Are Civil War re-enactments culturally insensitive? Organizers say that's not the trouble they're having
Questions about the message led to the brief cancellation last week of the popular Civil War Days at Lakewood Forest Preserve near Wauconda, but cost and manpower -- not concerns about sensitivity -- are the biggest threat to the future of historical re-enactments.
Organizers and participants say that among the few Civil War events that have disappeared, including this year in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and Lamoni, Iowa, it's due to a lack of funding, not public concern with the content or presentation.
"There are less events now than in the past, but it has nothing to do with politics. It's money," said Jack Pickup, who helps coordinate Confederate units for events in northern Illinois -- including the Civil War Experience in Elgin -- as well as Iowa and southern Wisconsin.
The Civil War Encampment in Brookfield, Wisconsin, had been held for 22 years but was cut due to cost and a lack of volunteers and re-enactors, according to the Elmbrook Historical Society. Instead, a group of 141 students participated in "A Day in the Life of a Civil War Soldier" field trip led by volunteers and re-enactors.
Despite money woes at some locations, Civil War re-enactments are popular Midwest attractions. Midwestweekends.com lists 13 in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan from April through October.
Re-enactors don't get paid, but an event costs range from $8,000 to $30,000, according to Chuck Wozniak, president of Stanford's Battery, a Confederate re-enactment group, and coordinator of events in Lombard and Carpentersville.
Food for hundreds of re-enactors, gun powder, permits, insurance and fees for specialty talent, such as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, are among the costs.
There probably are fewer events, but "it's because of money and budgeting," Wozniak said, not situations like that of Lake County's Civil War Days.
In Lake County, Angelo Kyle, president of the Lake County Forest Preserve District board, abruptly canceled Civil Wars Days this month, calling for an end to what's been a staple at the Lakewood preserve for 27 years.
Though reversed within 48 hours, Kyle's directive surprised fellow forest board commissioners and news of it spread through the tight network of re-enactors in the Chicago area and beyond.
Kyle said the event has run its course and the district should concentrate on informing and educating the public on matters such as climate change.
His decision was backed by Waukegan activist Ralph Peterson Jr., who told forest board members last week that Civil War Days is culturally insensitive to black people.
Organizers of other Civil War encampments say they have not heard those criticisms. In fact, Wozniak said, venues in Will and Kankakee counties are seeking to launch new events.
"The only complaints we've had are noise complaints," said Sarah Richardt, executive director of the Lombard Historical Society, which has held a Civil War Encampment since 2011. This year's event is July 26-28.
"Saying we're insensitive to a certain group -- we've never, ever heard," she said.
No concerns about content have been voiced nor revisions made in Civil War Days, which has been held since 1982 at the Naper Settlement in Naperville, according to spokeswoman Abbey Bobzin.
Wozniak says he's never encountered a concern of this type in 35 years of re-enacting.
"Lombard will be its ninth year and we've never had a problem. Carpentersville will be it's fourth year and we've never had a problem," he said.
Richardt said the group has been "extremely sensitive" to potential issues, especially in light of the removal of some Confederate monuments and memorials in the South.
Those who take part in the events say they don't celebrate the Civil War and are about educating people about the era, and not just the battles.
"It's living history and it's not play time," Richardt said.
Despite changing course on this year's Lake County encampment, Kyle said he wanted this year's event to be the last. He expects there will be extensive discussion regarding the future of the event and looks forward to a "meaningful discussion."
Other board members say the discussion is worth having.
"We need to have that whole conversation," said Commissioner Diane Hewitt, who represents parts of Waukegan, Gurnee, Beach Park and Zion.
"I would ask Mr. Peterson be involved. I want to learn where he's coming from. We do not make ourselves better unless we understand our neighbors."