CIVIL WAR REENACTMENT
Linda Penkava, Washington DC
Talk of the Nation (National Public Radio), 8-19-1998
MELINDA PENKAVA, HOST: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Melinda Penkava sitting in for Ray Suarez.
It's often said of Americans that we have no sense of history, not our own, much less everyone else's. We're said to have a short term memory, incapable of remembering the scorecards of wars long ago fought. But there's one exception to that. It's the Civil War. It ended in 1865, yet interest in it runs high, largely in the South where most of the battles were fought. But Northerners are among the millions of Americans who are still engrossed, some would say obsessed by the Civil War. Some of these Civil War aficionados go beyond the pages of the history books and they take to the battlefields, reenacting skirmishes and battles. For those of us on the sidelines, one question is: why do they do that?
And it's that question that writer Tony Horwitz set out to answer when he followed reenactors for a year. His book is "Confederates in the Attic," and it chronicles not only the reenactors, but just what it is about that war that maintains a hold on so many people, even today.
The Civil War, 133 years later, is today's TALK OF THE NATION, and Tony Horwitz joins us for the hour. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. TONY HORWITZ, AUTHOR, "CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC: DISPATCHES FROM THE UNFINISHED CIVIL WAR": Thanks for having me.
PENKAVA: And you can join us as well at 1-800-989-8255, 1-800- 989-TALK. Well, Tony Horwitz, you're a writer for "The Wall Street Journal." You've covered wars overseas in Bosnia for extended periods. Then you came home to the U.S., and you started covering this other war that's been over for more than a century.
HORWITZ: Right. Well, as you said, we're not known for our historical memory here. We're really quite amnesiac about our past, and I guess it surprised me to come home after being overseas to find that; but then to find this one great exception which is the Civil War. Living in rural Virginia, I was immediately surrounded by that, so I became intrigued by the question of why there is this one great anomaly in our historical memory and set out to find what the sources were. PENKAVA: And you were literally surrounded by it.
HORWITZ: Right. I live in a small town of 250 people with a lot of old homes, and it's used often for period movies and woke up one day to actually find Civil War reenactors in front of my house shooting their muskets for a movie. I went out to talk to them, and that's really how I was drawn into the book.
PENKAVA: Well, what did you find? Why is that it is this war that fascinates, and this war that we have reenactors for here in the States?
HORWITZ: Right. Well, one reason for the reenacting I think is just practical. It would be very hard, as anyone who's seen "Saving Private Ryan" would know; it'd be quite hard to reenact World War II.
You'd need aircraft and tanks. The Civil War is quite human-scaled in a way. You'd need horses and rifles and uniforms and some canon, but not much more. The battles were also fought here, so in that sense, it's easier to reproduce the actual landscapes. And you have a natural two-sides really, North and South; if you were reenacting World War II, which people do, someone has to be the Nazis. So, I think there are some really, some practical reasons. But it goes way beyond that. There is this tremendous romantic pull to the Civil War that is stronger really than other parts of our history.
PENKAVA: And is it precisely because of that, because we have the winners and the losers here in this country. You have those in the South who were the only section of the country ever to be defeated on their home ground in the U.S. HORWITZ: Right.
PENKAVA: Is that why the war lives on?
HORWITZ: I think it's a big reason. I mean, I think it's important to remember just historically how devastating the defeat was. One out of every four white males in the South died in this war.
You know, the economy was devastated for a century. And in some ways, it's particularly in the rural South, still reflects the Civil War.
Really, the South didn't rejoin the nation in the real sense until one could say the past generation. And I just don't think that's an experience that people forget quickly.
PENKAVA: But we could also recreate, and there are people that recreate, the Revolutionary War. They reenact that. But it doesn't seem it has the same fervor...
HORWITZ: No. I think one reason is actually the photographs.
We -- the Civil War is really as far back as we can go in our own history and bring back naturalistic images that tune to our modern way of seeing. We don't have photographs before about the 1840's. We don't really know what people look like in the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, we can really recreate their uniforms. Those faces stare out at us that are strikingly modern. Yet at the same time, there is that distance so that we feel like we're entering another time zone.
I think at first blush when people who are on the sidelines look at these
reenactors, they say: OK, there's somebody out there carrying on the cause, the
South. They're playing the Confederate role. And do they have something
invested in that emotionally, or do they think that the country should go back
to the days, should have what the Confederacy wanted which was slavery, et
cetera. What did you find with that?
HORWITZ: My experience is that most, the vast majority of reenactors are not political; they're not in it for ideological reasons. They're really in it because of their passion for history or escapism, really, the fun of it. Sometimes it's just they like to dress up. I mean, there are many reasons. But by and large, I find most reenactors actually don't want to discuss the ideological issues to any great detail. What they say over and over again is that we're here to remember the experience of the common soldier, North and South, not to debate slavery or states rights. That being said, much of my book deals with other people, particularly in the South, not reenactors who are extremely political and ideological and really do want to hearken back, not necessarily to slavery, but to secession and states rights and a purer sense of Southern identity.
PENKAVA: Give us an example of that?
HORWITZ: Well, there are dozens of groups. One of the most Fuhrist (ph) you might say is called the League of the South. Some of its members, they'll refuse to salute the American flag, for instance.
They think that even the English language as it's spoken today is a product of Yankee imperialism, and that Southerners should return to sort of 19th century styles of Southern speech. They'll point to Quebec and places in Europe where secession is still a strong sentiment and say: you know, this is still very relevant today. And there's really, if you look at the Republican party today, particularly in the South, much of what they're advocating is what the Confederacy was talking about: states rights. If you look at the Confederate Constitution, it even talked about balancing the budget and term limits and, again, it's a strikingly modern document. Again, I met very few people who want to bring slavery back, so I think that people are trying to push that out of the equation. But in other respects, they feel that this is still quite relevant.
PENKAVA: We're talking with Tony Horwitz today. He's author of "Confederates in the Attic," and it's a book that deals with the Civil War reenactors and parts of the Civil War that haven't quite been finished here in the states. And if you'd like to join us, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1- 800-989-TALK. Some of the things that fascinated me in this book were that you found that pieces of history that have been popularly passed down did not actually happen the way they did.
HORWITZ: Right. Well, I guess I went into it quite naively assuming that while there was still tremendous debate about slavery and the causes of the war and the results of it, that the military aspects, for instance, were kind of a closed book. I mean, after all, there are 60,000 books on the Civil War. I thought, you know, by now...
PENKAVA: Consensus (INAUDIBLE).
HORWITZ: ... we kind of new what happened. And the more I poked into the history of the war, both military and non-military aspects, I was really struck by how much of it is still unresolved, which is quite exciting. Just to give one example, Gettysburg, which is probably the most studied moment in American history; we still don't know how many men there were in Pickett's Charge, what time the charge started, where Pickett was, who reached the wall? Fairly fundamental questions and also many misconceptions. There's no record of a bayonet wound, for instance, in Picket's Charge. And our image of it is this sort of violent, you know, person-to-person combat; it appears that that may not have really happened, or happened in the way that we imagine. And over and over again, as I looked into the war, I found examples like that where I found really there's still a lot we need to find out.
PENKAVA: Now, you actually went on as a reenactor for a week on something that you called a "wargasm." HORWITZ: Right.
PENKAVA: Explain that? HORWITZ: Well, much of the time I spend with reenactors in the book is with reactors who call themselves "hard cores." They're sort of the fundamentalists of the hobby. They don't merely go out and reenact the battles; in fact, they don't like reenacting the battles, because how realistic can you be if no one's really died. Their mission is sort of total authenticity down to what the soldiers war in terms of even the thread count of the uniforms, what they ate, the way that the language they spoke. And one in particular, I think we may hear from later in the program, took me on a sort of ecstatic pilgrimage that he goes on every year called the "Civil Wargasm," where he tries to visit every Civil War site in the East, in a week, in uniform sleeping on the battlefield with the notion of really having this almost religious communion with the past.
PENKAVA: And what was that like?
HORWITZ: Hot and buggy. We did it in late June and early July a couple of years ago. As you may recall, it was in the 90's for days on end. We were wearing wool uniforms, sleeping out. It was really quite wretched and in that sense quite illuminating. We always think of war in terms of glory and battle. For the average soldier, most of the time was really quite miserable and quite mundane, even boring.
Actually, we do have Rob Hodge on the phone right now.
Rob Hodge, thanks for joining us.
HODGE, CIVIL WAR RESEARCHER: How are you doing?
PENKAVA: All right. Well, you are, you went on this reenactment, you go on reenactments all the time. But you'd prefer not to be called a reenactor.
HODGE: I guess not. No, probably historical interpreter would probably be a more accurate term I'd like to use.
OK, well, talk a bit about the interpretation of history that you do there?
HODGE: Well, I think that reenacting is made up of probably some of the most enjoyable and nice people and well-intended folks probably you'll ever meet in your life. And I'm very fortunate to meet all the folks I have. But I would like to take things a little bit further than pointing guns and shooting at each other. I think that I kind of grew out of that a little bit of that in high school. If you're going to shoot guns at each other, maybe you should do it in a film where you can make it something like "Saving Private Ryan" or something. But reenacting is kind of played a little bit, for me. Maybe doing interpretive programs for schools and for most importantly, the National Park Service is, I think, where we need to go as far as interpretation. And I think it's more of an educational tool in that environment, as opposed to reenactment, which sometimes is a cross between maybe Woodstock and Ringling Brothers.
PENKAVA: Well, what got you on to this?
HODGE: What got me on to reenacting?
HODGE: I guess I've been pretty obsessed with it since I was about four. And when I realized that there were reenactors that were reenacting beyond the American Civil War centennial in the 1960's, I thought: gee, I would love to do this. And so, it took several years of talking to different reenactors and cutting enough laws to get the uniforms and stuff together as a child. But I did my first event at Gettysburg on July 4, 1981, and so it's about 17 years now.
PENKAVA: What was the most surprising thing you've learned in all of this? I gather from Tony's book here that you've done a fair bit of historical research for this.
HODGE: Sure. Well, do you mean that within the reenacting context?
PENKAVA: Well, on the Civil War in general.
HODGE: The most surprising thing is that our Civil War battlefields are being lost at a high rate of speed. The National Park Service only owns about three percent of America's Civil War battlefields, and they're being bulldozed everyday by Wal-Mart and other places to build shopping malls. And I found this to be very apparent when I came to Virginia in 1991, and I had always assumed that the National Park Service and the federal government had taken care of the stuff. But the reality was is that Congress had never funded them correctly, and so now we're dealing with about 10 more years of the possibility soon these places before they're all going to be under asphalt.
PENKAVA: And in Tony's book, you're described, you describe yourself as a "liberal Confederate," that you don't subscribe to the politics, the politics of race of the Confederacy.
HODGE: Well, no I don't. And I'm proud of that fact. I would like to think of myself as a little bit more above the good-old boy mentality that unfortunately so many Southerners are labeled sometimes. And you do find that occasionally, but I would like to think that I can look at the political spectrums and find good on both sides. And I never really subscribed to the stereotypical right-wing leanings of -- and you have to remember that's, that that is a stereotype. And a lot of that is untrue. But I always thought of myself as more middle of the road, depending on the issue, what things would be.
PENKAVA: When you say it's untrue, meaning that many people that fought in the Civil War didn't have a stake in slavery?
HODGE: Well, I think that's true. And I also think in the modern context, I think that the South gets dumped on pure and simple.
And I think that in many cases, in Tony's book, I think he's pretty fair with the South; and I think -- and you do find the things that the media attracts themselves to. You know, the League of the South is certainly something that is attractive to the media. But I think the bulk of the South is really much more liberal than they get credit for. And I think that you find more racial problems in the North than you do in the South. That's just my opinion, though.
PENKAVA: So when is your next reenactment?
HODGE: I'm going to be doing a march-up in the beautiful Piedmont area, near Tony's house actually in October. In the last several years, we've done preservation marches there. We've raised thousands of dollars and -- but I'm not going to do that this year because back in May, 200 folks I gathered together, we raised $30,000 for the National Park Service. And so, I'm giving the preservation march aspect a little bit of a break. But we're doing a march, and it's much more believable than a reenactment. I mean, when you 200 guys that look good marching down a road, that's much more of a time trip than firing weapons and so forth.
HORWITZ: What exactly did you do in May?
HODGE: Chancellorsville -- we did, there was 100 acres up for sale that looked like it was going to be zoned commercial, and it was highly sensitive property where Robert E. Lee was on and thousands of Confederates and Federals fought on. And it was within the Park Service authorized boundary, but they'd never been appropriated money by Congress to buy it. So through the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, I organized a preservation March and we did Stonewall Jackson's flank march, 135 years to the hour on the same roads. And I asked each reenactor to raise $100 before he came to the event. And the 200 fellows accumulatively raised over $30,000. So it was a monumental success. And I'd like to see more of these kind of things happen, because if they don't, our country even from a greenspace (ph) standpoint is going to be in big trouble, at least on the Eastern seaboard.
PENKAVA: Well, Robert Hodge, thanks for joining us.
HODGE: Thank you.
PENKAVA: Robert Lee Hodge is a Civil War researcher and also takes part in reenactments. And he plays a big role in your book Tony Horwitz.
HORWITZ: Well, I'm interested in saying, he said, when you asked him about being called a reenactor: many will say they're living historians. And I think this reflects the populism of the hobby and what's happening with history generally in America, is people are doing their own history. Rob, for instance, spends you know, days in the archives. People are really doing their own history, which is good and bad. I think it's sort of refreshingly democratic. People aren't waiting for historians on high to pronounce what they should think about the Civil War or any other topic. On the other hand, it can lead to perhaps pseudo-histories that spread on the Internet that really don't have much substance to it.
PENKAVA: So, tell me a little bit about this "wargasm" that you all went on. Now you had -- you had -- for while, earlier, you had dressed in the rebel uniform and then you found you couldn't do that.
HORWITZ: Right. Well, in my first reenactment, I borrowed actually a uniform from Rob, a Confederate uniform, and I had a very interesting and in some ways pleasant weekend out. It's almost like a theme camping trip, that, a reenactment. I mean, people focus on the battles, but actually there's this sort of Mardi Gras going on around it with men and women in all kinds of civilian uniforms and dances and weddings. And it's really quite a lot of fun.
And I enjoyed myself, and then on my way home I stopped at a 7- Eleven and went in to get a cup of coffee. And it was a shop full of blacks, and I sensed that they looked at me with quite a quizzical expression but also some hostility. And I guess it forced me to think about whether it's possible to just play-act these roles and sort of put the ideology aside and not talk about what the South did or didn't represent for a weekend. And I became uncomfortable with that and I subsequently wore a Union uniform when we went out on the Civil wargasm.
PENKAVA: And you did that for a week?
HORWITZ: Yeah, a week...
PENKAVA: Staying in that uniform without shower without...
HORWITZ: Absolutely, we were -- you could smell us a hundred yards away by the end of the week. We slept in Bloody Lane in Antietam we slept at the site of Stonewall's death near Chancellorville; we slept out at several other quite miserable spots, and again, understood perhaps a little bit of what reenactors went through, although obviously they didn't have the car that we had racing between sites.
Okay. 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Tony Horwitz is our guest today. We're
talking about the Civil War reenactment. And we go now to Anthony in Hollywood,
Florida. Hi there, Anthony.
I just want to say really quick: Happy Birthday to President Clinton. And I
want to say that maybe they're doing that because of their -- wait...OK.
PENKAVA: What was your question?
CALLER: Oh, because of their ancestors, that they tried to learn about it, so that's probably why they're doing that.
PENKAVA: Now do you have any ancestors that were in the war?
PENKAVA: Do you have any ancestors that were in the war?
CALLER: No, I don't think so.
PENKAVA: OK. Well, talk about this, Tony.
HORWITZ: It's certainly one of the strong impetuses for this is that roughly half of white Southerners can trace their ancestry to a Confederate soldier in the North. It's much more diluted because of all the immigration and demographic change after the war. So, yeah and many people, in fact, will reenact their on ancestors and again do their own research. And it's part of this populism that people have begun to focus on ordinary soldiers, which is really what reenacting is about, rather than the traditional history which always focused, you know, on Lee and Grant and Lincoln. So I think that's absolutely true.
OK. I hope that answered your question there, Anthony.
And we go now to Maya in Boston. Hi there, Maya.
CALLER: Hi, thank you. Yeah, I think that it's interesting when people talk like sort of the populist history and the history of the ordinary soldier. There's a lot that's been lost.
The fact, for instance, that the Appalachian Belt voted for Lincoln and in large part, and I have no idea what this -- whether there even are any good statistics of how many -- basically was pro- Union, anti-Confederate, resisted the Confederate draft; and West Virginia, of course, being on the border succeeded from Virginia and stayed in the Union. Tennessee, which was dominated by Memphis during the Confederacy by either 20 or 30,000 men -- I've seen both figures -- joined the Union army, which is really interesting. And the further south you had people who were called "bushwhackers;" they -- basically they -- it was draft resistance and a kind of very minor guerrilla warfare against the Confederacy...
HORWITZ: Right. I think you're absolutely...
CALLER: ... sometimes freeing prisoners. And now today I'm afraid many of their great grandchildren or whatever generation it is, are driving around with bumper stickers -- with Confederate bumper stickers and perhaps taking part in these reenactments and thinking that their, you know, that their ancestors were all great Confederate state writers.
CALLER: Actually, I think the big issue of, basically, it was the same for them as the small farmers in Illinois and New England.
PENKAVA: Well, what do you think about...
HORWITZ: No, I think you're absolutely right and Tennessee, for instance, roughly a third of male Tennesseans fought for the North.
Anyone who's read "Cold Mountain" knows that in mountain areas of states like North Carolina there were a lot of mixed feelings about the Confederacy, huge desertion rates, this is another sort of forgotten part of history; hundreds of thousands of deserters, and not just in the Appalachians, in Alabama and Mississippi, you had counties that sided with the North. And you're right, this has been a lost history. In some ways the South was born after the Civil War. The notion that the solid South grew out of that defeat; people became more fiercely attached to it in the wake of the Civil War in some ways.
PENKAVA: I'm wondering, at these reenactments do they also carry out the type of posies that went out that we read about in "Cold Mountain," for deserters?
HORWITZ: Actually, it's funny you mentioned that. I saw a reenactment in Leesburg a couple of weeks ago where they shot some deserters, and you would call them "deserters;" "shirkers," I guess.
In the middle of the battle they began to run away, and some people shot them down or pretended to.
Generally, no, they reenact the battles and occasionally you'll see things like amputations and executions, but in general they focus on the battles.
PENKAVA: And just want to let you know that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO NEWS.
And we have with us Steve in Baltimore. Hi there, Steve.
CALLER: Yeah, I've been -- I've read Tony's book and I just loved it. I -- ordinarily I stick pretty much to straight history when I'm buying books because I don't have time to read the other things, but his subject fascinated me. And I bought it and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I've been reenacting for about 40 years, and I've been with the first and second Main Calvary all that time and have never been infantry and have never been in the Confederate Army or any of that.
But I lived in the South for many of those years, and my son was even born in the South. And it's kind of interesting, the difference in the armies; and I kind of wish that Tony has spent some time -- a little more time with the Federal Army, because the difference within the reenactment armies is quite striking.
PENKAVA: How so?
CALLER: Well, the -- a lot of the Northerners, I suspect, have approached it more from an historical standpoint. They tend to -- from my experience, they tend to do more research, the units tend to be a little more serious and a little less caught up with the "Gone With the Wind" atmosphere of what the mythic South may be. I've always had a Confederate uniform to do Confederate Memorial Day celebrations because there's never enough Confederates around.
I've never been in an reenactment as a Confederate, but -- because usually you don't need them, there's usually lots of Confederates.
PENKAVA: Could it be then that there's more of that fervor, the great lost cause? Is that why you think the South might just have -- is that what you say is missing in the Northerner part...
CALLER: I call it "Gone With the Wind" syndrome. There is this -- I think Tony hit the nail on the head pretty much when he went through it. There's this mythic picture of what happened and what the South is and was. An awful lot of folks don't realize that in politics in the South during the Civil War, there was a left, right and center, just like there was in the North. There were conservative Southerners, there were liberal Southerners.
Judge James Petigrew (ph) of South Carolina, for example, summed it up very well when South Carolina succeeded; he was a pro Union man and he said: South Carolina is too small to be a lunatic asylum, and too large to be a -- too large to be a lunatic asylum and too small to be a republic.
HORWITZ: Well, I think you're right, Steve, one thing you've no doubt noticed though that I found kind of odd is probably half the people you're shooting at in the Rebel Army are actually from the North. That this -- what you call, I think rightly, "Gone With the Wind" romance has infected not just Southerners but millions of Northerners and foreigners, most strikingly of all. Almost always when you meet and you meet a lot of them Canadians, Brits, Australians, Germans at reenactments, they're almost always playing Southerners, and I think it does speak to "Gone With the Wind," to the kind of raffishness of the Rebel Army that is some how more appealing to Americans than the kind of dull uniform ranks of blue. And having spent time in both camps, while I certainly focus more on the North, frankly, Rebels have more fun they're a little rowdier...
LAUGHTER HORWITZ: ... there's a different kind of spirit, and I think in a play-acting way this appeals to Americans.
PENKAVA: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Melinda Penkava.
Our guest this hour is Tony Horwitz, author of "Confederates in the Attic", and we're talking about Confederates and reenactment in the Civil War.
Gonna to take a short break right now. When we come back we'll, of course, get to more of your calls. That number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.
If you care to drop us an E-mail, the address is email@example.com or by regular mail, longer term, that address: TALK OF THE NATION LETTERS NPR NEWS, 635 Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC 20001.
BREAK PENKAVA: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Melinda Penkava in for Ray Suarez.
Today we're talking about the Civil War and the many reenactors that keep that history alive on the battlefields -- mock battlefields with no bullets, but nonetheless, they're keeping it a live.
Our guest this hour is Tony Horwitz, who is author of "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War." Tony Horwitz is also a senior writer for "The Wall Street Journal." If you'd like to join us, our number here is 1-800-989-8255, 1- 800-989-TALK. And let's go to Jean in Milwaukee right now. Hi there, Jean.
CALLER: Hi. I'm somebody that has a grandfather that fought for the North in the Civil War. He was with the New York Volunteers, 160th Volunteers. He was only 16-years-old when he went in and I guess he got carried away with patriotism and in the cause and all; and I never hear anything about the battles he fought in -- excuse me -- he was shipped around Florida to New Orleans, fought in Louisiana and in Texas, and they don't seem to relive this time. At one time the gunboats were caught in the river and they had to put all kinds of trees and -- to flat boats with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) iron and everything to raise the river so that boats could float up so they could us them again.
PENKAVA: Are there -- well, is that the case, Tony Horwitz, are there certain battles...
HORWITZ: Yeah, you often hear this complaint really from people from what, at the time of the Civil War, was called the West, which was really west of the Appalachians in that day. Ever since the Civil War there's been a strong bias towards the battles in Virginia; one: because the newspapers at the time of the war were centered there, the photographers where there, we have very few pictures of the "war out West," as they called it. And also, many of the most prominent figures from the war were Virginians, in the South, particularly; so that after the war there was this sort of bias that we see even in the Ken Burns series, where, I don't know the exact percentage, but perhaps three-quarters of it is set in the Eastern theater, when really, some of the most decisive battles, Vicksburg in particular, were fought out West. In Virginia, it was really pretty much of a stalemate, very blood stalemate, for much of the war.
So, it's both unfair and also give a skewed historic impression that the war was really decided in the East, and I think you really can't leave out all these other theaters of Florida and New Orleans and everywhere out there.
PENKAVA: There's another controversial aspect of the history that we understand of the Civil War, which has been the role that black soldiers fighting for the South played. And joining us right now we have Anthony Cohen, welcome to the show. Hi, Anthony.
ANTHONY COHEN, MEMBER, SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS: How you doing?
PENKAVA: OK. Now you are a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, that's a 100-year-old organization and that membership is open to anyone who can trace their roots to the Civil War...
PENKAVA: ... and both sides of your family, black and white, fought for the Confederacy, is that right?
COHEN: Yes, they did.
PENKAVA: Now, do you take part in reenactments for this?
COHEN: I don't reenact in Civil War uniform. I am a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans because I traced my ancestry to the Confederacy. Both my mother's parents and my father's family were from the deep South. I guess I'm the first Northerner in the family, and I just wanted to find out more about my history. And so as I started digging as a lot of black-Americans when they do dig find that they come from a mixed ancestry, and, you know, have ancestors "in the attic," so to speak, which pretty much run the gamut.
PENKAVA: Now, talk to me about your black ancestors, they fought for the Confederacy. What do you know in you research as a historian about what -- how great where those numbers of blacks fighting for the Confederacy?
COHEN: Well, I guess it would depend on how we define their service to the Confederacy. If anyone goes down to the National Archives they can find in Record Group 109 payroll records where masters lent their slaves -- actually rented out their slaves to the Confederacy to work on fortifications and roads and factories during the Civil War; perhaps up to 200,000 people aided the Confederacy in that way. As far as who served in uniform, I'm certain those numbers were small, but I think the controversy comes when people think of slaves, black people, in uniform somehow attaching themselves to whatever they believed the Confederate cause was.
PENKAVA: They were most -- more than likely, I'm imagining, not volunteers, in the sense of the word we would think of somebody volunteering for a cause?
COHEN: Yes, I'd agree with that. I'd also agree that, perhaps, many, I couldn't attach a number to it, but many Southerners were not volunteers, you know, as we would put it. I think people -- people conveniently forget that, you know, the Civil War, like any other war, you know, people were compelled through the draft or through, you know, political or perhaps even economic concerns to go to war.
I think for black Southerners, slavery, the amount of time spent in service to your master or your mistress, and just the restrictions, as far as mobility, being able to have any say in your own life in which direction it was going, the war provided a great opportunity for people to strike out and for people who were viewed as -- as "chattel" to actually exhibit their abilities as men and women and to fight for their homeland. And we have to remember the South was the homeland of the Southern black and that was the land of the birth and the land that they loved.
PENKAVA: Now while there are reenactments going on regarding the Civil War you are taking part in an reenactment of something that preceded the Civil War, that is, the slave auctions. There's one -- you have this reenactment coming up soon?
COHEN: Yes, this Sunday -- upcoming Sunday in Alexandria, Virginia, we are going to be reenacting an 1836 slave auction from the site of the Old Franklin & Armfield Slave Prison in Alexandria, and we're doing it as the kind of kick off event for the walk to Canada.
I'm walking from Alabama to Canada along roots of the Underground Railroad and filming that for a documentary. And we chose the slave auction because up to 90 percent of all the fugitives who escaped on the Underground Railroad escaped because of impending sale on the auction block; and, you know, even today though slavery is, you know, deep in our past, I think people are still angered and shamed by slavery; and we make a lot of assumptions about that period of our history, as we do about the Civil War, as we do, I guess, about all things in the past.
PENKAVA: Well, you know, I understand the reenactments on a battlefield, but I wonder if you have qualms though about carrying out this -- the slave auction of, you know, human beings standing on a block and, you know, being bid for?
COHEN: Well, I think the qualms I have are -- is that America -- Americans, the descendants of both black and white antebellum people, you know, are the descendants of people who built a nation and many of those people were sold commonly, day-to-day, and we have no place in, you know, our cultural memory for them. We don't pay them any kind of honor or homage. When I was considering the slave auction I went to the old newspapers studying this particular slave prison, which is today the home of the Northern Virginia Urban League, and as I was researching and finding that there was so little remaining evidence of the slave auction, you know, I thought: wow, wouldn't it be great, you know, if we could be able to look at that and maybe understand even 150 years later how it was to be bought and sold pretty much without thought.
We actually took one of the ads that the Franklin & Armfield Slave Prison use to run in the paper looking to purchase Negroes, and we called about 12 major American newspapers trying to lodge the ad. And each time we were -- people were just outraged that we would even try and do this, and the fact is during that time an ad selling an human being would bring no outrage. And I think that's a great lesson because it shows how far we've come as a people, and at the same time what we should be celebrating that we're a nation, you know, free of that kind of slavery. At the same time we don't speak about it and I think, you know, that's probably the ultimately tragedy.
HORWITZ: Do you see any contradictions between what you've just said, essentially remembering slavery and all its horrors and membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which at times seems very intent on de-emphasizing slavery and looking at the Confederate experience purely in terms of state's rights and defending your homeland and the glory at the battlefield?
COHEN: Well, yes. I mean, I see, I think, in terms of the reenacting community, people do get into their characters and to their little portion of history and they forget that it was part of a larger events and movements. I think that kind of Southern amnesia as far as history and how history is interpreted is just as strong as Northern amnesia.
Growing up here in Washington, which is the South, I was told when I grew up basically the story of the Civil War was that the North was where all the good people lived and the South was where all the evil people lived. And, you know, the South was also where salves lived, slaves were Southern people, poor whites were Southern people.
There was vast immigrant populations. Very few, as far as large -- you know, overall percentages of people owned salves, so why everybody should be cast in the same light I've never been able to figure out.
What I like about my involvement in Sons of Confederate Veterans is since I've joined I have been asked to go and speak at many different camps and meetings and what they want to know about is the Underground Railroad and they want to know, you know: hey, how does a black guy with a, you know, Jewish name have Confederate ancestors?
Basically, the question that people in the Midwest and people in the North and people throughout the South want to know.
PENKAVA: Well, Anthony Cohen, thanks for joining us.
COHEN: Yes, and if anyone wants to come to the slave auction they should call 301-589-1395.
PENKAVA: Anthony Cohen, thanks again.
COHEN: Thank you. Bye.
PENKAVA: Anthony Cohen works on the Underground Railroad restoration and is also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION. If you'd like to join us, 1-800-989-8255 is the number.
And we have with us Larry in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hi, Larry.
CALLER: Hi, (INAUDIBLE).
PENKAVA: Well, it's Melinda, but anyway. CALLER: Oh, sorry.
LAUGHTER CALLER: How are you?
CALLER: I wanted to raise a couple of issues, first of all the last caller made a statement that you hear often which is that slavery didn't really impinge upon too many Southern families and that's not really accurate. About one quarter of Southern families had slaves.
So, it wasn't really a very small movement. But, the real issue I wanted to raise was I wonder whether the author would have something to say about this quest for authenticity that many of the reactors have and how that seems to me to be intention with the fact that the Civil War was a deeply ideological and a deeply political war...
CALLER: ... in which many of the soldiers had deeply strong feelings about questions like slavery.
HORWITZ: Right, well I sort of spoke about that earlier when I mentioned my discomfort at one point at wearing a Southern uniform.
That there is this peculiar thing that goes on in reacting where you sort of suspend the ideology, and as you say this is really what the war was about. And I think it is hard to say you're going to be absolutely authentic in the uniform that you wear, yet you're not going to be true to the passions that animated the war.
And I think your -- the slavery issue is very tricky and the numbers are difficult. Another way in I think these numbers are very deceptive while people often say well only 10 percent or 15 percent you hear different numbers of Southern soldiers actually owned slaves, you have to remember that most of them were 18, 19, 20, 21 they may not have inherited their slaves yet just because they didn't own them doesn't mean they didn't wish to some day.
I also wanted to take issue with something that Anthony Cohen said about blacks fighting for their homeland in the South etcetera this was the land of their birth and the land that they loved. Again, people debate about the numbers but most historians will tell you there were no more than a few 100 blacks who took up arms for the South.
There are an estimated 200,000 blacks who took up North -- arms for the North they weren't fighting for their homeland they were fighting for their freedom. And I think while it's important to remember these curious -- curiosities of history the small number of black who may actually have wanted to fight for the South we shouldn't obscure the huge contribution that blacks made to the Northern effort and to winning their own freedom.
PENKAVA: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR NEWS.
This talk revisionism in some ways about slavery comes up in your book. There's an organization, is it Children of the Confederacy and you write about a catechism there...
PENKAVA: ... of what children are taught these would be the next generation of descendants. And among the things they're taught is that basically slaves were well kept and happy with their life.
HORWITZ: Right, I should add that the catechism has changed since my book came out they have actually revised it finally. But when I was reporting the book this catechism, which the kids recite was full of things such as the first slave ship was built in Marble Head, Massachusetts...
PENKAVA: The North.
HORWITZ: In the North. And you hear this everywhere that Lee freed his slaves during the war while Grant owned slaves etcetera.
There are all these sort of obscure antis things that people point out. And this is nothing new this has been going on since the Civil War, and while I think it's certainly unfair to take these sort of stereotypical Northern position that this war was only about slavery.
And as Anthony Cohen said, that somehow everyone in the South was wicked. On the other hand, I think many Southerners go to the opposite extreme to really kind of wish slavery out of the picture and frankly I think this whole glamorization of black rebels is part of that it's a way of saying, well if there were thousands of blacks fighting for the South obviously the war wasn't about slavery.
PENKAVA: And we have with us John in Louisville, Kentucky. Hi there, John.
CALLER: Hi, how you doing?
PENKAVA: All right how are you?
CALLER: Just fine. I'm a Union reenactor and what I've seen when we deal with the public on reenactments is that on the Confederate side it seems that how a lot of these hate groups and stuff have attached themselves to the Confederate flag has really -- it really hurts the Confederate image. And much of the racial hatreds that these people have seem to more -- come out of the reconstruction period than what they do out of the Civil War period.
HORWITZ: Right, well I think that's absolutely true. If I were to do another book on this era it would be about all the myths surrounding reconstruction, which in a way has been even more vilified in the South...
HORWITZ: ... than the Union...
HORWITZ: ... again ignoring a lot of important things that happened like public education, which came to the South during reconstruction as well as tremendous number of rights for blacks that simply didn't exist before not to mention freedom.
So, I agree with you and also, of course, the flag is probably the most furious flash point for all of these issues we've been talking about.
CALLER: Right, and -- I had talked to some Confederates before is that the Confederate organizations should organize and maybe take some of these hate groups to court like the KKK. They've been taken to court before and maybe they should be taken to federal court or something and basically told, you know, OK, this is not your registered trade mark, you know, this is, you know, this here was a government flag even though it was not the current federal government we have, OK, and you can't use this any more.
HORWITZ: Right, well actually to their credit the Sons of Confederate Veterans has -- they haven't taken the Klan to court as far as I know but they've been very outspoken whenever they feel the flag is used in a racial way to speak out against it. So, I think there is a movement to perhaps reclaim that flag as a historical as a battle symbol rather than as a symbol of white supremacy.
PENKAVA: But there is also the issue of state such as the state of Georgia incorporating the rebel battle flag into the state flag and only doing so after the Civil Rights Movement came along in the South.
HORWITZ: Right. This is a -- South Carolina is probably where it's hottest, as well as Georgia, and this is just a perennial debate.
And I guess what sadden me about it is I sensed people on both sides really don't want to settle it. It's a very convenient organizing tool on both the right and the left to whip up sentiment.
PENKAVA: And we have an E-mail I'd like you to comment on, Tony.
This is from Bruce in Chicago he says he is African-American and he speaks about what he calls "racist romantics" in these so-called reenactment movement and he asks: given that there are some false histories in there, why should an African-American feel the least bit of sympathy for this?
HORWITZ: Sympathy will I'm not sure I completely understand it.
For reenacting -- well, again I think if it's done properly there's plenty of room here to remember the black experience in the Civil War.
For instance the movie "Glory," I think, really brought to light a part of the Civil War that Americans just didn't know about. And there are many blacks who reenact Union soldiers. And in that sense I think if it's done properly there's no reason why it shouldn't be a way to teach people something useful. I think the problem is when it's distorted.
PENKAVA: And clearly I think this gets to what you talked about dispatches from the unfinished Civil War.
HORWITZ: Right, it's all still being fought out in many ways in unlikely forums in all kinds of ways whether it's over the flag or over the singing of Dixie or many things that don't seem really that relevant any more.
PENKAVA: Well, that's all the time we have for today I'm afraid.
I want to thank everybody who called and our guest Tony Horwitz, author of "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War," and a really good book. And he's also a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal, he joined us here in Washington in studio 3A, thanks for being with us.
HORWITZ: Thanks for having me.
PENKAVA: Earlier we heard from Robert Lee Hodge the, Civil War researcher who is pictured on the cover of Tony Horwitz's book. He spoke to us by phone from Arlington, Virginia.
And Anthony Cohen, member of the Son's of Confederate Veterans and also historian who works on the Underground Railroad. He spoke to us by phone fro Silver Spring, Maryland.
Tune into TALK OF THE NATION at this time tomorrow we'll have the August meeting of the Book Club of the Air. We'll be talking about Gore Vidal's memoir "Palimpsest." Remember to have a copy of the book on hand when you give us a call and join us tomorrow for the Book Club of the Air.
In Washington, I'm Melinda Penkava, NPR NEWS.