Civil War reenactors push for boycott of The History Channel

Tuesday, March 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ History buff Mike Ventura's family didn't pay much attention to his weekend hobby of dressing up in a Civil War uniform and reenacting 140-year-old battles _ until they saw a television documentary on the subject.

``My daughter called me up the next day and said, `Gee, I didn't know you and your friends were so racist,''' said Ventura, who runs his own marketing firm in Atlanta.

Stung by her words as well as the program, Ventura and many of his fellow weekend warriors are calling for a boycott of The History Channel over how their hobby was portrayed in ``The Unfinished Civil War.''

The skirmish ultimately supports the filmmaker's central point: that the Civil War is still the source of conflict generations after its end.

Producer Glenn Kirschbaum, of the California-based historical filmmakers Greystone Communications, said he set out to make a film about the tight-knit reenactment community.

But after he met John Krausse, a colorful Confederate reenactor who was also active in the unsuccessful fight to keep the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina Capitol, the project took a different turn.

Kirschbaum used the reenactments as a starting-off point to talk about present-day controversies, particularly the flag fight and a debate over a Robert E. Lee mural in Richmond, Va. David Duke weighed in on the latter dispute.

His central characters were Krausse and Joseph McGill, a black Union reenactor who marched to have the Confederate flag removed in South Carolina. At the film's end, Kirschbaum introduces Krausse to McGill; the two salute each other and agree to talk about their differences.

Kirschbaum feels blindsided by the controversy.

``We really wanted to do a positive film that would encourage people to talk,'' the producer said. ``Instead, we're being slammed.''

He had waded into roiling waters. Some Civil War reenactors were already touchy about flag supporters who wore Confederate uniforms during demonstrations in South Carolina, feeling that reenactors were being wrongly associated with a political cause. They were looking forward to a film that explained their hobby, but they got something much different.

``It was embarrassing,'' said Ventura, whose ancestors fought on the Union side. ``A lot of our friends know this is our hobby but didn't know what we did. This portrayed us as a bunch of idiotic racists.''

The vast majority of reenactors are people interested in history who stay out of present-day politics, said Paul Calloway, a medical supplies salesman from Fort Wayne, Ind. He runs a reenactment Web site, one of several buzzing about the film.

Calloway and other reenactors enjoy giving programs in schools about the Civil War and are worried that some educators will be scared off by the film.

He and Ventura, who want an apology from The History Channel, said that 2,700 people have signed petitions supporting their boycott.

``The show created a perceivable incorrectness about our hobby, and a general image that reenactors have ulterior motives in presenting to America a look back in time,'' said Galen Wagner, a student loan administrator and reenactor from Montgomery, Ala. ``There are many Americans who have never had the opportunity to come and see, and talk to us, that now, due to this slanderous monstrosity, may never form any other opinion of us.''

Kirschbaum noted that his film did depict apolitical reenactors. He said he doesn't believe that most people who saw the film considered the hobbyists, including Krausse, to be racists.

The History Channel believes no apology is necessary, said Abbe Raven, the network's vice president and general manager. There are no further plans to air ``The Unfinished Civil War,'' which premiered Feb. 19 and was shown one other time, but that has nothing to do with the boycotters' demand that it be permanently shelved, she said.

``There are always people who take extreme positions,'' Raven said, ``but I am more proud of the fact that this got four stars in the New York Post and People magazine said it was an effective film and the Detroit News said it was history brought to life.''

Kirschbaum is also proud of his film, but willing to talk to people upset by it.

``If we have offended people, it was inadvertent, and I apologize to these people,'' he said. ``In no way were we trying to paint people with a broad brush-stroke.''