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Battle of Richmond reenactment: 161 years later, some participants still differ on cause, legacy of Civil War

At Saturday's reenactment of the Battle of Richmond, smoke from the battlefield often obscured the action.
John McGary
At Saturday's reenactment of the Battle of Richmond, smoke from the battlefield often obscured the action.

A few minutes before the Battle of Richmond reenactment begins, a unit of 20 or so Union troops practices movements. They’re about to be part of a battle that turned into a Confederate rout.

50 yards away, members of a Sons of Confederates Veterans unit based in Winchester are selling Confederate merchandise. Norm Rechel, a Marine and National Guard veteran, is sitting this reenactment out but says attending them is a way to honor people like his great-great-grandfather, who fought for the Confederate 5th Kentucky Infantry Regiment.

“I have ancestry written down. It talks about why they fought, they fought because of the rights of the state and they were afraid that the state was going to take their possessions, their farms that they took their life savings to build and buy.”

Fellow SCV member Tommy Rector says the southern states that seceded – seven of them before Lincoln took office – had a right to do so.

“All we wanted to do to quote Jefferson Davis was to be left alone. Just leave us alone, it’s a gentleman's club, we joined voluntarily, as they knew secession was legal. But Jefferson Davis never got his day in court.”

“Do you think if the South hadn't fired first on Fort Sumpter -- what do you think would have happened?”

“The South wouldn't have done that if President Lincoln hadn't orchestrated this, designed this to cause the folks down south to say hey, ‘Enough's enough.”’

Both men say moving Confederate monuments and renaming military bases is like erasing history.

John Stich of Bardstown is wearing the Union blue of the 10th Kentucky Infantry. He’s been a reenactor for 37 years and has waged mock battles for both sides.

“There are some that refuse to cross-dress, and that we're primarily a Confederate unit. However, at least twice a year, we'll pick an event and portray a Federal unit at that event. So this year, they were short of Federalists for this event. So we told him, ‘Well, we'll come down as Federal.’”

James Hamilton of Lawrenceburg has brought his family and his 3-inch wheeled cannon to the battlefield. He, too, is wearing Union blue.

“We would do Confederate, but unfortunately, it's one of those, everybody in the state wants to be Confederate, so somebody has to be the bad guy. At least that's how I explained it when I'm getting grief.”

“Why do you want to do blue?”

“Well, you know, we'd love to do gray, but they need somebody to shoot at.”

Timothy Downey of Lincoln County says with 15 Union soldiers in his family tree, his choice of uniform is clear.

“Is it an odd feeling wearing the uniform of the North, knowing you're gonna lose today?” “Well, no, because ultimately, God's will, the Union did prevail and the Union was preserved, and the traitors were put in their place.”

He says this with a smile. Most of the reenactors know each other and many camp out together before and after the battle. This year, there are between 100 to 150 when the first official shots are fired.

Behind a yellow line, about that many watch; many, like the soldiers, wearing earplugs. The two sides are 200 yards or so apart, and sometimes, cannon smoke obscures the action. Further off in the field, small groups of Union and Confederate soldiers with rifles fire shots, then move and fire again. In 1862, the Confederates chased the much-greener Union troops all the way to Richmond. In 2023, some of Saturday’s participants still have very different views of why the war was fought. It seems likely, though, that all would agree with these words of Rechel.

“I’m in awe, actually. because there's nowhere else that we can see and feel the presence of the past. Through victory and strife, victory and defeat. And that, there's always humanity.”

Or as Hamilton said,

“The thing is, blue, gray, no matter what, it washes off at the end of the day.”

At the Battle of Richmond, I'm John McGary in Madison County.

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John McGary is a Lexington native and Navy veteran with three decades of radio, television and newspaper experience.
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