When Michael Arrowood talks about a certain 19th-century national dispute, the words “Civil War” will pass his lips only reluctantly. Instead, he will point out that a Congressional resolution of 1928 officially adopted “The War Between The States” as the descriptive term, one preferred by the two educational groups he represents as a public relations officer. Both were recently encamped on the grounds of the historic Henderson County Courthouse as part of a living history exhibit for the county’s Heritage Museum, and both will be appearing later this month at the fifth annual Blue-Gray Heritage Weekend in Mills River.
“A civil war by definition is when two powers vie for control of the same political entity,” Michael points out. “In a war of secession, one part of the entity attempts to withdraw and become a separate nation, and that’s what happened in 1860-65. ‘Civil War’ has become shorthand, though it’s historically inaccurate.”
Like many of his fellow educators and reenactors in the two groups Michael represents — the Capt. Walter M. Bryson-George Mills Camp 70 Sons of Confederate Veterans and the 22nd North Carolina Regiment, Company B — Michael is directly descended from a line of nine Confederate ancestors, along with 30 or so uncles and cousins who were veterans of the conflict. And like his compatriots, it’s a mixture of family honor and historical interest that prompts Michael to don his gray uniform for as many as 20 events a year, mostly in Western North Carolina but some further afield in Tennessee and lowland South Carolina. “For some it’s a general interest in history, for others it’s about their ancestors and trying to understand or honor what they did,” Michael says. “On a personal level, I think people just enjoy the camp atmosphere, the excitement of battle, the camaraderie. You meet the same people at all sorts of events and become friends with them.”
Some of the events recreate actual battles, like the Battle of Broxton Bridge in South Carolina’s Low Country, along the Salkehatchie River, where original Confederate earthworks still remain and are put to use. “The skirmish at Zollicoffer, Tennessee, is always memorable to me because it’s usually so cold,” Michael says. “We’ve frozen there for several years now. But it’s also a beautiful location.”
The reenactments are as historically accurate as possible, right down to the buttons on the men’s uniforms and the gloves worn by the ladies, all found in the stock offered by a number of sutlers, or camp provisioners, who either set up shop on-site or offer their wares online. Basic gear for a soldier can easily cost as much as $1,200. An infantryman’s wool sack coat and trousers, for example, can cost $200 or more, while a reproduction Enfield or Springfield rifle can cost $600. Ladies can choose from a bewildering variety of bone hoop skirts, embroidered gloves, snoods and parasols. “Women need various dresses — evening dress, day dress, camp dress and accessories to go with them,” Michael explains. “For men, you need the correct rifle, uniform pants and jacket, shirt, suspenders, correct footwear, haversack, cartridge box, bayonet, utensils, bedroll.” Everyone pays for his or her own kit and in many cases also pay to appear at events, a somewhat thorny issue among reenactors. “I think it’s unfair,” Michael says, “especially for events that charge the public admission. It’s like charging a musician to play in your bar.”
Historical accuracy, of course, also requires Union soldiers. “Most units do ‘galvanize,’ which is a wartime expression for going over to the other side,” Michael explains. “We need to have enough Union soldiers to make up a reasonable scenario.” Michael’s group, for example, often plays the role of “Kirk’s Raiders,” a mounted unit comprised of Tarheels that went to Tennessee and signed up with Union forces there, many after first serving in the Confederate army. The Carolina Foothills Historical Reenactment Society’s Second North Carolina Mounted Infantry almost always “plays Blue” and is kept busy making up the battlefield numbers for Southern events. “At the end of the day, for most reenactors it’s about doing the history for the public and putting on a good show for the crowd,” Michael says.
But underlying all the showmanship and dressing up is a serious attempt to preserve a defining moment in American history, and a distinct culture nearly destroyed by it. “The United States is becoming increasingly homogenized by travel, technology, communications, and so on,” Michael says. “We’re losing regional diversity in every direction, but the South was most distinctive by far in that it perceived itself as being different, especially after the war. A lot of people are very proud of where they come from and who their ancestors were, and how hard they fought.”
And so, once every few weeks, the battle lines are redrawn, the smoke of musket fire fills the air and bodies tumble to the ground. “Then, at the end of the battle,” Michael says, “they give the command to ‘Resurrect!’ and we all dust ourselves off and turn back into modern Americans.” In the end, perhaps that’s the most important reminder of all.
BACK IN TIME
The annual Blue-Gray Encampment at Mills River will take place the weekend of September 27-28 near Old Haywood Road and McDowell Road. Visit www.scvcamp70.org or www.22nccompanyb.org for more information and for a schedule of other events during the year. To shop for your hooped skirt or Confederate cap online, you can visit one of the largest online shops, Indiana’s Fall Creek Suttlery, at www.fcsutler.com.