Friday, July 17, 2020

History is Important

Many of you know that I was a Civil War reenactor for many years. I made and still have many friends from those days. None of us got into that hobby because we are racists, but because we love history and enjoyed learning more about it and then teaching others about it.

I never saw or knew anyone in all those years who dressed in blackface or longed for a return to slavery. My group and I were actually tapped by the National Park Service to perform "living history" programs at several of the battlefield parks, because of our professionalism and teaching abilities. The NPS did not just let anyone who wore gray and claimed to represent Confederates work at the parks. However, one thing the NPS then, not now, did do was allow us to portray and describe for the visiting public what the life of a Confederate soldier was like. This benefited us, as well. You see, there are things that you cannot learn or feel or understand just from reading a book.

Reading about a 20-mile march in the hot July Sun in Virginia is one thing, actually doing it, to some degree, is quite another. Eating hardtack and bacon is an experience that reading about doesn't give a full experience for the reader. The fog of war can make for interesting reading, but actually being in it, even without real bullets and cannon shells, is something one cannot describe unless one has experienced it. And all of this we were able to bring to the public in our programs.

There was a time when Americans wanted to learn and know more about our past. Americans, and many foreigners, would visit museums, and battlefields and ask questions and read books and WANT to learn more about our collective past. To do so today makes you a racist. Many of us, like myself, also portrayed the Union soldier at some programs. We did this in an effort to help educate the public, who came to the battlefields seeking more knowledge about our past. There was no hate, no racism, no longing for a chance to relive the past. Just a desire to learn more about our past and how/why it happened the way it did and what we now know that we can use to prevent such things from happening again.

Sadly, we see all around us today what happens when citizens of any country refuse to learn from their history. Let us hope that calmer heads prevail and that we can avoid the violence and fratricide of the past.

In closing I will leave you with some words from William W. Gwaltney, retired. Bill was a regional director for interpretive programs for the NPS for many years. He contacted me about having my unit, the 21st Virginia, F Company, perform at many NPS battlefields, Oh, by the way, did I mention that Bill is a black man? In one of his letters to me he said the following;

Your organization is being invited to exhibit the life, drill, clothing, and accoutrements of the Confederate soldier. I ask for the participation of your group in this significant undertaking as the 21st has consistently shown a keen interest in historical accuracy and in serving the visiting public.

The dedication to accuracy and attention to detail shown by the men of the 21st and the ladies connected with the unit has created quite a stir in many circles of the National Park Service. A number of professional historians, who had been quite critical of living history as an interpretive tool, have remarked how units such as yours have helped them to gain a better understanding of the potential that living history provides.

You and your organization have taken the art and science of Civil War living history to a new height and have entered into the world of public history and historical interpretation. I can say of the 21st Virginia what was said of the first Director of the National Park Service, Stephen T. Mather, “There will never come and end to the good that he has done.”

Bill understood the value of teaching history accurately and I remain proud to this day of the contributions that F Company, 21st Virginia Infantry made to that effort.