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US Civil War Remembered and Re-enacted

  • Tom Hendrick

Every summer tens of thousands of Americans return to old battlefields where their ancestors fought a bloody civil war from 1861 to 1865. They fight as if they are in combat. But no one gets hurt. So what's going on? VOA's Tom Hendrick takes you out to the front lines.

America's 19th century civil war – known as 'the war between the states' – accounted for more casualties than all other U.S. wars combined: more than 700,000 lives.

Some were called "Yankees" – those dressed in blue represent the northern states where most people favored a strong central government and were against the slavery common in south states.

Re-enactor John Gunter says re-enactments of battles occur every summer with the same sound and fury and strategy. "The rain, the smoke, the boom, it kind of gives you an idea of what my ancestors went through."

But of course there are no actual bullets or cannonballs fired. Still, in many ways, the fights are authentic. The uniforms, the weapons are vintage, made to look like and sound as they did some 150 years ago.

Bob Welch, a re-enactor tells us, "I've been doing this a few years but I've had interest in Civil War since I was ten years old. I lived in Missouri and we were digging in the garden one day [and] we discovered artifacts in the garden. [We] started digging up coins dated 1862, 1863, and a tintype photo of a solider."

Rich Birkemeier and others see parallels with the sectarian strife that exists in some countries today. “We [the United States] see ourselves as different from the rest of the world, and yet this happened. How do you explain this?

Bob Sutton, a National Park Service employee, offered this explanation: "It was a very nationalistic period. The people in north were interested in having the union survive. People in the south were interested in protecting their culture. It was more important for them to go home a dead hero than to go home and be considered a coward."

America's civil war was not a religious conflict, but it was fought with religious zeal. Re-enactor Max Danial plays the part of the assassinated Union President Abraham Lincoln. "Please don't think we're glorifying war. We point out the horror. We almost committed suicide during those four years."

"It was certainly the biggest tragedy this country has every undergone,” says participant Buck Ashburn. “It was brother against brother, families against one another we've never seen such a splitting of the country since."

These days there are no casualties in the spirited contests between north and south, as front lines, where once there was so much death, come to life.

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