WASHINGTON -- John Douglass has been a top officer in the U.S. Navy, a longtime defense lobbyist and is now a veteran Civil War reenactor. Most of that pedigree boosted his standing in the Virginia Democratic Party, and elevated him to the top of the field in a hotly contested congressional race this year. The latter hobby, not so much.
Douglass plays both Confederate and Union officers in historically precise reruns of Civil War battles. In a state with a tortured racial history like Virginia, photos of a politician in Confederate garb may invoke uncomfortable realities, past and present.
Don Gaines, a local chapter president for the NAACP in Fluvanna, Va., which is in the 5th District, said he finds Douglass' reenactment involvement "very surprising and somewhat disturbing."
"I understand that it is a part of history," he said, "but I guess with the makeup of the 5th District as it is right now, you would probably want to be more sensitive to things such as that, and to be hosting (meetings) on your farm ... Wow, that's very, very surprising ... wow, I'm really taken aback by that."
Douglass declined to be interviewed for this story, but he did speak with several of HuffPost's sources after they commented on it. Several of those sources, black residents and leaders in the district who initially criticized Douglass' involvement in the reenactments, backed off their positions after speaking with him or his campaign representatives.
Virginia's 5th Congressional District is a tough district for Democrats to win. Larger than the state of New Jersey, the district stretches from the central-Virginia liberal oasis of Charlottesville through acres of deeply conservative, predominantly white, farmland.
Douglass is locked in a heated Democratic Party primary with Peyton Williams, a former Army officer seeking to rekindle the progressive flame briefly lit by former Rep. Tom Perriello, who won the district by just 740 votes in 2008, only to be wiped out by the 2010 GOP wave. Douglass has made an effort to appeal to moderate voters, and recently told a local newspaper that libertarians should find a lot to like in his campaign.
A May 19 convention will determine the Democratic nominee.
Race will be a volatile issue higher up on the ticket come November in Virginia. Former Gov. Tim Kaine is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.). Kaine's Republican opponent, former Sen. George Allen, was ousted from office in 2006 after referring to S.R. Sidarth, an Indian-American filming one of his campaign events, as a "macaca," a comment which revealed other controversies like an office adorned with a Confederate flag and a noose.
Williams' campaign manager Erin Monaghan criticized those who "re-fight the battles" of the past. "Virginia is a proud state with a painful history," Monaghan said in a statement Monday. "It's important for Democrats to focus on the issues of the 21st century rather than joining those who want to re-fight the battles of the 19th century."
Reenacting Civil War battles is a common pastime in much of the South with an extremely complex culture. Some reenactment organizations maintain that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, while dissenters argue that states really fought for the right to own slaves and therefore celebrating this part of American history is shameful.
In March, Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos questioned whether statues in the city commemorating Confederate forces are appropriate. "I know that there are a lot of people who feel very strongly that these statues don't belong in our downtown," Szakos said, according to reporting from The Daily Progress. "We need to be saying, 'Is this how we want to be represented visually?'"
But she said she had no problem with reenactments. "I’m a big history buff, and I think that reenactments are absolutely appropriate," Szakos said. "I think that in order to play a battle you have to have both sides there. I don’t think that’s so much a celebration of it, as just a reenactment of the battles themselves, a reenactment of history which is kind of cool and interesting."
Douglass founded Stribling's Battery years ago, after participating in a Union unit with the 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry for several years, a campaign aide said. According to Carol Robinson, a longtime battery volunteer, Douglass' reenactment unit boasts several dozen members and is headquartered in Fauquier County. Meetings typically are held on Douglass' farm in Hume, Va., where the unit's cannons are kept.
The battery's website features a 4,500-word historical treatise excerpted from Michael J. Andrus' book, “The Brooke, Fauquier, Loudoun, and Alexandria Artillery,” and one part, featured in bold on the site, suggests great pride in its history. "In the War, all reward a Confederate Soldier expected was that his manhood should be recognized, for love of home and country was his inspiration," it reads.
The website also features video footage from a reenactment in which one man lets out a celebratory "whoop" following cannon fire.
Robinson said she's been participating in the battery with Douglass for the last five years, and that participants are not trying to relive the Civil War. "It's about the history," she said. "And I would say the fun."
While Stribling's is a Confederate unit to which Douglass has ancestral ties, he also has played a Union soldier, as photos supplied to The Huffington Post attest. "All members of the Battery agree to promote an accurate impression of Civil War artillery, both Confederate and Federal," said a statement on the Stribling's Battery website.
Douglass' campaign manager Gary Rittenstein said scrutiny of Douglass' reenacting is unwarranted.
"While we understand the temptation of some political operatives to inject racially-charged sensationalism into the final stages of a Democratic nominating process, retired Brigadier General John Douglass is proud to take part in various government-sanctioned civil war re-enactment performances that help educate thousands of families about Virginia's critical role in getting our country to honor the God-given rights of every person, regardless of race color or creed, which even his political opponents would have to support," he wrote in a statement.
Debi Eldridge, the Democratic chair in Mecklenburg County, Va., said that while she condemns the use of the Confederate flag, she likes and admires Douglass on a personal level.
"Let me start by saying there was a Civil War and the Confederates lost. They should put away their flag. Usually when a particular group loses, they relinquish their flag," Eldridge said. "That's my first impression."
Eldridge added she met Douglass and was very impressed with him, particularly his service in the U.S. Air Force. "What better person to use for reenactment of the rules of engagement than someone who has actually been there ..."
The Democratic Party of Virginia declined to comment, while Charlottesville County Democratic Committee Co-Chair James Nix was surprised, though not offended. "That's pretty energetic stuff. I didn't know that John was into that sort of thing," said Nix when contacted by HuffPost.
"If that’s what he's doing, I think that's a fine hobby," he added. "He's a military career guy; he was a brigadier in the Air Force and he's worked for the Defense Department since then, so that he would have an interest in a military-related hobby doesn’t surprise me in the least."
Douglass isn't the first politician involved in dressing in Confederate garb. Glenn McConnell (R), South Carolina’s new lieutenant governor, made national headlines when photos surfaced of him posing in a Confederate uniform alongside two people who appeared to be imitating slaves.
While McConnell lists his Sons of Confederate Veterans membership on his personal website, there's evidence to suggest the Republican Party is less than proud. Indeed, the Washington Post has reported one of the reasons South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has been passed over in the GOP's vice presidential selection process is that Republicans fear national embarrassment were McConnell to inherit her seat.
Douglass has a war chest approaching half a million dollars and more than a dozen-plus local Democratic chairs and vice chair endorsements around the district. A former assistant secretary of the Navy who campaigned enthusiastically for Barack Obama in 2008, Douglass has said that if elected he will focus on education and national defense issues.
"Like the late Patrick Swayze in 'North & South' and Martin Sheen in 'Gettysburg,' General Douglass has portrayed characters in both Union and Confederate units at events hosted by Living History Park Services, Gettysburg National Park and others after serving our country for more than 35 years," added Douglass' campaign manager Gary Rittenstein in a statement.
HuffPost has compiled a slideshow of Douglass' Civil War reenactments:
Zach Carter contributed to this story.