Man wages culture war

February 17, 2001

Man wages culture war


John Krausse descends his basement steps and walks into the past.

Surrounded by momentos of a long-ago war, he dons a patched gray wool uniform and packs his haversack. Then he kneels before a photograph of dead Confederate soldiers for a moment of silent reflection before leaving for a battle of his own.

Krausse, of Hagerstown, is a hard-core Confederate re-enactor, but he isn't just a weekend warrior. His life revolves around his crusade to preserve Southern heritage, he said.

"It's far, far deeper than going out and playing games and wanting to be a hero," said Krausse, 48. "This is a way of life. We're talking about freedom."


The Civil War ended more than 135 years ago but soldiers in Union blue and Confederate gray still square off on hallowed battlegrounds to relive some of the war's bloodiest fights.

For Krausse and others, the war isn't over.

In "The Unfinished Civil War," a documentary that will air Monday at 9 p.m. on The History Channel, Krausse's Southern pride illustrates one side of the ongoing struggle between people who feel the Confederate flag symbolizes their heritage and those who link the flag with hatred.

The film offers a dramatic glimpse into the world of hard-core re-enacting while examining the living legacy of the Civil War in the context of the controversy surrounding the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Caroline state capitol.

Krausse's counterpart in the film, Union re-enactor Joe McGill, opposes flying the Confederate flag because he says it stands for hate and repression.

Confederate re-enactors Sharon and Wayne Hutzell of Hagerstown are also featured in the film for the central role that re-enacting plays in their family life.

In 1999, Graystone Communications producers Glenn Kirschbaum and Seth Isler traveled to the Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg, Pa., to gather footage for a History Channel film about hard-core re-enactors. There they met Krausse, an outspoken defender of Southern heritage.

"As filming began, John jumped off the screen as an absolute star," History Channel spokesman Jim Dowd said. "John's very passionate. He's also very intelligent and articulate."

Krausse, McGill and other re-enactors depicted in the film educate the public and honor the memory of Civil War soldiers by assuming their roles in as authentic a manner as possible within the confines of the 20th century, they said.

Hard-core Rebel re-enactors might eat parched corn and hardtack, sleep on the ground, camp in the snow and fight barefoot. They would never use inflatable mattresses, tents or hand-held fans, they said.

Re-enactors in McGill's all-black 54th Massachusetts regiment educate the public about the role of blacks in the Union army, he said.

The film shows Krausse and McGill on battlefields from Boonsboro to Florida. It chronicles Krausse's solemn re-enactment preparations in his Hagerstown home and McGill's emotional overnight stay in a South Caroline slave cabin.

The filmmakers followed Krausse and McGill to the steps of the state house in Columbia, S.C., where they had marched on opposite sides of the flag debate.

With his face painted red for the blood of his ancestors, Krausse defended what he claims is a soldier's flag that has been co-opted by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

"The guilt of racism can no longer be laid at the door of Dixie," he said. "I will defend anyone's right to express themselves, to honor their ancestors, but don't say I'm a racist and a bigot because I honor mine."

The Confederate flag belongs in a museum, not atop a public building, said McGill, who marched with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Columbia.

"I would honor the flag in a museum," he said. "I honor soldiers. They fought and died for a reason they believed in."

After the flag is removed from the Capitol, Krausse and McGill meet face to face for the first time. A Confederate-garbed Krausse hugs McGill, leaving a trace of the "blood" from his face on the black man's shoulder.

"I was surprised but not offended at all," said McGill, a South Carolina native who now runs the African-American Cultural Center of Iowa.

The two men will meet again later this month at Iowa State University to discuss the documentary and present their opinions in the hate versus heritage debate.

"We hope that we can create some missing dialogue nationally," McGill said. "It's already happening."

Krausse agreed that the documentary will open the doors to discussion.

"A lot of people don't know what it's all about, and that's what needs to happen. This film has opened the door for me to address thousands now," he said.

"My work's still not done. It's unfinished. And it's warfare - cultural warfare."

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