The two-hour drive on an early Saturday morning made by a bus crammed full of students from different Jefferson County high schools was rewarded when they finally got the chance to meet one of their heroes.
“Hey Abe, Abe, you’re the man,” Trevon Moore, 17, shouted Saturday morning upon spotting a tall bespectacled man in black coat, thin beard and infamous top hat. “I have to get my picture with the Lincoln. You’re the greatest, man.”
Moore had found Abraham Lincoln impersonator Wyatt McMahan at Camp Nelson Heritage Park during the annual Civil War Days Living History.
For Moore, it did not matter that McMahan was only a character-actor portraying the nation’s 16th president — it was the symbol of what he represented. And despite what the book and its recent movie adaptation may allege, Abraham Lincoln admitted to the class from Louisville that he did not in fact slay vampires.
However, that did not belay their admiration for Lincoln because it was what he actually did in the mid-1850s — uniting a county and fighting to abolish slavery — that they found inspirational after nearly 150 years.
Lincoln was swarmed by the high-school group, exchanging hugs and high fives while posing for pictures.
“(Today) has changed what I’ve learned about the end of slavery,” Jaron Thompson, 15, said. “The hardships and difficulty of it, and what it was like for Lincoln at that time and all the work that everyone here had to go through to accomplish what they did.”
Though the man with the tall black hat could be seen towering above the crowds, Lincoln wasn’t the only hero being portrayed at the event Saturday and Sunday at Camp Nelson.
Hundreds of free and runaway black men joined the United States Northern cavalry and armory units to fight in the civil war for the freedom of all Americans, and dozens of men came out to relive and honors those men last weekend.
Though the black units worked in tandem with other white units the groups at the time mostly remained separated by race.
However, some units intermingled, built bonds on the battle field and were stronger for it, said Jay Johnson, who played the role of a runaway slave who joined up with the 102nd U.S. Colored Troop out of Detroit, Mich., and took the rank of private.
“Our history is being told today,” Johnson said. “At the time when it was very bad for blacks, back in the 1860s, and so I’m here to tell our history so no one forgets.”
Getting into the character of a runaway slave is not an emotionally easy journey for Johnson or any black man, he said. For Johnson, the pain and hatred is very real, and he said the rippling effects transcend the past century but that it is important to remember so America does not repeat past mistakes.
“Just don’t accept prejudice — just because it’s always going to be around, don’t accept it,” Johnson said. “Hold your head up, take it in stride; the world’s never going to be right, so you just have to be right for yourself.”
The two-day event was hosted by the Camp Nelson Preservation and Education Foundation with some help by Jessamine County Fiscal Court.
Starting at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday morning, the 525-acre Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park was a living re-creation of life as in was in a Civil War style camp, circa 1863-1866.
Re-enactors all the way from Detroit to Orlando, Fla., performed infantry and artillery demonstrations, ran drills with horses and took marching orders. And at 2 p.m. each day, the troops recreated Morgan’s Raiders skirmish with cannons blaring and blanks crackling and smoking rising.
Children with their fingers in their ears stood in awe watching as white men and black man fell while fighting together but also fighting against one another — the stirring question “why” in their eyes.
“Why is what we’re here to answer; we’re here as living history, to clear up the misconceptions, to show that people of color have contributed a lot more in terms of developing this country that what is in the history books,” said Richard Wilder, who was representing a lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Colored Troops, a cavalry unit. “We do that with the kids through education and dispelling myths and the part that (blacks) played in the Civil War and after the Civil War.”
The key to preventing future discrimination and war is educating the children and restoring the history that was left out of the books, Wilder said.
Traveling from Florida to participate in the Civil War Days, Wilder is a Vietnam veteran like many of the re-enactors in his troop who feel the most important thing to keep the history “alive” is education.
Wilders has been doing Civil War re-enacting for 4 years but has been in the horse industry for 22. He uses horses in his youth ministry in his home state of Florida that helps with at-risk teens and said he was more than happy to contribute his stock to the Camp Nelson event this past weekend.
“Education is paramount in their lives,” Wilder said. “And we’re here to enlighten the public, and we a part of living history to encourage kids to do their own research and learn the truths of their roots and how they got to where they are today.”