Visitors say both sides at fault when it comes to proclamation

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 2, 2006

Ashley McKnight-Taylor

Sons of Confederate Veterans or no, proclamation or no, Civil War Weekend kicked off yesterday with bright, windy weather.

Theresa Earles, the city’s tourism coordinator, said she couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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The participants, though n most from outside of Suffolk n had their own views on the recent hoopla.

Allen Mordica, with the Tidewater Maritime Living History Association, said his group focuses more on the education side of such events, so they tend not to have the same level of emotional interest that re-enactors have.

The withdrawal of the SCV (and the United Daughters of the Confederacy) hurt the event in that there wasn’t as much for visitors to see and because the SCV missed an opportunity to educate people, he said.

“If they want to get their point across, staying at home is not going to do it.”

Overall, though, he said he thought people who had planned to come still showed up. And the TMLHA would participate regardless.

“We will do this if one person or a thousand come by.”

That was a sentiment expressed by most all the living-history folks.

Richard Greathouse, with the Third Virginia Infantry, said his organization has been to events with 5,000 people or more. Small ones like Suffolk’s give them more of a chance to talk to people, and they would come back next year no matter what the mayor and SCV do.

Both sides n the mayor and the SCV n missed the point, he said.

“People need to look at history as history. Don’t look at history as modern. What they believed in the 1860s does not apply in 2006.”

Greg McLeod, captain of the 6th U.S. Calvary, said he’d heard a little about the controversy in Suffolk, but it did not deter his organization’s participation. That group also portrays a Confederate group, the 15th Virginia Calvary.

“It’s history,” he said. “It makes no difference to us which coat we put on.”

It takes more than re-enactors and living history presenters to create an event like Civil War Weekend. The “sutlers” (civilians approved to supply troops) or vendors are a piece of the puzzle, too. Not only do they have goods for visitors, but they supply many of the participants with their clothing and equipment.

Donna and Lonnie Prosser of Richmond are the proprietors of Liberty Emporium. After learning that the SCV had backed out of the event, she was tempted to do so herself, but said she wanted to honor her commitment to the tourism bureau. That is where she takes issue with the SCV: Having great-grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy, she can respect “the strong emotional feelings” of the SCV, but said it was inappropriate for them to break a commitment.

“The Confederates have sort of let us down, too,” she said.

Lonnie agreed. He said that by pulling out, they are “doing the same thing to the event as what the mayor is doing.”

But the Prosser also take issue with Mayor Bobby Ralph. Donna noted that since the city recognized Black History Month, then in all fairness, it should do the same for Confederate history and heritage.

The couple said they usually stay in a hotel, eat and shop at local establishments, but because of the mayor’s actions they opted instead to sleep in their van and pack a cooler of groceries, not wanting to spend any extra money in Suffolk.

Daniel Young is a blacksmith who makes candles, canteens, metal work and more. He traveled four hours from Bassett to participate in Civil War Weekend, but he said he wasn’t sure it would be worth his while. He had heard about the controversy before he left and decided to bring only about half of his normal stock. If the troops don’t come, he wouldn’t make enough to justify the trip.

“If it wasn’t for the troops, I couldn’t come out.”

The hobby n and livelihood in come cases n is not an inexpensive endeavor for anyone involved. It can cost thousands of dollars for re-enactors and living-history presenters to outfit themselves with uniforms and supplies.

Mordica said a uniform alone can range from $1,000 to $2,000.

Young said he spent $150 just traveling to Suffolk from Bassett, but he estimates his entire rig, with full stock, at about $75,000.

So what is this “controversy” that is all the buzz at the weekend festival?

The members of the Tom Smith Camp No. 1702, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Daughters of the Confederacy announced last week they would be pulling out of Civil War Weekend after Mayor Bobby Ralph declined recently to sign a proclamation declaring April Confederate History and Heritage Month in Suffolk.

The Tom Smith Camp has made the request each spring since 2002 as a way of honoring the memory of the 1,500 Confederate soldiers from Suffolk and the former Nansemond County who fought in the Civil War.

Ralph signed the proclamation in 2005 and, according to SCV members, had indicated in recent months that he would be willing to sign the same proclamation this year.

The mayor called the issue “sensitive” and sought the advice of council members. He said he wanted to “be perceived as a person who blends people together, not separating them” and acknowledged that whatever decision he made would be criticized.

The Tom Smith Camp, as well as other civic organizations, has supported the city’s tourism department planning for Civil War Weekend since its inception three years ago. The Tom Smith Camp usually has a booth, participates in cemetery tours and in the past, has helped line up speakers for the event.