Questions for time travelers

Sure, President Lincoln and other leaders of his day were sharp folks, but we’ve got more than a century of accumulated knowledge and history that they weren’t privy to. So, hindsight being 20/20, wouldn’t it be nice to share a little of our keen vision with a host of Civil War-era personages? Or maybe just to pick their brains a bit?

A rare chance to chat with historic figures from that era — through scholars and professional performers who stand in as in-character re-enactors — is coming to Asheville June 20-23. Buncombe County Chautauqua 2005, sponsored by the Friends of Buncombe County Libraries and supported by several local merchants and museums, will feature what the event’s program calls “the Civil War, as told by those who were there.”

Six scholars/actors will perform in historic guises, some familiar, some relatively obscure. Each of the characters can provide some unique perspective on the Civil War — and maybe even answer some of the new questions arising from present-day understandings of the past.

Here now, meet the historical figures who will grace the event (in order of their appearance). And consider just a few questions you might ask someone who’s traveled through time to tell their tale.

John C. Calhoun (June 20)

A South Carolina politician who served in the U.S. House and Senate and as Secretary of War, Secretary of State and Vice President, Calhoun (1782-1850) didn’t live to see the Civil War — but he sure saw it coming. Throughout his later years, Calhoun protested that abolitionists would force the dissolution of the Union, because, he insisted, the South needed to keep slavery alive at all costs. And so Calhoun, a noted orator, spoke long and loudly in defense of human bondage.

You might ask: Mr. Calhoun, you argued that slavery “is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good,” both for slave and slave-owner, and that abolition would irreparably harm the South. Well, would you be surprised to find out that the country did away with slavery in 1865, and that the South is far, far better for it?

Mary Boykin Chesnut (June 21)

It’s not much of a stretch to say that Chesnut (1823-1886) lived the Civil War. The daughter of a plantation owner and wife of a South Carolina senator, she spent the war in and around the halls of Confederate power, all the time keeping notes. Years after the war, she reconstructed her memories for what has since become a noted “diary” of the conflict from the perspective of a woman who was on the (political) front lines. While she strongly favored the South’s secession, she was also a critic of slavery. And though she was a white, moneyed woman, she was still a woman, and she chafed at the patriarchy of her times. “There is no slave like a wife,” she wrote.

You might ask: Mrs. Chesnut, you decried the fact that women were denied the right to vote during your time. Well, today women not only have the vote, but there’s talk of a woman making a serious bid for the presidency in 2008. Your thoughts on the Hillary Clinton campaign?

Sam R. Watkins (June 22)

Seven major battles, seven wounds and innumerable stories — that pretty much sums up the wartime experience of Watkins (1839-1901), a Tennessee Confederate soldier who wrote a memoir after the war. Watkins’ work won a wide audience because of the honesty and humor of his account, which told the unvarnished truth about what it was like to be a private in the trenches.

You might ask: Mr. Watkins, one of your present-day admirers is Pat Grills, a teacher who is portraying you this very moment. Grills writes that you “went off to war for all the wrong reasons,” but still soldiered through, and that when the war was over, you “bore no grudge.” Here’s a hypothetical question for you: If, in 2005, a soldier found himself (or herself) dispatched to fight in a war for all the wrong reasons, what advice can you offer?

Ambrose Bierce (June 22)

Bierce (1842-1914) was a young man working as a journalist when the Civil War erupted. After fighting as a Union soldier with an Indiana-based unit, he wrote poignantly of the loss and waste of war. He took a dim view of military officials, and wasn’t afraid to say it. Bierce defined a “patriot” as “the dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors,” and “history” as “an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant.”

You might ask: We’re here today to talk history, Mr. Bierce, and you often warned of the dangers of romanticizing the past. What parts of the Civil War are we still unable to accurately address today?

Frederick Douglass (June 23)

A man who needs little introduction, Douglass (1818-1895) was born a Maryland slave. After escaping to Massachusetts and buying his freedom, he became a prolific publisher and leading abolitionist, eventually becoming an adviser to President Lincoln.

You might ask: Today, more than 140 years have passed since emancipation, Mr. Douglass, and this country, it seems, still can’t manage a genuine discussion on the question of reparations for slavery. What sorts of compensation do you believe that slaves and the descendents of slaves are due?

Abraham Lincoln (June 23)

The most famous figure to grace the Buncombe Chautauqua lineup, Lincoln (1809-1865) was an Illinois congressman who became president and saw the country through the Civil War.

You might ask: Mr. President, you may have heard by now that a controversial 2005 book, C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, argues that a close reading of the historical record indicates that you were, in fact, gay. Honest, Abe, anything you’d care to say on that score? Forgive me if the question seems uncouth — but we live in strange times.


The Buncombe County Chautauqua happens Monday, June 20 through Thursday, June 23, behind the Smith-McDowell House Museum (283 Victoria Road). Each program will begin with a musical performance at 7 p.m.; speakers take the stage at 7:30 p.m. A question-and-answer session will follow each performance. Suggested donation is $3 per program, or $8 for a four-night pass. Speakers will breakfast at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.) at 9 a.m. the morning following each of their respective performances. Call 250-4700 or visit www.buncombecounty.org for more information.

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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