Public history in the “Battle Born” state

, , , , , ,

Civil War reenactors near Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo credit: Shae Cox

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of pieces  focused on Las Vegas and its regional identity which will be posted before and during the NCPH Annual Meeting in Las Vegas in April.

On a cool, quiet morning in late April, we turned off the highway and up the winding dirt road to a green field nestled against the mountains. When we parked we could see a canvas tent and a few men in full Union uniform dragging a cannon from the asphalt parking lot toward “camp.” Gathering our picnic blanket, sunscreen, and snacks, we headed around a barbed wire fence and toward the one shade tree. As we got closer we could hear orders being shouted by a teenage boy. “About face!” “Present arms!” “Fire!”

“Battle Born” is Nevada’s state motto. The state’s origins are framed by the Civil War. Nevada became a territory in March 1861, a month before the war began, and achieved statehood on October 31, 1864. No actual battles were fought here, but the state has an intriguing relationship with the war because of the legislation the war fostered.1 The social and cultural meaning of the Civil War has strong resonance in Nevada because of two modern groups: the Southern Nevada Living History Association and the Nevada Civil War Historical Society. Both of these groups participate in Civil War demonstrations and reenactments at the Old Mormon Fort in downtown Las Vegas and at Spring Mountain Ranch, about 30 minutes outside of town.

Researching a seminar paper, I had the opportunity to conduct oral interviews with a few members from each association. When asked why and how they do what they do, they gave several reasons, but three consistent concepts stick out: memory, education, and place.

Civil War memory is important to each person for specific reasons. Some of them listed heritage, personal military service, and the desire for an authentic experience. Because of their drive for commemoration and performative historical memory, these groups keep aspects of the Civil War alive in Las Vegas. Their push for authenticity in memory, and uniforms are tied to their educational goals.

Civil War reenactor’s mess kit. Photo credit: Shae Cox

These groups put forth considerable effort studying many facets of the Civil War, from the deeper meanings of the war and military tactics to knapsack contents and uniforms. One of the members said, “Every day I learn something new” because there is “so much unknown about the Civil War.” 2 Reenacting is a learning experience for the reenactors and for the public and spectators. The Nevada Civil War Historical Society features demonstration days for the local youth. The organization provides Union and Confederate uniforms for the kids to wear for the day and gives them marching orders on the basis of fostering discipline and historical education. The Southern Nevada Living History Association also provides  demonstrations on uniforms and accoutrements for the public.

Every person I spoke with mentioned the importance of education about the Civil War, especially in the current political climate. The politicized issues surrounding the Civil War over the past year, such as riots and protesters tearing down Confederate statues, reached Nevada last year. The Southern Nevada Living History Association felt compelled to cancel their event “Civil War Days in the Battle Born State” because people were uncomfortable with potential security issues.

Place matters. When discussing the authenticity of experience, one of the reenactors made a distinction: “We don’t really put on reenactments, we put on exhibitions of tactics because there weren’t any battles fought out here.”3 This is an excellent example of how place dictates the stories people tell and the public memory that is perpetuated. Because of their educational and informative angle, they are not necessarily pretending to be in a different place but demonstrating through performance the experience soldiers went through, even if there are a few more rocks when you fall here and the weather might be a bit dryer than in the humid East and South.

Las Vegas is an unconventional place, so it seems fitting that we should study and “live out” the Civil Wars that are also unconventional.4

~Shae Cox is a history Ph.D. student from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She studies memory and material culture of the American Civil War.


1 Michael Green, Nevada: A History of the Silver State, Reno and Las Vegas, University of Nevada Press, 2015, 84-106.

2 Carter Stransky. Interview by Shae Cox, Las Vegas, Nevada, April 5, 2017.

3 Carter Stransky. Interview by Shae Cox, Las Vegas, Nevada, April 5, 2017.

4 Southern Nevada Living History Association,, Nevada Civil War Historical Society.

  1. Beau Bennett says:

    So no battles were ever fought in Nevada and the whole state uses “Battle Born” as a glorious or a battle-hardened chant. It means “We joined the Union during the war.” Perhaps “War Born” is more accurate since no battle ever occurred here. Only a handful of soldiers from Nevada actually participated in the war. I dunno, but it seems to me like Nevada needs a better ‘Motto”. Preferably one that actually fits the state. Nevada’s influence in the US Civil War was negligible. Nevada has a great and significant history but a war that was over 1,000 miles away shouldn’t be the motto of the state, IMO.

  2. Island Don says:

    I concur with Beau. True the state was born amid the sounds of battle in America. But when you see Running Rebels and Old Reb, it starts to smack of that old “The South Will Rise Again”, White Supremacist crowd. Maybe it’s me.

    1. Seth B says:

      Former Nevada coach Chris Ault once said, “Three things are red and none of them are good: The devil, communism and UNLV.”

    2. Curtis Langdon says:

      Perhaps something like “Silver For The Union”. Or just “Silver Union”?

  3. Nicole says:

    The motto is Silver State just as much as Battle Born.
    Nevada mattered due to votes and was made a state due to the Civil War. It was a legislative battle–not just one on a battle field. Hence it was Battle Born. #530

  4. Rufus Henscheid says:

    Rufus Henscheid
    303 N. lSycamore Street
    Muenster, TX 76252

  5. Scott says:

    Love it! Hoohah from a soldier from a family of soldiers!

  6. Scott says:

    Hey Boo, when you raise your right hand and defend the country or states within due to your feelings, then post your thoughts. Until then listen to Nicole!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.