The Elm Grove Historical Society hosted a Civil War Encampment this past weekend and I have posted a few photographs from my visit. These flags, bumper stickers, Abolitionist slave doll, slave shackles and military re-enactors (from both sides) all had the potential to create a very lively discussion about what caused the war and its legacy.
A colleague who joined me marveled out loud when he saw these bumper stickers in the parking lot, “I did not think people actually believe that strongly in the South up here in Wisconsin.” A Confederate re-enactor (from Wisconsin) I spoke with explained why he spends his weekends in a butter nut colored wool suit: “I am a State’s Rights Rebel. I was always sympathetic to the Southern cause since I was a boy and politics in my lifetime have drawn me closer to an anti-federal belief.”
Ironically, very near the Confederate encampment was an Abolitionist couple who spoke quietly about Abolitionist’s roles in Wisconsin. I was curious about their homemade slave girl doll and iron shackles which they use to acknowledge and remind the public that children were sold into slavery. They told me Abolitionists would often darn dolls like this to give as gifts to runaway slave children along the Underground Railroad. The doll and shackles are really interesting, and as far I have experienced, rare items to have at a Civil War encampment. When I asked if they ever discuss their portrayal with military re-enactors (either North or South) or try to learn how others interpret soldier opinions on the role of slavery in the war, they quickly said they did not and that they are separate from the soldiers at reenactments.
I imagined how more exciting and interesting it would have been if they acted like real Abolitionists and, for example, sang spirituals or read slave narratives near the Confederate camps? Would the Yankees or Confederates encamped for the weekend then talk about how slavery did or did not influence their side during the war. Or what if this group shared an Abolitionist perspective of the Bible regarding slavery with the Confederate Chaplain (see flag below) that was directly across the grassy aisle from them? Clearly, by the bumper stickers in the parking lot, there were some opinionated folks at the event that could have explained their points of view on the war. This couple clearly did not want to be at the center of the weekend’s events and I do not fault them one second for that. But what if a future encampment during the Sesquicentennial would find the people who would be willing to interact accordingly as Abolitionists with other re-enactors and advertise the event as a Civil War Causes and Legacy Encampment? Would it draw the same number in crowds as traditional encampments? This Civil War event harnessed potential for some really interesting debate, potential understanding and perhaps argumentative fireworks between re-enactor groups; but, as usual, the fireworks were limited to the cannon and rifle demonstrations.