ARARAT, Va. — The blue and gray met once again Saturday on a hillside in Patrick County, where the mission wasn’t to wipe out the enemy but educate the public about the history of the Civil War.
Confederate heritage has been under fire lately on the heels of a violent protest in Charlottesville in August, which has led to monuments and statues being removed along with acts of vandalism against some of the statues.
Amid the political skirmishes over the past two months came the 26th-annual Civil War Encampment and Living History Weekend, a two-day event Saturday and today on the grounds of Laurel Hill in Ararat, the birthplace of Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.
As in past years, re-enactment troops are on hand to wage mock battles and there are displays of Civil War artifacts, artwork, books, memorabilia and more, along with soldier encampments reminiscent of the 1860s.
In addition to the uniformed troops, ladies are there in period attire, along with live music, special programs and exhibits by groups such as the Patrick County Historical Society and Museum and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, among other usual attractions.
“South” firing back
However, things are little different at this year’s gathering in light of recent events — including one tent set up by an organization dedicated to halting attacks on monuments. It was identified by posters showing an image of Gen. Robert E. Lee astride his horse and the message “Save Our Monuments — Preserve Our History.”
Along with such sentiments expressed on signs, plenty of verbal barrages were leveled Saturday which could be lumped together under the theme that much of what the public might’ve heard recently is untrue — requiring the record to be set straight.
“It’s disheartening to see the lack of knowledge about U.S. history,” said John Millirons, a Baltimore resident associated with the Voices of the Confederacy, an educational group making its first appearance at the J.E.B. Stuart Birthplace encampment this year. Its members attend such events to highlight the causes and effects of the war to attendees.
“And we don’t have to lie,” remarked Millirons, who was dressed in wartime attire Saturday as he spoke to a steady stream of visitors who stopped by his booth. A graphic of a Northern prisoner of war camp in Illinois was on display there, among other items.
Millirons was quick to add that he wasn’t going to gloss over the institution of slavery. But he says that doesn’t tell the whole story about the complex war — especially since it is estimated that only about 5 percent of the Rebel army hailed from slave-owning families.
“It wasn’t black or white — it’s a pun, I know, but that’s not what it was (about),” Millirons said in reference to other factors behind the conflict, including economic considerations, the desire to protect one’s homeland against federal invaders and another that’s gaining steam, religion. There is increasing evidence that church divisions helped fracture political parties, and ultimately played a role in dividing the country.
“Americans today think the South wanted to overthrow the North,” Millirons said, when in fact the Confederacy just wanted to be independent. “Look at what seceding means.”
Voices of the Confederacy was formed in 2004. “It was appalling to us how little the American public in general knows about history,” Millirons, a descendant of Rebel soldier William Millirons of the 5th Virginia Infantry, said of the motivation for its members.
That same void now exists, especially evident in the days since Charlottesville, when unfair attacks have been leveled on Southern heritage, he said.
“The problem today is mankind looks back on history with modern eyes,” Millirons summed-up. “You can’t judge people back then by how people are today.”
Given that slavery was indeed a terrible institution, it should be viewed in a historical context, the Voices of the Confederacy member said — part of the “good, bad and ugly that got us to where we are today.”
Education a key
Others who are part of the encampment activities offered similar views Saturday — even a member of a re-enactment unit who fights on the Northern side during the mock battles.
“We’re not here to rekindle the Civil War,” said Lt. Joshua Pennington of the 3rd U.S. Artillery/Battery “E,” made up of members from the greater Charlotte area. “We’re just here to honor those who fought…to remember and respect.”
Although they are from an area of the South, those in the unit jokingly consider themselves mercenaries who will “fight” for anyone who pays them. They explained that they have participated as both Northern and Southern artillerymen at various battles, but often there are insufficient numbers of Union re-enactors.
So in offering to take that role, they tend to get stereotyped and portray members of the federal force on a regular basis.
Regardless of which uniform they don, the focus is the same, said Pennington, who serves as gun commander for the outfit that has been coming to the local event for about 10 years.
“Education,” he said of the need to make people aware of accurate Civil War history. “The only way to beat ignorance is with education — just like Martin Luther King Jr. said.”
One parent at Saturday’s gathering said she appreciated what it had to offer. “I like the history,” Kathleen George of Pinnacle said after Millirons, of the educational group, had given her daughter Elizabeth, 4, some replica Confederate currency.
“I like for my children to know history from the perspective of the South,” explained George, who was attending the event for second time after a long absence, “the costumes, the whole re-enactment.”
Author lauds Stuart
A special speaker for this year’s encampment is author Monte Akers of Austin, Texas, who has written two books on J.E.B. Stuart, and also cited the present state of affairs in opening remarks during one of his presentations.
“Unfortunately, the history that I love and you love has been hijacked,” Akers told an attentive audience. He said one consolation can be found in the fact that in the aftermath of the war, veterans of the Southern army were prohibited from displaying the flag or any insignia of the Confederate States of America.
“At least we can still do that.”
Akers said he often is asked why he chose to write books about the local Confederate hero, who died in 1864 after being wounded during the Battle of Yellow Tavern near Richmond.
“There were a lot of interesting figures who came out of the Civil War, but Stuart is one of the most fascinating,” he said.
Stuart was a charismatic figure with a larger-than-life personality whose arrival at a military installation, with his saber and spurs clanging, was greeted with enthusiasm by its personnel. “They knew that Gen. Stuart was there and everybody was going to have fun,” Akers said of how he lit up a room.
“When Stuart was around, everybody was happy.”
The famed cavalry officer didn’t drink, smoke or swear, but that didn’t keep him from having a good time.
“Stuart loved life and he lived it to the fullest,” Akers said.
The re-enactment and encampment continues today, including gates opening at 9 a.m. and a mock battle at 2 p.m. in addition to music and other activities.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.