Rebel re-enactor with a cause

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Photo by Robert A. Martin / The Free Lance-Star
Willie Levi Casey Jr. of Spotsylvania re-enacts as a Confederate private
with the 6th North Carolina State Troop. Casey's unit participated yesterday
in a re-enactment of the 1862 Battle of Beaver Dam Creek.

Click for larger photo.

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Photo by Robert A. Martin / The Free Lance-Star
Willie Casey (second from right) says people don't understand why he joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans. 'People say to me, "Do you support slavery?" I say, "No. I support preserving Southern history and telling it the way it is."
Click for larger photo.

Spotsylvania resident Willie Levi Casey Jr. is an African-American member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and proud to be Southern.

By LAURA MOYER
The Free Lance-Star
Date published: Sun, 06/30/2002

ROCKVILLE--In the Hanover County woods where men in blue and men in gray are shooting at each other, it's all noise and smoke and stink.

Across a field there's cannon fire so loud it resets your heartbeat for you. Horses whicker, and men shout. Fog-thick gunpowder smoke gives off a rotten-egg reek.

For Confederate Pvt. Casey of the 6th North Carolina State Troop, a Civil War re-enactment unit, the conflict is all external.

In real life, the Rebel private is Maj. Willie Levi Casey Jr. of the U.S. Army--a tasty bit of irony if you're looking for it.

But Casey sees no irony at all in re-enacting as a 19th-century soldier in gray and being a 21st-century African-American.

Casey, a 40-year-old resident of Spotsylvania County's Chancellor area, is a Southerner by birth and proud of it by choice.

He's been re-enacting since 1997 and was welcomed as a full member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Matthew Fontaine Maury Camp No. 1722 two years ago.

It all makes sense, he said, if you view the Civil War not as a textbook struggle between good and evil, but as the nuanced conflict it truly was.

"Look at the mentality of a black person in the South" at the time of the Civil War, Casey said. That person's ancestors might have been living in the South for 150 years before the war.

In such a case, he said, "You may be a Southerner by force, but you are a Southerner."

Historians have long held that black Southerners, free or slave, did not serve the Confederacy as soldiers, but worked instead as teamsters, laborers, cooks and personal servants.

If those black men took up weapons in battle, this official version of history goes, it was because of circumstances and self-defense, not because they believed in the Southern cause.

But recent scholarly works--many by African-American academics--have alleged a historical understatement and even a cover-up of blacks' real participation.

Casey, who earned a degree in history from Presbyterian College in South Carolina, said his reading over the past few years leads him to believe that tens of thousands of blacks, slave and free, fought for the Confederacy.

Their motivation, he believes, was not to support slavery but to support what they saw as their country--the South--and to improve their own lot in life.

"You would fight to gain status. Because you know that even if you lose, you're still one of the brothers in arms," Casey said. "You're fighting to make your life better."

Casey's persona as a re-enactor is a free black cabinetmaker from eastern Tennessee, able to read and write, with a wife and a child at home.

But he has a real-life link to the Confederacy as well--one he always vaguely knew about but pinned down only in recent years.

Casey grew up in Cross Anchor, S.C., in the 1960s and '70s. It was an area full of Caseys, black and white.

He and his siblings knew they had a white great-grandfather, a man who had never married their American Indian/African-American great-grandmother even though they had six children together.

A family photo of the couple's son Barney Casey shows a bulky man in overalls with lank gray hair and white skin. He's Willie Casey's grandfather.

Willie Casey was well into adulthood when he decided to research the white side of his family.

In the course of his genealogical effort he came across the Civil War record of one Pvt. Martin Luther Casey, a South Carolina soldier killed in 1862. That man was the older brother of Casey's great-grandfather.

Being a collateral relative of a Civil War soldier qualified Casey for membership in the SCV. He's twice been elected aide-de-camp of the local group.

His acceptance into the organization doesn't surprise him. "Most people will welcome you according to how you treat them," he said.

The SCV denounces racism and has vehemently fought the usurpation of the Confederate battle flag by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.

"These are guys who are trying to remember their ancestors in a positive manner," he said. And that's what he wants to do, too.

Still, Casey is often asked to explain himself--not to his fellow re-enactors or SCV members, but to people who just can't understand where he's coming from.

"People say to me, 'Do you support slavery?'" he said.

"I say, 'No. I support preserving Southern history and telling it the way it is.'"