A multi-media performance by Clark Hansbarger and the Bitter Liberals on Sunday night portrays the Civil War as you’ve never seen it before.
“Dream of a Good Death” is a combination of songs, music, slides and words to tell the Civil War story, an approach that has struck an evocative chord in audiences around the region over the past three years.
Half folk/roots concert and half TED Talk, the show traces America’s most bitterly contested conflict as Hansbarger and performers Allen Kitselman, Mike Jewell and Gary McGraw follow the
soldiers’ hopes, fears and sacrifices as they endure the Union conquest of Port Royal, the fires in The Wilderness, the killing fields of Cold Harbor and the long siege of Petersburg. The evening also features paintings of Civil War themes by artist Winslow McCagg.
“Dream” is co-sponsored by the Mosby Heritage Area Association and the NOVA Parks System. For Rich and Tracy Gillespie—executive director of MHAA and NOVA Parks site manager for the Mt. Zion historic park, respectively—the performance is the culmination of several years’ efforts to host it.
Hansbarger’s imaginative take on Civil War history involves the performance of 10 songs, each of which is introduced with slides and a recounting of the stories behind each by Hansbarger, and then the band’s performance of the songs.
In a recent interview, Hansbarger, a musician himself and a former Loudoun high school teacher, said the show looks at the Civil War in terms of the personal emotions of those involved in it, rather than from the political perspective. It draws strong reactions from audiences.
“One woman came up to me and said, ‘Now I get it why it took four years and so many people died,’” he recalled.
Hansbarger wrote “Dream of a Good Death” for the Civil War sesquicentennial. It has been performed in theaters throughout Virginia to large audiences.
Howard Means, author and former editor of The Washingtonian magazine, wrote that the show is “one of the most imaginative approaches to the Civil War I’ve ever witnessed. In short, terrific entertainment—the rare evening that leaves you better informed and fully satisfied.”
For Hansbarger, the opportunity to perform “Dream” at Mt. Zion is a “deep joy and honor,” a natural locale in light of the significant role that Loudoun and Prince William counties played in the war—“at the center of so many of these songs.”
He’s a writer and a musician—playing music since he was 16, in bars around Loudoun. Then he met up with the Bitter Liberals. “We just clicked,” he said. He’d always been curious about the Civil War, but it was not until he and his wife, Ginger Reuling, were kayaking in the Ace Basin, SC, that he got the Civil War bug—and the inspiration for “Dream.”
The Ace Basin covers 100,000 acres, an area where the Combahee and Edisto rivers converge below Charleston, SC. Some 700 slaves worked on the surrounding plantations.
At the beginning of the war, a large Union force took the deep water fort at Beaufort, and the basin, and freed thousands of slaves—leading to southern lawsuits seeking return of their property.
“I learned about it and wrote the first song—brought it back, and we played it,” Hansbarger said. He followed that technique throughout the project.
“He’d bring the song idea, and we all put the icing on the cake,” Kitselman recalled.
“I loved doing it. [Hansbarger] started out as a great teacher. His interpretation of history personalizes it through the songs, and recording them was really emotional for all of us—I’d never seen the suffering of the Civil War personalized like that before,” Kitselman said.
“It’s not a lecture. It’s more vignettes and stories, tied in packages by the songs, and he’s chosen images that go along with them. I’m really in awe,” Kitselman said.
Hansbarger uses the slides to introduce each song. “Ten songs and a TED talk—I put in the chronology, spanning the beginning of the war to the aftermath.”
The songs reflect the growing strain of war and questions such as, “How did I get here and when can I go home?” Or, “What is God doing here?” amid the slaughter of Cold Harbor.
Hansbarger called the band’s four-part harmonies “elegiac,” adding, Kitselman “has this Beatle-esque way of doing harmonies—it’s not normal. Gary is a brilliant violinist and Mike’s voice is amazing. I feel like a hack.”
For Hansbarger, doing the show again is exciting.
“We perform it so rarely. It’s a different evening. And when we play it, I fall in love with playing with these guys.”
Without the Bitter Liberals, the show wouldn’t exist. His songs were just interesting little guitar songs, Hansbarger said.
“What they did with them is amazing. I was going to give it up, but it’s timeless, so we’ll keep going.”
For more on the show’s images and music, go to civilwarsong.com.