Bill Browning got the idea after he was among the enemy. Well, not exactly the enemy. But, at the very least, some folks who could have been his enemies 150 years ago.
Browning, a native son of Brooklyn, N.Y., a former bookseller and banker and a fan of U.S. history, now lives in Dunwoody. He works at Barrington Hall, the white-columned mansion in downtown Roswell. A few years back, he said, some friends who were fellow Civil War buffs asked him to join them in the Civil War heritage group known as the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“I said, ‘I don’t have the ancestry,’” the 63-year-old recalled one recent morning in the renovated barn behind Barrington Hall where his office is located.
That means he didn’t have any ancestors who fought for the South during the Civil War, a requirement to be a full-fledged member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, according to the group’s webpage, which says the organization wants to preserve “the history and legacy of these heroes so that future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause.”
Then again, Browning said he doesn’t know that any of his ancestors fought for the North, either.
But it turns out that wasn’t a bar to being a member of the group known as the Sons of Union Veterans, he said.
That group calls itself a fraternal organization “dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of heroes who fought and worked to save the Union.” He signed up.
Browning now is camp commander of the Roswell-based chapter, which he said is the fourth in metro Atlanta, and the newest camp in the area. On April 30, the group plans to hold a wine-tasting fundraiser, its first. Admission to the event, to be held at Vino 100 in Alpharetta, is $10.
Browning heads what is officially known as the Kenner Garrard Camp # 4 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. General Garrard, a Union cavalryman, fought under Sherman in the Atlanta campaign and oversaw the burning of Roswell’s textile mills, which provided much of the fortune that built the house where Browning works and his group meets.
Browning’s camp is small. He hopes someday to get up to 35 members. Only about eight or so are members now, and two of them have returned to Wisconsin. Still, he soldiers on. Perhaps someday, he said, his camp can add a few monuments to the past. And he hopes the group someday can give talks in schools about the Civil War and what caused it. Perhaps they could even debate members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
He thinks the conversation is critical.
“I get really upset with people who say we don’t need to talk about the Civil War any more. We do,” he said. “I just think it’s important to know who we are. The decisions we make have to be based on who we were. I know this is old and hackneyed to say, but we don’t go forward without looking backward…
“Pretending it didn’t exist is not the way to go forward. Like anything else, it’s a building process. Moving forward builds on where we were in the past.”
Browning isn’t a Civil War re-enactor. But he knows a few. One recent morning, Eric Peterson, who helped set up the first local camps of the Sons of Union Veterans, dropped by Barrington Hall in full Union uniform. Peterson said he was dressed as Gen. George H. Thomas of Virginia, another officer involved in the Atlanta campaign. Why does he do it? “To keep the sacrifices of union soldiers alive,” he said.
Browning says he doesn’t want to refight the war, but to remember it.
“There’s no animosity, not in my camp,” Browning said. “I’ve never felt any hard feelings. I’m just asking for open discussions. I don’t feel like I’m fighting against the tide.”