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Brooksville Raid is fun, but it isn't a lesson in history

The Hernando Historical Museum Association is supposed to teach people the truth about our past.

So how can it justify its signature event and primary fundraiser, the annual Brooksville Raid Re-enactment?

Let me stop here for a moment to say that I don't buy the worst of the stereotypes about these events. I didn't find any flat-out racists when I interviewed re-enactors and audience members Sunday.

I did find a lot of people who cared about the past and a few who knew enough names and dates to make me feel that my years as a college history major had been a pitiful waste.

A sizable percentage of the re-enactors claim to be descended from men who served with the Confederacy, so I can understand their connection to its history. I can see that it might be fun to hang around a campfire, get suited up in gray woolens and charge across the fields at Spring Hill's Sand Hill Scout Reservation with like-minded friends.

The problem I have is how they deal with the institution that all those soldiers they like to emulate were fighting for — slavery.

Mostly that means not dealing with it at all. But if you ask, you'll hear a lot of the old excuses/justifications that most mainstream historians regard as nonsense, including that the Civil War was as much about preserving states' rights as the privilege of owning other human beings and that, most offensively, slaves didn't really have it that bad.

Without context, the museum association's event, with its flags, gunfire and uniforms, is romanticism pure and simple — glossing over history, stirring people up about it, not teaching it. And this starts with the portrayal of the raid itself.

The re-enactors wear uniforms and advance in orderly lines like the troops at Gettysburg. There were about 1,500 of them this year, and, after a few hundred Confederate re-enactors agreed to switch sides, they were evenly divided between North and South.

This is how it really was: A Union raiding force of 240, more interested in killing the Confederacy's cattle than its soldiers, was confronted by a handful of boys and old men in civvies. These Confederate irregulars suffered their only fatality when one squad of them mistakenly ambushed another.

The re-enactment is meant to represent a Civil War battle, not replicate the raid, said Doug Davis, a re-enactor and museum association member.

"If it was historically accurate, there'd be about 13 of us out here,'' said Davis, who is related by marriage to David Hope, an owner of one of the farms burned and looted in the raid.

Even with that connection, Davis said, he might not show up if it wasn't for one final liberty the raid organizers take with the truth. Or should we call it wish fulfillment? After dutifully going down to defeat each Saturday, on Sunday the Rebels get to win.

"I'm not going to come out here and hang around all weekend and lose,'' Davis said.

Okay. In fairness only one person I interviewed went so far as to say the United States would have been better off if the South had won the war. This was Chuck Allen, who like Davis is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group that recently erected that infamous slap in the face of racial harmony, the massive Confederate battle flag at the junction of Interstates 4 and 75.

In Allen's view, the North, unlike the South, was run by the big-money elite, and events as wide-ranging as the corruption of the Gilded Age to last year's bank bailout can be blamed on its victory. And as evidence that slaves were better off than Southern white laborers, he offered that a slave's life expectancy was 15 to 20 years longer.

"The idea that a person can own another person is an evil thing,'' Allen said. "But if you argue that slavery was evil because slaves were so mistreated, then you and me are going to have a go-around.''

First off, just discussing the possible upside of the South's victory ignores its rather dramatic downside: the continuation of slavery. Secondly, none of the historians I talked to had heard the life expectancy statistic Allen cited. And even if some owners did treat slaves well — the slaves were their property, after all — praising this ignores the system of terror that kept slavery in place.

"There's the threat of violence, the reality of violence and the huge threat of families being broken up,'' said Matt Gallman, a history professor at the University of Florida.

"Would you rather be a slave, see your wife raped by the master and taken from you, and children sold to different owners, or a free man with a family, freedom and 10 fewer years to your life?'' said Harry S. Stout, a history professor at Yale University.

Personally, it wouldn't hurt my feelings if the raid, like Spring Hill's Chicken Pluckin' Festival before it, died from lack of interest. But considering that it drew about 8,000 paying customers this year, that's not going to happen soon.

So let's talk about possible changes that could make this event more worthy of community support, and of the Times' sponsorship of it.

There's the timing — celebrating the Confederacy at about the same time each year as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is when we honor a man who died fighting the worst of the Confederacy's lingering injustices.

Because the museum association obviously doesn't care about accuracy, why not move the date? The actual event took place in July 1864. The association also should address slavery somehow, some way. Explain its brutality; own up to it. This should be mandatory, especially, for an organization that claims to be about education.

That way, all the children I saw walking around waving miniature battle flags will know what they really stood for.

Brooksville Raid is fun, but it isn't a lesson in history 01/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 8:43pm]

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