LEFT: General Robert E. Lee, aka Al Stone - with Lieutenant General James Longstreet (second from right) portrayed by Jay Vogel - appears at a Lynchburg Civil War re-enactment.

Photo: Todd Hundley/Lynchburg Historical Society

LIVING THE CAUSE: Lee's Lieutenants
by Michael Aubrecht, The Free Lance-Star: TOWN & COUNTY Feature
Date published: 9/22/07 Section: CIVIL WAR
Also online at: Civil War re-enactment group strives for the most realistic portrayals of key Southern figures

The dictionary defines a re-enactor as "a person who re-creates a character in a historical event such as a battle" or "a person who portrays history as a pastime." This is true. Unfortunately, however, these two definitions don't even begin to describe the contribution to the preservation of American history that re-enactors provide.

With reverence for their characters beyond that of any actors preparing for the stage, these men and women dedicate their lives to educating the public while maintaining the honorable memories of those whom they portray. In essence, as "living historians" they themselves are the attraction. Theirs is an expensive hobby, but its benefits are priceless, because without them, the stories of our nation's heroes would inevitably be forgotten.

Without question, the most popular re-enactments are those depicting the American Civil War. Since their inception in the early 1900s, hundreds of re-enactor groups have been chartered across the country, each portraying a brigade or company. Some units are better than others, but all of them strive to look and act the part.

To my knowledge, no other organization embodies its characters better than Lee's Lieutenants. Christened the "Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia," this group was formed in 2003 to promote and teach the history of the war for Southern independence.

To date, the group boasts ultra-realistic portrayals of Gens. Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, George Pickett, Jubal Early, Lewis Armistead and others, including several members of their staffs, along with civilians. Some members have appeared in TV documentaries, while others have been captured on canvas posing for renowned Civil War painter Mort Künstler.

Horses, spouses, troops and children round out the group's complete cast. Most impressive is the absence of any Hollywood illusion. There are no fake beards or facial prosthetics in this group. These generals look just like the men they portray. In fact, they are so uncanny that attendees at their events sometimes feel as if they actually traveled back in time, if only for a moment.


Lee's Lieutenants participate in many living-history events throughout the year, and host one of the most original, called "The Gathering of Eagles." Unlike traditional battle re-enactments, this exhibition features a series of public debates and question-and-answer sessions designed to enlighten all who desire to learn the causes and effects of the War Between the States. This weekend-long affair, held at the Old Courthouse Museum in Winchester, hosts the greatest number of re-enactors portraying generals from both armies of any event in the Mid-Atlantic region.

To understand what makes these individuals dedicate so much of their time and talents to preserving and presenting history, I asked several members representing each branch of Lee's Lieutenants to share their thoughts on what re-enacting means to them. I queried Gen. Robert E. Lee, as portrayed by Al Stone; then Maj. Gen. Isaac Ridgeway Trimble, portrayed by his collateral descendant David C. Trimble; then camp chaplain Alan Farley of the Re-enactor's Missions for Jesus Christ; followed by a displaced civilian schoolteacher portrayed by Jessie Reter-Choate; and finally, Civil War photography pioneer Mathew Brady, portrayed by Wayne Ritchie.

Each member had a unique insight into why re-enacting is so important to our region, explaining to me the benefits for both historians and their audiences.

LEFT: General Robert E. Lee (Al Stone) looks on with his officers at a Lynchburg ceremony honoring Lieutenant General Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson.

Photo: Todd Hundley/Lynchburg Historical Society


It's not surprising that Al Stone was among the busiest of these people, this year being the 200th anniversary of Robert E. Lee's birth. He had just returned from a number of special appearances in the North, including a special tour of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where his namesake was both a student and, later, the superintendent. After that, Stone was off to Harrisonburg with his troops for its 400th-anniversary Jamestown celebration.

This hectic schedule is nothing unusual for Lee's Lieutenants, whose members travel to various re-enactments and appearances almost every weekend during the spring and summer. Much like the real Army of Northern Virginia, this group does not stay put for very long. Thankfully, we now live in the age of the Internet, which enabled this reporter to conduct interviews far from the field. The guys at Harper's Weekly never had it so good.


I first asked what led each member to his or her interest in re-enacting. I was surprised at how similar their answers were, even though the group did not come together until many years after each member got his or her start.

"About 17 years ago, I attended a Civil War re-enactment with a friend and enjoyed the experience so much that my wife and I began attending others," Stone said. "Within the year, we were dressing in 1860s-period civilian clothing and spending most of our spare time traveling to such events. It was a new experience--being a part of history alive!"

He described what led to his transformation into Robert E. Lee:

"While attending re-enactments in period civilian clothing, soldier re-enactors began saluting me and others began recognizing me as Gen. Robert E. Lee. My friend who introduced me to the hobby explained that I resembled Gen. Lee and that I should consider offering an impression of him. Initially, I responded with an emphatic no. However, after recognizing that others were doing it, I changed my mind, and five years after attending my first re-enactment, I began portraying Gen. Lee. Now, after having studied the general, I have expanded my studies into the constitutional and economic issues surrounding the war."

LEFT: Chaplain Alan Farley of the Re-enactor's Missions for Jesus Christ leads a prayer at the base of the Confederate Monument in Lynchburg.

Photo: Todd Hundley/Lynchburg Historical Society


Alan Farley has a similar story, but his journey has led him to use the re-enactor platform for his own evangelical ministry. The chaplain founded the Re-enactor's Missions for Jesus Christ in the 1980s, and spends almost every week of the year traveling with his family and preaching the Gospel at historical sites all over the country.

He explained what led him to becoming a full-time battlefield believer:

"Back in 1979, I rekindled an interest in the War Between the States that I had started back in the 1960s." He added: "The ministry, on the other hand, came some five years later, in 1984. It grew out of a frustration of wanting to go to church on Sunday morning while at a re-enactment and not being able to leave to find a church. Plus, there was no one at that time portraying a chaplain, nor holding a real church service for the re-enactors. That is where I came in."


Many participants in the hobby have blood ancestors who served under the very flags flown by their descendants today. Re-enacting is their way of honoring their lineage and sharing the legacies of their forefathers.

David Trimble is an example of one member who discovered his roots.

"I learned of the existence of Isaac Ridgeway Trimble on a trip to Gettysburg. His name was on one of the markers commemorating Pickett's Charge," he said. "To a child, to see your last name on a marker was pretty cool! Over the years, I learned that I was in fact a collateral ancestor of the general. We're from different brothers who came to America together, so some form of cousin."

Trimble was so taken by this discovery that he published a biography of his namesake, "Furious, Insatiable Fighter: A Biography of Maj. Gen. Isaac Ridgeway Trimble, C.S.A." (University Press of America, 2005).

Not all members are in uniform, though. Just as in history itself, the civilian experience is equally important. Lee's Lieutenants stands out among other groups because its members make a concerted effort to include everyday citizens and refugees in their presentations.

LEFT: A bevy of lovely ladies accompany their Lee's Lieutenants husbands into the field, portraying civilians, wives, refugees and spies. Skilled in crafts, many make their own costumes and camp flags.

Photo: John C. Duke


Jessie Reter-Choate portrays a schoolteacher, which isn't much of a stretch for her, since it is her profession. She shared with me the educational value of re-enacting:

"As a teacher, I wanted to relate my hobby to modern life. Obviously, I am interested in the history of the development of education as well as the Civil War period."

She added: "The living-history angle allows for involvement on the participant's part. Younger visitors are also better engaged in living history. It's what we're about--educate, enlighten and entertain. The three E's!"

LEFT: Visitors to the Lee's Lieutenants camp can meet photography pioneer Mathew Brady, aka Wayne Ritchie, who travels with a darkroom wagon, camera and field accoutrements.

Photo: Lee's Lieutenants


One of the most original and popular attractions at a Lee's Lieutenants camp is a wagon containing a complete field photography darkroom, managed by the pioneer of wartime photography himself, Mathew Brady.

Brady is portrayed by Wayne Ritchie, who is one of the newest members to the group. After taking photographs strictly as a spectator at various events, Wayne was asked if he would be interested in doing a period version.

He explained to me the challenges that came with portraying someone who is remembered for what he accomplished behind the camera, not in front of it.

"The hardest part was trying to gain information on Mr. Brady, as there are only a handful of books about him and even less pictures to go by," he said. "The reason I enjoy this hobby is the educating of the public on Mathew Brady and his involvement with the Civil War. Taking on the persona only adds to the realistic values of the person you are portraying."


All five members said they have chosen a hobby that is a double-edged sword of sorts: a labor of love, though extremely expensive and time-consuming.

Re-enactors spend hundreds of dollars on uniforms, hoop skirts, tents, fuel, food and lodging. Cavalrymen, infantrymen and artillerymen spend more money on horses, weapons and powder. Still, the benefits for both the portrayers and their audiences are worth the financial commitments.

"Over the many years of study and conversations with others, I have become familiar with the issues of the contest that are not taught nor normally discussed," Stone said. "Programs that I offer bring out these issues, and it's most gratifying when I see a person light up with recognition. It's as if a light bulb just turned on in a person's mind--a 'now they know the rest of the story' type of thing. When that happens, I get my greatest reward."

He continued: "They, in turn, will now do their own research and study and will be able to talk in a more intelligent manner about the war. Oftentimes, I will get mail from some of these folks as they study--and that is even more rewarding."

This is a recurring theme on a spiritual level, too.

"For me, living histories give us a chance to talk to one person and lots of folks in one setting. We are able to disseminate a lot of material, a lot of facts that the average person would not spend the time to look up on their own," Farley said.

"Besides being called to be a missionary and share Christ, I also feel called to present our nation's history from a Christian perspective. Our founding fathers were dependent upon God and led by God, and that is the story we must get to the nation."

Trimble notes the importance of the message behind the method.

"[Historian] Shelby Foote was quoted as saying, 'If we do not understand the American Civil War, there is no way we can understand the America of today.' I think he was 100 percent correct. As I said before, it is far, far better to study the truth of our common past, and I mean the whole truth, good and bad, and to embrace it, understand it and learn from it, than it ever will be to paraphrase it in modern, PC terms, launder it and then hide it from sight."

Reter-Choate enjoys the opportunity to share history with the thousands of visitors who attend these events throughout the year. Re-enactments should be educational as well as entertaining, she said, and attendees should go home with a better understanding of the War Between the States than they had when they arrived.

Her greatest personal reward is when a visitor expresses gratitude and "tells you he/she really enjoyed what you shared with him," Reter-Choate said.

Most people don't realize that such an experience is really a give-and-take proposition in which re-enactors benefit just as much as their audience.

Stone summed up what makes portraying Lee and his subordinates so special for the group's members:

"As an individual passing along little-discussed facts of the war, it is rewarding, but as a member of a group such as Lee's Lieutenants, filled with people who do the same thing, it is doubly rewarding," he said. "It is our duty to teach the most accurate history of our country that we can, lest we forget and repeat it. We must not let the generations to follow be ignorant of what our founding fathers wanted for us."

Living historians fill an important role in the education of our society. They provide an honest look at some of the most important, formative years of our country, when its very existence hung in the balance.

These historical figures' story is ultimately our story, and they are a piece of the foundation of our existence today. Thanks to the dedication of groups such as Lee's Lieutenants, the service and sacrifice of those individuals will never be forgotten.

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Al Stone, born in New York, now resides in West Virginia. He has portrayed Gen. Robert E. Lee for more than 10 years. In 2004, Stone offered more than 100 presentations to more than 60,000 people. He has also appeared with such notables as artist Mort Künstler and Virginia Tech historian "Bud" Robertson.

Chaplain Alan Farley lives in Concord, near Lynchburg. The founder and director of the Re-enactor's Missions for Jesus Christ, he has been on the re-enacting trail for more than two decades. The Farley family travels more than 30,000 miles a year, conducting revivals and services at Civil War re-enactments nationwide.

David C. Trimble, an attorney in Lexington, Ky., who has been re-enacting since 2003, portrays his collateral ancestor, Maj. Gen. Isaac Ridgeway Trimble. When not depicting Gen. Trimble, he rides as a cavalry trooper in the 4th Kentucky Cavalry.

Jessie Reter-Choate lives in Spotsylvania County on a small ranch that rescues horses and trains them for living-history events and battles. Like her character, a "refugee schoolteacher," she is a teacher. Reter-Choate works at King George High School teaching English, debate and journalism. She is also the school's debate coach.

Wayne Ritchie lives in Rocky Mount, N.C., and works for SE&M construction company. He has been appearing and taking photographs as Mathew Brady for four years now. Ritchie became interested in Civil War re-enactments in 2000, and began actively participating in 2001 after going to more than a dozen events and places.

MICHAEL AUBRECHT is a local Civil War author and historian whose latest book project is on the area's historic churches. For more information, visit his Web site at... Send e-mail to his attention to gwoolf@freelance



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