I may have watched my last Civil-War reenactment. We’ll see.
It’s not like giving up re-enactments will leave a gaping void in my life. I only saw my first one a year ago. By that time I’d been teaching and writing on the American Civil War for over a quarter of a century, so it may seem strange that I waited so long. Candidly, I was always skeptical. The American poet Walt Whitman, who observed the carnage of the Civil War firsthand, once famously observed that “the real war will never get in the books.” I was sure that he was right, and if a writer with the sensitivity and talent of a Whitman despaired of capturing the war’s horrific essence, I held out little hope for a bunch of middle-aged men playing pretend. I’m sure that sounds harsh, but that is how I viewed the matter.
When I changed my mind and finally decided to attend a re-enactment, it was due to a combination of things: a book that I was using in a course that I was teaching here at Wheaton, the encouragement of several of my students, and a low-cost opportunity to check out a re-enactment close to my home.
The book that influenced me was Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. The book, which earned Horwitz a Pulitzer Prize, is one of those rare works that seems to appeal equally to academic specialists and general readers. The author, a New-York-born journalist with a decade of experience as a foreign correspondent in places like Bosnia, Iraq, and Northern Ireland, hit upon the idea of writing about an equally “foreign” locale much closer to home: the American South.
As Horwitz tells the story, the idea came to him after he and his wife settled down in rural Virginia. One early morning they were awakened by Civil War re-enactors marching across a field near their house. (They were serving as extras in a historical documentary being filmed nearby.) Reporter that he is, Horwitz instinctively went to investigate, and in no time he had accepted an invitation to join the re-enactors on an upcoming camp-out. It was while he was sleeping out on the cold hard ground with these strangers, talking with them about why they were devoting their time and resources to such a hobby, that he hit upon the idea of spending a year or so traveling across the South, talking with people about how they remembered the Civil War and what it meant to them.
As Horwitz is quick to point out, Confederates in the Attic is not based on a scientific sampling of southern views about the war. Instead, the author intentionally sought out individuals to whom memory of the Civil War seemed hugely important. This led to countless conversations with “hard-core” re-enactors, but also with members of various heritage associations (the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, for example), historical societies, and even the Ku Klux Klan. (Be forwarned: the people he quotes are often earthy, and the language can be pretty salty at times.)
Horwitz is a wonderful writer, and the encounters he relates are invariably entertaining. As a historian, what I value most about the book is how it drives home two critical points. The first concerns the absolutely fundamental distinction between history and the past. The past is dead and gone. History is the remembered past, and that’s a very different thing. Second, the history that informs how people live and think is rarely the history buried in academic tomes or lovingly preserved in historical archives. The history that makes the most difference in the world is the memory of the past that common folks carry around between their ears. Those memories often have almost nothing to do with the insights that professional historians spend their lives painstakingly producing. Indeed, if Horwitz is correct, they often have little to do with the actual past at all.
I assigned Confederates in the Attic to my class on the American Civil War last fall, and when a major Civil-War reenactment was held less than a half-hour away within days of our discussing the book, I felt that I had to attend when some of my students invited me to accompany them. Since that time I’ve attended two more re-enactments in the Chicago area. I’d say that three is about my limit.
Tony Horwitz approached Civil War reenactments as a reporter and was propelled by the reporters’ standard questions: who was doing what and why? I approached them not as a reporter but as a teacher, and so my questions were different: What do these staged historical dramas teach the crowds who come out to watch them? What, if anything, might they be expected to learn about the American Civil War from observing the spectacle? In sum, how do Civil-War re-enactments rate as teaching tools?
To be honest, I’m still wrestling with an answer. What follows, then, is tentative, and I welcome your pushing back if I seem to be off-base. At any rate, here is how I think I would rate the educational value of the reenactments that I observed: Up until the shooting starts they’re not too bad. Once the mock battle begins, I have a lot of concerns. Let me explain.
The re-enactments I attended all followed pretty much the same script. Typically, the re-enactors (portraying both soldiers and civilians) show up on a Friday evening and set up camp, and then the formal re-enactment occurs on the following Saturday and Sunday. Visitors can learn about the Civil War in a variety of ways. They can tour the Union and Confederate camps, watching “soldiers” in authentic costume cook authentic meals over authentic campfires. There’s also ample opportunity to talk with the re-enactors, who usually seem eager to answer questions about their uniforms and equipment. At intervals throughout the day there are also likely to be a range of more formal demonstrations, teaching visitors about close-order drill, the care of the wounded, or the workings of Civil-War cannon, among other things. (There’s usually also lots of opportunities to buy stuff. All of the re-enactments that I attended were a cross between a history exhibit and a flea market.)
So far, so good. Historical imagination is essential whenever we study the past, and the “living history” on display in the camps will help make it easier for many visitors to imagine certain aspects of the war. We can read explanations of Civil-War artillery over and over, for example, but there is no substitute for watching a live gun crew demonstrate the steps required to load and fire a Napoleon twelve-pounder. We might also gain a better sense of Civil War uniforms by seeing them on a flesh-and-blood model, instead of on a mannequin in a museum. (The down-side is that we’ll come away badly misunderstanding the age and size of Civil War soldiers. The typical soldier in the Civil War was in his early twenties, stood about 5’7″, and weighed in at around 135 pounds. The re-enactors that I observed got the height part more or less right, but they were often a good deal older and a great deal heavier than the Yankees and Rebels of the 1860s.)
If this were the sum of the re-enactment demonstrations, I think I’d be OK with them. They aren’t accurate in every detail, but on balance I would say that the positives outweighed the negatives. But of course this isn’t everything. There’s always at least one mock battle every day of the re-enactment, sometimes two, and the mock battles trouble me–they trouble me a lot. As I said, I’m still working through this, but I’m inclined to think that they’re a huge mistake.
“War is a hellish thing,” Union General William Tecumseh Sherman once famously reminded a gathering of Union veterans, not that they needed to be reminded. Many in the audience were missing limbs, others were visibly scarred, countless others were permanently maimed in ways that a physical examination would never show. I remembered Sherman’s words as I watched my first mock battle. “This isn’t hell,” I thought to myself. “it’s a hobby.”
“Lighten up,’ I can hear some of you thinking. “After all, until they start using live ammunition, who really thinks that a mock battle can adequately convey the horrors of war?” It can’t possibly, and that’s entirely my point. As a medium for teaching about war, the mock battle fails miserably. For my part, I say let re-enactors demonstrate how weapons are fired to their hearts’ content. Fire a cannon, and let the audience imagine what it would be like on the third day at Gettysburg to hear 150 such guns shake the earth at once. Have a company line up should to shoulder and fire their rifles in unison, and so help the audience to imagine the sheet of flame that poured forth from behind the stone wall at Fredericksburg. Just don’t let the re-enactors go through the grotesque charade of pretending to shoot at each other in a battle devoid of terror, agony, and blood.
My thoughts began to run in this direction during my first reenactment. I was seated on the ground among a large audience of onlookers, many of whom had brought blankets and lawn chairs and looked for all the world like families at a youth league soccer match. For some time, the soldiers’ imaginary aim was apparently dreadful, for literally no one was falling on either side. (I guess after getting all dressed up and traveling a considerable distance to take part, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to get killed right away. Being “dead” must be pretty boring, after all.) Eventually, at the appointed time, the aim on both sides began to improve, and Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs began to be hit with distressing frequency. Most fell quietly (and the middle-aged guys, at least, tended to fall pretty gently), but at one point in the show a Confederate soldier took an imaginary bullet and screamed out in mock pain before breathing his last. The audience laughed, and I began to wonder.
My misgivings increased when I attended my second re-enactment. This was at a different venue, and it was a considerably larger affair. The crowd was enormous. (The local historical society that sponsored the event estimated the attendance for the weekend at over five thousand.) The parks and recreation department had brought in sports bleachers for the occasion, and they lined one side of the battlefield. Behind them stood a row of food trucks trumpeting the virtues of pork barbeque, kettle corn, Hawaiian shaved ice and pickles on a stick. (I still don’t get that last one. It must be a Midwestern thing.)
Then as I took my place in the bleachers, surrounded by pickle-eating, kettle-corn-chomping spectators impatient for the battle to begin, I had one of those isolating moments that a historian living in a present-tense society will have from time to time. “Doesn’t this remind anyone here of the prelude to the first battle of Bull Run?” I screamed silently. “Are we intentionally being ironic here?”
Innocence is almost always a casualty of war. The loss of innocence can take many forms, visiting different people at different times in different ways. For northerners during the Civil War, the first widespread loss of innocence came on July 21st, 1861. The country faced a crisis of authority–no one doubted that–but the politicians and generals spoke in soothing tones, and those “in the know” predicted that the crisis would be resolved soon. As soon as the North showed those truculent southerners that they meant business, the Rebs would give up all talk of independence. Farm boys had rushed to enlist so as not to miss the one brief, glorious battle, while civilians in the vicinity flocked to Manassas Junction in order to witness the spectacle. Indeed, the cream of Washington society turned out on that sleepy Sunday, as the impending battle was the worst kept secret in the nation’s capital. They came down in their carriages–the ladies in their summer frocks and their escorts in their Sunday best. By one estimate their number included six U. S. Senators and ten or more members of the House of Representatives.
Here I’ll let the late Bruce Catton pick up the story, quoting from his marvelous centennial history of the Civil War:
These holiday-makers were there, in substantial numbers, because it never occurred to the authorities to keep them from coming. They were there because curiosity and the strange notion that war was an exciting pageant had led them to suppose that it might be stimulating to watch (from a safe seat in the gallery) while young men killed one another. They were there, in short, because America did not yet know what it was all about.
But on that day at Bull Run, America began to learn. The casualties were staggering. They would appear modest in comparison with the war’s later battles, but there were at least 3,500 soldiers killed and wounded during the seven-hour conflict, enough to make it by far the bloodiest battle in American history to that point. To the mesmerized onlookers, the fighting was far enough away to seem endurable, until late in the afternoon when the Union line began to waver. But then the Yankee soldiers began slowly withdrawing from the field, and their civilian admirers watched nervously as the Confederate lines approached nearer. What began as a strategic withdrawal soon became a full-blown retreat, then the full-blown retreat became an every-man-for-himself rout, as panic-stricken soldiers raced across what moments earlier had been a picnic ground for politicians and their families.
By the middle of the Civil War few Americans were still deceived enough to view the conflict as “an exciting pageant,” and spectacles like what happened at Bull Run would be seldom repeated. Although there are some things we can learn from watching Civil-War re-enactments, when it comes to striving to understand the experience of battle, there is no substitute for reading the thoughts and feelings of the soldiers themselves.
I am not a military historian by training, but I did have to read a great deal of soldiers’ letters and diaries when I was doing research for my book Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2006). Lincolnites and Rebels is the story of Knoxville, Tennessee during the war. I chose to study Knoxville for two main reasons: it was almost perfectly divided between Confederate and Union sympathizers, and the town experienced military occupation by either the Union or Confederate army for all but three days of the war. I wanted to think through some of the moral issues related to loyalty under military occupation, and Knoxville seemed like the ideal place.
But Knoxville was also the site of a major, but little studied Civil War battle. In November of 1863, while the town was occupied by a Union army of 12,000 men under the command of Major General Ambrose Burnside, 15,000 Confederates under General James Longstreet conducted a sixteen-day siege of the town. The siege of Knoxville culminated in a failed Confederate assault of the Union lines on November 29th, with most of the fighting focused on a supposedly vulnerable point in the Union defenses called Fort Sanders.
The bulk of the fighting at the Battle of Fort Sanders lasted a scant twenty minutes. Longstreet’s orders required that his troops charge across an open field booby-trapped with telegraph wire and sharpened sticks, cross a deep ditch, and scale a twelve-foot-high earthen wall. The result was wholesale slaughter. During the flag of truce that followed, many of Fort Sanders’ defenders mounted the parapet to survey the carnage they had so recently helped to create.
“Attack on Knoxville,” taken from an original sketch by Thomas Nast, 1865
“Such another sight I never wish to see,” a Union captain confessed to his diary. It was “like living murder sculptured by Perfection’s Artist,” a Michigan sergeant wrote to his brother. It was a “sad scene of slaughter,” a soldier in the Fifty-First New York recalled. “At every footstep we trod in pools of blood.” Ohio artilleryman John Watkins described the sight in numbing detail to a friend back home. “As soon as the firing was stopped I went up and got onto the parapet to look at them,” he explained, “and such a sight I never saw before. . . . The ditch in places was almost full of them[,] piled one on top of the other, and such groaning I never heard. The dead were lying in all imaginable shapes[,] the wounded on top of them and dead on top of them again, and the ground was strewn with them all along their route up to the fort.”
In his subsequent report on the battle, General Longstreet would reduce this vision of horror to a bloodless enumeration: Confederate losses, he informed Richmond, were 129 killed, 458 wounded, and 226 missing. That comes to 813 total casualties in roughly twenty minutes of fighting, or one casualty every second and a half.
I don’t share all this because I am reflexively anti-war or a pacifist by principle. My grandfather served in the army in WWI. My father served in the navy in WWII. And if you happen to follow me on the highway, you’ll notice a decal in my rear window identifying me as the “Proud Parent of a U. S. Marine.” I share this because I am a historian and a teacher, and I don’t believe you can teach truly about war while covering up its horrors.
Let me know what you think.