BATESVILLE For George Lankford, the community theater show he is directing is much more than just another performance. The show marks the culmination of 20 years of research into what life in Independence County was like during the Civil War.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War this year, the Batesville Community Theatre and the Independence County Historical Society will present War Chronicles II: Independence County’s Civil War, 1863-1864, written and directed by Lankford. The play follows Part I of the story, which was presented in 2011.
“One impression I hope people will come away with is that Batesville had a really complicated Civil War,” Lankford said.
As the reader’s-theater-style show goes on, members of the cast put up a Confederate or Union flag depending on which army was occupying the town at the time.
“The whole play is marked by those changing flags,” Lankford said. “It’s pretty amazing to watch as a group of citizens try to maintain a normal life while they’re being essentially occupied again and again.”
Lankford started researching Independence County’s Civil War 20 years ago when he began reading diaries kept by area residents during the war.
“I came up with the idea that you could shuffle the entries chronologically, with every item lining up to date,” Lankford said. “It worked, and I began finding more letters and diary entries and adding that information in.”
As Lankford added to his research, he got help from the Department of Arkansas Heritage, identifying each of the military units that were stationed in Batesville. Armed with that information, he was able to locate other collections of letters and diaries from soldiers in those units. A grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council paid Lankford’s way to visit archives in Missouri and Illinois to glean information from letters and diaries of men stationed in Batesville for short periods of time.
Located on the White River, Batesville and Jacksonport became key places to defend Little Rock from invasion by Union forces. The cities were similarly strategic in preventing Confederate invasions of Missouri.
“It was naturally a place where armies would gather,” Lankford said.
Much of the diary information Lankford found from around the Batesville area was written by three young women who lived in the town. Though the diaries contained little military information, Lankford was fascinated by the way the women wrote about trying to maintain a normal way of life.
“They would get into a very interesting ethical problem, which probably seemed very important for teens at the time,” Lankford said. “They focused on the issue of whether an upstanding Southern girl should attend parties for the Federal troops. They were constantly being invited because when the troops were in town, it was party time. Everyone loved Batesville, and it was never the scene of major battles.”
As his chronicle of the war’s impact grew, Lankford realized that because of its size, few people would take the time to read the account. At more than 200 pages of single-spaced, first-person narrative, only real Civil War buffs, Lankford thought, would take the time.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe a play would work,’” Lankford said.
When Lankford first came to Batesville in 1976, he was quickly cast in the Batesville Community Theatre’s performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He performed with the group for years as an actor before eventually switching to backstage work and directing, then drifting away from the theater altogether 10 years ago. The idea of writing his Civil War play brought him back.
“I looked at everything I had and began to strip away all the stuff that didn’t belong to the overall story,” Lankford said. “I knew right away that it would be too large for a single play.”
The first installment, performed in January 2011, told the story up until the end of 1862, and the second installment picks up there. The show is performed by costumed actors on a minimal set with limited movement. Many of the actors in the 12-member cast also participated in the first production.
Independence County Historical Society member Nancy Britton saw Lankford’s first show and is excited to see Lankford’s telling of the end of the war, especially how he tells the stories of freed slaves in the area, part of the story that is rarely researched.
“I think it’s amazing,” Britton said. “So much of what most people know about the Civil War now, they’ve gotten from movies.”
The show will be performed at 7 p.m. Feb. 1 and 2 and at 2 p.m. Feb 3 in Independence Hall at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville. Tickets are $8 for adults, and $5 for children and seniors. UAACB students and faculty get in free, and the Feb. 3 performance is free for Independence County Historical Society members.
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.