UNDERSTANDING FEDERAL HISTORY, A VISIT TO A CIVIL WAR MUSTER IN MICHIGAN, MILITARY HISTORY and the MIDDLE EAST TODAY
By Kevin A. Stoda in Kuwait
In late August, I attended my first Civil War Muster in Jackson, Michigan. It was the 23rd such event held at Jackson's Cascades. Civil War musters are considered among the largest full-family participatory events in the United States, so I figured it was about time that I experienced one myself.
At Civil War musters individuals and families dress up in costumes and uniforms from the mid-19th Bellum period in U.S. history. In this case, over 1000 participants (including whole families) camped out in canvas tents for two nights and two days as battles were carried out in the afternoons between the Union and Confederate forces, reenacting to a great degree events that occurred over 160 years ago.
However, this sort of American weekend celebration is not necessarily focused on who wins the battles-battles which might only last a few minutes in time. Civil War Muster culture is more importantly understood as an educational and uniting experience for all participants and visitors.
Before and after the main battles at Jackson that day, one could wander the camps between North and South. Along the way, one could discuss the activities and ways of life of the participants along with learning about the lifestyles & practices of life of bygone eras. One could even find "Southerners" and "Northerners" sharing coffee and civil conversations together.
CLOTHING & MILITIAS
The first thing I noticed about the many women at this particular muster was that their outfits were fairly reminiscent of what I see on a daily basis living in Kuwait. The ladies wore long dresses and were quite proud to do so. They also wore hats, head coverings, and even occasionally a veil.
The next similarity in dress to Arab cultures came in the form of the uniforms of some of the Northern and Southern troops. For example, the men representing one Pennsylvania militia unit from the 1850s wore a military uniform reminiscent of what was certainly worn in both the North African and in Ottoman regions throughout both the entire 19th and part of the early 20th century. Several of these soldiers even wore fez hats. The red decorative design on these uniforms also looked positively Islamic, i.e. imitating the art forms of Arab and Islamic designers or artisans
I enquired about the history of this particularly Arab-looking uniform of a 19th century American militia The muster participants were glad to educate me. "Yes, the uniforms were modeled on a French and North African design used in the 19th Century." I was informed that a variety of local militias in the USA (both North and South) in the 1840s and 1850s had adopted such uniforms, i.e. uniforms based on the French & North African design. When these various militias took sides in the Civil War, these soldiers and units continued to wear their own locally designed uniforms and head gear.
A third similarity to the Middle East (this time to the Middle East of 2007) then dawned on me as I observed these different militias uniforms worn around me that weekend at the Jackson Cascades Muster. This similarity was namely that there were certainly different tribes and militias who had come together to make up the Civil War in the USA in 1861 through 1865. This was, in a way, reminiscent to how wars in the Middle East are still carried out today.
MILITIAS IN INTERNAL AMERICAN WARS
Wars are historically a very messy affair.
For thousands of years, different troops in most wars were not made up of a single unified army facing off against another single unified army. Armies were made up of locally recruited and regional militias. Therefore, any military historian would have anticipated the multi-tribal and multi-militia facets of the current civil wars that the US has been waltzing into and among (with great bombing and destructive fanfare) in both Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003.
My home state, Kansas, was embroiled in civil war in the 1850s and 1860s. The Kansas territory at that time was known as "Bloody Kansas" from 1854 to 1865. This was an era of tribal, ideological, religious, and militia wars. This period was a nightmare where both local and neighboring tribes lined up against one another. Moreover, funds and "foreign" support (from across the Kansas border and often from Missouri) on behalf of the various sides supporting militias, jayhawkers and bald-knobbers kept the battle raging for over a decade.
Eventually, only the national territorial Civil War came to overshadow the battlegrounds of Kansas-marginalizing the Kansas bloodbath as a sideshow in a greater regional conflict.