One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States was locked in a bloody civil war. September 19th and 20th, 1863 saw nearly 35,000 men fall at the Battle of Chickamauga, in northern Georgia. This blight on the United States’ unity has faded into the past for many Americans, but for those living in towns surrounded by war’s battlefields, history’s echoes still roar through the hills.
In preparation for a sesquicentennial commemoration, six thousand reenactors descended on Mountain Cove Farms, approximately 30 miles from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a rain storm parked over the campground, vendors lined a strip adjacent to the battlefield, keeping everybody supplied with vulcanized rubber rain slickers, tin belt buckles, and felt soldiers’ caps.
Huddled under a tent, Robert Phillips and Donald Tatum watch the rain assault the battlefield. When they attend reenactments, the Chattanooga residents enlist with the 44th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. Phillips says that he does so in honor of his ancestors who fought and died for their freedom.
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“There were some Tatums in that unit, and there were some Phillips,” Phillips explains. “So we’ve been going back, doing genealogy, to find out who’s connected. But we know we’re connected somehow.” Phillips said that the 44th Regiment hadn’t yet formed in time to fight at Chickamauga, so to keep the history accurate he and his friends wouldn’t participate in the battle.
But not every reenactor has such a personal connection. Mario, a Brooklyn native who “due to legal reasons” declines to share his last name, generally fights with the Confederate States Army, but has no ancestral allegiance. He was on a tour of Civil War battlefields with a British friend, who also reenacts Civil War battles back home.
“I fell in with a group called the 30th Virginia when I first got involved with this. And I was puzzled because the guy who got me involved is from New Jersey,” he says. Mario is a “Confederate at heart,” but will join whichever side best balances out numbers.
John Culpepper, the Chickamauga City Manager, is the battle’s facilitator and he keeps an eye on quality, to make sure history is being properly remembered. He does everything from participating in a planning committee to directing traffic on the day of the battle. He is almost a perfect spokesperson for the war’s “house divided” nature.
“There were 212 Culpeppers who fought for the South,” he explains. “But in the same respect, my great-great-grandfather was a Union soldier from east Tennessee.”
Culpepper says that many Southern people aren’t as flexible as Mario with what side they portray at reenactments. They can’t leave their homes without seeing a monument commemorating Civil War battles or historic buildings – the war may be long gone, but it can’t simply be forgotten.
Stephanie Moss agrees. The Chickamauga native whose father and son both reenact battles regularly says that having relatives who fought in the war ups the emotional stakes, but seeing it live hits home in a way that reading about history can’t.
“When you see your child or another man go down, it just hits you; that was real,” Moss explains as the battle’s empty cannons blast in the background. She tells about how emotional it can be, particularly when her 16-year-old son “takes a hit” in battle. “It just tears me up. Sometimes I cry the whole time,” she adds.
But for today’s soldiers in 19th-century attire, the battles are a good outlet to appreciate the history, as well as spend time with their friends. Scott Garrett portrays a Confederate States Army colonel, says that once the battle is over, it’s just a hobby that he enjoys. Back in camp, it’s time to “cook supper, try to dry our socks, hydrate” and enjoy time with family and friends.