RESACA — Poppy Nelson leaned back in a rickety camp chair, savoring a cool breeze that cut through the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder and campfire smoke. Though his mobile phone occasionally vibrated with text messages from friends, it was tucked in a knapsack, out of sight and ignored. Electricity and a technology-soaked society seem worlds away.
The 73-year-old retired Delta Air Lines supervisor and history teacher from Kennesaw seemed comfortable in his mud-stained wool pants and field jacket. He looked like any Confederate soldier might have appeared 155 years ago, down to his rough and ill-fitting hob-nailed boots.
The day’s battle against Federal soldiers had been a good one despite the heat. Hundreds of history buffs created a semblance of the 1864 Battle of Resaca, which historians said was the largest of the Union army’s Atlanta Campaign. The event was as much for the reenactors as for the scores of spectators on a nearby hillside, because the event was staged off Interstate 75 in Gordon County about 40 miles south of Chattanooga on the actual site of the May 1864 battle, lending a greater sense of stepping back in time.
Nelson and his fellow cannoneers in the 2nd Pulaski Artillery would rejoin more than a hundred other infantry, artillery and cavalry “soldiers” on the battlefield the next day as well, all in the name of keeping history’s heart beating.
“We recreate what happened so people can see what it was like during that war,” said Nelson, who has served on the Pulaski gun crew for more than 10 years. He’s noticed a waning attendance at re-enactments, but is even more concerned about the lack of history taught in the public schools and the misinformation many students believe about the war. That’s if they remember anything at all,” he said.
His concern is shared by many historians.
“Most millennials have zero investment in the Confederacy and its symbols,” notes John Coski, historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. For them, the Confederate battle flag and statues are expendable, or they’re wrong and need to be challenged, he said.
Nelson and many of his reenactor friends voiced frustration that their hobby has been unfairly maligned. Reenactors are sometimes seen as bigots and racists because of white supremacy groups’ misappropriation of the iconic Confederate battle flag, he said. “Even though almost all reenactors have both Confederate and Union uniforms in our closets” and dress according to the needs of any given event, he said. “There’s nothing racist about it.”
“Sometimes we ‘galvanize’ and get our blue on,” explained Greg Graham, 56, who portrays a captain in the 6th Kentucky Union Infantry when not dressed in butternut or gray uniforms of the 48th Alabama Infantry. “You can’t be a rebel all the time,” he joked. “Somebody has to be the other guy, and it’s all part of presenting history to the public. We do the reenactments for the public, but we do the studying about the war for us. We walk the battlefields and read the soldiers’ diaries. We fall in love with the people who lived back then and try to portray them.”
Most of the reenactors Graham has met in the past 11 years have college degrees, he said. “They’re doctors, lawyers, firemen, history teachers and a lot of professional people who love history and do this at their own expense.” Graham said he drives to living history events throughout the South, with several of them eight hours or more from his Fort Payne, Alabama, home. His unit’s roster lists nearly 50 names, he said.
Whether portraying Union or Confederate soldiers, reenactors are united in the common cause of authenticity and historical education.
“These re-enactments are vitally important so people will realize something happened here that will never happen again, that two armies fought here and thousands were killed or maimed. Maybe their ancestors died here,” said Nelson, who had ancestors in North Carolina and Virginia regiments.
“We are here to pay homage to those who fought and died on both sides. I believe in keeping history alive and not revising it. It’s not taught in the schools like it should, but hopefully these events will spark student interest and make them hungry to learn what the war was really about, to see how they fought and the simple muskets they fought with and what it was like to live in that time.” Reenactors strive to dress as authentically as possible and many speak with the vocabulary of that era, he said.
Nelson also hopes better education will diffuse politically motivated efforts to revise history, tear down statues and choke reenactments out of existence.
“Why don’t schools teach this in American history? Even the history teachers don’t know their history. Why do some people want these events to go away? It’s politics. They’re afraid of what the war was really about, and it wasn’t about slavery,” Nelson said. “History is being lost and getting rid of these events would be a travesty — like saying World War II never happened.”
‘Leave history alone’
Mauro Pradella, 69, a retired chef and carpenter who emigrated from Italy in 1967, joined the Pulaski artillery crew 15 years ago.
“I like to explore and learn. I didn’t grow up here. I knew a little about American history from school in Italy, but when I get into this, I find it interesting how different people can twist facts. I see how the Confederate flag is being used against black people and became a prejudice flag, but history is history, and it should be left alone. You can’t rewrite it.”
“You talk to Northerners, you get their story. Talk to Southerners and you get their story. People are going to say what they’re taught by their parents, but the truth is getting distorted and corrupted because of ignorance,” he said.
William Jones, 67, of Acworth, joined the 48th Alabama Infantry in 2009 to honor his ancestors who died in the war. “I have ancestors who fought on both sides. To me, it’s important to keep their memory alive,” he said.
“History isn’t taught in the schools as it once was because it’s too controversial and everyone gets offended by every little thing. They don’t get the overall picture. They try to look at what happened back then in today’s morality, which you can’t do,” Jones said. “I know there’s a lot to cover and not enough time to fit it all in. That’s one of the reasons we do these events and have school days for the students — so they’ll learn what really happened.”