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Copyright 2009-2010 by
Mary Brotherton
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Inside my Brain

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

People all over the globe have long been fascinated by the American Civil War. Roundtables have been formed in Australia, Belgium, Canada, and Denmark; discussions and reenactments are held in France, Germany, and the UK, as well as nearly all of the fifty states. More books have been written about the American Civil War, also known as the War Between the States, than any other book genre, except for the Bible.

Civil War Roundtables provide a medium for exploring, research, gaining knowledge and understanding, and coming to terms with a part of history that some believe was the single most important turning point in the history of the United States of America. Many historians believe that this country became a cohesive nation after the War Between the States: citing documents that refer to “these United States are,” as if casually referring to a group of people who were loosely connected. Then after the Civil War, documents proclaimed, “This United States of America is,” showing a unified front and a more organized union.

Brevard County has a very active Civil War Roundtable which meets monthly in Cocoa. Lynn Hill has been a member of this Roundtable since 1985, and acts as their secretary.

“We don’t fight the war over,” she said. “We just share information.”

Moving to Cocoa from West Virginia, she has been a Floridian since 1968, and can’t remember a time when she didn’t love history. She fell in love with Civil War history, thirty years ago, when a friend helped it come alive for her. Today, she makes history come alive for her 8th grade American History students.

“We can’t go back in time and experience what they experienced,” she said, “but we can talk about it, and re-enact how we think it may have been.”

Sometimes, Hill asks other members of the Roundtable to speak to her students; and if these members are also Civil War re-enactors, they usually appear in full Confederate or Union uniform, carrying a musket and a bit of an attitude. If the re-enactor is David Jenkins, he often comes dressed as a farmer, carrying a pitchfork or a rake, a sense of mystery, and a sure-fire way to disarm the teenagers and get their full attention.

“Did you see it?” he asks in a hushed tone, as the students look around the room at one another, snickering.

He waits a moment before asking, “Did you hear it?” while trying to engage some eye contact.

Usually by this time, one of the students is brave enough to ask, “Hear what?”

Ignoring the question, Jenkins continues softly, “Did you smell it?”

By this time, his young audience is on the edge of their seats and they can’t wait to hear whatever it is he will be talking about. That’s when he describes the Battle of Antietam to them, and explains why the North and South called the same battle by two different names. He may even tell them why the Battle of Manassas is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Bull Run.

Long interested in history, Jenkins wanted to know why individuals made certain choices, and how they chose their sides in political issues such as the War Between the States. As the Southern farmer, he explains to his audience that he joined the war simply for the adventure that he expected to last no more than 90 days. Thinking that he’d be home in time to bring in the next crop, he saw no harm in an activity that would add some excitement to his otherwise boring life. Uninterested in the slavery debate, most farmers joined whichever cause their state supported.

Reenacting gives Jenkins a chance to see how things happened, as well as how or why people made the choices they did, and which side of a battle to be on. It’s his opportunity to be a part of what is called Living History. Not willing to accept the legends of the past, Living History is a three-dimensional history lesson. It entertains and teaches with a combination of dramatic performance, historical research, archeology, a love of artillery, art, and naturally - fun.

Jenkins, a native Floridian enjoys taunting his friends and insulting them in a friendly way as they stand on opposing sides of a battle. “It’s more fun that we are allowed to have,” he said. “But tell everybody that it is really hard work, so they won’t outlaw it or try to tax it.”

Jenkins and his wife, Patricia have been members of the roundtable for ten years. She talks about the “Language of the Fan,” and gives a lady’s point of view to what life was like during the antebellum era, and after the war as well.

“Women have always tried to talk without words,” she said, as she explained the societal protocol of the time.

“Young ladies could talk to gentlemen only when they had been properly and formally introduced,” Mrs. Jenkins said. “But sometimes, a young lady might wish to speak to a young man without formal introductions.” Since that was simply not allowed, the young women developed the language of the fan. It did not take the young gentlemen long to learn that language.

Accordion fans were used by all the ladies of the day. Dancing in a ballroom made a lady warm, so she kept a fan nearby at all times. The fans hung from a ribbon wrapped around her wrist or hooked to her waist. If a lady rested a closed fan on her right cheek it meant “yes”, but if she rested it on her left cheek it meant “no”. A dropped fan meant “I want to be your friend”; and intense displeasure similar to “I hate you” was displayed when she ran a closed fan sharply through the palm of her other hand.

Mrs. Jenkins explained that there were more than 3 dozen signs spoken by the language of the fan, and that women were treated as ladies during that historical period. She said, “Of course, there may have been significant reasons that gentlemen treated women as they did. Have you ever tried to bend over at the waist to pick up something you’ve dropped while wearing a tight corset? It’s just not possible!”

Sometimes, the men seemed to think that the ladies were “bubble heads” and incapable of handling any sort of business. Phoebe Pembroke was one woman who convinced an entire hospital staff otherwise. A friend of the commanding Army general, Phoebe had been asked to turn around the death rate in a Civil War hospital; the surgeons did not take too kindly to her commands.

“Let’s clean this place up! Open the windows and let some fresh air inside –bleach these sheets!”

After taking their complaints to the general, these male surgeons discovered that Phoebe was on assignment, and her orders were the same as the general’s. Not only did Phoebe get her way, but she did indeed turn around the death rate.

Even before the Jenkins’ were officially reenacting the events of the War Between the States, they were reenacting for the students who attended their Home School.

“We challenge students to enjoy and get excited over history and to know that we are all the same, no matter what time we lived. We all want to be comfortable, loved, and secure,” said Mrs. Jenkins.

The Jenkins’ and Lynn Hill believe that only by studying the past, can a society proceed toward a better future. Hill said, “You don’t know where you are going until you know where you’ve been.”

Patricia Jenkins said, “History repeats itself. We just wear different clothes.”

History repeats itself, and lends its lessons to all who are willing to learn. Every month, on the 2nd Thursday, at 7:30 p.m. at the Cocoa Presbyterian Church, in Room 33, the Civil War Roundtable gathers to discuss the history of our country during one of the bloodiest, most destructive wars of all time. The Cocoa Presbyterian Church is located at 1404 Dixon Blvd. in Cocoa. An interest in the American Civil War is the only qualification necessary to join the group, and both Northern and Southern sentiments are welcome. For more information, call 321-632-7297.