Rebel forces come up short again

Lack of re-enactors causes cancellation of Battle of Selma tribute


SELMA, Ala. -- James Hammonds looked stoic as he surveyed Selma's Civil War battlefield, but he could not resist a sigh: The trenches' gray planks had buckled, leaving gaps in the city's defenses.

Hammonds, who came up with the idea 19 years ago of re-enacting Selma's place in Civil War history, said he fears that his town is losing another battle.

Almost 141 years after a ragtag Confederate army struggled to defend Selma against Union forces, historical re-enactors canceled the Battle of Selma.

Like their Confederate forebears, the re-enactors lack manpower.

Fewer than 200 re-enactors registered for this month's battle - a far cry from the 2,000 who took part in 1995, the battle's 130th anniversary.

"We've had to beat the bushes for re-enactors," said William G. Rambo, chief military commander of the Battle of Selma.

Changing demographics in a city that was a flash point in the civil rights movement as well as the Civil War, competing visions of just how authentic a battlefield re-enactment should be - even the high cost of gasoline - are mentioned as factors in the declining interest.

Although organizers attributed the cancellation of the Battle of Selma to a national decline in Civil War re-enactments, many Alabama re-enactors said they stopped attending because it had become too elitist.

"It was getting to the point where we weren't exactly welcomed with open arms," said Roger Brothers, captain of the 62nd Alabama unit, who decided to skip this year's battle for the first time in 18 years. He will travel more than 200 miles to another re-enactment in Kennesaw, Ga.

"The stitch counters had taken over," he said. "If you didn't have what they considered to be the sufficient authentic kit, they looked down their noses at you."

The purist re-enactors - called "stitch counters" because of their insistence that buttonholes be hand-sewn and have a correct historical thread count - have become more vocal in their quest for strict authenticity.

Ken Sumner, brigadier general and president of the Alabama Division of Civil War Reenactors Inc., said he stopped attending the Battle of Selma several years ago after some of his units were excluded.

Throughout the 1990s, the Selma battle commander imposed stricter standards on re-enactors - making the event invitation-only and upping the requirements for authentic garb. Cowboy hats, sunglasses and modern-day combat boots were no longer welcome. Confederate re-enactors are now asked not to wear sky blue wool trousers but the more historically authentic butternut-colored wool and cotton jean cloth.

Originally, businessmen in this town on a bluff overlooking the Alabama River conceived of the battle as an event that would revive Selma's depressed economy, which was reeling from the demise of manufacturing and the migration of many residents..

With gusto, local residents built a system of wooden trenches, with three full redoubts and two embrasures on a portion of the original battlefield. Each year, they erected a wood house and planted pine trees to blow up during the battle. They also held a ball at Sturdivant Hall, a Greek Revival antebellum mansion, and encouraged re-enactors from across the country to bring their wives and families.

Antebellum history, though, is less relevant to Selma today. It is a predominantly African-American town - according to the 2000 Census, its population of about 20,000 is 69 percent black - that is led by an African-American mayor. Also, it is famous for a modern battle: the 1965 standoff between voting rights marchers and state troopers on Edmund Pettus Bridge.

George "Cap" Swift, who opened the Selma Visitor Information Center in the front room of his home the same year that re-enactors held the first Battle of Selma, says his biggest-selling product is a T-shirt commemorating the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

His back room, which was once devoted to Civil War books, is stacked with Profiles of Great Black Americans and Faces of Freedom Summer.

Lauri Cothran, executive director of the bureau, said the cancellation of the Battle of Selma was regrettable, but it would not place too much strain on the town's burgeoning tourism industry.

"It's not the death knell to tourism in Selma, Ala.," she said. "The history of Selma is here whether [or not] re-enactors have reenactments."

Jenny Jarvie writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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