Amid the dozens of grand battles being re-enacted for the Civil War’s 150th anniversary is an unusual affair this weekend re-creating the death of a single North Carolinian, a gruesome moment some say marked a turning point against the South.
Carolinian Grief Mason, 21, will be beaten to death – again – in a field near Spotsylvania, Va., by Pennsylvanian Stephen Rought, 22, the Union soldier who was determined to get the regimental flag Mason carried at any cost on May 5, 1864.
Modern-day Charlottean Rex Hovey, a Civil War historian and re-enactor, is behind the event, which calls for about 20 local men and 50 or so re-enactors from around the state to play the part of the 13th NC Troops. The group will take on descendants of the original Pennsylvania soldiers who made up the 141st Pennsylvania Infantry.
Historians say the re-enactment is among the more unusual events of the nation’s ongoing remembrance of the Civil War and its more than 600,000 casualties, because it reduces the four-year conflict down to a moment when two specific men faced off on the battlefield.
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Even the flag they fought over has survived, as the first trophy Gen. Ulysses S. Grant took after assuming leadership of the Union Army. It is currently at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh, after being turned over to the state in 1905.
The killing of Mason, who was from Davie County, will be staged in a wooded area outside of public view Saturday, prior to a grander re-creation of the Battle of the Wilderness in Spotsylvania County.
“Civil War battles typically involved people being killed by bullets that came from 300 yards. In this case, we know who the two men were and how gruesome the moment was. That’s rare,” Hovey said. “Grief Mason was bludgeoned to death with the butt of a rifle, with such force that it broke the stock of the rifle. I consider it murder.”
Union descendants beg to differ, calling it an act of war.
Kurt Lafy is a re-enactor with the 141st Pennsylvania Infantry and author of the book “Draped in Blue and Brave,” which includes the Mason story. Lafy will be part of the event Saturday, and he talks of being pleasantly surprised North Carolinians wanted to participate.
“God bless the men who are representing the Confederacy. ... They surrendered this flag. That’s the most disgraceful thing that can happen to a unit – is to lose its flag,” said Lafy, noting Mason’s flag is of historical importance for countless reasons.
“This flag marked the first time you could point to something in the Civil War and say ‘The Union is now winning.’ It was downhill for the Confederates, who could only manage to fight to a draw after that, when what they needed were clear victories.”
Rought was reportedly cheered by fellow soldiers as he ran back to his company with the regimental flag in hand.
As the first Confederate flag captured after the Union army came under the command of Grant, it was put on display during the war in Philadelphia in 1864. Historians say people came from miles away to look at the flag, which was considered proof of an imminent Confederate defeat.
Adding insult to injury, Rought won the Congressional Medal of Honor, while Mason went on to be buried in an unmarked grave. Flag bearers were often killed, say historians, because the flags they carried attracted enemy soldiers.
Mason will be portrayed Saturday morning by re-enactor T.J. Miller of Fuquay Varina, a community just south of Raleigh. He’s 19 and a veteran of a dozen re-enactments related to the 150th anniversary of the war.
“I imagine it will get emotional when I start thinking about how much Grief Mason suffered,” Miller said. “I got a feeling I’ll be crying. I think there will be others in the unit crying as well.”
Mason, who was surrounded at the time of his death, was so intent on keeping the flag that it reportedly had to be pried from his fingers after he was “clubbed” with Rought’s musket.
Rick Fetter of Troy, Ohio, is a descendant of Rought and will be participating on the Union side during the re-enactment, though not as Rought.
Fetter noted that Rought had been held prisoner by the Confederates just prior to the death of Mason, and that might have played into how he reacted that day on the battlefield.
“Honestly, the word to describe my feelings is bittersweet. My third great-grandfather killed a man, and in the process he gave hope and morale to his fellow troops. And he won the Congressional Medal of Honor,” said Fetter, 41, who’ll be attending with his sister.
“There is nothing more sacred to a military unit than its colors, and they will lay down their lives to save their colors. My ancestor went straight for (Grief Mason) to get it. ... The brutal truth is, war is horrible, and there were sacrifices on both sides.”
In a rare break from accuracy during the Saturday event, Lafy says members of the 141st Pennsylvania Volunteers intend to make a presentation after the re-enactment, giving the North Carolinians back their flag.
“I swear, I’ll well up,” Lafy said. “There was a division between the North and South, and in some respects, there still are divisions. But not in this one case. The war is over, and we’re all friends again. We’re all Americans.”