Are Civil War Reenactments Tinged With Elements of Racism?

While most Civil War reenactors avoid scrutiny for their involvement with organizations and clubs that replay historical battles, those who hold public office are frequently criticized or marginalized for participating in Civil War reenactments. 

John Douglass, a retired Brigadier General and Civil War enthusiast, is the latest politician to take some heat for his hobby. 

The criticism came after Douglass announced plans to re-file his Congressional campaign in the 5th District of Virginia to challenge incumbent Republican Congressman Robert Hurt.

A group of Civil War reenactors standing around a cannon.A staff member of Peyton Williams, Douglass’s Democratic primary opponent, had this to say about Civil War reenactments:

“Virginia is a proud state with a painful history,” Williams’ campaign manager Erin Monaghan said in a statement Monday. “It’s important for Democrats to focus on the issues of the 21st century rather than joining those who want to re-fight the battles of the 19th century.”

To say nothing of the obvious slavery connotations, the general implication is that Douglass is backward thinking, somehow fixated on the past. 

But in looking at Douglass’s resume it doesn’t appear that he is stuck in the past, rather it appears that he is a student of history and a military buff.  Moreover, examining his Civil War outfit, Stribling’s Battery, which he founded years ago and runs out of his farm in Hume, Va., shows no signs of racism or separatists propaganda. 

In fact, on the website (which you can check out the here), there’s a statement that reads, “All members of the Battery agree to promote an accurate impression of Civil War artillery, both Confederate and Federal.”

Nevertheless, people are still confused and perplexed by it. 

Reenactors standing the on the steps of a building posing in Confederate uniforms.A local chapter president for the NAACP in the 5th District, Don Gaines, told the Huffington Post that he found Douglass’s reenactment involvement “very surprising and somewhat disturbing.” 

“I understand that it is a part of history,” he said, “but I guess with the makeup of the 5th District as it is right now, you would probably want to be more sensitive to things such as that, and to be hosting (meetings) on your farm … Wow, that’s very, very surprising … wow, I’m really taken aback by that.”

Due to the controversy and question marks Civil War reenactment raises, Douglass’s campaign manager Gary Rittenstein had to release a statement to help clear the air. 

“While we understand the temptation of some political operatives to inject racially-charged sensationalism into the final stages of a Democratic nominating process, retired Brig. Gen. John Douglass is proud to take part in various government-sanctioned civil war re-enactment performances that help educate thousands of families about Virginia’s critical role in getting our country to honor the God-given rights of every person, regardless of race color or creed, which even his political opponents would have to support,” he wrote in a statement.

As mentioned, Douglass is not the only politician to field fire for being a proud Civil War reenactor. 

South Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell (R) made headlines when a picture surfaced of him posing in Confederate garb alongside two people who appeared to be imitating slaves (but who were in fact portraying Gullah storytellers from the 1860s) at an event hosted by the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women.

SC Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell posing with two Gullah storytellers at reenactment event.Upon seeing the photo, Lonnie Randolph, the president of the South Carolina NAACP said, “The big picture is how little progress we have made in being human beings in this state.”

McConnell’s reaction to the criticism was quite eloquent. 

“What the ladies had put together was a smorgasbord of Southern culture,” McConnell told the Charleston Post and Courier. “It was reflected in the dress, the historical accuracy of the performances and even down to the food. It was wonderful, entertaining and educational night for those visitors. It showed the approach we have in this state of a shared history.”

“If somebody is trying to be politically correct and use a tunnel vision on it and hook in the slavery issue, they’re on a slippery slope toward narrow-mindedness and they should extend the charity of understanding. Receive it in the spirit that it is presented,” the 20-year veteran reenactor added. 

Yet, despite his explanation the Republican Party still sees McConnell as a political liability.  The Washington Post reported that one of the reasons South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has been passed over in the GOP’s vice presidential selection process is that Republicans fear national embarrassment were McConnell to inherit her seat.

At the end of the day, one can never truly know what’s in the heart of another man.  But I think given the available information, one would be extremely hard-pressed to throw allegations of racism at either McConnell or Douglass. 

The truth is that, by and large, Civil War reenactors aren’t racist, just misunderstood.  I think it’s about time we remove the stigma associated with these guys. 

What are your thoughts on Civil War reenactments?