Johnny Mack meets Johnny Reb

Monday, Apr. 26, 2010

Ed Grisamore –

Johnny Mack Nickles is a rebel with a cause.

From the time he was old enough to pick up a crayon, the “stick men” he drew were always Confederates and Yankees.

The basement of his home near Gray is now like a Civil War museum. It is a shrine that is chock full of swords, pistols, badges and 150-year-old photographs.

He’s a buff of the highest order. If you ever face off against him on trivia night, you had better hope the Battle of Chickamauga isn’t one of the categories.

He was married 38 years ago in a Confederate uniform. His wife, Pat, wore a long dress on their wedding day. Charles Wells, the preacher who performed the ceremony, wrote a book called “The Battle of Griswoldville.’’ Johnny Mack paid him $15 in Confederate money. Keep the change.

Folks claim Johnny Mack, who turned 60 in November, can pass for a Confederate general, even when he’s not wearing a uniform.

It’s the beard that usually does it. It’s authentic, long and so square across the bottom a bricklayer could use it as a level.

He looks like he should be named Beauregard. Or Stonewall.

Johnny Mack meets Johnny Reb.

One lady swore he looked so much like her great-grandfather, who fought for the Confederacy, she brought him a photograph to prove it.

Johnny Mack has never been a soldier, though. His father was a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. His brother was in Vietnam. He has done enough research to discover that the branches of his family tree reach across Confederate battlefields from the Carolinas to Mississippi.

His face lights up when he discusses Civil War history, but it has nothing to do with his being a certified electrician since 1972. He is business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1316. Last year, he was recognized as the state’s Labor Leader of the Year by the IBEW.

Today is Confederate Memorial Day, a time to honor those who gave their lives for the South in the War Between the States.

Johnny Mack participated in the memorial service Saturday at Rose Hill Cemetery. Some 1,474 Confederate soldiers are buried at Rose Hill, including 600 at Soldier Square, where rows of headstones stand at attention along a slope above the Ocmulgee River.

“I look at all those headstones, and some of those young men were 18, 19, 20 years old,’’ he said. “People have a right to disagree with why they were fighting. It may have been for slavery, but we can’t judge their motives in hindsight. They went to war based on the information they had. They were reacting to a situation. The North had invaded the South. They were fighting for their homes.’’

He said there’s an old tale about a Yankee asking a Confederate: “Why are you fighting us?”

“Because,’’ replied the rebel, ‘‘y’all are here.’’

This Saturday and Sunday, Johnny Mack will take part in the activities for Old Clinton War Days, not far from his home. He will have some of his Civil War collection on display.

When he was 10 years old, he saved money from his paper route and bought a musket for $17.50 that had belonged to a guard at the Andersonville prison camp. Over the years he has collected everything from badges to bayonets to belt buckles and Bowie knives. He has a pistol from Griswoldville and about two dozen swords, including one made by the William J. McElroy foundry in Macon, which was located where the Georgia Children’s Museum is now.

He has purchased other vintage items at gun shows, antique stores and even estate sales and flea markets, though not as often.

“Some of the history is passed down, but some of it gets lost when people sell,’’ he said. “You have to appreciate it, take care of it and respect it.’’

He hunts with a Civil War musket and has worn a replica Confederate uniform he bought at a surplus store. Deer hunting with a musket can present its share of challenges.

“You shoot, then duck under the smoke to see if you hit your target,’’ he said. “And it’s just one bullet, then you have to reload. You’ve got one shot, so the deer has plenty of time to get away if you miss.’’

He tells the story of standing near a road near Hillsboro, in Jasper County, after deer hunting in his rebel uniform. A truck with two men pulled up and asked for directions.

“Where are the Yankees?” one man asked.

Standing guard, Johnny Mack laughed and said: “What’s the password?”

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