ARARAT, Va. — America’s bloodiest war was squarely in the crosshairs of an event staged Saturday in Ararat, which included the waging of a mock battle, but education was the preferred “ammunition.”
After arriving at Laurel Hill in Ararat — the birthplace of a Confederate hero, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart — visitors might have thought they were on a trip in a time machine that landed them in the 1860s.
The rolling hillsides at the site just over the state line from North Carolina were filled with tents of re-enactment troops representing the Blue and Gray, with horses, cannons and other weaponry in ample supply.
Many ladies on the grounds wore hoop skirts reminiscent of the Civil War era, musicians played songs from the period and artwork, books and educational displays on the war also were part of the gathering.
There was even a tintype photography studio, representing an archaic medium introduced in the mid-19th century.
Yet no time machine was involved, as those activities and more were part of the 27th-Annual Civil War Encampment and Living History Weekend, a two-day event with a two-pronged purpose of entertainment and knowledge.
Likes “to be shot at”
Trey Upright, a 19-year-old reenactment soldier from Salisbury who was toting a musket, attracted a crowd who listened to him describe how battle strategies changed as the Civil War progressed and led to unprecedented carnage.
Northern and Southern troops employed the European model at first, standing in open areas and shooting at each other. The crude weapons used initially often made hitting one’s target difficult, which led to concentrated fire as soldiers directed their aggression toward desired locations.
“Now we’re hitting what we’re shooting at, so men were falling left and right,” Upright explained. “It was all just updating tactics.”
However, even the cruel lessons of the Civil War did not deter use of the European model in the early stages of World War I nearly 50 years later. “The French army used to march in line toward machine-gun fire,” Upright said.
The youth from Salisbury has been a reenactor for three years.
“I just love history,” Upright said of getting involved in an activity that takes him to battle recreations around the region.
“I studied the Civil War and I just wanted to know what it was like to be shot at,” he added.
Upright splits his time between a Southern reenactment regiment, the 30th North Carolina, and a Federal unit, the Ninth Pennsylvania.
“I like being a Confederate, because I like being an undergoing,” the Salisbury resident said. He also enjoys playing a Yankee soldier because it offers more “uniformity,” Upright mentioned while pointing to his neatly arranged blue garb, whereas Rebel troops tend to have more of a ragamuffin look with uniforms sometimes not matching.
He has perfected his role during mock battles, including how to fall just the right way when “shot.”
“How am I going to die today?” the young reenactor said he often asks himself.
As Upright spoke, three men pulled an authentic CSA (Confederate States of America) cannon into place nearby.
“This is perfect,” Ben Dauphinais of Clemmons said as he watched. “It’s almost like we’re in 1863.”
Saturday marked the first time attending the Laurel Hill event for Dauphinais, who was there with a Boy Scout group.
“And I like history,” he said.
As Dauphinais spoke, Upright, the reenactor from Salisbury, rushed past. “I’ve got a tintype to go do,” he said.
The event also drew many attendees from nearby Mount Airy, including Dan Strauss.
“My wife and I come out every year to this,” said Strauss who served 26 years in the U.S. Army before retiring to Mount Airy. “I love the living history, and just to see some of the antiquated stuff (Civil War bullets and weapons), being an old soldier.”
Jody South of Claudville came to Laurel Hill wearing clothing from the Civil War era. “I’ve been here 20-some years,” she said of her regular participation at the fall gathering. The local resident definitely enjoys dressing up for the event, “and the historical part of it,” South added.
Not far from the tintype operation was a setup by the Voices of the Confederacy, a non-profit group that offers insights about the war from a Southern perspective.
Its members are manning teaching tents for the weekend event with various displays, antiques and handouts designed to engage the public in conversations about the War Between the States. Group members are discussing soldier and civilian issues and prisoner of war camps.
At one point Saturday, John Millirons, a representative of the group from the Baltimore area, was describing how a musket is fired using powder and a projectile that are loaded into the gun and packed down with a ramrod.
Millirons added a colorful tidbit, telling his audience that the Southern army required those issued rifles to have at least two teeth so they could bite the end off the powder charge.
Shooting down myths
Special guests are always a part of the annual Civil War Encampment and Living History Weekend, and the main speaker for 2018 is H.V. Traywick Jr., an author who is a Lynchburg native.
Traywick spoke on the topic “Virginia’s Decision in 1861,” explaining why that state decided to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy.
This occurred in January of that year after Gov. John Letcher convened a special session of the Virginia General Assembly to address the “extraordinary situation” of South Carolina being the first state to withdraw after Abraham Lincoln’s election.
Traywick said the formation of the Confederacy was similar to how the colonists sought independence from the British and its oppressive government to spark the Revolutionary War. “Only the outcome was different.”
Colonial firebrand Patrick Henry and others were wary of giving too much power to the new federal government, which led to Virginia joining the United States on a voluntary basis.
That state came in under the condition it could leave the Union if it proved injurious to Virginia’s welfare, which the North later would ignore.
The speaker told a tent filled with listeners that the start of the Civil War at Fort Sumter was provoked by Lincoln, just as the Redcoats provoked fighting at Lexington and Concord.
Traywick also charged that the Civil War was triggered by economic reasons, rather than slavery as is commonly thought.
This was agitated by fueling slavery debates in Western states.
“It was a political red herring to cover for its actual agenda,” Traywick said of the federal government, which was economics and control.
Virginia didn’t really want to secede, but essentially was forced to, he continued, in the face of mounting Northern aggression and Lincoln calling on troops from it and all other states still in the Union to fight those in rebellion.
Lincoln also suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which among other things suppressed free speech by those criticizing his actions.
“Which is a perfect way to keep a government of, by and for the people which shall not perish from the earth,” Traywick said of Lincoln’s own words in his Gettysburg address.
(The Living History Weekend at Laurel Hill resumes today with gates opening at 9 a.m.)
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.