Living historians bring the past to life at annual Allatoona Pass Battlefield recreation

HISTORY LESSON Civil War reenactment conveys timeless message

Posted

A volley of gunfire broke out at Allatoona Pass Battlefield Saturday afternoon as more than two dozen attendees watched Union and Confederate troops skirmish in the woodlands.

The haze of rifle smoke was thick as the Confederates began their slow retreat downhill.

"I'll roll your tide any day of the week," one Union soldier remarked. Before long, a lone bugler performed "Taps," and after a good half hour of exchanging taunts and firepower, the annual historical reenactment was over.

Saturday's reenactment of the Battle of Allatoona Pass came just one day after the 154th anniversary of the event, which involved an estimated 5,300 troops. With a casualty rate hovering around 30 percent, historians believe more than 1,600 men were killed, wounded or went missing during the roughly seven-hour battle.

"We're reenactors, but we're also historians," said Steve Toney, a member of the Georgia Division Reenactors Association. "Part of our mission, I guess, is that when we do these we're educating the laymen on something they wouldn't have known any other way. They're standing on historic ground, this is giving them a viewpoint of what actually took place here." 

The 54-year-old Alpharetta resident served as a bugler during Saturday's reenactment. He said he's been interested in the Civil War ever since he saw bullets from the Battle of Paducah at his local coin shop when he was a high schooler.

"I practice every single day before an event like this one, probably two weeks in advance," he said. "I go through all the bugle calls and practice those as if I'm practicing for a performance." 

Fellow living history actor Jeff Thornton, 40, of Doraville, said he's been into reenactments for more than 30 years. 

"We have to get with the site organizers to make sure we can do what we want to do and get enough rounds," he said. "And then plan where we can actually be — it's a fair amount of information, but once we get here we try to have as much fun as possible and teach the public what we can."

Christopher Burns, a 43-year-old reenactor from Senoia, portrayed an infantry battalion commander over the weekend. He said he's been intrigued by Civil War history since he was a teen growing up in North Carolina. 

"I have to know the proper commands and have to be able to think ahead, how to maneuver in a certain way and get people where I need them," he said. "There's also a fair amount of administrative work before an event, where you're reaching out to organizers and other organizations, other reenacting groups, trying to get people to come together to actually have enough people to put on an event."

The term "reenactor," Burns said, is something of an umbrella descriptor. While some reenactors are content with having a few anachronisms in their productions — such as plastic water bottles near their faux encampments — others go above and beyond to make their productions as authentic as possible.

"A living historian is, for lack of a better word, a professional term, because that implies you're somebody who spends a lot of time researching and actually knowing what it is you're trying to portray at a very in-depth level," he said.

Burns said he hopes the performances inspire people to conduct their own research on the Civil War — specifically, their own county history and genealogy.

"If they find out what their ancestors went through, that makes it a lot more personal and makes it seem more real," he said.

In an age of ubiquitous smartphones and inescapable social media, Thornton said he's happy to just give spectators a glimpse at what the past actually resembled.

"I want people to come out and see how different life was 154, 155 years ago, instead of just relying on hearsay to know what it was about and what we did," he said. "It's a hobby to promote history, it's not promoting politics."

As to why the Civil War — far and away the bloodiest war waged in American history — was fought, Toney said there are as many different "causes" as there were actual soldiers involved in it.

"Just reading what they wrote in their diaries, their manuscripts and what they left behind, every single person had a different reason for fighting," he said. "The politicians had their own agenda, the farmers had their own agenda, the ones in Georgia had their own agenda when they saw northern troops coming in and the northern troops had their own reasons for doing it."

Burns said political motivations undergird every war, and the Civil War was no exception.

"'States' rights' is sort of the catch-all phrase that gets used a lot, but let's be fair and let's be honest — the biggest state right that was at play at this time period was slavery," he said. 

While that may have been the catalyst for the South's wealthy aristocrats, Burns argued such wasn't a motivator for most of the troops who actually fought and died for the Confederacy.

According to the 1860 United States Census, 37 percent of Georgia families owned at least one slave prior to the outbreak of the Civil War a year later.

"The majority of the people in the country in the South did not own slaves," Burns said. "I had five ancestors that fought in the war on the Confederate side and not a single one of them owned a slave that I know of. They were all poor farmers — people back in those days that didn't have the means or maybe the desire to own slaves still fought in the war for the Confederacy, so you can't say it was all about slavery because, logically, that just doesn't make sense."

Thornton said it is possible to commemorate the sacrifices of Confederate troops without celebrating the causes some of them may have been fighting for.

"It's still our American history, it's still our heritage, it's still our ancestors that fought for that," he said. 

The true number of lives claimed during the Civil War will never be known. The American Battlefield Trust estimates 620,000 soldiers died during the war, representing about 2 percent of the total national population during the 1860s. 

Proportional to today's population, the death toll would be the equivalent of 6.5 million people. 

Other estimations are even higher. Binghamton University professor J. David Hacker said the toll may be closer to 750,000, with historian James McPherson estimating that at least 50,000 additional civilians died in Confederate states alone.

"To lose that many people, a generation, is devastating," Burns said. "The entire town's young men were fighting together and at the end of the war, all those guys could be killed or wounded ... it's not Confederate history, it's American history, and it's a piece that's important to a lot of people." 

The most important lesson to be learned from the Civil War, Burns said, is the notion that politicians will always seek power — and will manipulate the public in order to get it. 

"I don't care what the party is, the decade or the era is, it's all about control and getting the people to do what they want them to do," he said. "That is going to be the truth no matter what period in history you want to look at. I think it's true today just as it was in the 1860s." 

As a reenactor, Toney said he considers it an honor to portray Union and Confederate troops. He said he has an obligation to tell their stories — "from both sides" — so the greater lessons and sacrifices of the Civil War aren't forgotten.

"If we don't study the past and learn from it," he said, "we're destined to repeat their mistakes."