I may have watched my last Civil-War reenactment. We’ll see.

It’s not like giving up re-enactments will leave a gaping void in my life. I only saw my first one a year ago. By that time I’d been teaching and writing on the American Civil War for over a quarter of a century, so it may seem strange that I waited so long. Candidly, I was always skeptical. The American poet Walt Whitman, who observed the carnage of the Civil War firsthand, once famously observed that “the real war will never get in the books.” I was sure that he was right, and if a writer with the sensitivity and talent of a Whitman despaired of capturing the war’s horrific essence, I held out little hope for a bunch of middle-aged men playing pretend. I’m sure that sounds harsh, but that is how I viewed the matter.

When I changed my mind and finally decided to attend a re-enactment, it was due to a combination of things: a book that I was using in a course that I was teaching here at Wheaton, the encouragement of several of my students, and a low-cost opportunity to check out a re-enactment close to my home.

The book that influenced me was Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. The book, which earned Horwitz a Pulitzer Prize, is one of those rare works that seems to appeal equally to academic specialists and general readers. The author, a New-York-born journalist with a decade of experience as a foreign correspondent in places like Bosnia, Iraq, and Northern Ireland, hit upon the idea of writing about an equally “foreign” locale much closer to home: the American South.

confederates in the attic

As Horwitz tells the story, the idea came to him after he and his wife settled down in rural Virginia. One early morning they were awakened by Civil War re-enactors marching across a field near their house. (They were serving as extras in a historical documentary being filmed nearby.) Reporter that he is, Horwitz instinctively went to investigate, and in no time he had accepted an invitation to join the re-enactors on an upcoming camp-out. It was while he was sleeping out on the cold hard ground with these strangers, talking with them about why they were devoting their time and resources to such a hobby, that he hit upon the idea of spending a year or so traveling across the South, talking with people about how they remembered the Civil War and what it meant to them.

As Horwitz is quick to point out, Confederates in the Attic is not based on a scientific sampling of southern views about the war. Instead, the author intentionally sought out individuals to whom memory of the Civil War seemed hugely important. This led to countless conversations with “hard-core” re-enactors, but also with members of various heritage associations (the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, for example), historical societies, and even the Ku Klux Klan. (Be forwarned: the people he quotes are often earthy, and the language can be pretty salty at times.)

Horwitz is a wonderful writer, and the encounters he relates are invariably entertaining. As a historian, what I value most about the book is how it drives home two critical points. The first concerns the absolutely fundamental distinction between history and the past. The past is dead and gone. History is the remembered past, and that’s a very different thing. Second, the history that informs how people live and think is rarely the history buried in academic tomes or lovingly preserved in historical archives. The history that makes the most difference in the world is the memory of the past that common folks carry around between their ears.  Those memories often have almost nothing to do with the insights that professional historians spend their lives painstakingly producing. Indeed, if Horwitz is correct, they often have little to do with the actual past at all.

I assigned Confederates in the Attic to my class on the American Civil War last fall, and when a major Civil-War reenactment was held less than a half-hour away within days of our discussing the book, I felt that I had to attend when some of my students invited me to accompany them. Since that time I’ve attended two more re-enactments in the Chicago area.  I’d say that three is about my limit.

Tony Horwitz approached Civil War reenactments as a reporter and was propelled by the reporters’ standard questions: who was doing what and why?    I approached them not as a reporter but as a teacher, and so my questions were different:  What do these staged historical dramas teach the crowds who come out to watch them?  What, if anything, might they be expected to learn about the American Civil War from observing the spectacle?  In sum, how do Civil-War re-enactments rate as teaching tools?

To be honest, I’m still wrestling with an answer.  What follows, then, is tentative, and I welcome your pushing back if I seem to be off-base.  At any rate, here is how I think I would rate the educational value of the reenactments that I observed: Up until the shooting starts they’re not too bad.  Once the mock battle begins, I have a lot of concerns.  Let me explain.

Lombard Reenactment 3The re-enactments I attended all followed pretty much the same script.  Typically, the re-enactors (portraying both soldiers and civilians) show up on a Friday evening and set up camp, and then the formal re-enactment occurs on the following Saturday and Sunday.  Visitors can learn about the Civil War in a variety of ways.  They can tour the Union and Confederate camps, watching “soldiers” in authentic costume cook authentic meals over authentic campfires.  There’s also ample opportunity to talk with the re-enactors, who usually seem eager to answer questions about their uniforms and equipment.  At intervals throughout the day there are also likely to be a range of more formal demonstrations, teaching visitors about close-order drill, the care of the wounded, or the workings of Civil-War cannon, among other things.  (There’s usually also lots of opportunities to buy stuff.  All of the re-enactments that I attended were a cross between a history exhibit and a flea market.)

Lombard Reenactment 1So far, so good.  Historical imagination is essential whenever we study the past, and the “living history” on display in the camps will help make it easier for many visitors to imagine certain aspects of the war.  We can read explanations of Civil-War artillery over and over, for example, but there is no substitute for watching a live gun crew demonstrate the steps required to load and fire a Napoleon twelve-pounder.  We might also gain a better sense of Civil War uniforms by seeing them on a flesh-and-blood model, instead of on a mannequin in a museum.  (The down-side is that we’ll come away badly misunderstanding the age and size of Civil War soldiers.  The typical soldier in the Civil War was in his early twenties, stood about 5’7″, and weighed in at around 135 pounds.  The re-enactors that I observed got the height part more or less right, but they were often a good deal older and a great deal heavier than the Yankees and Rebels of the 1860s.)

Lombard Reenactment 4

If this were the sum of the re-enactment demonstrations, I think I’d be OK with them.  They aren’t accurate in every detail, but on balance I would say that the positives outweighed the negatives.  But of course this isn’t everything.  There’s always at least one mock battle every day of the re-enactment, sometimes two, and the mock battles trouble me–they trouble me a lot.  As I said, I’m still working through this, but I’m inclined to think that they’re a huge mistake.

Lombard reenactment 6

“War is a hellish thing,” Union General William Tecumseh Sherman once famously reminded a gathering of Union veterans, not that they needed to be reminded.  Many in the audience were missing limbs, others were visibly scarred, countless others were permanently maimed in ways that a physical examination would never show.  I remembered Sherman’s words as I watched my first mock battle.  “This isn’t hell,” I thought to myself.  “it’s a hobby.”

“Lighten up,’ I can hear some of you thinking.  “After all, until they start using live ammunition, who really thinks that a mock battle can adequately convey the horrors of war?”  It can’t possibly, and that’s entirely my point.  As a medium for teaching about war, the mock battle fails miserably.  For my part, I say let re-enactors demonstrate how weapons are fired to their hearts’ content.  Fire a cannon, and let the audience imagine what it would be like on the third day at Gettysburg to hear 150 such guns shake the earth at once.  Have a company line up should to shoulder and fire their rifles in unison, and so help the audience to imagine the sheet of flame that poured forth from behind the stone wall at Fredericksburg.  Just don’t let the re-enactors go through the grotesque charade of pretending to shoot at each other in a battle devoid of terror, agony, and blood.

Lombard reenactment 9My thoughts began to run in this direction during my first reenactment.  I was seated on the ground among a large audience of onlookers, many of whom  had brought blankets and lawn chairs and looked for all the world like families at a youth league soccer match.  For some time, the soldiers’ imaginary aim was apparently dreadful, for literally no one was falling on either side.  (I guess after getting all dressed up and traveling a considerable distance to take part, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to get killed right away.  Being “dead”  must be pretty boring, after all.)  Eventually, at the appointed time, the aim on both sides began to improve, and Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs began to be hit with distressing frequency.  Most fell quietly (and the middle-aged guys, at least, tended to fall pretty gently), but at one point in the show a Confederate soldier took an imaginary bullet and screamed out in mock pain before breathing his last.  The audience laughed, and I began to wonder.

lombard reenactment 12My misgivings increased when I attended my second re-enactment.  This was at a different venue, and it was a considerably larger affair.  The crowd was enormous.  (The local historical society that sponsored the event estimated the attendance for the weekend at over five thousand.)  The parks and recreation department had brought in sports bleachers for the occasion, and they lined one side of the battlefield.  Behind them stood a row of food trucks trumpeting the virtues of pork barbeque, kettle corn, Hawaiian shaved ice and pickles on a stick.  (I still don’t get that last one.  It must be a Midwestern thing.)

Then as I took my place in the bleachers, surrounded by pickle-eating, kettle-corn-chomping spectators impatient for the battle to begin, I had one of those isolating moments that a historian living in a present-tense society will have from time to time.  “Doesn’t this remind anyone here of the prelude to the first battle of Bull Run?” I screamed silently.  “Are we intentionally being ironic here?”

Innocence is almost always a casualty of war.  The loss of innocence can take many forms, visiting different people at different times in different ways.  For northerners during the Civil War, the first widespread loss of innocence came on July 21st, 1861.  The country faced a crisis of authority–no one doubted that–but the politicians and generals spoke in soothing tones, and those “in the know” predicted that the crisis would be resolved soon.  As soon as the North showed those truculent southerners that they meant business, the Rebs would give up all talk of independence.  Farm boys had rushed to enlist so as not to miss the one brief, glorious battle, while civilians in the vicinity flocked to Manassas Junction in order to witness the spectacle.  Indeed, the cream of Washington society turned out on that sleepy Sunday, as the impending battle was the worst kept secret in the nation’s capital.  They came down in their carriages–the ladies in their summer frocks and their escorts in their Sunday best.  By one estimate their number included six U. S. Senators and ten or more members of the House of Representatives.

Here I’ll let the late Bruce Catton pick up the story, quoting from his marvelous centennial history of the Civil War:

These holiday-makers were there, in substantial numbers, because it never occurred to the authorities to keep them from coming.  They were there because curiosity and the strange notion that war was an exciting pageant had led them to suppose that it might be stimulating to watch (from a safe seat in the gallery) while young men killed one another.  They were there, in short, because America did not yet know what it was all about.

But on that day at Bull Run, America began to learn.  The casualties were staggering.  They would appear modest in comparison with the war’s later battles, but there were at least 3,500 soldiers killed and wounded during the seven-hour conflict, enough to make it by far the bloodiest battle in American history to that point.  To the mesmerized onlookers, the fighting was far enough away to seem endurable, until late in the afternoon when the Union line began to waver.  But then the Yankee soldiers began slowly withdrawing from the field, and their civilian admirers watched nervously as the Confederate lines approached nearer.  What began as a strategic withdrawal soon became a full-blown retreat, then the full-blown retreat became an every-man-for-himself rout, as panic-stricken soldiers raced across what moments earlier had been a picnic ground for politicians and their families.

By the middle of the Civil War few Americans were still deceived enough to view the conflict as “an exciting pageant,” and spectacles like what happened at Bull Run would be seldom repeated.  Although there are some things we can learn from watching Civil-War re-enactments, when it comes to striving to understand the experience of battle, there is no substitute for reading the thoughts and feelings of the soldiers themselves.

I am not a military historian by training, but I did have to read a great deal of soldiers’ letters and diaries when I was doing research for my book Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2006).  Lincolnites and Rebels is the story of Knoxville, Tennessee during the war.  I chose to study Knoxville for two main reasons: it was almost perfectly divided between Confederate and Union sympathizers, and the town experienced military occupation by either the Union or Confederate army for all but three days of the war.  I wanted to think through some of the moral issues related to loyalty under military occupation, and Knoxville seemed like the ideal place.

Lincolnites and Rebels

But Knoxville was also the site of a major, but little studied Civil War battle.  In November of 1863, while the town was occupied by a Union army of 12,000 men under the command of Major General Ambrose Burnside, 15,000 Confederates under General James Longstreet conducted a sixteen-day siege of the town.  The siege of Knoxville culminated in a failed Confederate assault of the Union lines on November 29th, with most of the fighting focused on a supposedly vulnerable point in the Union defenses called Fort Sanders.

The bulk of the fighting at the Battle of Fort Sanders lasted a scant twenty minutes.  Longstreet’s orders required that his troops charge across an open field booby-trapped with telegraph wire and sharpened sticks, cross a deep ditch, and scale a twelve-foot-high earthen wall.  The result was wholesale slaughter. During the flag of truce that followed, many of Fort Sanders’ defenders mounted the parapet to survey the carnage they had so recently helped to create.

"Attack on Knoxville," taken from an original sketch by Thomas Nast, 1865

“Attack on Knoxville,” taken from an original sketch by Thomas Nast, 1865

“Such another sight I never wish to see,” a Union captain confessed to his diary. It was “like living murder sculptured by Perfection’s Artist,” a Michigan sergeant wrote to his brother. It was a “sad scene of slaughter,” a soldier in the Fifty-First New York recalled. “At every footstep we trod in pools of blood.” Ohio artilleryman John Watkins described the sight in numbing detail to a friend back home. “As soon as the firing was stopped I went up and got onto the parapet to look at them,” he explained, “and such a sight I never saw before. . . . The ditch in places was almost full of them[,] piled one on top of the other, and such groaning I never heard. The dead were lying in all imaginable shapes[,] the wounded on top of them and dead on top of them again, and the ground was strewn with them all along their route up to the fort.”

In his subsequent report on the battle, General Longstreet would reduce this vision of horror to a bloodless enumeration: Confederate losses, he informed Richmond, were 129 killed, 458 wounded, and 226 missing. That comes to 813 total casualties in roughly twenty minutes of fighting, or one casualty every second and a half.

I don’t share all this because I am reflexively anti-war or a pacifist by principle.  My grandfather served in the army in WWI.  My father served in the navy in WWII.  And if you happen to follow me on the highway, you’ll notice a decal in my rear window identifying me as the “Proud Parent of a U. S. Marine.”  I share this because I am a historian and a teacher, and I don’t believe you can teach truly about war while covering up its horrors.

Let me know what you think.


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  2. I’m a reenactor and a PhD student, so I think I can take this from a unique perspective. Reenactments provide us with the opportunity to apply what we learn in classroom settings and research in creative reinterpretation. No one claims to be able to actually present suffering, and there are idiots who make it look like great fun. But I participate in reenactments in several eras, and it is an opportunity to show the crowd what military maneuvers, uniforms, period weaponry, etc. look like. Hospital scenes nearby recreate surgical procedures from a time before germ theory. Now you may say, what would a Civil War veteran think of all this? I can’t speak for them, but I do WWII reenactment aside from Revolutionary War and Civil War (all on a grad student’s budget because this hobby keeps my interest in history alivee). WWII veterans frequently attend reenactments and overwhelmingly support them. I have a few added on facebook, and one of them shared a photo (a 90 year old veteran mind you) of reenactors–thanking them for keeping his story alive. So sure, I get what you mean by the environment–it isn’t real war, and no one claims it is. But it helps keep the war alive and in the memory of people who would likely never touch a textbook. If my mom and dad hadn’t taken me to reenactments as a kid, I likely would never have gotten this interest in American history that I believe God has developed within me that led me to travel 800 miles north to continue my studies. For that, I am very indebted to that hobby–despite all its faults.

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  4. I am a novel writer exploring reenactments as part of the background of a series of mysteries. I have always been a history buff but have avoided going to reenactments, however I have read copiously and learned a lot. As a child I visited colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites. It fascinated me to be able to just drop back into the past. As a child, that seemed what was being done, but I understand now that there is a fundamental issue of truth surrounding these reenactments and because media now is so much more pervasive and “believable” than it was fifty some years ago, I have to agree that without understanding context the reenactments can make history and the lives and deaths of those portrayed seem trivial. Our modern context does not give us the ability to truly understand the trials and sacrifices of the soldiers or the civilians of the time. Even modern soldiers usually have water and sanitary facilities, not to mention MREs. That is not to belittle the dangers they face but simply to say that all wars are not fought on the same battlefields and to equate Gettysburg with 21st century battles does a disservice to both, although to the many in the reenactment audiences, it might not seem so. Perhaps a disclaimer of some kind is in order.

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  6. What do these reenactments teach?

    Here are some of the things I suspect a young person might be taught by being taken to them by a parent who is a spectator or a participant.

    • Battles are things to be remembered in a way that no other past event is.
    • Soldiering is a profession that is uniquely honored.
    • Being a soldier is the surest way of winning the approval of parents, and society in general.
    • Killing people is OK if one is a soldier. Not just OK, it is to be admired.
    • War is great fun.
    • War is glorious.

    Dangerous lessons, in my opinion. The last three are largely false, and the first three should be.

    What should we be learning about the Civil War? In my opinion, it is that it didn’t have to happen, and that if Christians had acted Christianly, it wouldn’t have, and that maybe if we Christians would stop glorifying wars and soldiering, some future wars might be prevented, or at least they would not be the fault of Christians if they occur.

  7. Jimmy L. Shirley Jr.

    I am a Confederate reenactor and read what you wrote with consideration deserving of one as educated and interested as you.
    First, I will get one critique out of the way. You wrote and said, “I held out little hope for a bunch of middle-aged men playing pretend.”
    Look, every single movie, tv show, stage play, opera have people who are “playing pretend”. Yet I somehow believe you think them GREAT, as in Oscar winners, Emmy winners and the like.
    We DO put on a show which are general demonstrations of the battlefield strategies and tactics used back then. We DO show people about army life back then.
    But for me, the greatest reason for participating is the chance, the opportunity to tell folks the Southern side of the story, the politics involved. So you know, I am a Southern partisan and when I can, I tell folks things they never new, which then opens up the mind to understanding how this formerly great country got into the mess it currently finds itself in.
    You see, this war was far more than being about ordnance, gun powder, eating utensils, ladies layered clothing, stitch counts and the like. This war had a cause and a reason. Since most of us grew up being taught the winners point of view in the schools, in the books, in the movies and tv, therefore it is fair to honestly examine what Paul Harvey used to call, “The REST of the story”, the Southern side entirely from their perspective. Many is the tyme after talking informally to people on an individual basis, they tell me they never knew that afore. And I always, ALWAYS tell them to go find out if I am telling the truth or not.

    This is my mission in life for now. Teach “the rest of the story”.
    thank you for your tyme!

    • Dear Jimmy:

      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate how you point us to the importance of the causes of the Civil War and the reasons that motivated men on both sides to take part. One of my objections to the re-enactments that I have attended is that they treat the military aspects of the war pretty much in a vacuum. I suspect that you and I would disagree about the causes of the war and why southern soldiers were fighting. This is not because I hold to a northern perspective on the war. Rather, after studying and teaching on the war for a quarter century, I have come to the conclusion that the standard interpretations of the war in both North and South are pretty much equally wrong. That is to say, I think that both the North and the South have remembered the war in equally self-interested, self-justifying ways.

      As to my views on movies, TV, etc: For what it’s worth, I think movies and television SOMETIMES show us something that is true about the human condition. With few exceptions, however, Hollywood does an awful job of teaching us about history.

  8. But, Dr. McKenzie, isn’t this a problem for ALL historical re-enactments? I realize war is a more touchy subject because of the carnage, but even at places like Jamestown or Plymouth or Williamsburg where great attempts are made at historical accuracy there are always shortcomings and some things that can’t be conveyed. Nothing can really convey the fear that might come along with some “savages” showing up unannounced and whose intentions are unknown. The fear of news of cholera or typhoid in the next county can’t be truly understood. The fear and mystery of an unexplored continent and sense of isolation that must have come with early settlers in different stages of the American experience.

    I doubt many of the re-enactors at historical places around the country go without a bath for days on end or go with crooked or missing teeth or throw human waste out the back door or don’t brush their teeth in order to portray the dirtiness of life in the past.

    We jump on airplane and fly across oceans today like people used to walk across the street. We have no idea how hazardous ocean crossings were. We don’t know what it is to go weeks, months and maybe a year or more without hearing from loved ones who left home.

    No, we can’t reinvent the carnage of war and provide an historical representation of that, but neither can we truly do justice to much of anything else of long-ago history.

    That is left of the good folks like yourself to do and to try to pass it along to us. Thus, I’ve added your book “Lincolnites and Rebels” to my Amazon book list. 🙂 Other than the movie “Copperheads” from a couple of years ago, I rarely run across material that digs into the “mixed feelings” over the war in many areas of the country during that time.

    • Dear Ed: Thanks for pushing back on this. You raise a good point. You are right when you say that historical representation always falls short of the historical reality. This is not only true of so-called “living history” exhibits, like Civil War re-enactments, but surely also true of the written history that academic historians produce. So yes, all historical re-enactment will fail to capture the full reality of what it is trying to represent. Does this mean that if any kind of re-enactment is tolerated, then every kind must be accepted? I don’t think so. I have often joked that, as a history teacher, I want to imitate the physicians’ Hippocratic oath, “Do No Harm.” I think some historical distortions are relatively harmless, while others are harmful. (You might well agree.) The hard task is figuring out how to distinguish between the two. When does historical distortion become so great that the costs outweigh the benefits? There is no exact formula to follow in answering the question. For my part, I am inclined to believe that military re-enactments that purport to illustrate actual battle cross that line. To use your comparison to Plymouth: among the tourists who observe the “living history” at Plymouth Plantation, probably few are contemplating whether Americans today should dress or talk or farm like the Pilgrims. As a society today, however, we do have to contemplate the possibility/desirability/necessity of waging war. And so if re-enactments grossly misrepresent what war is like, they are speaking to a living, ongoing question with enormous moral implications.

  9. I very much agree with the writer’s point that trying to re-enact actual combat is a troubling enterprise at best. However, while I’ve never done any Civil War re-enacting (and understand that Civ War re-enactors can be a culture unto themselves), I have done quite a bit of re-enacting with groups that represent other conflicts, especially the War of 1812 and the Thirty Years’ War. I think it’s worth mentioning that, in both of those kinds of organizations, no one _ever_ claimed to be representing actual combat. Rather, re-enactments that involved two sides were considered demonstrations of opposing-line tactics–and generally there was an announcer, before each such demonstration, who explained this to visitors. At least in those organizations, most of the members expressed a disdain for “battle re-enacting” on similar grounds to those of the writer: the general feeling was that actually trying to represent combat would be silly at best, horribly inaccurate at worst (not a few of the other members were ex-military themselves, and had firsthand combat experience). The demonstrations were geared to show people the tactics alone–i.e. how bodies of troops moved around on the field in relation to one another–and were NOT considered to be representations of combat in any way. Both organizations also concentrated on things like camp life and social history more than combat and weaponry, precisely because these were things they were able to represent with more accuracy.

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  11. Growing up a military kid, it always struck me the difference in the military’s approach to recognizing service and the response of the civilian public.

    I think it’s important for those of us who have not experienced war to memorialize and remember, acknowledging that it’s an awful thing that others went through on our behalf, but allowing the warriors to handle remembrance in their own way.

    And we should be very careful of acting as if war has no ill effects, something that re-enactment seems sketchy about. I think it’s one thing, for example, to present on a significant occasion–say the 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg–the masses of men, the sounds, the smoke, just to illustrate the point. But to make a habit of it seems questionable at best.

    Do we trivialize warfare when our main picture of it is people who stand up afterwards and take dinner together?

  12. My grandfather turns 90 next week. He served in the South Pacific during WWII. I remember his comment after visiting a WWII memorial. “I don’t like the idea of a memorial. I experienced the war, and I would rather forget it, than remember it.”

    Not exactly the mindset of a historian, but insightful nonetheless.

  13. Dr. McKenzie,

    As I read your thoughts on re-enactments and their comparison to reality, I couldn’t help but think of my father. He served in the Army for 32 years, which included tours of duty in Korea and twice in Vietnam. Among the battles where he fought in Vietnam was the now famous battle of Ia Drang valley portrayed in the movie “We Were Soldiers.” My father often spoke of his years of service with great pride and he served with great distinction. Today he rests with our nation’s hero’s at Arlington.

    I still recall his words to me as a senior in high school when I was considering pursuit of an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. He expressed great pride in my interest and desire to follow in his footsteps as a military officer. He also expressed great terror over the same thought. Then he said, “I never wanted you or any of my children to ever see what I’ve seen or experience what I’ve experienced. There is no book, no movie, nothing, that can ever describe or display the true horror of war.”

    I grew up in south Alabama and had the privilege as a teen to meet the great grandfather of one of my classmates who was a freed slave and experienced the Civil War as a youth. I asked him one time what it was like to have lived in Alabama during the years of the war and immediately after. He said, “son, that war only had one good thing happen and a whole lot of bad. Good mens died on both sides. It was terrible thing to see.”

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