|First Person: Everett Stiles|
Living history isn’t a hobby
Reflections at a rebel’s grave led banker and son to Civil War reenacting
Private Everett Stiles, portraying a soldier in the company his great grandfather fought in for the Confederacy, is a former bank president and presently a director.
Everett Stiles grew up “in the shadow of Cold Mountain” in North Carolina, made famous by the novel and the movie. His great grandfather, Jasper, had one similarity to the hero of the novel and movie by that name: Both deserted from the Confederate Army.
In the case of Jasper Stiles, it was more of a temporary leave, really. The soldier had to go home for a bit to get the family crops in, lest the folks back there have nothing for the season. In 1864 muster rolls for the North Carolina 25th Infantry Regiment, he was marked down as a deserter. But he reappeared on the rolls two months later. He’d lost his musket, and was fined for it. Stiles had to make his way back to his unit in a secret journey of over 400 miles, much of it traveled in hiding to avoid being shot as a deserter. Later he went home for good, after spending some time as a POW in Point Lookout, Md.
What Everett Stiles refuses to call a hobby—Civil War reenacting—began by Jasper Stiles’ gravesite. About five years ago, Everett had taken his son, Warren, then 15, to see the old soldier’s grave. After leaving, nearby, they happened upon a Civil War reenactment.
The combination of the action and the visit to the ancestor’s grave must have worked on the young man’s mind. “My boy was hooked,” says Everett Stiles, 61, former community bank president and currently a director at Old town Bank, Waynesville, N.C. Stiles asked him, “Do you want to spend $1,000 apiece on this?” “Yes, I do, Dad,” said Warren. Before long the pair had joined the 25th North Carolina Infantry Regiment reenacting group—named for the real unit that Jasper Stiles served with. Later on, Stiles’ wife, Elbie, and his daughter, Elsa Lee, also got involved, as civilian reenactors, both women adopting the hoop skirts often worn in that period.
Stiles serves in the unit—which also doubles as the Union’s 14th Iowa Infantry when needed to oppose Confederate contingents—as a private. He likes to joke that it’s best to stay an “enlisted man” as a reenactor, as anyone who advances to officers’ ranks gets too much administrative work to do.
Living “living history”
Reenacting took some adjusting to, both physical and mental.
“This is a pretty good way to see living history,” notes Stiles. And feel living history, through the necessity of wearing “the thickest wool uniform you’ve ever seen, no matter what the weather” and sleeping outside in period tents and on the ground.
Stiles’ unit tends to be strict adherents to historical record, so some make still more concessions to battlefield realities. “Some of the boys will make hard-tack at home,” says Stiles. Hard-tack is just that—a tough dried form of bread that typically had to be soaked in water in order to be chewable, let along palatable.
The mental adjustment came in the course of participating in his first battle reenactments. The first time he saw someone fall in “battle,” he says, he wept.
“I got over that part,” he explains. He continued his involvement with it because he saw the importance of preserving a sense of what the war was about, and what was settled, and what wasn’t.
“This helps the young people see what a terrible, dark part of the nation’s history the Civil War was,” says Stiles. “What makes it beautiful is the realization when you do it that all we go through was reality for 3 million men, under the worst conditions.”
Stiles feels many schools no longer devote much time to the Civil War, and that often much of what happened is glossed over in the name of modern views of causes, effects, and soldiers’ own reasons for fighting. Too many battlefields have become lost to strip malls or other usage. Reenacting helps keep the bigger picture alive, he explains, which he considers important.
Historical youths, modern old guys
While reality is very important to reenactors like Stiles, some aspects of the war can’t be accurately portrayed. Many of the members of his unit, points out Stiles, are older and often heavier than the soldiers of the time.
“We don’t have enough young men,” he says. As a result, Warren Stiles, his son, being closer in age and weight to the typical infantryman of the Civil War period, tends to be picked most often for color guard and similar duty.
“He looks more authentic than us old guys,” says Stiles.
“The more you delve into the war, and study it, you find it’s like genealogy,” says Stiles, who finds living history a fascinating aspect of reenacting. Evenings around the campfire, with soldiers old and young, mean a great deal to Stiles.
“Part of the fascination of it is sitting around the fire, hearing the historical knowledge that some of the boys have,” says Stiles. “You just sit there mesmerized. It’s what makes it really come together.”
—Steve Cocheo, executive editor
[This article was posted on July 14, 2011, on the website of ABA Banking Journal, www.ababj.com, and is copyright 2011 by the American Bankers Association.]
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