Last week, the Fresno County Historical Society announced that its annual Civil War Revisited event won’t be happening this year due to COVID-19. However, the Society is planning an event centered around telling more stories of the 19th Century, beyond the Civil War.
At its heart, the Fresno County Historical Society says, the Civil War Revisited event has been about connecting students in the San Joaquin Valley to history.
Patrick Arena remembers going to the reenactment at Kearney Park at the age of 10 with his school.
“I went several times between the age of maybe 10 to 25,” said Arena. “But I mainly went with my dad.”
The 34-year-old realtor grew up in Fresno, but now lives in Sacramento.
When he first went to the reenactment, it reminded him of a campout.
“It smelled like campfire,” Arena remembered. “What I didn’t know at the time was sulfur, and that was from the black powder rifles, actually, that they used in the reenactment.”
He remembers his dad interacting with the reenactors, but not much discussion of the main reason the battles were fought.
“The inclusion of slavery did not really stick out in my mind as something that was prevalent at these reenactments,” said Arena. “I’m not saying it wasn’t tried to be brought up, but as a kid, and to my memory, I don’t remember that kind of sticking out as an exhibit or something that was included.”
It’s not that the event hasn’t discussed race at all. Over the years, there’s been a Harriet Tubman presenter who tells the abolitionist’s story.
Broadly, however, Fresno State historian Ethan Kytle says Civil War reenactments have perpetuated a myth about why the war was fought, and glossed over the Confederacy’s goal to maintain slavery.
“Where they fall short, I think, is they too often focus on what I would say is the minutiae and everyday experience at the cost of teaching larger lessons about the conflict as a whole,” said Kytle. “The social, the political, the cultural ramifications.”
He says Fresno’s Civil War Revisited, which began 30 years ago, is one of many reenactments created to commemorate the battles a century after they happened.
“What can’t be lost is that it's part of a larger reconciliation project that also involved a lot of forgetting,” Kytle said. “Forgetting what the war was fought about, forgetting the racial divisions that existed before, during and after the war.”
Still, Kytle says many students tell him attending the event, Civil War Revisited, made them want to learn more about history.
A year ago, however, the Fresno County Historical Society and its new president, Elizabeth Laval, started to conceive a new event, one that better aligns with its mission of remembering the history of Fresno County.
“We sat down with Fresno Unified’s curriculum department and decided to make an expanded timeline that would include California-based and Fresno County-based events, as well as national events which would be perhaps the Civil War in some form or another,” said Laval.
It’s called Time Travellers: 19th Century America. There will still be Civil War elements, but other stories too about immigrant communities that settled here, like Armenians, Italians and Japanese.
“I don’t think there’s ever been an event that highlighted the settling of the neighborhoods in Fresno. You hear about Chinatown, but what does that really mean? Who lived there? And, you know, it wasn’t always pretty,” said Laval. “Even in our valley there was discrimination that was strongly felt by a lot of these groups that came in and we want to address that and also show the successes and contributions that they’ve made across the board.”
Tara Lynn Gray is the CEO of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce. She says it’s exciting to see the Society expand the event. Black history, she says, is American history.
“In order for the Historical Society to be inclusive, which I believe they want to be, then they have got to reach out and find a way to bring the right people to the table who can share that rich history,” said Gray.
Last year, the Chamber was a sponsor of Civil War Revisited, and Gray says it would be open to sponsoring the new iteration, Time Travellers because it could shed light on stories that haven’t been widely told.
“It, most of the time, is uncomfortable for folks to listen to those stories, share those stories and participate in the proliferation of those truths,” said Gray. “And I think that it is the responsible thing to do.”
While this year’s Time Travellers event won’t take place in person due to COVID-19, the Historical Society is writing an online curriculum that will begin to examine some of those stories, highlighting both successes and uncomfortable truths.