In Defense of Civil War Reenacting (Not!)

Published:August 31, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

 

While Andrew Sullivan is on vacation, his blog has taken up the always contentious topic of Civil War reenacting. It started with Drew Gilpin Faust, who argued that reenactments are “less about remembrance than forgetting” (pdf). This prompted Lewis McCrary, thesaurus in hand, to counter:

For Faust, the reenactments are a simulacrum, an image that bears no relation to what it purports to represent. Whatever meaning it gives must be false. But for the reenactors, replaying these battles provides a reminder that conflict is always with us, and that some instinct, perhaps original sin, always leads men to do violence to one another. In Faust’s interpretation, the Civil War was a tragic but necessary component of national progress. But the more provincial reenactors intuitively understand a more fundamental story, that war is a result of the fallen human condition. Their reenactment, like the carnivals of old, is liturgical; it restrains rather than rekindles violence.

Which, in turn, caused me to roll my eyes and wonder what on earth this person was thinking. My response was anonymously posted on Sullivan’s blog this morning:

… Mine is just a single perspective, but man, do I disagree with Lewis McCrary’s argument that “for the reenactors” the hobby is a reminder of “original sin”; that even “the more provincial reenactors intuitively understand … that war is a result of the fallen human condition.” I suppose that McCrary’s perspective may hold for a few reenactors, but these were certainly not the people I knew.

Perhaps the hobby is different nowadays. I haven’t donned my gray kepi and butternut shell since 1988, when I participated in the 125th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg as a member of the 12th Alabama Volunteer Infantry. I can tell you, though, that we in the 12th understood only a handful of concepts intuitively, among them “farb,” as in someone who is not appropriately authentic; “hard-core,” as in someone who is intimidatingly authentic; and “motherf*&@ing hot,” as in what it felt like to march around in July wearing layers and layers of wool.

Rather than worry about original sin, we worried about whether the buttons on our jacket were too farby. My grandmother sewed me a 19th-century-looking vest, and soon it was falling apart so that once, when I came home mud-caked and skeletal from a long weekend camping, and all my clothes were rags, she eyed me up and down and, very quietly, began to cry. “What is this boy thinking?” she asked my mom.

It was one of my proudest moments as a reenactor. I looked awful, so I must also have looked authentic.

We “Alabamans” were actually Yankees from Iowa, and when we sat around the campfire we either talked about Monty Python or states’ rights. The human condition was never even a subtext, except where it failed to imbue people with the wisdom to understand that slavery was in no way connected to the experience of Johnny Reb and that states like our beloved Alabama (a place I have never visited to this day) had every right to secede.

My father, a history teacher, was horrified by this sort of behavior, and I can only imagine what my little sister, who is African American, thought. But it was at Gettysburg, when I was not quite a sophomore in high school, that I had an epiphany. In order to maximize the authenticity of our participation in the mock battle, we were ordered to march seven miles (give or take) before taking the field. As the midday sun bore down on us, a guy behind me collapsed of a heart attack. (Or at least I heard later it was a heart attack.) We just kept on going. This was war, after all.

Except that the one thing that makes war war—death—is the one thing that this Gettysburg was so conspicuously missing. How can we have deep thoughts about, in McCrary’s formulation, men doing violence to one another when the violence is so obviously absent? And if, through sheer willpower, we do manage to summon such deep thoughts, what can they possibly mean in the context of a hobby we are all here to enjoy?

In my experience, we obsess over authenticity precisely to avoid this uncomfortable truth about reenacting, and if—if—there is some intuitive understanding of the fallen human condition, it is not manifested in some unique or superior take on the Civil War. Rather, it comes out in the sheer absurdity by which I loved and cared for my three-band, muzzle-loading, reproduction 1862 Enfield rifled musket, paid for in full with paper-route money – an instrument of death that never hurt a flea.

PREVIOUSLY: More on reenacting in these pages here and here.