CROSS KEYS — As they have for the past decade men in gray marched out to do battle with men in blue as they reenacted a battle from the Civil War during this year’s “Living History” event.
The most famous story from the final days of the Civil War is, of course, General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, the most important army of the Confederate States of America, to General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Army of the Potomac, the most important army of the United States of America, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. Coming as it did on the heels of the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, to Union forces on April 2, 1865, the surrender by the South’s most effective commander of its most important army set in motion the final collapse of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War.
Even though Lee had surrendered, his Commander-in-Chief, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had not and had no intention of doing so. Davis and his government had fled Richmond prior to its fall, heading south, both to escape the pursuing Union army and to try and find some way to continue the war.
(That was an increasingly forlorn hope, as on April 26, 1865, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee and all other remaining Confederate forces in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, to Union General William T. Sherman, Commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, at Bennett Place near Durham, North Carolina.)
Their flight south brought Davis, four members of his cabinet, and their military escort to Union County where, on April 30, 1865, they stopped at Cross Keys House, the home of Mary Ann Bobo Davis who invited Davis and his cabinet members in for lunch. Even though he was the president of the Confederate States of America of which she was a citizen, Mrs. Davis did not at first recognize her most important guest until, as he and his remaining loyalists were preparing to leave, he told her they shared the same last name.
Davis continued his flight south, hoping to rally the people of the Confederacy to wage a war of national resistance against the Union. Less than two weeks after he dined at the Cross Keys House, Davis’ flight south and hope of continuing the war and somehow achieving Confederate victory came to an end when he was captured by Union forces in Irwinsville, Georgia.
The Civil War was over.
Even though the war ended more than a century ago, its memory lingers on in the American consciousness and the many stories associated with it continue to be retold, reinterpreted and reenacted.
One of those reenactments has taken place each April for the last 10 years at the Cross Keys House during the “Living History” events, the centerpiece of which is Davis’ lunchtime visit to the house in the twilight of the Confederacy.
This year’s event, “Living History X,” was held this past weekend and as in previous years Davis’ visit was reenacted. The reenactment of Davis’ visit, however, is not the only reenactment presented to those in attendance. The reenactment of the visit is always followed by a reenactment of a Civil War battle with Confederate troops defending Cross Keys House from attacking Union forces.
Like previous reenactments, the battle features Confederates soldiers marching out under the cover of their artillery to engage, first, Union cavalry, and then Union infantry, and coming under fire from enemy cannons. The reenactments involve rifle volleys fired by the infantry on both sides, Union cavalry men firing from horseback, duels between the opposing cannon batteries, and even fights with sabres between Union officers on horseback and Confederate officers on foot.
Prior to the battle, however, under a flag of truce, a Union rider comes forward with a message calling on the Confederates to submit and allow them to capture Davis. A Confederate soldier then reads the message out loud to the audience watching and asks them about how the Confederates should respond to the Union demand. This was done at the beginning of Saturday’s reenactment with the audience being asked whether the Confederates should submit or fight.
“Fight!” was the response of the crowd and moments later that’s just what happened as the Union forces attacked, trying (unsuccessfully) to break the Confederate line and capture Davis.
The Cross Keys House and its surrounding property is owned by the Union County Historical Society which also owns the Union County Museum. It sponsors each year’s Living History which always proves to be a popular draw and this year was no different according to Museum Director Ola Jean Kelly.
“We had lots of company, lots of folks came to visit,” Kelly said Monday. “Saturday and Sunday were very busy. We even had a Boy Scout troop come and camp out.”
Those attending not only got to see the reenactment of Davis’ visit on both days and the battlefield reenactment, they also got to see displays of what life was like in the Civil War including a demonstration of blacksmithing, lectures on the medicine of the era, musical performances, and other aspects, all delivered by reenactors in period dress.
In addition, those attending got to see a reenactor laid to rest in a most unusual way.
“After the battle we had a very sweet service,” Kelly said. “One of our reenactors died a couple of weeks ago and he requested he be cremated and his ashes scattered on the battlefield with a cannon. His ashes were loaded in the shot and his son served as cannoneer and fired the cannon scattering his father’s ashes. It was a very moving service.”
For more information about the history of Union County contact the Union County Museum at 864-429-5081 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Warner can be reached at 864-762-4090.