With his tall, lanky frame and white beard, Ron Fox looks a lot like the reincarnation of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
"It’s just a coincidence," the Apache Junction resident said. "We got another guy in our group who looks a lot more like Robert Lee than I do."
Still, the resemblance is appropriate for the leader of Camp 1708, the East Valley chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a genealogical and historical society.
The group, which has 60 Arizona members, meets monthly to hash out the details of the Civil War or show off a saber or pistol used during the conflict.
"Most of them are very serious students of history," said Scottsdale resident John Crossen, a member of Camp 1525, one of six in Arizona. "They’re not living in a fantasy land like these Renaissance people."
It’s one thing to be able to talk about Gettysburg, but quite another to know what Union and Confederate soldiers carried onto the battlefield in their knapsacks such as a photograph or a small pouch of tobacco. Selfdescribed fanatics like Crossen devour the historical minutia and never shy from a chance to share it with others. Occasionally, they’ll don their vintage costumes and demonstrate how to load a rifle or fire a cannon. The spectacle usually brings out a crowd.
Recently, Fox and Crossen participated in a full color guard at the memorial for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, located on Highway 60 and Peralta Road in Apache Junction. As they raised the Confederate flag and fired their rifles into the air, passing motorists honked their horns.
"They’re the closest thing to living history," Crossen said. "They really capture the imagination."
And, they take it quite seriously. To join, members must prove they have an ancestor who fought for the South. The reverse is true for members of the Sons of Union Veterans. Fox earned his entry into the group after tracing his ancestry back to Thomas Josiah Ferguson, a first lieutenant in North Carolina’s legion. Crossen can find ancestors on both sides of the conflict.
So, when they’re talking about these soldiers, they’re talking about members of their own family.
That’s why Crossen and the others are so sensitive to what they call revisionist history. They also adamantly oppose white supremacist groups using Confederate symbols to perpetuate racist theories.
"These men went to war to defend their homeland," Crossen said. "We’re here to honor our ancestors."
Although the society is dedicated to preservation, several members participate in re-enactments organized by the Arizona Civil War Council. The most popular is the March reenactment at Picacho Peak, the site of Arizona’s only Civil War skirmish.
Getting into the hobby can be expensive—up to $1,200 just to buy equipment, estimated Robert Smith of the ACWC.
"In the beginning it was pretty exciting, but once you do it for a while, it becomes routine," Fox said. "Sometimes when you’re in a big re-enactment, it seems so real until you see the spectacle of a car passing by or a plane passing overhead."
Usually, there aren’t enough Union soldiers in these confrontations. Everyone wants to be a Confederate soldier. Sometimes, Confederates have to put on blue uniforms and go over to the other side to fill in the gaps — and that’s perfectly acceptable.
"I guess a lot of people like to root for the underdog," Fox said.