As the Civil War Sesquicentennial rolls along, we continue to run into articles about Civil War battle reenactors who have returned to battlefields all across the country to “commemorate” the anniversaries of important battles in the history of the Civil War. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg received a lot of press, of course, but reenactments of other battles like Shiloh, Vicksburg, and the Crater have already taken place or will be taking place in the near future. Participants give a wide range of explanations for involving themselves in these activities. Virginia resident Dave Born explained that he participates in battle reenactments because “I enjoy the camaraderie with others who enjoy history and I also enjoy the research in portraying particular people. This is like a busman’s holiday for me on horseback.” Massachusetts resident Elliot M. Levy reflected on his admiration for Civil War soldiers: “Many men fought to the death. They were admirable. I am in awe of them.” Recapturing the heroic qualities of those soldiers and the entire Civil War period seems to be a driving influence for Levy, who also stated that,”this was a different era. Soldiers did not want to do a disservice to their unit, or friends or hometown.” (Is he suggesting that soldiers today don’t think this way?) I also liked this very fine essay from IUPUI Anthropology Professor Paul Mullins, who explains that reenactments have much appeal because they are “an intense emotional experience: muddy hillside charges, clouds of gunpowder smoke, sweat-soaked period uniforms, and chest-rattling cannon-fire make a distant but hallowed heritage seem ‘real and tangible’.”
One of the more interesting essays I came across was from North Carolina resident Clint Johnson, who seems to believe that battle reenactments are an appropriate way of “honoring” the service of both Union and Confederate soldiers. According to Johnson, reenacting isn’t about discussing the causes of the war, slavery, or even the Union itself:
Reenactors go out in the heat and the cold, and the blazing sun and the chilling rain to honor the men of both sides. It’s as simple as that. These Northern and Southern men left their homes to fight a war in which they had no personal stake. Few of the common soldiers on either side owned slaves and no one particularly liked the wealthy men who did own slaves. Fighting this war did not assure the common soldiers there was money to be made, new lands to conquer or spoils to be split among the winners.
Notwithstanding several problematic assertions from Levy and Johnson (why is it necessary to mention that few soldiers owned slaves if reenactments are not about slavery? How do we know that the common soldiers didn’t like the wealthy slaveholders? Robert E. Lee, anyone?), it is clear that for many participants, reenacting is an act of commemoration. As with all commemorations, the act of remembering the past is a mental creation intended to give us the living a sense of reckoning and understanding about the past as much as it’s about remembering specific events and people in history. Whether battle reenactments represent an appropriate way to “honor” Civil War soldiers is impossible to determine, but it is nonetheless significant that so many Americans today believe that Civil War soldiers would approve these activities as appropriate demonstrations for honoring their service.
I don’t particularly care for battle reenactments, although living history performances in other settings can serve useful, even educational purposes. My maternal grandfather fought in World War II, spending most of his time in Africa. I’m told that when he came back home, discussions about the war were rare and actively discouraged. You just didn’t talk about the war at dinner or other family functions. Re-creating such a miserable experience–the overwhelming noises, the physical pain, even the act of someone dying–is simply unappealing to me, and I would assume that many veterans like my grandfather had no appetite for such activities. In my opinion, battle reenactments function as venues for entertainment, not history, even if newspapers in Chicago think they do. That said, maybe there is room for constructive dialogue to be established between academic historians and battle reenactors so that they can create engaging programs together, ones that may or may not take place on a battlefield. This is not to say that battle reenactors need the help of academic historians. But when you take the perspective of Clint Johnson and try to make reenactments exclusively about the soldiers without mentioning the causes, context, or consequences of the terrible war they fought, you’ll run into serious problems, especially when you consider that an appropriate way to “honor” those in the military is by honoring the causes for which they fought. Right?
Even though I’m skeptical of battle reenactments, I question whether or not they act as an appropriate way of “honoring” Civil War soldiers, and I tend to think that most veterans in all of America’s wars don’t care for reenactments, my research on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana yielded some surprising discoveries. It turns out that some Civil War veterans had no problems engaging in “sham battles” of their own. My next blog post will explore two “sham battles” that occurred in Indiana in the 1890s. I’ll attempt to provide some insights as to why some Civil War veterans engaged in these battles and provide context to place these events within Victorian Era American society. In the meantime, what do you think about battle reenactments?