05/16/05 — After the cannons stopped, a new era

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After the cannons stopped, a new era

By Winkie Lee
Published in News on May 16, 2005 1:45 PM

FREMONT -- As visitors exited their vehicles in the participants' parking lot, they could smell burning wood and hear horses neighing.

In the parking lot were 21st century vehicles.

Beside it was a modern-day street.

And, across the street, a totally different scene -- horses, wool uniforms designed in 1800s style, A-frame canvas tents and lanterns with light that came from candles or kerosene.

On the grounds of the Gov. Charles B. Aycock Birthplace, visiting re-enactors joined with staff and volunteers to present "Soldier to Peacekeeper," a look at the occupation of Goldsboro in May 1865 after the Civil War ended.

Except for a couple of horse trailers that would soon be moved and a few early visitors who wore modern clothing, one part of the site looked like it had been taken from the pages of a history book.

Smoke poured from the 19th century kitchen's chimney. Before too much longer, greens harvested from the garden would be cooking in a pot over an open fire. Bacon and biscuits would be placed in legged pans that would stand over burning coals.

Several feet away and dressed in a Union Civil War uniform, Mike Edwards from Selma crouched next to a tree and switched bits, hanging one on a branch. It was too narrow for his horse's mouth.

Edwards and other men at the site are members of the 1st North Carolina Cavalry but, on Saturday and Sunday, portrayed members of the 7th New York Cavalry.

At their campsite were nine horses, their reins attached to a long rope so they wouldn't wander off.

Inside the canvas tents were beds made from bags of straw or hay and covered with wool blankets and quilts.

Each bed looked rather flat and was directly on the ground.

"It's comfortable," Kevin Mesmer of Durant Neck said about his bed. "It forms to your body."

The hay also fit well in the horses' mouths. As they stood off to the side, they ate hay that had been laid near them.

One of the highlights of "Soldier to Peacekeeper" was supposed to be the featuring of black troops that had come through Goldsboro but, on Saturday morning, most of the black re-enactors had not arrived and it appeared they wouldn't be coming.

Two did make it: Charles Willis of Fayetteville, who portrays a corporal in the Battery B, 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, and Fred Johnson Jr. of Wilmington, who portrays a sergeant.

During the day's events, both spoke with visitors about blacks during this time in history.

During an interview conducted in front of the Aycock home and later continued in the modern-day visitor's center, Willis explained why he is a re-enactor and why knowing about history is important.

The great-great grandson of a white man who married a black slave, Willis became interested in history while he was a middle school student.

When he enrolled at Fayetteville State University, his interest grew, furthered in part by studying under Dr. D.W. Bishop.

About the time the 1989 Civil War movie, "Glory," was released, Willis joined the 54th Massachusetts re-enactors and later became a member of Battery B.

He said he continues to learn through his own studies and from listening to other re-enactors.

Blacks fought in the Civil War -- on both the Union and Confederate sides -- in an effort to get their freedom, he said. After the Civil War was over, three amendments that should have benefited blacks were added to the U.S. Constitution -- the 13th, which dealt with abolishment of slavery; the 14th, which dealt with blacks' right to vote; and the 15th, which granted them citizenship.

"We didn't fully reach those goals until Martin Luther King came along" in the 1960s, he said.

"You don't hold grudges," he continued. "You learn to live and make things happen. You make sure you're doing your part."

His part has included his profession, teaching middle school students in the classroom. It has also included teaching the public through re-enactments. When he retires, he plans to travel across the Carolinas, giving presentations.

"Education helps you overcome phobias, fears and untruths," he said.

Among the activities at the Aycock weekend event were demonstrations in the field, including drilling and firing.

Re-enactors portraying the 7th New York Calvary shot at targets and struck targets with sabers while riding their horses that galloped at 45 miles an hour. It wasn't unusual to hear the sabers clinking against their stirrups as they rode.

Sabers were used mainly for psychological effect, Edwards said, asking how one would feel if he saw several soldiers riding toward him with their sabers pointed in his direction.

The re-enactors also demonstrated how the horses were ridden in sections, with seven riding side by side as one led them.

Other activities included the opportunity to walk through the re-enactors' camp, presentations at the Aycock home and kitchen, lectures in the visitor's center, and the availability of old-time toys for children to play with.

Aycock Birthplace sponsored "Soldier to Peacekeeper" in observance of the 140th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.