The Foolishness of Civil War Re-enactors (and reenactments!)

Posted on November 11, 2012 by

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(The following are excerpts from a May 8, 2011 essay by Glenn W. LaFantasie, the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University —  reflections at the onset of four years of Civil War sesquicentennial observances, including Civil War reenactments.  [The bold typeface has been added by V&V. ] The entire essay can be found at the following link: www.salon.com/2011/05/08/civil_war_sesquicentennial/ .)

To a very large degree, I confess to some unease about all this playacting as we look down the road to four years of battle reenactments, fancy-dress balls (modeled on the ones portrayed in the films “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind”), and professions of neo-Confederate sentiments about the war having been fought over states’ rights and not slavery, as if that’s a good thing. . . .

The sesquicentennial should be an enormous opportunity to educate the American public about the war, its causes and its consequences. The Civil War still captures the American imagination, and there is probably no more popular event in American history than the Civil War. . . .

Being a Civil War historian means living in the 19th century, whether you like it or not, and it’s damned difficult to jump back and forth between centuries. . . .

Which is why, in at least one respect, I find the unfolding Civil War sesquicentennial daunting. As more and more people become involved in the war’s commemoration, I fear not only immersion but inundation. How much more Civil War can I deal with in my in life? How much more can I sink below its depths before it drowns me? How much more can anyone stand? . . .

In fact, the entire idea of commemorating the Civil War strikes me as perverse, including bloodless battle reenactments. Why would anyone want to replicate one of the worst episodes in American history? Why would anyone want to pretend to be fighting a battle that resulted in lost and smashed lives on the field and utter grief among the soldiers’ loved ones back home? Is there any uplifting message to be derived from such playacting? . . .

The Civil War as entertainment was something that particularly troubled Bruce Catton, the dean of Civil War historians during of the 1950s and 1960s. At the start of the Civil War Centennial, Catton warned:

“We are in serious danger of taking the most significant anniversary in American history and using it as a means of giving ourselves a bright and colorful holiday. How the Civil War soldier fought his battles is no doubt worth examining, but infinitely more important is a consideration of why he fought and what he accomplished. Lay on the sentiment, the romance, and the dramatic appeal heavily enough, and we shall presently forget that the war was fought by real living men who were deeply moved by thoughts and emotions of overwhelming urgency.” …

It’s telling, of course, that African-Americans don’t often attend Civil War battle reenactments. In fact, National Park Service statistics reveal that African-Americans rarely even visit Civil War battlefields. For good reason, modern blacks are a little sensitive about slavery and anything that seems to suggest — as reenactments most assuredly do — that the Civil War was all about battles, that each side fought with equal courage and grand moral purpose, and that the war had nothing to do with slavery or emancipation. . . .

Perhaps the impossibility of doing justice to (those) soldier’s feelings is precisely why Congress has repeatedly refused to authorize a national commission for the commemoration of the sesquicentennial. . . . The Civil War, in other words, is too difficult for Congress to manage. It’s too messy. It involves taking stock of who we are and where we have come from. It means facing up to hard truths and unkept promises. . . .

The Civil War Centennial 50 years ago was a notable disaster. The national commissions created by Congress suffered from mismanagement in its early days, until several prominent historians stepped in and saved it from self-immolation, but meanwhile the civil rights movement made the commemoration of Civil War battles look and sound profoundly hollow. One hundred years had passed since the war had been fought, presumably granting full civil rights to African-Americans and ensuring those rights in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments; and yet, blacks were still fighting to secure those rights and yearning to be treated with the dignity they deserved as Americans and as human beings. As African-Americans pushed their civil rights movement forward in the ’60s, they were vehemently opposed by states rights segregationists who resurrected the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of white supremacy.

. . . And public celebrations dreamily embrace the romance of a war that should, by all rights, repel us and horrify us and send shivers of fright down our spines. The commemoration of the sesquicentennial deserves to be more funereal than mirthful, more disconsolate than cheery. . . .

Personally, though, I don’t think we need to call off the Civil War sesquicentennial; there are ways of commemorating it without necessarily indulging in battle reenactments or costume balls, hoop skirts and all.

One might begin by reading Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I’m serious. It contains only 272 words, but it spelled out for the American people — in Lincoln’s own time and in ours — the entire meaning of the Civil War. Actually it offers something for everybody in this second decade of the 21st century. If you’re a Tea Party right-winger, you’ll want to do some arm pumping during the opening lines of the address that refer to the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence. Any conservative has to take heart with Lincoln’s references to life and liberty and happiness. Liberals will react to the address with more melancholic feelings for the good old days, since the speech refers to a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” rather than our present reality of a government of the corporations, by the lobbyists and for the rich. . . .

. . . Nevertheless, the place to begin if one wants to understand the true, deeper meanings of the war — and how we as Americans have failed to keep its promises or bring about Lincoln’s hope for a new birth of freedom — is to read the Gettysburg Address. You might also want to glance at the Declaration of Independence to see how the two documents fit hand-in-glove. . . .

. . . It should not be necessary to point out that the Civil War was tragic, not romantic, but the romanticism is what dominates public conceptions of the war.  Allen Nevins, a brilliant historian whose work is now mostly ignored by younger scholars, once attempted to emphasize the war’s enormous tragedy by making this profoundly powerful point: “We can say that the multitude of Civil War dead represent hundreds of thousands of homes, and hundreds of thousands of families, that might have been, and never were. They represent millions of people who might have been part of our population today and are not. We have lost the books they might have written, the scientific discoveries they might have made, the inventions they might have perfected. Such a loss defies measurement.” Nevins wrote those words in 1961, and it seems unlikely that his admonition, or anything I could add to it, will impress Civil War enthusiasts to abandon the romantic myths of the war in favor of a stark realism that lays out, without any varnish, how Americans suffered and sacrificed as they killed one another in droves.  . . .

. . . Actually the war changed everything in the United States: how Americans thought about themselves and their country; how work and industry could be organized, just like the huge armies that tramped from battle to battle; how the nation would henceforth define citizenship and civil rights; . . . What the war did not change — not permanently, anyway — were white attitudes toward African-Americans and other minorities. Nor have those attitudes changed all that much in our own time, despite some of the very real advances that have marked race relations since Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other tangible victories of the civil rights movement.

In 1961, at the start of the Civil War Centennial, Walker Percy, the talented Mississippi novelist, observed that “the country has still not made up its mind what to do about the Negro.” Fifty years later, while a black man occupies the Oval Office, we still haven’t made up our mind as to what we should do about African-Americans and every other minority that inhabits this nation. White racial fears are hidden behind “birther” accusations, draconian immigration proposals and political attacks on federal entitlement programs; some white Americans even cry out that they want to take their country back.

The Civil War sesquicentennial can give them only one answer: You may try to get it back by pretending to fire on Fort Sumter . . . Or you may try to get it back by joining the Tea Party and working to turn back the hands of time to the glory days you imagine as having once existed. But you can’t get your country back. You lost it 150 years ago. Ever since then, whether you like it or not, the steady march of the United States has been toward the higher ground, the greater purpose, of democracy and equality. And while that march has sometimes been stalled or even derailed, while it has been barricaded, hosed down and even sold out, nothing, nothing, has ever succeeded in keeping it permanently from moving forward. Perhaps, in the end, that’s the real legacy and the true significance of the Civil War.

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Posted in: History/Culture