Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Value of Living History: Reenacting the Vote on Secession in Virginia

A couple of weekends ago, I attended a reenactment of the Virginia vote on secession in Vienna, Virginia.  The Town of Vienna, Historic Vienna, Inc., and the Vienna Sesquicentennial Committee sponsored the event, which was held to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the May 23, 1861 vote on the Ordinance of Secession.  As I stood in the audience, I couldn't help but think of the recent blogosphere controversy over Civil War reenactments and living history. (Much of the discussion has focused on the military aspect of reenacting.) Professor Glenn LaFantasie fired the opening salvo on Salon.com, and since then, several bloggers have weighed in on the topic. (See here , here, and here.)   I found LaFantasie's commentary filled with condescension, over-generalization, and political bias. The Vienna event demonstrated the folly of outright dismissing living history events and the value that they bring to educating the public about the Civil War.

The Vienna reenactment on May 21 put the political and social history of the war front and center.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but what I found confirmed my longstanding support for living history.  Just as Craig Swain pointed out the other day, I too am glad to see that community groups and other organizations are looking at unique ways to commemorate the Sesquicentennial.  The sponsoring organizations held the event at the restored Lydecker's (now Freeman) Store, where the actual vote took place 150 years ago.  A commentator kicked off the commemoration by discussing the history of the vote on the Ordinance in Fairfax and Vienna.  The only omission was the failure to explore claims of intimidation and  irregularities that plagued the voting that day in Fairfax and across the Commonwealth.

After the introductory remarks, the commentator turned the "stage" over to reenactors outfitted in 1860s-era civilian costumes. Each civilian stood on Lydecker's porch and gave a brief speech as to why he was for or against secession, while reenactors planted in the crowd yelled insults. (I suppose this taunting represented intimidation, although it seemed at times aimed at getting laughs from the audience.) All major views on secession in Fairfax were represented. A Northern transplant, who was also the election commissioner, opposed secession out of commitment to Union and family ties. He stood on the porch and engaged others in debate. A native Virginian joined him in opposing the Ordinance over fears that war would bring economic ruin to the region. 

The election commissioner and Northern transplant (Peter Hendrick) debates with a pro-secession tobacco farmer (Ernest Birdsong).

A hotheaded secessionist (Charles Adams) makes his views known.

The pro-secession vote ran the gamut.  A tobacco farmer explained his anger over Lincoln's call for volunteers and his worry about the future of slavery under the Republican party.  A few others spoke about their overriding and unquestioning loyalty to Virginia.  The village drunk stumbled onto the porch, whiskey in hand, and proclaimed his support for the South. 

A Unionist farmer (Eric Owens) casts his vote against the Ordinance.
Following the debate and discussion, a reenactment of the actual vote was held.  Each voter approached the election officer, who was seated at a desk, and announced his vote aloud, as was done in 1861.  The officer recorded the vote in his ledger.  A group of women walked towards the polling official and attempted to vote, but was turned away.  Although I don't think this exact episode occurred at Lydecker's in 1861, it gave the reenactors a chance to demonstrate the injustice of denying women the right to vote.  The reenactment concluded, and the audience was invited to vote by a show of hands.  The Ordinance was defeated, just like it was at Lydecker's 150 years ago. (And if you are wondering, yes, I voted against secession!)

The organizers had three reenactments throughout the day, and all were well attended.  Given that the Freeman House is located right off the W&OD Trail and busy Church Street, quite a few passers-by were drawn to the event, along with the usual crew of history enthusiasts.  The reenactment explored the complexities of secession in Fairfax by bringing the vote alive for a modern audience.  More than a few audience members likely walked away with a better understanding of what secession meant to the inhabitants of Fairfax 150 years ago.  Now that is living history worth commending.


Jenny Caffrey said...

Hi there, love your blog.. We live in Va but I'm from Ireland and my husband is from NZ. How do we find out about events like the Secession one above. We always seem to find out after the events. Any pointers would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks, Jenny Caffrey

Fairfax Civil War said...

Excellent column Ron! Jenny, Fairfax County has set up a Civil War 150th website found at www.fairfaxcivilwar.com

If you click on the "Events" tab, you'll find both Fairfax events and other events from around the Capital Region.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks! Glad you liked it. And it looks like you beat me to it. I was going to point her to your excellent website!

Jenny--thanks for reading, and I am glad you enjoy the blog. I would highly recommend the Fairfax site for all events in the county and around DC. It is the most comprehensive listing I have seen so far for 150th events in the area. Other listings are sporadic at best, including those in the Washington Post, or you would have to visit a lot of different websites. The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission has a listing of events statewide: http://www.virginiacivilwar.org/committeeevents.php

Anonymous said...

Ron, I was unfortunately sidetracked and unable to attend this event. Though I was looking forward to it. Glad to see the report here. I'm looking forward to more of these "non-typical" reenactments.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Sorry you couldn't make it. It was an interesting event, to say the least. I too hope that there are other reenactments like this one, and the one you mentioned the other day on your blog. Of course, I also have my ticket to the more traditional battle reenactment in Manassas in July--maybe that is the kid in me speaking. I loved going to battle reenactments when I was a youngin'!

Anonymous said...

Superb blog, Ron. And, re this post, thanks for enabling me to share in a great interpretation of an important event in my hometown's history. Noel G. Harrison

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Noel, for the compliment on the blog. I also am glad I could carry you back to your hometown. Vienna is playing a very active role in the Sesquicentennial doing creative events like this one. They are also reenacting and interpreting the "Battle" of Vienna next weekend. By the way, your blog is excellent!

Jon Vrana said...

Thanks to all that enjoyed the event at Lydecker's Store in Vienna. We followed that up a couple of weeks later with another vote, this time in Fairfax C.H., as well as a re-enactment of a specially called stockholder's meeting of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad Co., due to the recent occupation of Alexandria by Federal forces and the loss of the O&A's main shops.

Our group's intent is to do additional non-military events, such as the votes and the stockholder's meetings in the future so watch for these.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment, Silas. Great to see your group is doing such interesting and unique reenactments. Will you be publicizing on your website or elsewhere?