An Encyclopedia Virginia contributor wandered into the office recently and we got to talking about Civil War reenacting. He’s been in the hobby for years and is even buddies with the fellow who so authentically scowls from the cover of Tony Horwitz’s 1999 book Confederates in the Attic. Although I was a reenactor myself—yes, there are reenactors even in Iowa—I got out. How to explain why?
A couple of years ago, the Washington Post reported on the hobby’s Revolutionary War iteration. “We choreograph it, time it, and most importantly, we try to keep it as authentic as possible,” offered Carl Gnam of the First Virginia Regiment. His comment is typical and, for reenactors, quite reasonable, but it also ties into a neat little bow the vexing philosophical paradox of “living history.” Only when an event goes horribly wrong—people die, but they die horribly, in the wrong place and at the wrong time—would anything much resemble actual history. (Sen. John Warner begs to differ.)
So yes, it’s true. I am cynical about reenacting. But it never hurts to remind myself how much I once loved it.
You see, for a couple of years there in junior high and high school, I was a beautiful Johnny Reb. I was hardcore. I was virulently anti-farb. Someone might come up to me and say, “Jesus, son. You look like something that crawled into a barn and died.” And I was in heaven. All that paper-route money spent on what amounted to rags, really, and for me it all totally paid off. I came home once after a weekend in the field, mud-caked & grease-smeared & let’s face it a little poopy-smelling, and my grandmother just cried. She wept, God bless her. Which is exactly what I was going for.
Finally, something I was good at.
So the other night I went and found Confederates in the Attic on my bookshelf; I remembered a particularly good chapter on reenactors. Sure enough: “A Farb of the Heart.” (Farb, by the way, is reenactor slang for all things inauthentic.) I’ve not always been impressed with Horwitz’s books (I thought Baghdad without a Map to be particularly slight), but here he really nails the hobby. For instance, he perfectly captures its cliquishness: the overweight, middle-aged farbs wearing second-hand work boots and puffing innocently on Marlboros; the hardcores who feel “that crowds of spectators interfered with an authentic experience of combat”; the civilian sutlers, nurses, and Lee & Lincoln impersonators; the few embittered ex-Real Deal guys who like to massage their tattoos and grouse, “Just like the real military—a continual f—ing screw-up”—with everyone distrusting everyone else.
There’s the phenomenon of way too many people (including yours truly) wanting to be Confederate: “When I play Northern, I feel like the Russians in Afghanistan,” a guy from freaking New Jersey explained. (This was pre-9/11, of course. Would he now say that he feels like the Marines in Fallujah?) There’s the usual griping over who has to die in battle. There’s the mind-blowing romanticization of everything, right down to Hello. “It’s an era lost that we’re trying to recapture,” a woman washing clothes in a tub told Horwitz. “Men were men and women were women. It was less complicated.” When a guy ambles past and says, “Evening, ma’am,” the woman practically faints at how Gone with the Wind it all is. “See what I mean? No one’s that polite in real life any more.”
FYI: Yes, they are. And today, we get the added bonus of NOT killing each other by the hundreds of thousands on backyard battlefields. This is where reenacting starts to make me cranky.
Another objection to what I found in Horwitz: an accountant from Connecticut who was nevertheless “fighting” for the South argues, “We’re not here to debate slavery or states’ rights. We’re here to preserve the experience of the common soldier, North and South.” That’s mostly true, but the guys in my unit debated states’ rights endlessly. They honestly believed the North was wrong. They honestly believed the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. This was hard to take, even in high school. “I hate to call it a hobby,” continues the accountant, “because it’s so much more than that. We’re here to find the real answers, to read between the lines in the history books, and then share our experience with the spectators.”
Real answers? There’s a mystical element to reenacting, but I don’t get it. These guys—the hardcore ones, anyway—know their history chapter and verse. But it’s micro-history. They know their shirt buttons. The real answers—whatever those are—can’t be found in shirt buttons I don’t think.
IMAGE: My first reenactment, circa 1983