Randolph County Rebel: Jim Kincade, the 7th Arkansas Infantry, and Reenacting the American Civil War

By Derek Allen Clements,

Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, April 2007


The crack of the muskets draws the crowd to the street corner near the field where the Federal soldiers fight defiantly against a larger Confederate force. Trading a few volleys, the sheer mathematics of battle force the Federals to withdraw, leaving two dead upon the field. As the Confederate battle line march by the crowd, a second sergeant with gray hair and a gray, tobacco-stained beard works hard to keep his men in line, maintain a high level of safety, and not run into the parked cars: It is not 1863, but 2006, and a Confederate reenactor named James "Jim" Kincade is fighting at Sikeston, Missouri.

A retired Arkansas highway worker in his sixties, Kincade participates in this unique hobby for reasons ranging from historic interest to camaraderie. In an era of Websites and emails, the 7th Arkansas has depended on oral communication to transfer knowledge to the next generation of reenactors. Whether gathered around the campfire, in the company street — a term referring to the space between the lines of tents of each company where soldiers both work and relax — or on the battlefield, Kincade guides these newcomers in their quest to "become" Confederate soldiers, quietly passing the vernacular culture of the group.

Kincade became interested in the American Civil War during elementary school, attributing his curiosity to a charismatic teacher who sparked his interest in Arkansas's role in the conflict. Individually seeking to understand the war and any ancestral link to it, he began what has become a lifelong study of genealogy as well as county, state, and Civil War history. He discovered numerous ancestors who served in a variety of Arkansas units, with an astounding number coming from the Randolph County area. This familial connection sent him to a dozen states examining the exploits of his ancestors upon many battlefields. While at the Perryville Battlefield in Kentucky, he found a reenactment flyer. Interested in the idea of Civil War living histories anyway, Kincade noted the date of the event was his birthday, October 5, which became the day he was reborn a reenactor in 1984.

Physically, Kincade appears as any gray-haired man one might see in the aisle of Pocahontas's Wal-Mart. Shy and withdrawn, he is not a great conversationalist unless discussing Arkansas and the Civil War. Then, he is modest, often deferring to others as experts and taking no credit for his high level of knowledge. As a result, he is a silent, ever-vigilant sergeant with a grandfatherly appeal. To the members of the 7th Arkansas, he is a symbol of longevity. He has been in the unit he founded for over twenty years — long enough to fight the war five times over and to have seen the hobby and the 7th Arkansas change over time.

In the skirmish at Sikeston, Kincade keeps order; he is especially concerned about safety. That is his job as a second sergeant. This battlefield could be anywhere in the United States as Sikeston is just another in a long list of events for the 7th Arkansas this year. After the battle, he contents himself with lunch under the threatening gray skies before describing to me the way camps are established at Civil War reenactments. Reenactor camps are arranged around military organization. At large events, individual units like the 7th Arkansas belong to divisions, brigades, regiments, and/or battalions (in descending order); therefore, reenactor life is structured just like that of Civil War soldier. Camps are arranged according to the makeup of a company. The officers pitch tents at the head of the company street near the fire. Ranking noncommissioned officers (NCOs) begin the street establishing the first two tents. The remaining men follow in any order.

The head of the company street is important. Not only is this where the officers establish quarters, but the fire is there. To the reenactor, the fire provides the same purpose as for the Civil War soldier. It is a source of heat for cooking, warmth in the cold, and light in dark. Kincade enjoys the cooking aspect of Civil War reenacting. Like many reenactors, he prefers non-period items for meals and finds fulfillment in cooking breakfast upon the open flame. More importantly, he enjoys the camaraderie around the campfire. During the day, specifically in hot summers, the fire is not tended as much, but at the winter events and usually after dark, the men gather around the fire for comfort and companionship.

Describing the process, Kincade states, "Well, we sit around and most generally, they'll have some kind of wild story going on or somebody playing music or singing talking about Civil War history and modern day politics. They just talk about anything in the world." Musicians may play or sing period songs setting the mood, and pranksters tell jokes and stories. Additionally, the fire provides an important avenue for the transmission of information to the men, especially the younger members. Discussing the hobby, Kincade reiterates the importance of teaching the younger recruits and spectators of the history of the unit and the Civil War, claiming: “My philosophy is if you can talk to these youngsters at these reenactments and living histories if you can get them interested in the history of the Civil War, they can go to reading. All wars are dumb, you don't need no more wars, but if they read about a war, any kind of reading, reading don't do but one thing and that is help you. You got to be able to read and understand what you are reading.”

Not only does Kincade see young spectators as important, but teenage recruits also ensure the future of the hobby and this outlet of Civil War instruction. "To me, that's kind of a thrill for me seeing these youngsters come on because one of these days they are going to get old and us old-timers are going to have to drop out and maybe by training these youngsters they can keep the hobby going."

For the recruits, the fire pit provides a ritual site for the transmission of the Kincade's knowledge. In a larger context, these mobile tent cities are temporary temple complexes, sites where reenactors pay homage to Civil War history, structured in a historical pattern, and reproducible anywhere. The consistency in design provides the transmission of knowledge for most units in the same manner. Kincade and perhaps other NCOs and officers use the fire pits as podium, not to bully, but to provide knowledge for those seeking it in a relaxed, inviting band of brotherhood. During the temperate day, the men of the 7th Arkansas sit near the fire when inactive. If drilling or fighting, their chairs stand idle around the fire, reserving their place at the center of their weekend world. The leadership of the 7th Arkansas does not require the younger members to read manuals or books, but they are taught orally here around the fire. When questioned concerning this, Kincade replies, "we have what we call on the job training…. We don't have no Hardee's drill manual." Troops may read and study if they wish. Older members teach the vernacular culture of the unit to the new recruits. When Kincade speaks, the recruits listen and learn from him. Jay Anderson, noted writer on living history activities, writes, "One of the salient characteristics of living history groups is the importance of face-to-face interaction. Much activity is at the local level, and newcomers generally learn what they need to know by word of mouth and example.”

The main company street, the space between the tents, provides a place of visiting, card playing, and loafing. Items not stored in the tents, tables, chests, or boxes, often lay in the street until used. The street is also the space where men form for work. Their work is to train to fight according to the nineteenth century tactics used by the original men of the 7th Arkansas Infantry and found in William J. Hardee's Rifle and Light Infantry Manual (1861), a book only the officers need consult in the modern 7th Arkansas. Once formed, the men typically march out of the street, away from the fire and into the open space opposite the officer's tents, the location of brigade formations or the drill ground. On the drill field, everyone has a job: Officers command, NCOs guide, and privates fight. Kincade keeps the men in line in both drills and fights. His keen eye watches for errors and he corrects, not harshly, but through suggestion. Safety is his top concern. Accidents with the three-band Enfield Rifled Musket, the main reenactor weapon, can greatly injure or burn other reenactors. "Well, you can shoot somebody with this raw gunpowder with a three-band rifle," Kincade asserts. "Oh, I would say about ten yards and you would hurt him real bad. That gunpowder would go right through your clothes and right in your skin. If you get shot in the face, it will put your eye out." As second sergeant, Kincade's job is to prevent accidents as well as to serve as a guide for the line of battle. Additionally, when questions arise, he answers them. If equipment fails, he helps to fix it.

This hobby requires discipline. Drill and attention are necessary, but everyone is allowed freedom over their own uniforms and equipment. As a result, uniforms within groups differ, but typically they reflect one of the philosophies of reenacting. Often, reenactors self-segregate into four groups: hardcore, progressives, mainstream, and farb. (Kincade identifies himself as a "mainstream reenactor.") Hardcore groups strive for the greatest levels of authenticity, even starving or freezing themselves to experience the soldiers' life; one such reenactor is R. Lee Hodge, who was portrayed in Tony Horwitz's work Confederates in the Attic. Most progressive groups attempt outward authenticity to the extreme as well but do not attempt physical suffering or dangerous behavior. Mainstream reenactors, the vast majority of those involved in the hobby, make attempts at obtaining correct equipment, but may bring such anachronistic items as coolers or sleeping bags into the camp. Most of these mainstream groups will require their members to hide these anachronisms. On the opposite extreme of the hardcore is the farb, a reenactor-created term with an unknown origin. Farbs are those who may know better, but choose to behave, dress, or camp in a completely inauthentic manner. They may wear modern boots, leave anachronisms uncovered, wear incorrect materials, and discuss modern issues with no regard for other reenactors or spectators. Such behavior disturbs other reenactors as the other groups strive for some level of an authentic experience. To the reenactor, an authentic experience, sometimes called a "time warp," "magic moments," or "special times." This is a moment where the reenactor temporarily forgets his modern self, slipping into another time, into a historical fantasy that seems real to him. These do not occur often. Hardcore and progressive groups cannot achieve this reenactor nirvana with mainstreamers and especially farbs present. The mere presence of farbs "shatters the serenity of the shared experience and strikes at the common goal" of the hardcore or progressive reenactor. Kincade did not use any of the terms equated with "time warps," but describes when these events occur to him, "at a smaller event… the battle has been going on for quite a while and they will say charge. Both sides know who is going to win before the charge takes over, but your blood will get boiling when there is about fifty men charging at you …. It becomes real. Things goes to clicking in your brain".

Mainstream reenactors typically work well with progressives and, like the other groups, tolerate farbs. Hardcore reenactors rarely attend mainstream or farb-sponsored events and would "define authenticity as isomorphism between a living-history activity or event, and that piece of the past it is meant to re-create." Those not meeting the strictest standards of authenticity are not permitted to enter hardcore events. Hardcores often sponsor events for themselves with no spectators. Kincade and the 7th Arkansas Infantry members are mainstream reenactors. While Kincade's outward appearance reflects some levels of authenticity, he hides from spectators modern items such as a sleeping bag, a cot, and a cooler under blankets in his tent at Sikeston. Possessing clear anachronisms, he cites his age as the reason for having them. Additionally, he tells anyone asking about this equipment that he is reflecting the impression of a garrison camp, as soldiers on the march would not have such materials. Thus he is able to use his mainstream impression as a teaching tool, the same as a progressive and a hardcore reenactor, just explaining away the items present instead of not having them. In his mind, they do not affect his job as a reenactor, but help him to enjoy the event without great physical discomforts.

Sikeston is a mainstream event with a smattering of farbs. From the moment of arrival, the spectator is met with a mixed message of mainstream reenacting regarding the level of authenticity. Modern sandwiches are sold to reenactors and spectators alike, along with soft drinks in plastic bottle and cans. Most of the camps are mainstream, with a few farb groups and one progressive unit present in the military camps. When asked to compare his unit with a nearby progressive group, Kincade claims: “Well, these boys down here on the right little, in them little shelter-halves, they're pretty much hardcores. They pretty well stick it out and portray what they are doing. We are pretty much garrison types.”

“You can come out here and garrison type with these A-Frame tents or you can be hardcore and sleep on the ground with a blanket on straw and then you got these other guys that goes up, we call them "Ramada Inn soldiers." They stay in the motel and come out for the battle and then they go back to the motel.”

The weather has caused the authenticity level to drop, according to Kincade. Rains eliminated a field for reenactor parking; therefore, vehicles usually kept out of sight of the reenactors are now parked within ten yards of the camps. Defining a sutler, Kincade states, "A sutler is compared to modern day times is a Wal-Mart store. You go in there and buy all your Civil War equipment. You buy your canteens, your rifle, clothes, shoes, anything that contains Civil War you can pretty well buy it at what we call a sutler." The sutlers, individuals who sell Civil War equipment, are split in quality as well. One sells materials just for reenactors, while another offers kids' toys — wooden swords, pistols — and poorly constructed Civil War kepis to spectators as well as offering a line of materials to the reenactors.

The weather at this event was dismal. Rains had hit Southeast Missouri on Friday night and scattered thunderstorms struck occasionally on Saturday. For the men of 7th Arkansas Infantry, tents provided safety from the storms. Suffering from storms, surviving long marches, enduring battles, and sharing tents and the fire pit with a group of men creates a unique bond among them. While no life is lost, rain falls, cold winds blow, heat scorches the battlefield, and the men combat not only each other, but the elements. Consequently, they bond in the ranks of battle and around the campfire in their own "camaraderie of misery" and culture, in a sense creating "a fleeting kind of gemeinschaft, a trace of a romanticized folk community."

This closeness is manifest in the pride for their unit, the regimental flag, the discussion of events they have attended, weather extremes experienced, and the sharing of nicknames. Each person accepts the name granted to him by his peers, taking on a different persona in camp from his civilian life. Along with this bond, the men assume levels of fictive kinship, calling each other brothers, or treating older members with respect given fathers or grandfathers. One now deceased member of the 7th Arkansas, a World War II veteran, was referred to as "Opa" and occasionally "Uncle Kunk" instead of his name, Karl Kunkel. In some cases, kinship lines do exist. Father and son teams, sets of brothers, and husband-wife combinations are not unusual at Civil War reenactments.

Kinship, especially ancestry, is important to Civil War reenactors. Many, like Kincade, reference ancestral links to the Civil War, citing these powerful familial memories as their primary reason for reenacting and for attending specific events. For these men, they possess a desire to engage the enemy, mimicking their ancestor's actions. Accordingly, a high number of reenactors in the 7th Arkansas are members of the heritage group the Sons of Confederate Veterans. To Kincade, there is no difference between reenacting and membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans. To him, "it is nothing but the obligations and your duty to come forward and take part in a Sons of Confederate Veterans event." These events include monument dedications, Confederate Flag Day in Little Rock, and the Patrick Cleburne Memorial Service held at his grave site in Helena, Arkansas. Further, reenacting places him near battlefields where many of his ancestors fought during the Civil War.

The connections of kinship, fictive kinships, and communitas created within reenactment groups provide an important outlet for these reenactors. Unifying on the battlefield gives the reenactor the opportunity to remove himself from society, if only temporarily, and enjoy his heritage with others of like interest. While outwardly simple escapism, the action may hold deeper meaning. Kincade and the other members of his unit may be seeking to remove themselves from modernity, to avoid the frightening changes that sent many Civil War veterans and their families to veteran reunions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The anxiety created by late nineteenth century modernity led to the creation of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of Confederacy, two organizations that assisted their fathers in reminiscing on the "true" history of the Civil War. These groups outlived the veterans but continue to propagate their version of events. Hence, the high concentration of Sons of Confederate Veterans members in the reenacting creates a dilemma. Are reenactment units simply groups of hobbyists with a similar interest, or could some be attempting to influence the historical message promoted at reenactments, ministering to the public concerning "the Lost Cause?"

Kincade had made several references to Confederate ancestry during the interview process, but none to Union veterans in his family tree. When directly asked, he cited one ancestral line in Indiana; however, he states he would not join the Sons of Union Veterans. "I'm a Johnny Reb…. Too much Southern heritage and too many ancestors fought in the Civil War and if you were raised up one way, it sticks. I don't have no hatred for anybody or any color or any race or nothing and what I am doing is strictly history and a hobby."

Perhaps this is true. Kincade shows no problem galvanizing. This term "galvanizing" has been adopted by reenactors, mostly Confederate, to refer to the temporary adoption of the uniform from the other side to provide adequate numbers for the event. Kincade recalls: “Well, when I first started reenactments, I said, you will never catch me in the blue. I would not wear blue. I am strictly a Confederate. We was putting on a reenactment at Crowley's Ridge, we was low on men, so I had to, I got a couple of uniforms made and I had to galvanize. So, right now, it don't bother me to galvanize one bit. I galvanize quite a bit. When we go to Chalk Bluff, I'll play Union.”

In the South, "galvanizing" means "playing Union" for at least one battle during the event. The Federal troops at any given reenactment contain a large number of Confederates galvanizing to provide some semblance of accuracy in numbers. Experience has taught Kincade that this is a requirement necessary for the hobby to survive. New to the hobby in 1984, he would not have donned the Union blue, but the disparity in numbers convinced him to provide the service. As a result, most reenactors have two sets of equipment. Before attending events, the officers and upper NCOs notify the men if galvanizing will be necessary; therefore, the men can prepare for it.

At Sikeston, Kincade reenacted the role of a Confederate second sergeant. His uniform, made of mainstream materials, consisted of a wool sack coat containing the stripes of a sergeant, cotton shirt, wool trousers, hat, and brogans. On his right side, he carries the material necessary to fire his Enfield Rifled Musket. The black leather cartridge box, worn on a sling over his left shoulder and resting on his right hip, holds paper blanks filled with explosive black powder. The percussion caps needed to ignite the powder within the musket are found in the cap pouch carried upon Kincade's belt. His bayonet, not used during reenactments for safety reasons, rests in a scabbard on the left back of Kincade's belt. While the equipment needed to fire the musket is on the right of the soldier, the materials needed to feed the soldier are found on his left.

“On my left side, I would be wearing my haversack and what we call a haversack, you carry a little bit of food in it and just odds and ends. It is something like modern day time with billfold. We didn't have back pockets so you'd might carry an apple in there, a piece of bread, or some old salt pork or something like that.”

“And then you got a canteen and that was one of the biggest things during the Civil War is having a canteen and all the history books says that all the infantry talked about the good water, good drinking water at the different places that they were marching across county.”

Reenacting from a garrison camp, Kincade does not need to carry a blanket roll or a knapsack into battle, just the basic material needed for battle.

A hardcore reenactor would not find Kincade's uniform appealing, but to him it is important. Much thought has gone into his impression. Many of the material pieces are made specifically for him. In Bloodless Battles: The Civil War Reenacted, Rory Turner discovered the relationship between a reenactor and his uniform, and equipment is not based in mere "commodity fetishism," but "deeply contextualized in knowledge." To the reenactor, especially those above the farb level, the knowledge, skill, and time invested in their uniforms places power and value within them. This value is placed upon items due to research, not necessarily great expenditure unless made to purchase the most accurate materials available. Perhaps more importantly to Kincade, he can wear a sack coat that may be similar to those his ancestors wore in a place that he fought. Thus he experiences the same heat in the summer and lack of insulation from the winter wind or rain from this tangible representation of his ancestor.

The equipment carried by the reenactor makes the engagement physically taxing for everyone involved in these fake battles. For older men like Kincade, his job sometimes gives way to either health concerns or battle-field authenticity. If units fire repeatedly at one another in the presence of spectators and no casualties occur, many veteran reenactors may respond by "taking hits." Talking about "taking hits" at Sikeston, Kincade states, "I took about two or three." The reenactor can pretend to become wounded in the arm or leg, at times temporarily, depending upon the ground or the location of the spectators. Kincade added, "You save on ammunition and then that way you get behind the line and play your role and kind of watch after the newcomers…. We could get back up and go. We could do that today playing Confederate, but the Union they couldn't hardly take casualties until they got down to the train depot." Considering that the Union forces were nor completely exposed to the spectators at Sikeston, they took fewer casualties than the Confederates. Union numbers were lower and the need to conserve manpower to justify the victory over the Confederates kept casualties low until the big climax in the battle.

As I left Kincade at Sikeston, large raindrops began to fall. He simply retired to his tent as I walked out of the company street toward the civilian parking area. When the rains subside, he will re-emerge. Steady rain will not chase him away from the event unless his colleagues in the 7th Arkansas and other units abandon the field. His reasons for staying raise the complex issues of the hobby: According to Turner, "For some it is a political statement, for others an affirmation of cultural identity, a complex and intriguing game, an opportunity to go camping and get drunk with friends, an alternative to a dreary existence, a 'thing to do' in a social set, or a fascinating window on a world they know from books and photographs.” For Kincade, all of these reasons keep him in the muddy field at Sikeston, Missouri. These reasons will compel him to go home, clean his equipment, and prepare for the next event. If the next event is plagued by rain, he will be there, in the mud again. His unit needs him and he needs it.