The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), a fraternal organization composed of descendants of Union soldiers, is forming a local camp to serve the Mobile Bay and greater Gulf Coast area.
This is the fifth SUVCW camp in Alabama and one of over 200 across the nation. They are recruiting members who can prove Union veteran ancestry through documentation.
The camp honors Adm. David Farragut, who fought in and won the Battle of Mobile Bay and is famously remembered for saying “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
“We’re dedicated to preserving the history and the legacy of veterans who fought and died to save the Union in the Civil War,” Wesley Sainz, the new camp’s commander, said.
SUVCW camps often participate in civic or community events, like presenting the colors for the national anthem. They also host living history events, where visitors can see what it was like to live and serve in the Union Army during the war, Sainz said. Participants use period-accurate uniforms, utensils and other items which have been recreated from the original material, style and patterns used in the Civil War period.
Sainz became involved with SUVCW in 2016. He said his family shared an oral history of his Union Army ancestor, which prompted him to do some research of his own and connect more with his heritage.
Through research, he eventually found a gravesite in New York and learned his ancestor fought in the Battle of the Potomac. He also found firsthand accounts from people who knew his ancestor, who described his habits and actions.
“It’s a marvelous thing to read about someone from 150 years ago that was an ancestor,” he said.
His ancestor, a German immigrant, volunteered to join the Union Army not long after arriving in the U.S. Many other new immigrants did as well, including many from Hungary, Germany, Italy and Ireland.
“I’ve read manuscripts and letters and so forth from people and they said, ‘Look, we came to the U.S. to have a better life, and we’re gonna fight for it because we have that better life now and we’re not going to give it up,’” Sainz said.
SUVCW camps are much larger, with some camps boasting hundreds of members, in areas like Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. Sainz said he thinks geography isn’t the only thing to blame for relatively low membership elsewhere.
“Here in the South, it’s not so much that we don’t have people,” he said. “It’s that we just don’t have individuals who are willing to look back into their history.”
This SUVCW camp comes to a city that until last year honored Confederate Adm. Raphael Semmes with a statue downtown and still honors Confederate poet and priest Abram Joseph Ryan with a statue in Ryan Park.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a similar organization, has helped establish and maintain the Confederate presence in Mobile. They re-erected the Semmes statue after it was toppled during Hurricane Frederic, relocated a 12-ton cannon from a museum to the monument and replaced a stolen name plaque from the statue in Ryan Park, according to A.J. DuPree, memorials chairman for SCV Raphael Semmes Camp 11.
“Our purpose is to maintain the good name, the contributions and the cause of the Confederate veterans,” DuPree said.
These two groups, though they are similar in their purpose and design, refer to the conflict differently. While SUVCW refers to it as the Civil War, SCV calls it the “War Between The States” or “War of Northern Aggression” instead.
Though their ancestors were opposed to one another, fighting for different causes, honoring those veterans does not create any bad feelings between the two groups.
“We’re all on the same page here,” Sainz said. “We’re out here to try to perform what we can to observe our ancestors’ history and [participate in] a civic or community event where we’re invited.”
Sometimes, they even participate in events together. Dressed up in their grey and blue uniforms, they’ll recreate battles for a public audience.
“We come in as friends and we leave as friends,” Sainz said. “There’s no animosity between people or anything like that. I’ve never encountered anything like that in the years that I’ve been involved.”
The relationship between these two groups is not close-knit, but their cooperation is mutually beneficial — it’s difficult to recreate history with only a single side.
“It’s like playing army,” Sainz said. “You have to have somebody to shoot at or you have to have somebody on the opposing side, and they feel the same way.”
Both groups require documentation that proves a Union or Confederate veteran as an ancestor to be a member, though some members have ancestors on both sides of the war.
“We allow dual membership, so long as they honor both sides honorably and don’t pick one over the other and say, ‘I don’t recognize them’ or anything like that,” Sainz said. “They’re more than welcome in our group.”
It was a divided war, with families often fighting on opposite sides of the conflict, he said.
What attracts many to groups like this, DuPree said, is a sense of heritage and family pride, though it is also a strong interest and fascination with history.
“I bet you we’ve got a couple [members] who could tell you how Adm. Semmes buttoned his tunic,” he said. “We would have guys who would tell you who was carrying what type of weapon at the time of the attacks at Shiloh. We would have a guy who would tell you how many guys Nathan Bedford Forrest had in his cavalry when he fought at Brice’s Cross Roads.”
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