Reliving Alabama History
by Jo Freeman
When I was a child growing up in California, we sometimes drove across country to my mother's childhood home in northwest Alabama to visit the relatives. I picked up a little Alabama history on these trips, but only recently did I learn how much I didn't know.
At the invitation of an Alabama cousin, I spent last May Day in a cow pasture in Blount County, Alabama, witnessing a Civil War re-enactment. There I discovered the hidden history of the civil war inside the state of Alabama. Why did I go? Because I was curious about family history that was radically at odds with what I had always assumed was true.
As a child I thought every Southern family had a Confederate ancestor. I never asked my grandmother who our's was, or if I did, she didn't tell me. Over forty years later I found out why.
My great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, but he fought for the Union Army.
Family is central to Southern society, and on those visits to Marion County my grandmother spent time telling me who was related to whom and sometimes introduced me to fourth and fifth cousins I can barely remember. When I stayed with her and one aunt for the summer in 1955, we often tended the family graves. I didn't notice that the cousins and the graves were all on her side of the family. My grandfather's side -- the relatives of her husband to whom she was deeply devoted -- was completely ignored. Indeed I never heard her mention the names of any of her in-laws.
Ten years ago the cousin who brought me to Blount County told me my great-grandfather's name was Andrew D. Mitchell, a name I had never heard. Even my mother had professed no knowledge of him, though she was 22 when he died. Fortunately my cousin's mother, nine years older than her sister, had told her daughter about the Unionist skeleton in the family closet.
In the last year I learned that there was an entire regiment of white Alabamians who fought for the Union, with the 1st Alabama Cavalry USV [www.1stalabamacavalryusv.com], in addition to six Alabama regiments of soldiers of African descent. The 1st Alabama was organized in 1862, when Union troops occupied sections of north Alabama. My grandfather and two of his brothers were recruited for Company L when it was formed in September of 1963. Officially, some 2,576 white Alabamians enlisted in the Union armies, 80 percent in the First Alabama Cavalry, USV. Every Confederate state except South Carolina had enough white union supporters to fill at least one regiment; Tennessee had 51 white regiments. These men came largely from the mountainous areas of each state, where slavery never flourished. There were few slaves and little sentiment about slavery, pro or con, among this population of overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant poor farmers.
They saw the sectional conflict as a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight". While most were neutrals who preferred to stay home and stay out of the fight, when faced with the Confederate draft some joined the Union army instead. In their home states they were denounced as traitors and derisively called the Tories of the Hills.
Their service with the Union was a mixed bag. The Southern Unionists were on the winning side, and those who did not die got pensions. But they didn't get the $100 sign-up bonus which army recruiters had offered them to sweeten the deal. A court ruled after the War that these men were refugees seeking protection when they joined the army and the Union didn't have to pay the bonus. Without the bonus the families they left behind often scrambled for subsistence, and frequently were harrassed by secessionist sympathizers among their neighbors.
The Union generals welcomed local manpower, but didn't trust it. The officers of the white Southern units were all from the North, mostly the midwest. The men didn't get the same training as the regular units, and were used largely as support troops, foraging for food in the surrounding countryside.
Confederate units were also raised from this area, and sometimes men switched sides when captured. This made them not just draft dodgers but deserters, who could be killed on recapture. Because of the split sentiment in northern Alabama during the War, atrocities were carried out against the noncombatant population by both sides.
Once Reconstruction was over, those Union soldiers who stayed in the South were often treated as traitors by their communities. Some companies in the 1st Alabama had marched with Sherman through Georgia, destroying and pillaging as they went. In Southern historical memory, this was the worst atrocity of the War. Long before the decade of my childhood the fact that any Southerners had fought for the Union, or been part of Sherman's march, was erased from common knowledge. My grandmother never told me about Andrew D. Mitchell because in her world he was a traitor.
Civil War re-enactments are a popular pastime. I had seen advertisements for some in New York, but I had never been to one. They are particularly popular in the South, where most of the battles of the War were fought. The one my cousin asked me to observe was the 141st anniversary of the Forrest-Streight Raid -- a series of skirmishes across northern Alabama that took place in late April and early May of 1863. I had heard of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, but not of Colonel Able Streight who led the Union forces, including two companies of the 1st Alabama, in these scuffles. He surrendered on May 3.
This reenactment was a three day event, though most of the action was on Saturday. The highlight was a two hour battle in which cannon were shot and men dressed in blue and grey pretended to fight. They are very careful about the pretense. Even though blanks are used, the Rules specifically say "Weapons will never be fired directly at opposing participants. ELEVATE! ELEVATE!! ELEVATE!!!" The rifles didn't impress me, but those cannon looked real, and they gave off a loud boom and lots of smoke. I jumped three feet at almost every boom, but the dozen horses brought by their owners didn't even flinch. They must be used to this. Civilians were kept away from the battle by a long stretch of yellow police tape. Also behind the line was the 5th Alabama Regimental band. I learned from Melissa, who played the flute, that bands were present at real battles as well, usually one for each side. Music was used to egg the fighters on. Re-enactments only have one band, and it's kept out of the battle zone.
There was supposed to be a reunion of descendents of the 1st Alabama, which was why my cousin had urged us all to come. Although we were registered separately and given identifying blue ribbons to wear, an actual meeting of descendants wasn't in the schedule and didn't happen. There was a morning panel presentation by six writers and reseachers on the 1st Alabama and the local civil war, but the only acknowledgement of their descendants was at the end of the day's battle when both sides lined up and saluted us. Instead of talking to descendants as I had expected to do, I queried reenactors, trying to ascertain what brought people to a cow pasture on this pretty day in May.
These reenactments are a form of adult play, where, as an insurance salesman from Winston County told me, "we get to be kids again, shoot guns and camp out." The key difference between this and other forms of adult play is that it demands close attention to history. The men and women who don period garb are as serious about getting it right as the professionals at Williamsburg. Some got into this through their love of history; some because of their family history; others were recruited by friends or family and the dedication to history followed.
It's not a cheap hobby. From the sutlers (merchants) who pitched their tents on the edge of the battlefield, I learned that it can cost from $200 to $2000 to buy a period uniform. Because it takes two sides for a battle, most reenactors have both blue and grey uniforms. They also have to buy their own fake weapons and leather accessories. The loud booms and smoke that came from the cannon cost several dollars each.
Women can play too. One tent sold period dresses at prices ranging from $200 to $300 each, and that's before the shoes and the hankies and the hats are added. I saw dozens of women walking around in 19th century clothing. Most chose to dress well, like women of the plantation class attending a ball. A few chose the plainer dress of the farmer's wife and daughter. Some dressed-up their children as well. Those in period clothing were invited to a Ladies Tea on Saturday morning. Farmer's wives and ladies shared the refreshments, but anyone not in period clothing was shooed from the tent.
At one time this was "daddy's hobby" as one sutler told me. Now it's a family hobby. One consequence of the women's movement was women demanded that they be allowed to play soldier as well as farm wife and lady. Their demand was aided by historical research which showed that at least 257 women were soldiers in the War ("They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War" by Lauren M. Cook and De Anne Blanton). Women dressed like men, with their sex becoming known only with death, disability, or memoirs and newspaper articles written later. Most joined up to stay with their husbands, fathers or even brothers. A few joined on their own.
The re-enactors have the same requirement; women soldiers have to pretend to be men. Although most of the re-enactment was fought at a distance, I did see one person in a long skirt, carrying a battle flag. I could not find her afterwards, to ask whether women openly did that during the War. Women are more common among the re-enactment bands. About one fourth of the Alabama 5th band are women. While they wear the regimental uniform, Melissa told me that they aren't under the same pressure to hide their sex. She followed her father into this hobby, but chose band rather than battle as her place to play. It's a cheaper place. Participants only need to buy one uniform, and often their expenses are paid. They use the modern versions of period instruments rather than recreated versions. One man told me that it would cost $100,000 to outfit a band with good copies of the actual period instruments.
The Union and Confederate camps were separated by a creek and a hike from the general event area. I didn't get over to visit them but the people I spoke to told me that they too are meant to be authentic. The rules require that "no modern items are visible.... while the camps are open to the public." The people who do this have to become very knowledgeable of the items they use, and spend hours explaining how old things work to the general public. I spent some time at the photographer's tent, where I learned how daguerreotypes were made as well as about the photographers of the War. I watched the photographer's assistant roll chemicals on the back of a glass plate to harden an image. For $30 this photographer would place you in period clothing and period poses and make a personal glass etching. I didn't see a lot of customers, but he assured me that there are enough to support his hobby.
I was told that the turnout for this re-enactment was rather small; some attract as many as 8,000 people. The vendors are probably the only ones who make any money at these events. Those who sold modern T-shirts, books and googaws were kept distant from the sutlers who sold period clothing. The T-shirts, spread out under a Confederate battle flag and a sign that read "Blount Co. Friends of Dixie, Preserving Our Southern History and Heritage", displayed designs that were heavy on soft-core porn -- half naked women in suggestive poses with various military and regional symbols. The books, on the other hand, were scholarly studies of local history and civil war activity. I picked up four on northern Alabama history by authors and publishers you won't find in your local bookstore. Andrew D. Mitchell was in the index.
2004 Million Mom March by Jo Freeman