Remembering through Reenacting

By 2:00 this past Sunday afternoon, the scar on the back of my knee–where my bike’s chain ring had gouged several holes weeks ago–was sizzling a gluttonous shade of purple in the 100 degree heat.

But I had little time to contemplate the lasting sun damage. Scrappy Confederate soldiers gathered on a hill above the concession tents, while disciplined Union battalions aligned in front of the grandstand. General Lee waved from his horse, while Longstreet rode ahead to check on the cannon-firers.

When they disappeared, men loaded the cannons. Minutes later, clouds of smoke rose in a bang. Another ten minutes passed, as the armies fired cannonballs into the air, and I covered my ears to avoid permanent hearing damage. All the while, the narrator informed the audience of this battle’s similarities to the real Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg’s final decisive moment.

The piccolo notes of Dixie pierced the popping popcorn volleys of the Union soldiers’ guns. Confederates fell as the battalions tried to outflank each other.

Apparently that’s what warfare was all about in the Civil War: who could outflank the other guy. But I hadn’t come to the 144th Gettysburg reenactment for the military tactics. In this shadow sketch of the real battle (more than 23,000 casualties on each side), perhaps 2,000 reenactors had gathered on a field not far from the actual site of the battle of Gettysburg to remember the Civil War and honor the memory of the past.

Growing up in California, I never had the opportunity to steep in the sea Civil War history. The battles were foreign, the terrain incomprehensible, and the people merely silver daguerrotypes in history books. So when I moved to the East Coast, I vowed to visit some battlefields, maybe even absorb a reenactment, to satisfy my curiosity about some of the more defining moments in American history.

If I told you I were interested in military history, I would be lying. In fact, I found the actual battle reenactment segment of the day particularly dry, something akin to watching a football game entirely in slow-motion instant replay. Even though he helped to push along the glacial pace of battle, the narrator was no Ken Burns.

But the people who participated, the culture of the camps, and the implications that it all has for how we relate to our history provided almost four hours of solid entertainment.

The People

It’s not just anyone who can be a reenactor. As the folks who organize Gettysburg wanted interested parties to know, the commanding officer must first approve any wannabe reenactor for their authenticity. Even then, Gettysburg probably shouldn’t be your first reenactment, go “cut your teeth on some smaller battles.”

But once you do get to Gettysburg, boy is it a scene. I imagine that Gettysburg is for reenactors what Burning Man is for aging hippies, except that Gettysburg will never be passe. People set up their canvas tents and cots and quilts and fire pits for three days under the midsummer sun on a private farm several miles from the real battlefield (reenactments are not allowed on public land). They make every attempt to be historically accurate, or at least true to the spirit of the period. Migrant vendors specialize in selling cotton dresses and silk evening gowns for ladies and wool uniforms and muslin undershirts for men. A couple that seems to belong in a condo in Virginia Beach sells dulcimers and banjos. There’s even a gun shop that sells reproductions of Civil War-era firearms. One soldier let me hold his bayonet (picture to come). Those guns weigh about 10 pounds. Nothing light when you’re marching 30 miles a day as the armies did. Perhaps that’s one reason the battles moved so slowly.

These people congregate from all over the country. The chaplain attends 35 reenactments a year, spreading his ministry among the faithful in 19th-century style. At this year’s Gettysburg alone he performed seven marriages. We met several couples who had been married at Gettysburg in the past: they return every year to celebrate their anniversaries among friends, and their children grow up knowing the battlefields as a kind of summer camp (and return to school knowing how to correct their teachers).

I have to admit I’m slightly perplexed by the air of celebration around what, on first notice, seems like it ought to be a somber event. Except for the amusement park concession stands, the bleacher seats, and all the kids playing war in the woods, the reenactors take themselves quite seriously. They are, after all, honoring a memory of the war, of their ancestors, of their heritage.

Several men told me stories of wounded soldiers or unexpected heroism that moved them to the brink of tears. An entire camp of hospital tents demonstrated surgical techniques on blood-stained dummies. One man showed us his set of cast-iron cookware, including a box oven and muffin pans.

But in another sense, like the kids shooting off their cap guns in the woods, the adults are also playing war. They’re dressing the parts, shooting blanks, imitating strategy, and ensuring that no one forgets the old ways of war any time soon. Yet sometimes it seems as though they’re so wrapped up in the military and tactical history that the social context and aftermath of the war are completely lost. This reenactment may be happening in the context of others on the circuit, but it operates in a something of a rosy historical vacuum.

They repeat the details of the past, but leave out the big picture. What was the real significance of Gettysburg? You won’t really find that out at the reenactment. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is a shared experience of channeling the past in a way that makes sense to people in the present. It’s more for the reenactors than for the spectators.

In this subculture, the Civil War lives on as an impassioned battle for states’ rights, a battle to sustain the glory of the Confederacy, and a slightly more real moment in the collective memory for one more student of American history.


One Response to “Remembering through Reenacting”

  1. elainemeyer Says:

    Nice blog! I will say in favor of the “vaccuum” approach to reenacting Gettysburg that there may be some merit to living the event as one solider would have lived at rather than playing him as a vessle of what we now see as the driving forces of the War. An interesting historical question that has come up over the American Revolutionar (and I’m sure over others) concerns whether soldiers fought in wars’ past because of the war’s cause celebre or on account of a number of other reasons, probably less glamorous.

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