Where I Won’t Be On July 1-3

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I’ve only attended one reenactment in my time and have no plans to do so again in the future.  My interest in Civil War history does not extend to watching people dress up to “recreate” battles.  I do love, however, the way in which these events are marketed.  Consider this one for the yearly reenactment of Gettysburg which takes place a few miles from the actual site.

Witnessing a battle re-enactment changes forever the way visitors view Gettysburg history – even if they’ve visited the Gettysburg National Military Park before. The event is replete with booming cannons, the taste of kicked-up dust and dirt, and the acrid smell of spent ammunition mixed with sweat-soaked wool uniforms. Thick, gray smoke sometimes obscures the view.  And that’s all experienced from sitting on the sidelines in the comfort of a chair.

That may be so, but does this change in view get us any closer to understanding the realities of battle or is this simply a matter of having your emotions manipulated?

Some re-enactors, among them descendants of Civil War veterans, give speeches about their ancestors and their family histories. The response is generally emotional, with the re-enactor often receiving a standing ovation.

The generals tell about some of the deadly mistakes they made and how saddened they were by fighting their comrades. Many Union and Confederate officers had attended West Point and fought together in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

Bring plenty of tissues.

12 comments… add one

  • mannie May 19, 2007

    Kevin,

    Ten thousand overweight white guys with guns.

    Sounds like cause for concern from any angle.

    Mannie

  • matthew mckeon May 19, 2007

    love the snark

  • Eric Wittenberg May 19, 2007

    Kevin,

    I’ll be joining you in not being there.

    I can’t think of any place that I want to be less than Gettysburg during the anniversary commemoration of the battle. I avoid it at all costs.

    Eric

  • Brendan Wolfe May 19, 2007

    You ask whether “this change in view get[s] us any closer to understanding the realities of battle.” Seems to me — and I say this as a former reenactor, as a kid who was obsessed by the Civil War and by history at large, and history writ large — NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

    To shamelessly quote myself on the subject:

    “Only when an event [a reenacting event, that is] goes horribly wrong — people die, but they die in the wrong place and at the wrong time — would anything much resemble actual history.”

    http://beiderbecke.typepad.com/tba/2006/02/apparently_hist.html

    And yet . . . and yet . . . it can be awfully hard to resist. (Books are so dusty, so remote.) Still, the last event I attended or participated in was the 125th anniversary of Gettysburg. I expect it will remain so.

  • Kevin Levin May 19, 2007

    There is a graduate student by the name of Christopher Bates who is writing his dissertation on reenactments out at UCLA and Mark Snell is currently working on a presentation for his conference next month. I am looking forward to Mark’s talk as it looks like he is going to give us the historical context.

    I joined Bates for an AHA panel last year in Philly and he passed out a pretty informative sheet that included some interesting surveys on reenactors. Unfortunately, I accidentally threw it out.

  • Chris Paysinger May 20, 2007

    I have been to very few reenactments…and like all of you, I plan on keeping it that way. The last I went to was a few years ago held in Spring Hill, Tn commemorating(if that was their intent) the battle of Franklin. I took a handful of school kids who had expressed interest in going, notably a German exchange student that was in my Civil War class. She was struggling to come to terms with how Americans deal with their history, the Civil War in particular.
    I think the highlight for most was seeing a replica of the Hunley, an artillery demonstration, and the funnel cakes. I was very disappointed in the “battle”. It obviously differed greatly from the events of the real battle. Though the plywood Carter House was a nice touch(dripping sarcasm). The battle at Franklin, the one held Nov. 30th, 1864, I had tried hard over the years to come to some realization of how the events may have unfolded that afternoon. I agree with all of you, a reenactment only distorts people’s perceptions and in actuality probably leads then further from the truth. Why then do people stage these things?

  • John Maass May 28, 2007

    Hmmmm….
    I would think that someone as interested in “Civil War Memory” as you are, Kevin, would find that reenactors, whatever their faults, are actively doing that very thing–remembering the Civil War. Dismissing this subculture because many (or most) of them “get it wrong” to me is quite narrow-sighted on your part, i.e., you are selectively ignoring how modern people (some of them) remember the war. You and others may not like it (I sometimes fall into this camp, but only on occasion) but should that mean one with your interests ought to ignore or dismiss them? I would think that would be intellectually self-limiting and proscriptive.

  • Kevin Levin May 28, 2007

    John, — You make a reasonable point, but I am surprised that you can’t draw a simple distinction between critiquing the content of Civil War reenactments and considering their performances as a very valuable reflection of Civil War culture/memory. Why can’t I do both?

  • John Maass May 28, 2007

    Can’t is certainly the wrong word.

    How do you plan to “considering their performances as a very valuable reflection of Civil War culture/memory” while declaring in advance that you plan to avoid them in the future? Maybe I should be the one is surprised here….

  • Kevin Levin May 28, 2007

    John, — I have to admit that I am not sure what problem is. I have written extensively in my Crater manuscript about two well-attended reenactments of the battle that took place in 1903 and 1907. In addition to my own research on the history of reenactments I have read a great deal about more modern interpretations. The post was in response to a news item about an upcoming reenatment at Gettysburg. I thought it was somewhat humorous. On a personal level I have little interest in attending these events. You are correcnt to assume that Civil War reenactments tell us a great deal about popular perceptions of the war. I don’t think my post detracts from that one bit.

  • John Maass Jun 4, 2007

    Kevin–what I mean is that for a very committed student of the war and its memory to state in such a sweeping fashion that you won’t attend these things is quite surprising. I would suspect that these events are different now than they were in 1903 and 1907! I am not saying that you have to go to 10 a year–that would not be necessary of course. It just seems surprising that a serious historian of memory would state that he has seen his last reenactment, which is (for our modern era) one of the chief ways the public does in fact celebrate the war, if that is the right word.
    But of course you are free to do and write what you chose and see best.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 4, 2007

    You are absolutely correct that reenacting is one off the chief ways in which the public commemorates/remembers the Civil War. Perhaps I should not have made such a sweeping statement.

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