flag—on T-shirts, bumper stickers, porches, or elsewhere—as an expression of distrust in big government, regulation, gun control. It’s a graft of the notion of states’ rights onto modern concerns. For others, it signifies awareness that rural Southerners are seen as backward, and a defiant assertion of pride in a certain kind of whiteness: “I’m a redneck and I’m proud of it.” Sadly, there are many white Southerners who are perfectly aware of the racist meanings applied to the flag by the Klan and the segregation movement, and wish to embrace that same racist message.
The majority I encounter in Virginia are in the position of Paisley’s narrator: They like bands like Skynyrd and Alabama; they think the Civil War is cool and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were badasses; they want to show some pride in their region. They think slavery and segregation were wrong, and don’t wish the flag to have any racial message, and thus prefer to remain “willfully innocent” of the meanings and weight that the flag has gathered over the years, some of which were present when it was first carried by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
The people profiled here reveal a narrow slice of that population: reenactors. And reenactors are mostly concerned with details. Most of those details are things such as “How many buttons on a battle shirt, or a Georgia jacket?” “What color stripes on the trousers?” “How many men died on Culp’s Hill?” It’s in the nature of history buffs to enjoy details, but I also think for white Southern reenactors, focusing on certain details makes it much easier to feel good about one’s Confederate heritage. When I speak to Adcock about the general causes of the war, he’ll actively engage in a discussion, but seems much more comfortable focusing on details, stories, and individual anecdotes.
He’s done a lot of research into his ancestors, most of whom were farmers without slaves who fought doggedly and nobly for the Confederacy. “Maybe that’s some of the appeal of wanting to portray a nineteenth-century American is that they did have a certain civility and grace that we lack today. I think we’ve become complacent. I don’t think we’re as good as they were back in those days. Maybe I’m wrong… .” I don’t have as much at stake in Confederate heritage as Adcock and other multigenerational Southerners, but I wish to respectfully disagree with the last point. I think our current generation—mine, Adcock’s, those of us who came up after desegregation—is in many ways better.
Sure, many soldiers in the nineteenth century showed tremendous courage and nobility. Many also displayed brutality, racism, and religious fanaticism. Many of the generals were vain and petty, like George Pickett, whose naïve eagerness for glory and honor led to one of the bloodiest hours in human history, 150 years ago at Gettysburg. Others, like Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, come across as maniacal religious fanatics, willing to spill the blood of thousands to build a new country based on slavery. Even the brilliant Lee, whose grace and civility extended to his enemies—who opposed secession and expressed ambivalence about slavery—even Lee chose loyalty and personal honor over Union and equality, and in so doing, presided over the most catastrophic violence in the nation’s history.
Today, in contrast, Southerners of all backgrounds have a lot to be proud of. The South has always been a shifting amalgam of many creative cultures. Rock and roll, jazz, country, and the blues all have their roots in the South. The Civil Rights Movement, a predominantly Southern, Christian movement, was the most vital grassroots force in the nation in the last century. Sadly, white flight and urban renewal contributed to a retrenched version of segregation in the 1970s and 1980s that we haven’t yet shaken loose, but integration created the conditions that allowed multinational companies to open headquarters and facilities in the South. Joint ventures between American and Japanese manufacturers have brought auto plants into places like Lincoln, Alabama, and Georgetown, Kentucky, boosting local economies.
Census data suggest we’re in the midst of a Third Great Migration in which African-American families are moving from cities like Chicago, New York, Detroit, and the urban rust belt and finding economic opportunity back in Dixie. Cities like Charlotte, Atlanta, and Houston are booming and becoming a home for a growing middle class: black and white. And the growth of the Latino- and Asian-American populations is bringing an added diversity to the South.
Two generations have reached adulthood in integrated schools, and it’s increasingly common to see aging white grandfathers, hair slick with 1950s-style pomade, taking their bi-racial grandchildren fishing in public lakes, or to shoot basketball with white, black, and Latino children at the playground. I can imagine the same guys as skinny teenagers throwing rocks at the Freedom Riders in the 1960s. The South has changed and has the potential to be an economically just, racially just region with a distinctive culture.
My search to better understand the white Southern identity has made me realize I am in fact a true Southerner. So is everyone else who lives here, or maintains roots here, whether those roots go back four years or 400. And we have a lot left to accomplish. The legacy of slavery and segregation is still with us. We can remember the Civil War, marvel at the terrible scale of the catastrophe; celebrate the individual heroism of our ancestors, while moving on; while fighting to reshape the South into something worthy of pride today. In “Accidental Racist,” Brad Paisley tried to contribute an affectionate insider’s defense and critique of the South. Yes, the song suffers from poor execution, but lost in that poor execution is the powerful message that white Southerners ought to consider the impact that a symbol like the Confederate flag has on other people.
My trip to Gettysburg brought me in touch with reenactors like Adcock, Smith, Compton, and Rex. I enjoyed my conversations with them, and I don’t begrudge them their weekends clad in gray, remembering their ancestors, hoisting libations, and waving the battle flag. But I think Adcock has the right idea: Better to roll the flag up at the end of the weekend and leave it in the trunk until the next reenactment. This is the twenty-first century, and the Confederate flag has no place in our time.