The Civil War divided Kentuckians, but reenactments unite them
Most of the time, it’s quiet in the community of David, population 500, in far eastern Kentucky near Prestonsburg, with only the locals out and about. But over several days in mid-September, big crowds of outsiders gather with locals and the quiet is interrupted during the day by cannon shots, gunfire and lots of yelling. The evenings are filled with music, dancing, conversation and laughter.
The reason for the excitement? The Battle of Middle Creek reenactment is held on the edge of the Floyd County town—this year, September 12-13. Residents and visitors reenact the Civil War battle that took place there on January 10, 1862. Men, women and children take part, and others come to watch and enjoy food and camaraderie. One day is dedicated to the Battle of Middle Creek; the next day is a reenactment of the Battle of Ivy Mountain, another Civil War battle that took place in that area.
“I had a great-grandfather who fought in the battle of Middle Creek on the Confederate side,” says Greg Davis, a 58-year-old David resident who’s been doing reenactments for about 18 years, including in the Battle of Middle Creek. “And when I was a kid, my mother liked to go down on Friday and Saturday nights during that reenactment and help feed the reenactors.”
Davis, vice chairman of the Big Sandy RECC Board of Directors, says his cousins recruited him when there was a shortage of reenactors.
“I said yeah, if you can find me a gun and a uniform. So, they did and I got hooked. It’s just a big adrenaline rush,” he says.
The turning point for Davis was when he saw a reenactor trip over a cannonball in some high grass. Turns out, it was a cannonball from the actual Civil War battle.
“It had been laying there all those years and that field had been plowed and farmed,” he says. “But that cannonball had a place cut out of it and we figured a Bush Hog had hooked it and kicked it up out of the dirt.”
For Elyon Davis of Henderson, no relation to Greg, his roots as a Confederate soldier reenactor stem from his childhood interest in the Civil War. He would visit his grandmother in Georgia and his family went to the 100th anniversary of the 1863 battle of Chickamauga, which took place in northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee.
Davis, a Kenergy Corp. consumer-member, was 8 when he visited the battlefield and by the mid 1980s, he was participating. He calls it “the imagination of past times and former glory … You are able, to a certain extent, to relive history.”
He recalls reenactments where he was marching forward with his line, with cannons firing in front of them: “You can see the Federals and all of a sudden a whole line of them stand up in front of you that you didn’t know was there and they’re preparing to fire.”
Bonding in battle
The camaraderie that develops among both participants and viewers is special, Greg Davis says. Spectators often have conversations with the reenactors before or after battles, he says, adding to the experience, especially for those attending for the first time.
Even when not in the “midst of a battle,” the camaraderie and sense of history are fulfilling, Elyon Davis says.
“You camp together,” he explains. “You spend a weekend or longer in tents, cooking in a common mess, doing the kinds of things soldiers would do.”
That friendly ambiance likely helps when the reenactors have to depart from their usual roles. Jimmy Williams, 59, a line crew leader for Gibson EMC, is a member of a Confederate unit, but is prepared to switch sides. “Sometimes there’s not enough numbers on the Union side down in this part of the country. So, most everybody keeps a blue coat handy in case they need to switch over,” he says.
The camaraderie also offsets some of the discomforts. Sometimes Greg Davis has had to “die” in battle. As he points out, when reenactors “die,” they must lie on the ground until the battle is finished. Sometimes a battle can last up to 45 minutes, he says, so they’re there for quite a while.
He adds that it’s often hot in September at the time of the reenactment in David. Reenactors wear wool uniforms just like the soldiers wore back then, and Davis says pretending to be dead in the heat and in a wool uniform is not easy.
For many reenactors, one battle is not enough. Williams, who grew up in Kentucky and currently lives just across the border in Union City, Tennessee, says he’s probably done about 50 reenactments—sometimes as many as five or six in one year.
His reenactment resumé includes the battles of Sacramento and Columbus-Belmont—about 15 apiece—along with multiples of the battles of Eddyville and Munfordville, plus once at Perryville.
“Columbus-Belmont (on the shores of the Mississippi River in Hickman County) may be the best for the spectator,” Williams says. “They’re closer to the action than in any other reenactment I’ve been a part of.”
Most of the time, Williams portrays a Confederate soldier. He always mans a cannon and is in the Cobb’s Battery unit, which he says never surrendered at the end of the war.
Elyon Davis has reenacted in the battles of Sacramento, Perryville and Munfordville in Kentucky, and, outside the state, at Gettysburg (three times), Antietam (twice) and Manassas.
“Perryville is the neatest one I’ve done in Kentucky,” he says. “That’s because it takes place on the actual battlefield. Many of the reenactments don’t happen on the grounds where the battle happened.”
Though he is 64 and has an artificial hip, Davis says he still plans to be involved in future reenactments.
“As long as you don’t get too old or too fat you can keep doing this for as long as you want,” he says.
Reenactments aren’t only for men—plenty of women participate, too. Laura Edwards Poole, 35, from Clinton in Hickman County, started participating in 1997 when she was 12 years old.
“They always had a reenactment in Smithland where I grew up,” says Poole. “And we dressed up and helped serve at the ladies tea. Plus, I always had that love of history deep inside. Then, once my family (she, her father and her brother) joined an artillery group, we figured we could bring it to life by living it for a few days, and we were all hooked.”
It’s still a family affair for Poole, who met her husband at a reenactment. Their two children, ages 4 and 19 months, also now participate.
“The 4-year-old knows why we dress the way we do,” Poole says. “She knows there’s no electricity and that we have to carry our own water. She understands that time in history and she loves it.”
Poole, who enjoys watching young people experience the reenactments, says she has played a variety of roles, but typically is a farmer’s wife.
“We laugh at people when they first come to an event and we’ll say you’ll know it when that bug bites you,” she says. “And you know it the moment you’re hooked and then you can’t get enough of it.”
Poole is looking forward to this year’s Battle of Smithland reenactment, April 24-26, in Livingston County.
“There’s something special about it at night when the crowd has gone home, and it’s just us reenactors. The campfire is glowing and someone might have a banjo and fiddle, and you’re frozen there in time,” she says. “And for a moment you feel like you’re walking right alongside your ancestors.”
Kentucky in the Civil War
Several military actions took place in Kentucky during the Civil War. Not all of them are considered battles, and there is no single source for a complete list. But a good place to start is Kentucky Tourism’s Civil War Heritage Trail. Click here for a list of the sites, as well as maps.