VIRGINIA: Re-Enactor Assumes Identity of Man who Lived Near Battlefield

APPOMATTOX, Va. — Three times per week, Christopher Bingham lives in a time of horses and candlelight, far removed from the cars driving past the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park.

Every Saturday from May to September, Bingham, 34, of Appomattox, fulfills the role of one of the village’s original inhabitants in 1865, during the time of the Civil War and Lee’s surrender to Grant.

Chris Bingham, a living historian and park ranger at Appomattox Courthouse National Park, stands for a portrait at the park. (Photo by Max Oden/The News & Advance)

Chris Bingham, a living historian and park ranger at Appomattox Courthouse National Park, stands for a portrait at the park. (Photo by Max Oden/The News & Advance)

He shares stories of that time, assuming the identity of Thomas Tibbs, a Confederate soldier who lived less than a mile from the surrender grounds.

“I suppose I could tell you a little about what I saw back when the armies were here,” Bingham told a group of 40 visitors on a recent Saturday.

When performing living history in the park, Bingham must pretend he truly is in 1865, with no knowledge of what comes after.

To visitors, he is not an actor. He is Thomas Tibbs. After his 30-minute chat with guests about the war and what happened in Appomattox, the crowd began to applaud to his feigned shock.

“Folks I appreciate it, but I was just telling you what I’d seen,” he said. “I wasn’t acting or anything.”

Once away from the crowd, Bingham dropped Tibbs’ southern drawl and assumed his true mannerisms and identity.

Bingham has been a Civil War reenactor since 2002, starting out with a Confederate unit in North Carolina where he lived at the time.

He made the switch to living history several years ago as a National Park Service employee. In addition to his Saturday presentations, he focuses on research.

There is a difference between reenactors and living historians — reenactors usually recreate a battle, not assume a specific person’s identity, like they would as living historians. At Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, living history tends to be a lot more involved.

“We really try to figure out what that particular person was doing at that time and what can they tell you about it — what their personal experience was and take it from there,” Bingham said, adding they review censuses and service records, as well as first person accounts to create the narratives.

A lot of the research isn’t used in the presentations but comes out in the one-on-one interactions with guests throughout the day.

“This is a type of living history that works when the visitor plays along,” he said. “If they don’t, it can be kind of awkward. When they do, hopefully they learn a lot more and it’s a useful program.”

It also can be one of the hardest parts of living history. He must answer questions as his character would, regardless of his own beliefs. Some of the toughest questions he’s received include his character’s perception of slavery, why he was fighting and the cause of the war.

“That’s when it really comes down to how much experience you have in the subject and your person,” he said, adding knowing the material is about 90 percent of being able to answer questions.

The park has been doing living history since the early 1970s. It began with two people, one portraying a Union soldier and one a Confederate soldier. It since has expanded to seven on staff with six working only a few days per week.

Living history presentations give the public a unique perspective and help them connect to history. It is also appreciated by visitors, evidenced by the letters, emails and comments visitors share with park staff, said Patrick Schroeder, the park’s historian and living history coordinator.

“They can take a step back in time and get a better understanding of what happened here,” he said.

Schroeder began doing living history in 1986 and now uses his knowledge to help train novices, including Bingham when he started. He said Bingham really took off as a living historian and now is looked up to by newcomers.

“He’s one of those that had a natural knack for it,” Schroeder said. “He built a really good program.”

Bingham has played Tibbs for six years. The idea came to him while walking to work from the seasonal workers’ house on the park grounds next to the ruins of the Tibbs’ home. It was a route Tibbs would have taken to get to the village and it struck a chord with Bingham, who was about the same age when he started researching and preparing the presentation he gives today.

“He was just an interesting story that had stuck out over the years,” Bingham said, adding the final fighting occurring in Tibbs’ backyard was a unique element other characters didn’t have.

Bingham decided to try reenacting after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper for a group looking for members. He was studying American history in college and saw it as a way for him to learn about the period in a deeper way than from a book.

“Reenacting served as a way to not only partly experience the Civil War to a degree but a way of interacting with the public and interpreting the war,” he said.

Assuming a lifestyle from a period he cares about is Bingham’s favorite aspect of reenacting.

Often, people have a personal connection to the units they belong to, either through an ancestor or the location of the unit. Living next to a battlefield or having a relative who fought, often increases a person’s interest in history, Bingham said.

While his relatives enjoy history, he is the only one to take up reenacting. His family would visit battlefields, but he was the first to take a real interest in the Civil War.

Originally from Seattle, he attended college in Virginia, graduating with a degree in history from Longwood University in 2003 and a master’s in American history from East Carolina University in 2007, and has since made the commonwealth his home.

Bingham said there are some misconceptions about the hobby, including its organization and expense.

People belong to units and companies as part of a larger structure, with elections to decide who leads them on the battlefield and in meetings. Members pay dues and vote on which reenactments to participate in. In addition to dues, reenactors also pay insurance because events are held on uneven terrain and reenactors carry sharp objects.

Reenacting apparel and equipment also adds up. Bingham estimates he’s spent about $3,000 on clothing, weapons and equipment. Most units set up encampments and have camping equipment that would have been found during the 1800s as well.

Most places that employ living historians or reenactors, such as Appomattox’s historical park, provide the clothing.

Bingham recommended anyone interested in taking up the hobby should reach out to an established group. Often, the units have to register for the reenactment ahead of time and a lot of groups have extra clothing to share. He recommended people interested in making a career out of it start by volunteering.

“I think people have a hard time understanding why they would leave the 21st century world and reenact something from 150 years ago,” Bingham said. “It’s about an intense love of the period, wanting to historically portray a period and educate the public on it. I think that’s why a majority of reenactors do what they do. And it can be a lot of fun too.”


PENNSYLVANIA: Callous or Caoolow? — Brwyn Mar students Censured for Flying Confederate Flag

Callous or merely callow?

That’s the question that has roiled the otherwise idyllic campus of Bryn Mawr College recently. Apparently two students tacked up a Confederate flag in the hallway next to their dorm rooms and controversy ensued.

r-CONFEDERATE-FLAG-large570After the uproar the two students apologized, issuing an email that read in part, “Our intention was never to cause the pain the community is currently suffering.” They went on: “We apologize for hanging an object seen as a symbol of hate for many and for the subsequent divide and suffering of the Bryn Mawr community.” One of the young women is from Texas and the other from Georgia, and their intention, so they said, was simply to demonstrate their Southern pride.

I make no claim to know the sincerity of that apology, but I’m inclined to take the students at their word. I believe that they probably were unaware that the Confederate flag was, and remains, the symbol of a failed nation created for the purpose of perpetuating (and expanding) slavery. I’m voting callow, not callous.

There is certainly a kind of racism at work here, but I suspect not the kind that offended other Bryn Mawr women. It isn’t about the racial views of two individuals, I suspect, but rather the racism of collective memory. These two women merely echoed a central piece of Southern mythology: The Confederacy, the Civil War it started, and the flag that flew over the losing side of it wasn’t really about slavery.

The myth has been around for nearly 150 years — it started roughly a week after Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox — and it has rooted deeply in the national imagination.

Let’s be clear: Abraham Lincoln did not prosecute the war to end slavery, at least not initially. But Southerners started it to protect their “peculiar institution.” Texans, for example, were quite sure that ending slavery would be a disaster for their state and for the South as a whole. They seceded from the Union in 1861 because they believed

“that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”

After the war was over, Southerners worked furiously to re-write the purpose and meaning of it. Not an act of rebellion against the legitimately elected government of the United States, not an insurrection designed to protect slavery from the advance of freedom, the Confederacy morphed instead into a glorious “lost cause” fought for vaporous abstractions like “Southern honor” and political fatuities like “states rights.”

In this way, the memory of the Civil War was scrubbed clean of slavery and scrubbed clean too of the 4 million slaves the South fought so desperately to keep in bondage. Refusing to confront its own history, white Southerners invented a “heritage” for themselves instead. Thus did it become possible to wave the Stars and Bars at NASCAR events without any shame at all.

Perhaps we should not be astonished that two women educated in Southern states — and educated well enough, apparently, to gain entrance to one of the nation’s elite liberal arts colleges — could in 2014 have failed to learn about Southern history and still be waving the flag of the glorious lost cause.

After all, in 2010 Virginia governor Bob McDonnell announced the creation of a “Confederate History Month” which made no mention of slavery at all. And in 2011, the cream of Charleston, South Carolina, society celebrated the 150th anniversary of secession by dressing up in their antebellum finest and throwing a fancy plantation ball. Makes you wonder what students in Texas and Georgia actually learn about each state’s commitment to slavery.

Southerners love their “heritage” because it has enabled many of them not to confront their history. Those two young women with their Confederate flag and Southern pride had to travel all the way to Bryn Mawr to learn that history.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.


NORTH CAROLINA: N.C. to Construct Civil War History Center

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The state of North Carolina has announced plans for an interpretive history center focusing on the Civil War in the Tarheel State.

From the Museum’s web site: “The Civil War was the most traumatic event ever to befall the great state of North Carolina. Likewise, the period that immediately followed witnessed one of the most extraordinary – and unsuccessful – social experiments in our state’s and nation’s history.

The North Carolina Civil War History Center will be the first museum in the nation to tackle the difficult topics of the Civil War and Reconstruction from the perspective of a single state and its people …all of its people.mission-300x239

Almost all Civil War-related museums and sites in our nation focus on specific battles or famous military leaders. North Carolina’s stories of the war were less about the battles than about the home front.  Ours are stories of division and reconciliation, freedom and institutional oppression, opportunity and economic devastation.

The events of that time were so profound that they echo throughout our state even today.

We invite you to join us in exploring the war and its aftermath in North Carolina.  Together, we can learn our past.”

The NC Civil War History Center is affiliated with the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex, a branch of the North Carolina Division of History Museum. The History Center is proposed to be located at the site of the remains of the Fayetteville Arsenal.

From the Museum’s page on “The Mission”:

To take a fresh and data-based approach toward creating a new, relevant, and viable public understanding of the Civil War era, particularly targeting “next generation” audiences.

  • To tell the story of the Civil War and all of its ramifications for the entire state of North Carolina.
  • To widen the focus of the Civil War story to include the Antebellum and Reconstruction periods of North Carolina history, and regard the story as three parts of a whole.
  • To highlight issues, events, and people throughout the state, and place particular emphasis on the home-front experience in North Carolina; to address military campaigns, leaders, and wider political and economic trends, but as a backdrop for the North Carolina home-front story rather than the focus.
  • To portray the lives and stories of “real people” of North Carolina: rich and poor, black, white and Native American, free and enslaved, Unionist and Secessionist, young and old, Republicans, Whigs, Know-Nothings and Democrats, men, women, and children.
  • To portray the political, economic, social, and cultural aspects of life in North Carolina before, during, and after the Civil War.
  • To illuminate the economy of slavery and its end.
  • To preserve and interpret the history of the Fayetteville Arsenal and the history of the region—before the Antebellum and after the Reconstruction periods.
  • To convey North Carolina’s sacrifice, hardship, and degradation during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
  • To use the experiences of real people, families, and communities throughout North Carolina, including all regions from southeast to northwest, to reveal how the events of the war years, and the eras preceding and following them, affected their existence.
  • To allow North Carolina to be the first state to tell its own home-front, Civil War era story.
  • To include experiences of real people, families, and communities throughout North Carolina.




GEORGIA: Civil War Artifacts to go on Display at State Park

MILLEN, GA. — Civil War artifacts from a former prison are set to go on display at Magnolia Springs State Park near Millen.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources says a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Magnolia Springs History Center is set for Tuesday. The agency says Camp Lawton was built to relieve overcrowding at Andersonville Prison.

Archaeologists and students from Georgia Southern University have been excavating the site since 2009. They’ve found items such as a pipe, coins, a ring, buttons, buckles and stockade wall posts. Some of them will be displayed in the new museum and some will stay at the university.

Magnolia Springs State Park is five miles north of Millen. In addition to the museum, visitors can tour original Confederate earthworks, as well as the springs and boardwalk.