By DEE MOORE
For the Keizertimes
Cannon fire mingled with smoke and the cries of wounded and dying men over the Fourth of July weekend while spectators gasped and cheered the spectacle at Willamette Mission State Park north of Keizer.
The park was the scene of the annual Civil War reenactment held by the Northwest Civil War Council. For many, these reenactments are a way to get in touch with America’s history, but for some, such as Matt Cleman of Bend, it is a way to reconnect with their family heritage.
Cleman is a man with one foot in the past and one foot in the present. He was raised on tales of heroism and sacrifice.
The son of a Southern woman, Cleman and his younger brother were told stories of his ancestor’s exploits in the Civil War. Cleman had relatives who served in both the Union and Confederate Armies; for his family, it was a brother against brother saga.
“I have Southern roots, through my mother, who was from the state of Arkansas. She was a highly-intelligent and unfailingly-kind woman,” Cleman said.
His mother was proud of her heritage and wanted her children to be proud as well.
“She was expressing a pride in the valor of the Southern people in the time of the Civil War.
“Now, to be absolutely clear, we were taught, firmly and clearly, that all people are equal, and that bigotry based on race or other factors was an ugliness and an evil. So, I am certain that the valor I was taught to admire was not synonymous with bigotry, or racism, or, in the manner of the day, with slavery,” he said.
“We also knew about our ancestors who fought in the war.”
Cleman, whose ancestor was wounded during the Battle of Peach Tree Creek near Atlanta, noted the war began before the U.S. moved to free any slaves and was almost halfway through when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
“So, if the war was not the war to free the slaves, from the Northern perspective, then it was not the war to keep the slaves from the Southern perspective. Scholars and historians have debated the causes of the war for 150 years and will continue to do so,” he said.
Cleman is earnest and forthright but this is tempered by an air of gentlemanly kindness. He hopes to share not only the motivations of the soldiers but their humanity. These men fought for their families, their homes and their livelihood.
Today Cleman honors both his ancestors by portraying them at Civil War reenactments.
“But for my part, I seek to present the men who were my ancestors … and to use their stories as platforms to challenge people to think about the reasons why the war came, and why men chose to fight in it. Many of the reenactors in our club consider themselves as living historians, and feel impelled to help those remember, who otherwise would forget.
Though his day job is grounded in hard facts and report writing, the 49-year-old federal civil rights investigator was drawn to the Civil War era by more than an interest in history or family. His path to becoming a reenactor is haunting.
“This began when I was a boy … my family took a trip back East where we visited several battlefields of the war,” Cleman recalled. “It was at Gettysburg that I had a most-significant experience. My family: mom, dad, my younger brother, and our little dog, were picnicking in a quiet spot at the edge of the battlefield. Suddenly, the brush and trees behind us began to rustle and to move. Out through the brush walked two men, dressed in dark blue coats, sky-blue trousers, and blue caps. I knew right away that these were Civil War soldiers … the men were clearly as surprised to see us as we were surprised to see them.
“‘What are you people doing here?’ one of the men asked. I stepped right up, brave at age 12, and said, ‘We’re on vacation!’ The soldier scowled in concern. He gestured back the way we had come. ‘Don’t you know there’s a battle going on right over that hill? I advise you to finish here and get away as soon as possible. This is no place for civilians.’ And with that, they turned and re-entered the trees. I was spell-bound.
“The memory of that encounter has stayed vivid. It sealed me to a deep interest in the war. Years later I discovered Civil War reenacting,” Cleman said.
He pauses a moment, as if steeling himself to continue talking about his encounter. It’s warm outside of his canvas tent, a good 90 degrees in the shade and Cleman is wearing wool, still he shivers and rubs his hands up and down his arms as if trying to return the warmth to his skin, and then he continues his tale.
“It was only recently, when I told this story at a campfire one evening at a reenacting event here in Oregon, that a knowledgeable friend told me, ‘You know, the park service doesn’t have reenactors at Gettysburg.’
“A chill went through me. My friend went on ‘you’re not the first person to have that experience there.’ I learned that it is not unusual for visitors to report encounters with Civil War soldiers, just as I did all those years ago,” he said.
Cleman began reenacting the Civil War in 2007. A Washington state native he first joined the Washington Civil War Association (WCWA). He enjoyed the hobby so much he joined the NCWC not long after. While there is a bit of fun to be had leaving the day to day world behind, slipping into character and experiencing another life and another lifetime, it is the educational aspect of the reenactment that he enjoys most.
“My favorite experiences are when visitors come into our camps, where we are most of the day, during the majority of time when we’re not in battle,” he said. “I most enjoy engaging with these visitors, talking with them, showing them the life of a soldier and answering their questions about my life in the 1860s. In those encounters, I feel the powerful spirit which was passed to me, when I was twelve, that day at Gettysburg.”
“These men deserve to be remembered and so do the circumstances, convictions, and courage which motivated them,” he said.