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Barter Theatre brings Civil War history to life for local audience

As the lights dimmed on the stage at Heritage Hall a few weeks ago, the audience was instantaneously immersed back to a time of strife and conflict in America. With the Barter Theatre's production of Civil War Voices, history became more than remote facts, dates and statistics. History became personal, real and alive.
Civil War Voices was the creation of playwright James R. Harris. Years ago, Harris happened upon a diary belonging to his great-great uncle, Joseph Henry Harris, who was an Alabama cotton farmer during the Civil War. After reading this diary, Harris began to search for other true stories from the war. He found letters from a Confederate soldier from Texas who left his wife and family behind to serve his country. He discovered the story of the life of a Union college professor from Maine who became a brigadier general and the story of a former slave who bought her freedom. Harris combined these true stories, and along with composer Mark Hayes, created a musical that not only told the history of the United States during this time period, but the history of these people and their families. As Joseph Henry Harris strode across the stage at Heritage Hall, his voice rang out loud and clear, “This is my true story, these are my words.”
Joseph Henry Harris was not pleased with many things, among them the election of Abraham Lincoln and the threat of civil war. He believed the war would be short lived, not even lasting a month. “We must defend our honor,” cried a group of Southerners. Concerned that their way of life could be forever changed, Harris admitted that while he loved the South, he feared for the future. Although fearful, Harris was ready to defend their way of life. Despite the protests of his wife, Harris joined the Army when his wife was out of town. Quickly dismayed with Army life, Harris took advantage of an offer to pay a substitute $1,500 to fight for three years or until the end of the war. Harris remained torn about his decision to leave the Army and headed back home to his wife and family.
Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in Virginia. Separated by their owner, Elizabeth's father could only visit twice a year. “I witnessed for the first time the sale of another human,” said Elizabeth. Her mother begged her to learn to sew so Elizabeth would not be sold. She eventually bought herself and her son for $1,200 from her master. With the help of friends, she raised that money to buy their freedom. “At last my son and I were free, free,” Elizabeth cried, “Free by the laws of man and the smile of God.” Elizabeth made her way to Washington, DC and became a seamstress for Mrs. Jefferson Davis, wife of the President of the Confederacy before she became a confidante and seamstress for Mrs. Lincoln. Elizabeth described President Abraham Lincoln as “noble and unselfish.” Elizabeth's story was heart wrenching, full of sadness, with moments of happiness and intense emotions. Her words about the death of Abraham Lincoln struck a cord of sadness in the audience as she cried out, “The Moses of my people has fallen in the hour of triumph.”
Theo, short for Theophilus, Perry had volunteered to serve in the Confederate Army but longed to be at home with his wife and family. Stationed at a camp near Shreveport, Louisiana, Theo described the horrible odor of the camp. “Anything they cook tastes like the camp smells,” Theo stated. Theo's story is told from the letters that he and his wife, Harriett, wrote back and forth to each other during the time Theo was away from home. While Theo was gone, he missed the birth of his son. Although he had signed up to protect and defend the South, Theo longed to be at home with his wife and children. Fatally wounded, Theo leaves his wife a widow.
The professor from Maine was none other than Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who led the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Battle of Gettysburg at Little Round Top. “The Southern states must remain in the Union,” Chamberlain adamantly declared just prior to the start of the war. Because of his education and linguistic abilities, he entered the Army as a lieutenant colonel. A hush fell over the audience as Chamberlain described the horrors of battle; the cold, the blood, the sounds of the sick and the dying, the prayers and even the cries of those young men calling out for their mothers as they lay dying.
Through the voice of Joseph Henry Harris, the audience listened as he described Sherman's march to the sea and the destruction of the railroad and supplies to Atlanta. “Many Southerners still believe there is a special place in hell for General Sherman,” Harris told his attentive audience.
Throughout the musical, the spectacular voices of the cast raised up and reached out to touch the hearts of the audience with well-known songs such as “Dixie,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “We are Coming Father Abraham,” “Goober Peas,” “Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Amazing Grace,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home “ and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” These songs expressed the joys, sorrow and struggles of Americans during a time where brother fought against brother.
Through Civil War Voices, these characters came alive again and were able to tell their own personal stories once more. Civil War Voices personalized the war in a way that all the reading and studying accounts of history and chronicles cannot do. The audience was able to step into the lives of these characters and cheer with them, laugh with them and cry with them. The Barter Theatre presentation of Civil War Voices was professionalism at its best.