Well, I gave them another try—Civil War re-enactments, that is. I know I said recently that I’d seen more than enough. The few re-enactments that I have attended trouble the historian in me. It’s not that they’re wholly bad. There are things that this kind of “living history” can teach us fairly well. Imagination is always essential when we try to understand the past. No matter how much factual evidence we have about the Civil War—and there’s a great deal of it—the diaries and letters and official reports and newspaper accounts remain lifeless if we lack imagination. It’s imagination that breathes life into these faint reflections of another time. It’s imagination that causes the past to “come alive.”
This is where I think Civil War re-enactments can be valuable. Walking among the camps, watching soldiers joking and playing cards, listening to a lecture on Civil War medical instruments, watching a demonstration of Civil War cannon, enjoying the strains of popular nineteenth-century songs—all of these experiences can fuel our imaginations. At their best, they allow us to see the past “as through a glass, darkly.” Whatever their inaccuracies—and they are always inaccurate—we walk away with the sense that we have walked for a moment in the shoes of those who came before us.
I see potential value in re-enactments right up to the point that they try to re-create battle. That’s where I want to get off. As I wrote previously, the re-enactments that I have witnessed transform war from a hellish thing into a hobby. They make battle into an entertaining spectacle, a pageant to be admired. And when they do that, they teach what isn’t true. They obscure what Americans actually learned about war between 1861 and 1865. Instead, they unwittingly re-create the naïve fascination that prompted civilians to flock to the First Battle of Bull Run for the pleasure of watching Americans kill Americans.
So if I hold such a view, why in the world would I attend another re-enactment? Three reasons, I guess. The first was a desire for fairness. When I posted my previous piece on re-enactments, I was unaware that there was going to be a major re-enactment this past weekend almost literally in my own backyard–at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, only about twenty minutes from my home. Perhaps this one would be different, I thought. Curiosity was also a factor. I noticed that the schedule included a presentation by a well-known Lincoln impersonator. I was interested to see what this incarnation of our nation’s sixteenth president might have to say about the war’s causes. Finally, to be completely candid, my Tennessee Vols had just lost for the tenth year in a row to the Florida Gators, and I wanted to get out of the house and take my mind off of the humiliation.
Cantigny is a 500-acre public park on the former estate of the late Robert McCormick, the long-time editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune during the first half of the last century. McCormick’s mansion has been preserved and is open for tours, and there is also a world-class museum on site dedicated to the history of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division. (McCormick was an officer in the First Division during WWI.) The grounds are beautiful, open, and extensive, and they offer an ideal locale for a variety of public events, including craft fairs, concerts, and weddings. Last weekend they became home to the Union and Confederate armies.
The weather on Saturday was unusually raw for early October. It was wet, windy, and cold, and the crowd looked like it was ready for a Bears game more than a historical demonstration. True to the other re-enactments that I have attended, the main event of the day was a mock battle. I took my place in the crowd, and we waited with anticipation for the entertainment to begin. In front of me was an elementary age kid—maybe nine or ten years old—wearing a blue Union forage cap at a jaunty angle and wielding a toy pistol. When half a dozen cannon opened fire to signal the beginning of the battle, the boy shouted his approval while his dad strained to record the scene on his camera phone. Looking at the faces around me and their expressions of delight, it struck me that we might have been watching a Fourth of July parade, or perhaps a group of jugglers at the county fair. I don’t think our reactions would have been any different.
Soon the Confederate infantry began a determined advance on the Union position, and as the lines converged, the whistling Yankee minie balls began to find their mark. I have heard from a few re-enactors who assure me that their units never pretend to recreate a battle. I’ll take their word for it, but I’ve yet to see such restraint. In this particular demonstration, the soldiers on both sides were dropping like flies.
Only a few feet from us, a Union volley tore through the charging gray line, and when the smoke had cleared there was a clump of Confederate casualties writhing in death throes as we snapped pictures furiously. When one of the mortally wounded Rebs tried to crawl away before finally collapsing, my little Union friend whipped out his toy pistol and did his best to finish him off. Similar scenes were occurring elsewhere, and soon the field was littered with corpses. At this point, the announcer thanked us for coming, we applauded, and the dead began to rise. I don’t think that final part was historically accurate.
You already know what I think of this, so I won’t belabor the point. I’ll simply say that nothing I saw Saturday changed my mind about these mock battles. It’s not just that they fail completely to capture what battle was really like. That goes without saying. All efforts at historical recreation always fall short, yet they can still have value. But these efforts to recreate battle aren’t just inaccurate. They’re pernicious. They utterly obscure the horrors of war. Nothing good comes from making war an entertaining spectacle.
Let me put my cards on the table. As a history teacher, there are two things that I always want my students to learn about war. The first, to quote William Tecumseh Sherman, is that “war is a hellish thing.” The second (lest you think I am a pacifist), is that war, though unspeakably horrific, is sometimes necessary and just. As a culture, if we stress only the first truth without also teaching the last, we leave ourselves spiritually and psychologically unprepared to wage war should war be thrust upon us. But if we stress only the latter, without also teaching the former, we may be training the rising generation to take war lightly.
As a college educator, I’m particularly determined to avoid this second alternative. In the absence of a military draft, our armed forces rely disproportionately on young men and women who have no education beyond high school. In his book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco writes,
Perhaps the deepest divide in our country today runs between those for whom war is a relentless threat and those for whom it’s an occasional television show. At our most prestigious colleges, the former is now the most underrepresented minority group.
In other words, should the U.S. have to send troops into combat in some distant part of the world, proportionately few of my students will ever be directly affected. War to them is a comfortably remote abstraction. I think that’s dangerous.
But as much as I want my students to confront war’s horrific dimension, it is equally important that they wrestle with the question of when war might be justified. There is a long tradition in Christian teaching—coming down from St. Augustine through Thomas Aquinas—that war between nations can be morally defensible. “Just war” doctrine says that, in a fallen world, one fallen nation may use deadly force against another as a last resort to promote long-term peace and avert grave injustice. How this applies to the American Civil War is a difficult, difficult question that I’m not remotely ready to answer. But there is one implication of just war theory that is undeniable: war is not intrinsically just. This means that if we want to judge the morality of any particular war–say, the Civil War, for example–we need to think long and hard about the circumstances that led to it. It is both artificial—and I think harmful—to study any war without also studying its causes.
This leads me to my other chief concern about Civil War re-enactments. The ones that I have attended make almost no effort to address the reasons why these men are supposedly shooting one another. We are evidently supposed to admire them for their courage without reference to the cause for which they were fighting. But courage, like war, is not intrinsically noble. Courage, according to Webster’s, is “the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous.” Strictly speaking, bank robbers may have courage. Murderers and terrorists may have courage. Courage is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and it is noble only to the degree that the end we seek is morally just. In other cases, it’s a tragic waste.
And so I went with interest following the battle to listen to “Abraham Lincoln” share with us about the Civil War. Maybe a tenth of those who had watched the battle did the same. We were actually treated to a conversation with both Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, played by nationally known impersonators Michael Krebs and Debra Ann Miller. Krebs’ performance was really quite good; in his appearance and delivery, he was more impressive than any Lincoln impersonator I have ever seen.
But I listened carefully to what their presentation might say about the causes of the war and there just wasn’t very much. The Lincolns engaged in playful banter, Abraham cracking jokes and Mary alternately scolding her husband and and laughing with him. There were references to President Lincoln’s supposed first love, Ann Rutledge, who died before Lincoln could declare his affection, as well as tearful allusions to the wartime death of their son Willie. But apart from a brief reference to soldiers who died “on the altar of freedom,” there was almost nothing that might be construed as trying to explain what the war was about.
I understand why Civil War re-enactments don’t try to offer a definitive answer to the question, “What caused the Civil War?” The re-enactors may very well disagree among themselves, and the audience may also be divided (if not indifferent). Fair enough. And yet when we teach about war as if it can be understood apart from its causes, we cross a dangerous line. It may seem simply good manners to praise both sides as equally courageous and honorable. If we’re not very careful, however, we will also be presenting the two sides as morally equivalent–and that honors neither side.