Civil War re-enactors tell the truth, the whole truth or something like the truth

By Linda Emley

All of my stories start with a question, and then I go looking for an answer. Sometimes it takes a few minutes and sometimes it takes a few years, but I keep searching until I find what I’m looking for.

On June 1, 2013, I attended the Civil War Memorial Service at the Higginsville State Park. After spending two hours with these Civil War re-enactors, I felt like I had experienced history. They work hard at being authentic in everything they say and do while wearing their uniforms. I found this out the hard way one day when I asked one of my re-enactment friends about his “costume.” He replied, “Madam, I’m not wearing a costume. This is an uniform.”

The accompanying picture is of Ray County Deputy Tim Miller and Major Sam Stanton, who is an Elliott’s Scout. Both of these local men attended the memorial service at the Confederate Home in Higginsville. Sam has been attending this memorial service for many years, but it was Tim’s first year. They had never met until I introduced them, but they share a common bond because they are both “living historians” who appreciate our Civil War history.

Tim recently found a new Civil War ancestor from South Carolina, Benjamin Perkins. So this year’s memorial service was an extra special event for him.

Sam was part of the color guard that presented the flags at the ceremony, so I’m sure it was a special day for him too. I didn’t know much about the Elliott’s Scouts so I looked up their web page and found out who they are:

“Elliott’s Scouts was mustered in 1994 and consists of men, women and family members. The name is derived from the actual cavalry scout unit under the famous General Jo Shelby who never surrendered. Our company accurately demonstrates Confederate and Union mounted and dismounted cavalry, Bushwhackers/guerillas, Missouri State Guard and Missouri Enrolled Militia (Union). Our dismounted cavalry unit maneuvers and battles as skirmishers and flankers. Our mounted troopers ride in support of our dismounted troopers and as regular cavalry as needed. Unlike most re-enactment units who portray a single impression, our unit is very versatile and is prepared for a variety of impressions. When the camps are open to the public we will be in living history mode and conducting camp like soldiers in the field as they did at that time.

“We are dedicated to preserving Civil War history as well as public education of this pivotal point in our state and country’s history. Many of our ancestors fought, struggled and died in America’s War Between the States. Kansas and Missouri played significant roles. The number of men who served from Missouri on the side of the Union was about 110,000 with another 90,000 on the side of the Confederacy. In fact, Missouri saw more action than Virginia and West Virginia combined. And though our re-enactments are highly entertaining, it is equally important to accurately educate because in the words of the Civil War journalist Walt Whitman, ‘The real war will never get in the books.’”

Civil War re-enacting started in the 1860s before the actual war was even over. Former soldiers recreated battles as a way to honor their comrades and make sure everyone understood what they were fighting for.

In 1913, there was a reunion held at Gettysburg to honor the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Around 50,000 re-enactors attended. The next big surge was in 1961-1965, which was the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. In 1961, 20,000 spectators attended the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington in Missouri.

Modern day re-enactments became popular in the 1980s. In 1998, the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was the largest re-enactment ever. About 30,000 to 40,000 re-enactors recreated the battle as 50,000 spectators watched.

The 150th Battle of Gettysburg re-enactment will actually be two events. On June 27-30, 2013, the Blue Gray Alliance Re-enactment will be held for the true hard-core soldiers. At this event, they get to play hard and do it their way.

The original battle took place July 1-3, 1863, so the public version will be held at the Gettysburg National Military Park July 1-3, 2013. This event may become the largest re-enactment ever.

Lincoln’s Gettsburg address will be remembered Nov. 19, 2013 because Nov. 19, 1863, was the actual date that Lincoln gave his historical “Four score and seven years ago” speech.

I found some interesting details about re-enactors while researching this story. My source said, “Re-enactors commonly divided themselves into three categories, based on the level of concern for authenticity. 

One category is the “farbs” or “polyester soldier” re-enactors who spend relatively little of their time or money maintaining authenticity with regard to uniforms, accessories or even period behavior. The “Good Enough” attitude is pervasive among farbs. Blue jeans, tennis shoes, polyester, zippers, Velcro, snoods and modern cigarettes are common.

Another group of re-enactors is called “Mainstream.” These re-enactors are somewhere between farb and authentic. Most mainstream re-enactors make an effort at appearing authentic, but may come out of character in the absence of an audience. Visible stitches are likely to be sewn in a period-correct manner, but hidden stitches and undergarments may not be period-appropriate. Food consumed before an audience is likely to be generally appropriate to the early 1860s, but it may not be seasonally and locally appropriate. Modern items are sometimes used “after hours” or in a hidden fashion. The common attitude is to put on a good show, but accuracy need only go as far as others can see.

At the other extreme from farbs are “hard-core authentics” or “progressives,” as they prefer to be called. Sometimes they are derisively called “stitch counters,” and many people have misconceptions about hardcore re-enactors. Hard-cores generally seek an “immersive” reenacting experience, trying to live, as much as possible, as someone of the 1860s might have. This includes eating seasonally and regionally appropriate food, sewing inside seams and undergarments in a period-appropriate manner and staying in character throughout an event.”

The Battle of Albany scheduled for Ray County in October 2014 will be a battle of “hard-core re-enactors,” so we will get a small taste of what it was really like in 1864.

The life of a re-enactor is not easy. Paul Farhi wrote a story for the Washington Post published July 15, 2011. In “Civil War reenactment etiquette: How — and when — to die on the battlefield,” Farhi said, “There’s no shame or glory in ‘dying’ while reenacting a Civil War battle. There are, however, a few hazards in it. You might get stepped on by advancing infantry, or become seriously dehydrated while lying motionless in the summer sun. And make sure you don’t die on top of an anthill or a cow patty.”

On a related note, I found the answer to another question about the Higginsville Confederate Home Cemetery. John Thomas Graves was the last person buried there May 9, 1950. In two books about the home, I couldn’t identify the first person buried there. I had to do some digging, and it looks like William F. Leathers was the first person buried there Nov. 15, 1892. He was mustered into the Confederate service as a private in Company A, Second Kentucky Cavalry, John Morgan’s brigade. His application to the home said, “I am physically unable to support myself for the following reason: Disabilites received during the war.” And that is why there was a home for Civil War Veterans in Higginsville.

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