I came across an episode of “The Outer Limits” that deals with Civil War reenacting and the battle of Gettysburg. Many of you are no doubt familiar with what I like to describe as the poor cousin of the “Twilight Zone”, which ran from 1963-1965 and than again from 1995-2002. This particular episode features the singer, Meatloaf, as one Confederate Colonel Devine, and tells the story of two young men who are preparing to take part in a reenactment of Gettysburg. The episode reflects many of our popular beliefs about the Civil War, including the assumption surrounding the decisiveness of the battle itself and our love of counterfactuals. Both men are transported back to July 1863 for the purposes of carrying out a mission – a mission that they learn early on will challenge the notion of historical determinism. While the Union reenactor is quite concerned about their predicament, his Confederate friend fully embraces the opportunity to fight for states rights and against big government along with its long lines of “welfare recipients”. For him, this stroke of good luck is a chance to meet and fight alongside his Confederate ancestor for values that he believes they both must share. What is striking is that the viewer learns next to nothing about why the Union reenactor embraces the hobby. I have to wonder whether this is just another example of our inability to fully embrace the importance that so many attached to the preservation of the Union.
As the two friends work to figure out their mission the campaign and battle develop. Of course, since they come from the future they know how the battle will unfold and try desperately to steer it in a different direction. When it is announced in camp on July 1 that J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry will arrive shortly they announce that he is off on a “Glory seeing raid” and will not arrive in time. And, of course, they try to prevent “Pickett’s Charge” from taking place, which the producers mistakenly place on July 2. At one point the two friends end up on the battlefield with the Confederate reenactor’s ancestor, who they find is a coward and shares none of his descendant’s reasons for reenacting. For this ancestor the goal is simply to stay alive and is void of anything connected to principle. The encounter raises the suggestion that reenacting is as much (if not more) about our own perceptions of the past and/or cultural values than it is about the men who actually fought in it.
The episode takes a number of kooky twists before the real mission is finally revealed. Without ruining the plot, let’s just say that their goal is to prevent an assassination that would take place in 2013 on the Gettysburg battlefield. And let’s just say that with the election of our first black president this episode, which originally aired in 1995, is rendered that much more interesting.