Confederate reenactors react to monument controversy

Andy Downing
Left to right: Robert Mergel, Peter D'Onofrio, and Jeff Steiner

One of the many times Confederate First Sgt. Robert Mergel died, he was in a field in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The year was 2008, and Mergel was shot and killed just shy of reaching the wall that offered protection to the Union troops. So close, in fact, that after taking a bullet and falling face down in the muck, he was able to extend his hand and just barely graze the wall.

Within minutes, however, a revived Mergel propped himself up and looked back over the field where 8,000 or so fellow Confederate Civil War reenactors lay scattered, all felled by canon fire, bayonet or bullet during a scripted replay of Pickett's Charge that marked the 145th anniversary of the battle.

“[After the battle], I slowly rolled over, and there, across that field, were all those bodies. Flags were down. Horses were standing rider-less. That scene will be seared in my memory until the day I die,” said Mergel, joined by Capt. Jeff Steiner and Peter D'Onofrio, president of the Society of Civil War Surgeons, for a late August interview.

Mergel, Steiner and D'Onofrio all gravitated to Civil War reenactment via a love of history. Steiner, for one, began as a World War II obsessive, eventually switching over to the Civil War when he realized that he could more easily visit battlefields that rested within driving distance of his Gahanna home rather than traveling across the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to this love of history, Steiner also stressed a desire to honor the Civil War dead on all sides — a function of the Camp Chase monument in the Hilltop area, which was recently vandalized, a statue of a Confederate soldier toppled and beheaded.

“The number now floating around is that 780,000 [died in the Civil War], but the real number, counting civilians, is well over a million. If that war was fought today that would be 10 million people. And they were all Americans. They all deserve the honor and respect we give any American,” he said. “I think that's why 80 to 90 percent of reenactors reenact. It's out of honor and respect, to educate … and to shoot Yankees (laughs).”

Steiner was initially attracted to fight for the Confederacy nearly 20 years ago by the allure of the Southern gentleman. “Up until the last few years, there had always been a romantic, knightly, chivalrous aspect to the South,” he said.

With Confederate monuments now under siege nationwide, joining the debate over the Confederate flag, which has long been a target of public ire owing to its association with slavery, Jim Crow and the oft-ugly resistance to the Civil Rights movement, Steiner has doubled down. The Confederate battle flag flies alongside the Stars and Stripes on a flagpole in his front yard, both strung above a gate marked with a novelty road sign that reads, “Confederate Blvd.”

“You have to look at the 1860 mindset. People in 2017, everybody knows slavery was wrong. … But in 1860, it was legal,” said Steiner, who described the Southern defense of states' rights as the main force driving the North-South conflict. “I'm pretty stubborn, so I'm probably more proud of [the Southern artifacts] now. I never flew the battle flag until all this stuff started. I fly it out of honor and respect for those 270,000 Southerners who died — not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians who died.

“There are millions of Americans that had family that fought in that war. They have the right to have their heroes. People don't have the right to tear those heroes down. … If you don't like it, don't look at it.”

Opponents say this viewpoint discounts the perspective of black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved, as well as the genesis of a number of these Confederate monuments, construction of which spiked during two periods: the early 1900s, when many states were enacting Jim Crow laws, and during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which assembled data on the 1,500-plus Confederate monuments erected in public spaces for a report published in April 2016.

For all three reenactors, the vandalism at Camp Chase, a cemetery and federal monument containing the graves of more than 2,000 Confederate soldiers who died in captivity at the onetime Union-operated prison camp, falls outside these bounds. (Mergel, for his part, said he was more concerned with preserving Confederate monuments on federal lands, such as those on view at Camp Chase and at national battlefields such as Gettysburg National Military Park.)

“I saw this thing [on the news] two weeks ago: ‘Oh, my goodness. We have Confederate statues here in Ohio, and there's one at Camp Chase.' I said, ‘I give that statue a week at most,'” Mergel said. “A blind man could see [the vandalism] was going to happen. There was no investigative reporting saying, ‘This is why this is here.' [The statue] isn't a Confederate general. It's just some poor guy who would like to go home [to the South].

“There's something about Camp Chase that hits me close to the heart, and it's not a Confederate thing. It's a thing with all of us historians coming together … where we're afraid these characters are going to say, 'Let's just pave over all the history like it never happened.'”

“There's someone who is going to have a problem with every statue. … Should we tear them all down?” Steiner said. “The only statue we'll have left standing is one of Mickey Mouse.”

“Until the animal rights activists get a hold of it,” D'Onofrio added.