Civil War one fifty

Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War & the Missouri-Kansas border region's unique place in the bloody four-year conflict.

The Kansas City Star

August

The Kansas City Star

The Civil War is over. Everyone who lived it, dead as dinosaurs.

But seemingly on every weekend, somewhere in the United States, the blue and gray rise up again.

Thousands step into 19th century shoes to “feel” the history.

On a recent day, Sara Pelis, mother of eight, grandmother to four, was packing for her entire family before a re-enactment event at Wilson’s Creek near Springfield, where they would join 3,000 others like them.

All traveling back in time.

For weeks, Pelis has sifted through her family’s stash of historically authentic clothes, camping gear and cooking ware like the quartermaster of a small army. Her family tries to be accurate when they re-enact, turning away from the modern world as much as they can.

The 43-year-old Pelis leans in close for confession: They still “farb out,” the term scornful, hard-core enthusiasts use for those re-enactors who sneak in a cellphone, sip pop from a can or pull out a disposable wipe.

Her family’s most egregious sin behind the flaps of a sultry, buggy tent? “Fans from Walmart,” Sara whispers. “Battery operated.”

The Wilson’s Creek sesquicentennial, earlier this month, was a vivid reminder of how far we’ve moved on.

Such observances will continue until 2015. But after they end, who’ll spin this history forward?

Could the Civil War and the power of its lessons fade like so many sepia photos?

Given the horrors of that war — particularly where Missouri meets Kansas and wounds haven’t wholly healed — some may argue for writing off the past, or at least softening it for our politically correct classrooms.

Scholars maintain that history itself can help heal. Filmmaker Ken Burns, who in 1990 produced a Civil War documentary that sent PBS ratings rocketing, has cited the “medicinal” power of confronting and understanding our American narrative.

But 50 years from now, at the 200th anniversary of the conflict, will area enthusiasts still be dressing the part? Will lands be preserved, new histories written?

Will groups be discussing William Quantrill or James Lane or Sterling Price?

“Interest is going to slide downward,” says Lane Smith, president of the Kansas City Civil War Round Table, which kicked off in 1958 with Harry Truman as its first speaker.

“When this period of the 150th ends, I think there will not be the excitement until the 175th. And a lot of us aren’t going to make it to then.”

•••

Along Wilson’s Creek, some pre-teen spectators seemed a little bored, or scared, as horses charged and cannons boomed. Some, one suspects, would prefer to be at home with their video consoles.

John M. Sutton is chief park ranger at the national battlefield. “I’ve got two teenage kids and they’re just into other things,” he says. The youngsters he sees at the park are usually brought by parents, “then you won’t see them again until they’re married and have kids of their own.”

The troops on the battlefield happily swallow the drifting gun smoke. But most are paunchier, grayer — their heads, not their Confederate jackets — than what history tells us of those who enlisted in the 1860s to set the course for America’s future.

At the Civil War roundtables in Kansas City, where well-read history buffs hear lectures and discuss aspects of the conflict, the demographic is even older. And overwhelmingly white — not a hopeful sign, in an increasingly diverse culture, for 21st-century recruitment efforts.

For all who dabble in learning about the Civil War, no matter the setting, a certain moment happens. A moment when they either wade deep into the genre or turn away as bystanders.

For many, the lure comes from pride of lineage traced to an ancestor who served; a history that whispers. Others stumble upon a book or story that captures their imagination.

Or it might be as simple as making a joyful noise, as a Liberty man noted while gazing at a selection of muskets:

“Black powder is like taking drugs. Once you start shooting it up, you can’t stop.”

Still, whole swaths of the population keep their distance. The past is the past, after all.

The loss of more than 600,000 countrymen, the shame of slavery, the grittiness of that era — when TV and toilet paper didn’t exist and women hid their knees, ankles and minds — can make for uneasy conversation.

As for now, the history is mostly framed by those who try to teach it, preserve it in museums, write books or make films, argue about it and, like Sara Pelis, immerse themselves physically in it.

“Oh, kids, can one of you grab my hoop bag?” she yells upstairs.

For her part, she’s preparing to wear for days this tiered contraption of concentric wooden hoops and ropes engineered to balloon a skirt or dress.

She counts the long dresses draped over a door. Another hanger holds stiff-boned corsets, cotton chemises, an array of petticoats, bonnets, straw hats. Then she holds up a billowy white item that looks … unfinished?

“Crotchless drawers,” she says and laughs. Historically accurate. “People in the 1860s weren’t stupid.”

Maybe ours is the ignorant era: A 2009 survey of U.S. 17-year-olds found 57 percent unable to cite the half century (1850-1900) in which the Civil War and Reconstruction happened.

•••

Public-school pupils in Missouri study state history in the fourth grade. They are “expected,” but not required, to “explain Missouri’s role in the Civil War as a border state,” according to teaching standards.

The 150th anniversary, says Bill Gerling, a state education official, is a great opportunity to acquaint kids with regional history.

“A lot depends on the teacher.”

Too much, probably.

Who has time to lather on the local history in the elementary grades when the National Assessment of Educational Progress — all-important in fixing district funding — stresses math and language?

“We’d like to go into the schools,” says Smith of the Civil War Round Table, “but we don’t get any encouragement from educators.”

During her three years at Grandview Middle School, Courtney Cook tried to bring the Missouri-Kansas conflict to life — but only stirred up conflict with others.

Cook introduced her pupils to Confederate and Union re-enactors and encouraged the kids to try on the woolly uniforms. Sometimes she came in period garb, which some of her peers thought “distracting.”

The Grain Valley woman says administrators told her to stick to a curriculum on which the students would be tested.

Cook lost her teaching job to budget reductions last year.

“You’ve got to teach the good and the bad about U.S. history,” she says, “… and the textbooks barely list a battle west of the Mississippi.”

One high school text used in local schools devotes 29 colorful pages to the war but just one paragraph to “Bleeding Kansas.” (And it neglects the righteous savagery of John Brown when he was passing through.)

Cook continued: “The students have heard about Shawnee Mission Kia on TV commercials. They know Westport is a drinking place,” but few know how Shawnee Mission or Westport played into the war. “They need to have that history put into their hands and take ownership of it.”

It’s all around us, at the Shawnee Indian Mission, where Kansas’ territorial legislators debated slavery; Loose Park, site of the Battle of Westport; the Wornall House, where wounded soldiers lay.

“It absolutely makes a difference when a young person can stand at a place where history happened,” says Olathe educator Maureen Donegan. She noted that parents, and not just teachers, should bring kids there.

In May, Danni Hammontree stood in an open field off Nashua Road in Liberty, stomping a shovel. Nearby, her eighth-grade classmates gazed at remnants just unearthed and placed on a plastic tarp: Inkwell caps. A bottle of Castoria oil. Horseshoes.

Liberty Junior High School teacher Art Smith finds a new place each spring, combing Clay County archives and pleading with property owners to let the kids in to dig.

Apple orchards used to grow out of this year’s field. Houses 160 years old grace its edges.

“Mr. Smith does a good job not making us, but allowing us, to go back to that period,” says Danni. Picking where to plant her shovel is intuitive: Where might items fall out of pockets or saddlebags? Near that creek bed where guerrillas may have bathed? On a property line — could a soldier have scaled a fence long removed?

“If you just get kids thinking about that stuff,” says Smith, “half your battle is won.”

•••

Union drummer John Allin crumpled and fell as the fighting turned nasty.

So young, too. Just turned 15 last week.

He represents the future for those who would keep at least some part of the war fresh.

But the bitter politics, then and now, turn him off. For many contemporary Confederates, President Abraham Lincoln’s war led to Big Government 2011.

So when a few grown-up rebels at Wilson’s Creek started swearing (modern obscenities, not just the “Lincoln lover” jabs) and hurling horse manure at retreating Federals, John just played dead by his drum.

“For some, it’s all about battles. I disagree. I like the camaraderie,” he later says.

After the skirmish, he marched to a stage to play percussion bones with the Short Leaf Band. In the rebel camp, rivalries dissolved as the Unionist teen plucked “Old Dan Tucker” on his banjo.

In his three years of rallying youngsters into Cass County’s Civil War society, his interests have been fixed on the music of the 1860s and discovery of how kids lived then.

John founded the Civil War Kids Club in sixth grade at Cass Midway School. Now with 20 members, the club meets at the Harrisonville public library to talk history and plan outings.

The club started when John asked friends to help him make a video they called “Fire on the Border,” about the Union’s incendiary Order No. 11: “I invited three girls and three boys. Well, those girls eventually fell out of the club. But we’ve since picked up, oh, about seven others.”

This fall, they aim to raise funds by taking old-time photos at festivals.

“You want to keep Civil War history alive for our youth? You use the arts,” says Carol Bohl, Cass County Historical Society director. Music and theater, painting murals or stitching suspender buttons on trousers.

Leave the politics to adults.

“The question becomes, how do you prevent what festered back then … from taking over our mindset to the point it did?” Bohl asks. “To hear the political rhetoric today scares me to death. It shows when you moralize an issue, you can’t compromise on anything.”

•••

A statue of a proud Maj. Gen. Sterling Price was recently refurbished in his hometown of Keytesville, Mo., about an hour’s drive from Kansas City.

A museum is dedicated to him as well, but it’s a little more humble. It has no air conditioning or heat, and volunteers unlock the doors just a few days a week.

“I get people in here all the time who stop in and say their last name is Price, or they know they’re related to him,” says Janet Weaver. “Most of the time I have to gently tell them the war is over. And we lost.”

A hearty laugh. “Museum humor,” she adds.

Small-town curators and county historical societies look forward to anniversaries that draw new visitors. But often the public interest dies when the party’s over. It happened after the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark voyage, says Terry Davis at the American Association for State and Local History.

“You had these little museums pop up. But once the anniversary was done, the tourism was done,” Davis says.

The Price museum, however, has been around since the Civil War centennial, and Davis is bullish on such places. “If they’re engrained in their communities, I think they’ll be there to stay,” she says. “These small museums can do awesome work on a shoestring.”

Weaver, 65, is a retired high school history teacher. She connects artifacts to old murderers and forlorn lovers, with tales that unfold with a deep breath and “Well, the story goes…”

That rough-hewn oxen yoke hanging on the wall? “We got it, powder beetles and all,” she says with pride. “It was the Price family’s.” Virginians, who came here when the governor/general was a boy.

She loves questions, all but one: “Who’s going to take over when you kick the bucket?” her husband often asks her. She shrugs.

“I hate the answer.”

Paola, Kan., may have its answer in the new director of the Miami County Historical Museum.

Joe Hursey, 43, a military man who loves order, took over an operation resembling an antique store on steroids.

A museum needs to grab people within minutes, he says, “or else they won’t come back.”

He purged much of the memorabilia, reorganized some more and uncovered lost gems. Space was made for historians and anthropologists to conduct research.

The most noticeable change? The 50 enlarged portraits of Paola residents, some famous, some infamous, hung in chronological order, with placards telling their robust tales.

The museum held its first winetasting: “A night with Quantrill.” And it has a traveling history show with touchable items for an audience, whether it’s a nursing home or an elementary school.

Hursey’s next goal: enticing the young into “owning” the museum. A Halloween festival with historical characters and games for kids is coming up.

“I’m not afraid to fail with an idea,” he says. “We want to be the best history museum around these parts … to survive and be here for the 200th anniversary.”

•••

As children overwork their thumbs on the latest gadgets, historians are encouraged that technology may provide the rope to pull the Civil War into the imaginations of generations to come.

The Internet already has revolutionized the painstaking hobby of genealogical research. Tracking ancestry into the 1800s can take minutes rather than months.

Need info about a battlefield? There’s an app for that.

The Civil War Trust, working with the National Park Service and a government grant, has rolled out iPhone applications specific to four battlegrounds — Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Manassas.

Stand at any spot, punch the “Battle App” and hear experts tell what occurred beneath your feet.

“Virtual tours you can follow using your GPS,” says the trust’s Jim Campi. “We’re using technology to reach out to a younger audience. Our hope is to do more with the western theater soon.”

On the field near Wilson’s Creek, the soldiers in Union uniform looked authentic. Except one was lugging, instead of a Springfield rifle, a Viper Filmstream movie camera.

His name: Shane Seley, founder of Kansas City-based Wide Awake Films. Crouched behind some timber, he tried to stay low and blend in.

But there was no mistaking what Seley, 42, was doing out there, recording the battle of Bloody Hill in high definition.

“I love these guys,” he says of the troops, who high-five after combat. “It’s like experiencing the positives of war without all of the negatives.”

Technology’s march has made every annal of history — including our corner of the Civil War — easier to call up, tune in or click. Wide Awake Films boasts the world’s largest archive of stock footage re-creating Civil War action, and the explosion of niche TV channels, History and Discovery and National Geographic specials, stokes the demand.

A native Kansan, Seley knew little about the border conflict until he took up broadcast journalism at the University of Kansas. His interest soared as he pondered the visuals, “scalpings, saber attacks, carving obscenities on peoples’ chests…,” he rattles off.

Throw in video wizardry and some local actors and a Wide Awake DVD brings the brutality to living rooms, if you want it, in the award-winning “Bad Blood.”

Anyone hooked on the war in the Kansas City region can drive to dozens of historical society offices and peruse the letters of soldiers or the emancipation papers of slaves.

High tech is about to make the driving unnecessary.

Perhaps before the end of the year, researchers may be able to find documents from 30 contributing organizations in a digital Civil War archive being built at the Kansas City Public Library.

This summer the library received a six-figure grant that will help finance digitalization of unique mid-19th-century diary entries, maps and photographs from around the region. Ultimately, the library will showcase those items through an online archive, currently called “The Missouri-Kansas Conflict: Civil War On the Western Border, 1854-1865.”

A planning grant last year financed a survey of the documents at archives — 25,000 pages were identified as prime for the project. Now their scanning begins next month.

Organizers envision a tricked-up website where readers will be able to click up timelines and tools “showing them the spiderweb of connections that these historical persons, places and events have with one another,” says Eli Paul of the library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Maybe by Appomattox, he jokes, which is about four years away. Until then, the digitalized documents will be parked at www.sos.mo.gov/mdh.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people who come to that sort of magical moment in life when one starts looking back in time as much as forward,” Paul says. “And when they do, we’ll be here — all the institutions contributing to the website — when they start reaching back.”

•••

Places where fallen warriors rest are more likely to strive to keep their memories alive.

So it’s not surprising that northern California will be less interested than North Carolina.

Or that in Kansas, Lawrence just celebrated a week of events surrounding its 1863 destruction by Missouri guerrillas.

In Nebraska, the folks of a different Lawrence prefer their annual “Cow Chip Open” at the local golf club.

“My sense is that the interest and the passions are very much alive from Washington, D.C., through the South,” says New Mexico State University historian Dwight Pitcaithley.

“But in Boston, where the American Revolution is huge? I worked there 10 years for the National Park Service, and the Civil War was just not on the radar screen.”

As the United States changes demographically, enthusiasm for all things Civil War may well diminish.

Newly arrived Hispanics or Asians have no cultural connection. Even the black community, which was in the middle of the great conflict, is hard to interest.

“Part of the problem is we’ve cast it as a white man’s war,” says Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington. “We’ve broken it down to these two competing, grossly inaccurate sides: The myth of the noble North bringing glory to the poor Negro. And the myth of Southerners who cared for and were liked by their slaves.”

Jones says he hopes this century sheds light on a more complicated truth: Of brave and often highly educated blacks lobbying Congress, and loading their own muskets, to free themselves. Of sacrifices made by citizens of all ethnic blends in the ongoing pursuit of a more perfect union.

Knowing the details is one thing, taking away the right lessons quite another.

“We’ve remembered the Civil War in different ways,” says James Grossman at the American Historical Association. “And remembering that it was about slavery — one of our greatest sins — is crucial.

“When a nation commits a sin so egregious, it pays a big price. That’s Lesson Number 1.”

”I am concerned,” says Retired Army Brig. Gen. Donald Scott of Kansas City, a descendant of northeast Missouri slaves, “that the Civil War observance will give a four-year spotlight on those who will refight the battles and argue the causes rather than provide an opportunity for Americans to learn from our heritage.”

It’s a heritage blueprinted in the Declaration of Independence, a past that requires us to define who we have been, and will be, as a nation, says Scott: “Every generation faces those moments,” be it women’s suffrage or gay rights or 9/11.

Each compels America to reflect on the worst of moments, when a war prompted Lincoln to ask at Gettysburg “whether that nation … can long endure.”

It has so far.

•••

Back at Wilson’s Creek, temperatures climb to the high 90s. Spectators have largely fled.

Still, women wearing ankle-length dresses sit in the shade, fanning themselves. Men sip liquids from tin cups, reclining on the ground; some snooze with hats over their faces.

At the Pelis tent, a pot of stew bubbles over a wood fire. But the campsite is empty. The kids and their parents are doing what families have done for all time — cooling off in the creek, a stream of history.

“Ooooh, this is so amazing,” Sara says, wading in and throwing her head back in relief.

“We’ve been here for five days. We camped in pouring rains and searing heat. And you know what? I could do this another five days.

“People don’t know how relaxing this is. No phone calls. No computers. No Facebook! No television.”

The family already is planning their next campaign: Sept. 16 in Lexington, Mo. They’ve come to value what tomorrow’s communities might learn, too. Remembering the war that reconnected a nation can reconnect families.

“This is something my kids will never forget,” says Pelis. “I know Civil War re-enactments will go on … because of one simple but powerful reason.

“All of this is really, really fun.”

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