Reenactors Fight Final Battle
By: Ian Howell
Hundreds came to watch Civil War reenactors from across the tri-states fight their final battle on Sunday in Keokuk’s Rand Park. The annual tradition, that has been running for 28 years and was sponsored by the Keokuk Area Convention and Tourism Bureau, has finally come to a close in what could be called a great send-off. The event, which had been dwindling both in the numbers of participants and spectators, was packed as many came to watch the brave soldiers fight their final battle before their curtain fell.
People of all ages flooded the thoroughfare before the battle on Sunday, perusing the many Civil War era goods, that ranged from homemade uniforms and swords to uniquely bottled sarsaparilla and handmade rock candy. Entertainment was also readily available, which included speeches given by the Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, musical performances by the “medicine man” Dr. Dan Barth, Tom Roush, and the 33rd Illinois Regiment Brass Band , and Houdini style escape tricks done by various reenactors. Several enterprising local musicians also took the time to play along the thoroughfare in the hopes of passing donations and recognition.
Al Ourth, a veteran reenactor who has been doing it since 1968 and has participated in all 28 years of the Keokuk Civil War battles, was set up alongside the side of thoroughfare as part of the South East Iowa Civil War Round Table based out of Burlington, Iowa. The South East Iowa Civil War Round Table was set up to educate spectators, both young and old, about the Civil War and the lives of the various important people of the era and display various artifacts from the time. He himself was portraying the Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa during the event. This was a long way from his position as a private in his first reenactment in 1968 in Georgia. He was elated at the crowds that the event had received on Sunday.
“Today has been excellent compared to the last couple years. We had fourteen tubes (cannons) here today. We had 200 reenactors. Last year, we did not even have 100. I remember in years not too far back, we would have 500 or 600,” Ourth said.
The battles reenacted by the soldiers differ each year, but for the final year, the reenactors thought it would be appropriate to portray the Battle of Appomattox Court House. This battle is famous for being one of the final battles of the war in which the head General of the Confederate Army, General Robert E. Lee, surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant, general of the Union army and future President of the United States. It was one of the largest surrenders in the Civil War and effectively spelled the defeat for the Confederacy. Many Confederate armies surrendered shortly after this battle.
Rand Park, the park in which the reenactment took place, was actually a training grounds for Union soldiers during the Civil War, adding historical significance to the site as well.
The final battle had been preceded by another battle, the Battle of Fort Stedman, the day before, as well as a Ladies Tea & Style Show detailing the period-wear and etiquette of the time, a skillet throwing contest, and a military ball thrown for the reenactors and their families.
A Bittersweet End
Though this was the last battle for the Keokuk reenactors, they went out with a bang, with many more spectators than they anticipated. “Colonel” Dan Gillett of La Harpe, IL is another member of the South East Iowa Civil War Round Table and a reenactor of 15 years. He was glad that the reenactment had received such a good crowd, but wished it could have been that large of a crowd every year.
“You can tell this is our last year. It sure has dwindled down, but, because of the nostalgia involved, this has been a great weekend. A lot more people coming back this year that have skipped a few years. If we could have kept this crowd every year, it could have gone on,” Gillett said.
Even though the annual event seems to make the city of Keokuk much revenue, it does not seem to be enough, according to some.
“Motel tax dollars are down, and the tourism board was not getting quite the turnout they were expecting and had to help pay the motels. Also, some of the people running the reenactment have been on the board for all 28 years and are starting to get tired,” Gillett said.
Others said that the numbers of both spectators and participants played a definite factor.
“It’s mainly numbers. 28 years is a good run for any type of a reenactment. It is getting expensive to do. The reenactment numbers were down. The people coming to watch it had been dropping over the last few years. Just not enough young folks are as interested in it anymore,” Al Ourth said.
Many would agree, however, that the end was not because of the lack of quality.
“I have taken part in hundreds of reenactments over the years, and a lot of them are good reenactments, but Keokuk runs one of the best shows that I’ve gone to. It is a nice setting, and I always love coming to Rand Park,” Ourth said.
On Sunday, Rand Park was filled with smiling faces. Some seeing this event for the first time, others seasoned spectators of the battle, but all knowing it would be the last time that this event would be in Keokuk. Whether they were dazzled by the fun products and period-wear, the activities, or the realistic gun and cannon fire, they were given a good time in what was a great finale for the tradition.
This battle not only signified the end of the Civil War, but also Keokuk’s annual tradition. The proceedings ended with a symbolic handshake between the reenactors Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee while Abraham Lincoln gave a speech celebrating the end of the war and the end of an era for Keokuk.