Keeping history alive
Michael Sheets, of Huntersville, said he was always interested in Civil War history, even as a kid.
“There's a Civil War cemetery there on my mom's property by the house where I grew up,” said Sheets. “That had a lot to do with it, wondering about who those people were.”
Sheets said growing up in the 1960s, around the time of the Civil War centennial, kids were inundated with Civil War “propaganda,” as he jokingly referred to it.
“Movies, TV shows, comic strips, comic books, toy soldiers for Christmas, uniforms, costumes — we were just bombarded with Civil War history,” recalled Sheets.
Sheets started getting a little more involved in 1975.
“I was teaching school in Chattanooga, Tennessee and I got a summer job with the National Parks Service dressing as a Civil War soldier and giving talks about the history of the battles there around Chattanooga,” he said. “It started out as a job, but I got in touch with some re-enactors and it became a hobby.”
Sheets said that's when re-enactments really started gaining popularity. He has traveled all over the United States participating in battles. He's traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Chickamauga, Georgia, and Shiloh, Tennessee, to name just a few. In the past, he's been involved with local events at Droop Mountain and Bartow as well, but he never thought that his interest would involve world travel.
“I attended Civil War activities in England if you can imagine that,” said Sheets. “They had a two week tour for us around 1989. My wife and I and a whole bunch of friends went over and did some mock Civil War battles and demonstrations over there.”
Sheets has been involved in the filming of three major productions — the movie “Glory,” the movie “Gettysburg” and the TV mini-series “North and South: Book Two.”
Sheets “retired” from his re-enacting career seven or eight years ago, but it wasn't long until he was pulled back in. He was teaching social studies in Huntington when he started getting flooded with questions from both students and parents.
“Now that I wasn't re-enacting with adults anymore, why don't I do something with the kids? So I started a group that I call the “Western Virginia Military Academy,” he said.
The program is open to boys ages 10 to 15, but Sheets said some of the older guys hang around long after the age cut-off. The group meets once a week after school and even during the summertime.
“We do drills, parades, ceremonies — both at the school and in the community. We go to re-enactments and drill and hang out with the big soldiers — the boys get a kick out of that. You have to be sixteen to participate on the battlefield with a weapon, but we have participated as field stewards — the Civil War equivalent of a modern day medic — and they really did use younger people for those kind of jobs during the Civil War,” explained Sheets.
Last year, Sheets started a girls group at Huntington Middle School, and started hosting military balls.
“Now when we go to these military balls, the boys have someone to dance with,” laughed Sheets. “The girls have ball gowns and the boys dress in their dress uniforms. We threw our first military ball at my school last year and it was a big success, and we're planning a Christmas Ball this December.”
Sheets said this year they've got more than 40 active members.
“This is the biggest we've ever been,” remarked Sheets. “Typically we have a lot of boys join at the beginning of the year, then after they drill a couple times, they kind of drop out. A lot of them join because they think they're playing Army, but it's more work than that — though we do that as well. We try to get them some time skirmishing against each other and that sort of thing.”
Sheets said enrollment usually drops to around 25 guys throughout the school year, but this year has been a little different.
“This year, we started with about 30 boys and picked up more. Just today a boy asked if he could join us. We had a new member show up yesterday. So it's actually growing this year, when it should be starting to drop off. It's pleasing, but it means we have to come up with more funding,” joked Sheets.
Sheets said the organization's loyalties doesn't lean toward the Union or the Confederacy.
“I didn't want this to be partisan,” explained Sheets. “I don't want boys to say 'I won't join because I'm a Yankee or I don't wanna join because I'm a Confederate.'”
The uniforms the boys wear reflect that neutrality.
“Our dress uniform is a blue forage cap — which is federal, a jacket that is Confederate, and white trousers. That was a uniform of military academies really throughout the North and the South.”
Sheets said the boys march with both the United States flag and a Virginia State Flag.
“When we go to an event, I jokingly say, 'whichever side makes us the best offer, that's who we'll side with,'” Sheets said. “We pretty much stay independent, but which side wants to use us? When I say whoever makes us the best offer, no one's offering us money, it's more wherever we can participate.”
For Sheets, it's more important to teach the history of the War Between the States, than who they side with, and the mercenary organization maintains loyalty to themselves before all others.
“I tell the boys, 'if we're asked to portray Confederate soldiers, we all do it together. If we're asked to portray Union soldiers, we all do it together.' We're not gonna split our loyalties up over a 150 year old conflict,” he said.
Sheets said some of the older boys see the other benefits of involvement with the Western Virginia Military Academy.
“For the younger ones, it's Civil War history and playin' Army, but we work on a lot of things with the boys — respect, teamwork, leadership skills, etiquette, and we encourage them with their academics. They think they're playin' Army, but actually, we're teachin' 'em all this other stuff, too, and I talk with the parents ahead of time and let them know I'm a hundred percent with them on any kind of disciplinary issues they have with the boys. ”
Sheets said he had two boys that couldn't go to a recent event because they had a problem with their parents.
“Their folks grounded them,” he said. “The kids came to me and whined and complained. I said 'nope, I support your parents on that. I've told you this.' The only thing I want to hear when you're being disciplined is 'yes ma'am, no ma'am, yes sir, no sir.'”
According to Sheets, some of the older cadets have credited his program with keeping them out of trouble.
“I had one that actually told me, 'if it hadn't been for this, I'd be in reform school right now,'” said Sheets. “I had a seventh grader tell me yesterday, he had a doctor's appointment in the morning and a doctor's note for the rest of the day. He said any other time he'd have taken off the rest of the day, but he told his mom 'you gotta get me to school, we're havin' Academy today.'”
Sheets gets a lot of compliments from the parents of his cadets and it's personally rewarding for him to see the kids do so well. He credits the school system in Cabell County for providing a lot of the funding for his program.
The Western Virginia Military Academy is in its fifth year of existence and Sheets is proud to say they are the only group of the sort in the entire country — but he'd prefer to say they're the oldest because he wants to get more groups started.
“I've actually got two other middle schools in the area that are interested in starting a group,” Sheets said. “Which is something I've wanted to do, I've wanted this to spread. We want more groups out there. I'd like to be able to do activities together.”
Sheets is hoping to make it to Pocahontas County next year for Huntersville Traditions Day, and hopes to spark an interest here in forming a group.
“If anybody up there wants to start a group like this, I'd be more than willing to work with 'em. The more groups we get started — we could even have our own re-enactments. Have the cadets camp out, then go at each other,” laughed Sheets.