Is This Appropriate?

1971 It wasn't too long ago that reenactments were considered to be divisive and illegitimate as a form of remembrance.  In fact, the Civil War Centennial pushed to keep them out of commemorations of important battles after the embarrassment at First Manassas in 1961.  Since the 1970s, however, reenacting has become the most popular form of remembrance and is a staple item at most commemorations throughout the year.  These "Image Tribes" – as referred to by Jim Weeks – dominate the Heritage Tourism industry.  Reenactors are indispensable at a time when most "buffs" crave individual experiences of soldier life over a more analytical approach.  Questions remain over the appropriateness of reenacting in various venues.  As we all know reenactments are not allowed on NPS-owned land, but recent surveys suggest that a large percentage of people see nothing wrong with it.  In fact, the reenactors are seen by many as necessary to complete the empathetic identification that visitors to battlefields strive to achieve when imagining what took place. 

Here is an interesting story out of Lexington, Missouri.  A group of reenactors commemorated the battle of Lexington, which took place just after Wilson's Creek in the Fall of 1861.  Apparently, the battle took place on what is now a cemetery, but that did not stop these good folks from staging their reenactment:

The two sides fired on each other, the Confederacy pushing the Union soldiers back and back. Shouts of, “Independence and fire! Fire for independence! Forward! Halt! Keep the line together boys!” mingled with the constant gunfire. Soon the men began to drop as they were killed or injured by the advancing Confederacy, indeed a few of the Confederate troops fell as well. During a lull in the firing, Confederate soldiers stooped to pick the pockets of a dead Union soldier. Surrounding the parameter of the battlefield were men, women and children dressed in vintage clothing of the 1860s. Spectators were told by the narrators that it was common for folks to come from Kansas City and Independence to watch the skirmishes as if they were an afternoon form of entertainment.

We've come a long way from barring reenactments on "Hallowed Ground" to allowing them to walk over people's graves.

2 responses... add one

I have never been to an actual mock battle, but as an NPS employee I have participated in living history.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is a living re-creation worth? Living history helps people connect with the past. Obviously, great care must be taken to ensure accuracy. Also, it is important to have someone to put the scenes in context. Still, it does seem a bit disrespectful to trample over a cemetery.

As I recall from reading Robert J. Cook’s book on the Centennial, re-enactments were very popular with the general public, and the Round Table folks. Only the academics objected, on the grounds that the Centennial should be an occasion for serious scholarship. The Centennial Commemoration broke down as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, and waning interest as later battles began to go in the North’s favor.

I want to point out also regarding the linked article, the Missouri State Guard was never a Confederate army. It was a state militia. Sterling Price was not the Confederate commander at Wilson’s Creek. The Missouri State Guard had linked up with Confederate forces from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, under Confederate General Benjamin McCulloch, and Arkansas state troops under N. B. Pierce. Price actually agreed to give overall command to McCulloch in an effort to persuade him to attack Lyon at Springfield. After Wilson’s Creek, Price reassumed command of the Missouri State Guard when he could not convince McCulloch to advance farther into Missouri. If there were troops at Lexington wearing Confederate uniforms, I don’t know who they would have been. Maybe someone who knows more about the details of the “Battle of the Hemp Bales” could say.

Bob, — You are right to draw the distinction re: the appropriateness of reenactments, but it was not simply the academics who had a problem, but the folks who organized the commemorative events for the Centennial. Their concern was that they would prove to be divisive depending on who won the battle. Thanks for the comment.

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