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Bringing the past to life

fr musketdrillWhen Kim Sutton puts on his Civil War attire, he’s immediately transported to an era when a national conflict held court in the rural landscape of Haywood County.

“Oh, it’s real emotional,” he said. “You sort of feel the same thing our ancestors felt — you hurt.”

Underneath the shade of a tree during a recent afternoon at the historic Shelton House in Waynesville, Sutton stands proudly in his Confederate Army scout uniform. For him, and for numerous other local re-enactors, the history of the Civil War, for good or ill, comes alive during the annual memorial events held around the country in remembrance of what many in these parts refer to as the “War of North Aggression.”

“I had all kinds of family members who fought in the War of North Aggression,” Sutton said. “And by being part of these living history aspects, I get to not only remember them, but also explain and teach the history to others.”

A resident of the Upper Crabtree community, Sutton sees the importance of not only preserving the past, but also perpetuating its message. It is about being aware of the entire story of when America split in two, and what Western North Carolina’s place was in it all. It’s about the “Last Shot Fired” of the Civil War at the “Battle of Waynesville,” which will have its 150th anniversary on May 6.

Observing Sutton from a few feet away, it’s also a sentiment Ironduff resident Douglas Knight feels deep within his soul, too.

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“The Civil War hurt, and it still hurts,” Knight said. “You see what life was like in the South, you see the hardship that our ancestors endured. It wasn’t just ‘load up, fight the war on the weekend and come home’ — it was an everyday occurrence.”

Knight is a re-enactor, one who does Civil War memorial and pre-1840 events, and is a member of the Col. William Holland Thomas Camp 2231 (Thomas’ Cherokee Legion was a vital force for the Confederate Army during the “Battle of Waynesville). He’s also an adjutant for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. 

“It gives me a sense of pride,” Knight said. “I get to explain to folks what the war was, when it was, teaching them the timeline of our country. And those folks, they are fascinated, they want to learn more. History is written by the victors and a lot of the real story of the South is brushed over in the textbooks.”

And with the upcoming sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War, WNC re-enactors will be hosting a full weekend of memorial services and events at the Shelton House and around Haywood County. These re-enactors will provide a living history of the “Battle of Waynesville,” the camps soldiers and civilians inhabited, as well as live demonstrations of what life was like in that time, in that atmosphere of social and economical strife in the South.

Within the re-enactment camp at the Shelton House will also be an array of civilians, who play the role of military families, who supported and supplied their loved ones headed to battle. A re-enactor for the better part of the last decade, acclaimed regional banjoist Anita Pruett, will once again be part of the camp for the upcoming festivities.

“We really want to help people understand what the history is, what their history is, that there were two sides to this conflict,” she said. “And that conflict was right here, on our soil — brother against brother, family against family.”

Pruett got involved in re-enactments eight years ago, when her son, Zack, a teenager at the time, wanted to attend an event in Ohio, of which his uncle was involved in. The 16-year-old history buff was hooked, so was his younger sister Callie, with Anita bringing them to re-enactments up and down the East Coast over the better part of the last decade. And within that time, Anita herself found a sincere enjoyment in the events, eventually becoming a civilian re-enactor, one who also performs Civil War-era melodies in the camps. 

“We need to understand our past to make a better future, and it’s important for me to have my kids see and learn about these parts of history,” Anita said. “You see things these days where kids have no idea who was in the Civil War. They don’t have a clue, and that frightens me.”

Anita is proud to see her children take a vested interest in the past of their ancestors. It also gives her encouragement that more younger folks will get involved in re-enacting, a passion with dwindling numbers in recent years, as re-enactors tend to be of older generations. She also points to the deep, emotion connection every re-enactor feels when taking the stage of history.

“We were at Gettysburg several years ago, and as we stood there, as Confederates on northern soil, and even though we’re all Americans and the war is over, you wonder if it really is over for some people?” she said. “We don’t need to forget, we need to see there’s so much more to the history of it all.”

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