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Pivotal Event: Reenactments commemorate full history of Civil War

By William D. Mayers

                                               Celia Tobin/The Post-Standard/2006
WILLIAM MAYERS describes the work of surgeons during
the Civil War to visitors at the Peterboro Civil War weekend.
Mayers portrays Capt. Will Nickel, an assistant surgeon
in the 12th U.S. Infantry. This year’s event is June 10-12

Robert E. Lee certainly would agree with your scribe that the American Civil War was not so civil (editorial, June 2). “It is well” the general is said to have remarked while observing the carnage at the Battle of Fredericksburg, “that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.” And in another nod to that sentiment, Major General William T. Sherman stated, “War is terrible. There’s no use trying to reform it. The more terrible it is, the sooner it will be over!” It is known that Ulysses S. Grant got sick to his stomach at the sight of blood. No, war is not civil. There is no kind, gentle way to kill someone on the battlefield.

We who reenact the American Civil War know full well what we’re marking here, as do those who reenact the War of 1812, the 200th anniversary cycle of which coincides with the Civil War’s 150th. It surely was an unavoidable, fratricidal conflict. There was indeed a warrior culture, especially in the deep South. And yes, we reflect on the wasted lives.

We note that the proximate cause of the Civil War was slavery. A good many officials in those states that seceded said so; numerous letters and documents in their own hands that attest to this fact still exist and are preserved in various libraries and museums.

We note, too, that the Civil War marked the beginning of a sea change in the nation’s attitudes toward black folk when the federal government formally recognized the abilities and reliabilities of said people and accepted them as soldiers in the Union army.

Fully 180,000 black soldiers served, and some 80,000 of them lost their lives in their struggle for freedom. And, contrary to your editorial writer’s assertion, there will be reenactments of slavery. That’s the living history part of our commemorations. There will also be reenactments of the contribution of women to the war effort. At Peterboro’s June 11-12 observances, there will be presentations of Sanitary Commission efforts by a woman portraying Mary Livermore. There will be reference to other heroic women, such as Lucretia Mott and Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke (Mother Bickerdyke). I personally will make note during the weekend of the only woman ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Dr. Mary Walker, a surgeon from Oswego.

Far from being a glorification of war, and far from being a gloating celebration of the horrible results of Sherman’s “march to the sea,” and far from distorting history into a nostalgic fantasy, our reenactments are a commemoration of the most pivotal event ever to occur in this nation.

We commemorate the uncivil aspects as well as the better angels of Americans’ nature. We agree with Alexis de Tocqueville, who said “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”

William D. Mayers lives in Canastota. He portrays a surgeon, Capt. Will Nickel, of the 12th US Infantry, Co. A, during Civil War reenactments. The 19th Peterboro Civl War Weekend is June 11-12.