They Died at Gettysburg For Our Entertainment

Wish I could be part of the festivities up in Gettysburg this week.  Well, not really.  I read in the newspaper that this year’s reenactment promises to be the “biggest and best so far.” That must mean that there will be more people involved, more noise, and more smoke; it promises to be an entertaining show.  Maybe for next year, instead of going for the biggest and best, organizers can work on making it more realistic.  You want to get me to Gettysburg in early July than give me real suffering.  I’m not asking for much, just something that reflects a reenactor’s sincere interest in wanting to better understand the horror of battle.  Perhaps a blow to the head with the but of a rifle or a minor flesh wound caused by a bee bee that could be extracted with period medical tools.  Now that would point to a sincere commitment to experiencing the past through the other-regarding emotions of empathy and sympathy.

There is precedent for this.  Consider the yearly reenactments of Jesus’s crucifixion that take place in the Philippines.

There is something admirable in their willingness to endure such a severe amount of pain in order to fully embrace what they interpret to be the significance of Jesus’s sacrifice.  For many it is the only way to fully embrace both the historical event of the crucifixion as well as its spiritual import.  By extension one wonders how the experience of the crowd is shaped in comparison with a less realistic reenactment of the crucifixion.  Are they able to identify more closely with the nature of the event being portrayed?  Of course, I am not suggesting that Civil War reenactors try to bring a bit more of the reality of the battlefield to their performance.  What it does bring home for me, however, is how little suffering and sacrifice comes through in reenactments.  Though I’ve only been to a few reenactments I’ve never felt anything close to a feeling of sorrow or even admiration for what the soldiers endured during the Civil War.  It’s always been entertaining and fun for me, in part because I know the reenactor is not suffering in any way, and because of that I’ve always felt just a little uneasy about attending such events.

Have a Happy Gettysburg!

23 thoughts on “They Died at Gettysburg For Our Entertainment

  1. Mike

    Nearest any of us get it the heat in those wool outfits, chiggers, other bugs, wet, cold and blisters on our feet. While we don’t usually get really hurt or maimed, you can get a cornucopia of related Weekend Warrior injuries when you’re out in the field. Kevin I assure you that reenacting is not always a walk in the park but it is also not a total combat experience. Have a great and Safe 4th of July.

    God Bless the South and God Bless America!

    Reply
  2. Kevin Levin Post author

    Mike,

    I don’t mean in any way to make fun of Civil War reenactors. I actually think there is something very human about our need to remember and “commune” with the past. Each of us finds our own ways to build those connections. Hope you have a pleasant weekend too.

    Larry,

    No, but I do like to go against the grain at times. :)

    Reply
  3. Brooks Simpson

    Kevin Levin’s Perfect Storm: Black Confederate reenactors at the Crater, waving a really big Confederate Battle Flag, led by a fellow named Edgerton.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Karen,

      That sounds like an awesome topic. There is a guy at UCLA who is writing his dissertation on Civil War reenactors. We were on an AHA panel a few years ago so I can get in touch with him if necessary.

      Reply
  4. Vince Slaugh

    On the subject of precedents for reenacting, we can look to the veterans themselves. I’m thinking of a couple particular GAR days in the 1890s in which tens of thousands of people gathered to watch elaborate fake battles with many people involved–college militias, African-American groups, and especially veterans (many of whom went through pretty nasty stuff in the 1860s). I’d guess WW1 and CW veterans’ aging put a damper on such celebrations of the war, although the popularity of fake battles over time could be an interesting research question.

    Anyway, it will be interesting to see the future of Civil War reenacting and living history. The younger generation has largely abandoned, many switching to WWII reenacting. I’d attribute this mainly to the generational aspects of the hobby: the guys in their 30s & 40s who were inspired by the 125th Anniversary to reenact still make up the majority of reenacting organizations but are now in their 50s and 60s.

    Those of the younger generation who have joined the hobby, though, seem to draw their inspiration for how to do living history from Colonial Williamsburg…a strong emphasis on interpretation coupled with more in-depth research to improve understandings of different aspects of the era, such as its material culture. (I’ll use Emmanuel Dabney and the folks who made Wicked Spring as two examples of this different attitude toward living history) Hence, less mega-Gettysburg, more Harpers Ferry and local/regional sites. These thoughts about generational differences aren’t well-developed, and might reflect wishful thinking, but I think generational differences explain a lot about the culture of Civil War reenacting in America.

    Reply
  5. Robert Moore

    Funny to see the way they play this up in the paper. The really big Gettysburg reenactments happen in the “fives.” I was there as a reenactor for the 135th and 140th. I was also there last year for the most recent “big one” last year (the 145th), but not as a reenactor… though I was wearing blue for the first time in my years at Gettysburg. The 150th in 2013 will likely be the biggest in years… or at least on par with the one immediately following the release of the movie Gettysburg.

    Robert @ Cenantua’s Blog

    Reply
  6. Vicki

    Dissertations, as found in Digital Dissertations, a database available at most universities:

    1.”Gut history”: Civil War reenacting and the making of an American past
    by Jones, Gordon L., Ph.D., Emory University, 2007, 581 pages

    2.The performance of identity as embodied pedagogy: A critical ethnography of Civil War reenacting, by Swearingen, Elizabeth, Ed.D., University of California, Davis, 2004, 366 pages

    3.Borrowed time: Reenacting the American Civil War in Indiana, by Cash, John, Ph.D., Indiana University, 2003, 390 pages

    4.Reenacting the past: Authenticity claims and the production of collective memory
    by Jackson, Katherine Ann, Ph.D., Northwestern University, 2001.

    And that doesn’t touch the masters theses…

    Vicki Betts

    Reply
  7. Peter Culos

    Kevin,
    Mike (in the first comment) is right. You can, as a reenactor, get a feel for the suffering on an everyday basis. Just living as a Civil War soldier is difficult.

    My very first “battle” as a reenactor was the 125th Wilderness. I can tell you that being a newbie and getting placed in that woods with thousands of other reenactors was scary. The smoke was so thick, you were exhaling it. There were genuine feelings of panic and isolation when seperated from your unit. The noise was deafening and relentless.

    No, it wasn’t real combat, but it gave me a perspective that’s very difficult to conjure up in your imagination alone. It’s also difficult to get that perspective by watching behind the yellow tape as I do now. The smoke and fire show doesn’t impress me much anymore.

    Reply
  8. Andrew Duppstadt

    Great follow up by Vicki. Its interesting to note that all of those dissertations appear to take a slightly different track, even though they are essentially on the same topic. I’m sure that the MA theses abound, as Vicki alludes to.

    Also, I met the student Karen Cox mentions in her response; she is interning this summer at the museum where my wife works. Eventually, that will be one more thesis to add to the list.

    Reply
  9. Shane Christen

    I am a Living Historian who despises “burning powder” and playing war; which IMO is what the majority of re-enactments are. Living History has been a true boon to me in that I now have a far better idea of the reality of life for the common civil war soldier. By doing route marches carrying the gear as worn and of the approximate same weight a quick understanding is created; by living as a CW soldier for a short time I have a somewhat better understanding of such a life. It is that, in fact, that first led me to question the Lost Cause crucifiction of anything Sherman. The reality of marching with rations, arms and all the proper equipment has a tendency to negate the plundering soldier of Sherman’s Army that is the convenient ideal of some.

    All that said no re-enactor or Living Historian has to worry about death by dysentery or real lead being pushed by all that powder smoke on the other side of a field or of bouncing round shot removing life and limb. What is lacking in too many is an understanding of the abject horror that comes from belonging to the benevolant brotherhood of them that been shot at. In recent years an influx of combat veterans into the hobby has helped to quell some of the ridiculous stupidity from some corners. But the combat experiance gained on the battlefield today is quite different than that of the 1860′s. That said I have no doubt that any soldier reading “Up Front” or “Hardtack and Coffee” would understand most of the cartoons; whether a Roman soldier under Caesar one of Sherman’s men or the soldier of today in Afghanistan.

    There are quite a few out there in the Living History Community who are fonts of knowledge; the trick is telling the font of actual knowledge from the mud puddle under a horse.

    I’m proud to say the organization I belong to does a superb job of showing that War, any war, is far from glorious but is quite ugly and horrifying. What we try to do is bring the stories that are overlooked to life, to make the ink on the page of a history book come alive.

    Reply
  10. Gregg Jones

    In 1961, we entered into the Centennial. I was 11 at the time but the bug for enthusiasm in the Civil War bit me. I was a drummer boy during the first reenactment for Manassas in July 1961. When we had this reenactment we were all awed by the scope, the passion, and the adventure of it all. Even in 1861 did the soldiers for North and South most likely had the very same experience going in.

    I remember how hot it was and just how awful a wool uniform could be in July. I found myself wanting to go somewhere else myself. That night I was back in full form with my enthusiasm. Here it is now, almost 50 years latter and I am still bitten by the bug even though I have finished time in Iraq and Vietnam. I love a good reenactment.

    Reenactments have been with us since the Roman times. The first format of an opera was to teach the biblical lesson to the youth after the fall of the Roman Empire. So we have reenactments carried out in the Church to teach and the format was singing and acting and the byproduct was a new art form, Opera, and it is till with us.

    It fascinates me how I find people either love it or hate this format. Some will always prefer a book to a reenactment and vise versa. I believe reenactments do add value to the American enthusiasm for the Civil War. What If had been no reenactment in 1961? Would America have developed a fascination for the Civil War? I don’t believe we would even remember the civil war. The Civil War Preservation Trust conducted a study survey for about approximately 10 battlefields. It showed that some battlefields do sustain themselves economically through tourism but it showed something else. The average profile to the civil war battlefield visitor is:

    White/Caucasian
    50-60 yrs
    educated with a degree

    So here we have old white men going to battlefields maybe with a map of the troop movements and he will sacrifice a lamb at the alter of the glorious dead (just kidding but you get the picture).

    How will the young find interest in the Civil War battlefields? When I was in France years ago, I went to some of the WWI battlefields and grave yards. I saw no one. This generation of France hardly remembers anything about their past. Sooooo I think we need all venues (Media, books, and reenactments) to keep the fire burning and to remember past deeds and agony so that we will not for get about the Civil War. We need to keep the next generation interested and you can’t do it with books alone.

    Just a thought.

    Reply
  11. Thearmchairgenealogist

    Ive held it in long enough and this is the place to say it: Civil War reenactors arent re-enacting anything. They are enacting, putting on a performance as they envision the original event was. The enactments show little resemblance to what must have occurred on the actual battlefield — anything that can be taken in by the five senses isi pretty much lost in the translation. The noise, smoke, screams, panic, terror, yells of the officers, and yes, even the mad dashes for the rear … wounded soldiers clawing their clothes to see if theyd been gut wounded. Soldiers stopping, against orders, to try and help a fallen comrade.

    Ive seen several enactments of battles that included Northern enactors come south (I live in the South). Almost to a man, the Yankee guys are thinner and more fit than the Southerners. Southern Reenaactors, if youre serious about being living historians as you call yourselves, lose some weight. You can make that sacrifice for the Cause, cant you? (Consult the book Confederates in the Attic for a hardcore version of CW enactors).

    Ive seen too many fat rear ends in gray chuffing across battlefields in movies and at some of the events Ive attended. And get some young, skinny boys, ages 18-25 or so into the ranks, if youre serious about presenting hsitory. Enactor ranks are filled with men in their 40s and 50s. If the youngsters arent interested in your groups, perhaps its because your time has come and gone and they know it.

    Just as an aside, whilst I rant here, I have an SCV member in my family; this provides a window into their thinking. To a man, they are undereducated, overweight (see above), despise our current Commander in Chief (and all minorities for that matter) and swear the war wasnt fought over slavery.

    Reply
  12. JohnPelham

    Having been a reenactor for most of my life, I have seen many great moments and many fallacies related to our impressions. Of course we can't go out and “kill each other” to become more realistic. If that is what you wish to see then you are in need of a good telvision with massive F/X or a better psuchiatrist to attempt fixing whatever grows inside your mind.
    We do not suffer as they did but on a few occasions I have seen or been near serious accidents with the “hobby” of reenacting. Some of those injuries were the loss of an arm in an artillery accident, someone shot through the neck by a bullet at Gettysburg and a friend seriously injured when a real bullet passed through his penis and out his buttocks. During a naval battle, a friend and myself were injured when cannon primers went wrong, entering his arm, and my thumb and hand. Our goal is not one where we maim each other for the excitement of the crowd. Safety is paramount, making our impressions somewhat boring to persons like yourself.
    Few reenactors are not privy to the feelings of dehydration and the wonderful “chapped” feeling that comes with wearing wool trousers. Many of us have doctored crotch wounds which appeared to be the result of having squatted on a belt sander. Black powder and sweat have burned thousand of eyes of those who lay on a field trying to honor the lives of our ancestors who fell on the field of honor.
    Perhaps my late friend and poet, Sgt. Ben Gormley said it best in his poem, “The Reenactor”. He said, “I have shouldered a gun in the blistering sun and I've shivered at morning formation. …and though I taste not of death, not the cannon's fierce breath, I shall not let his memory moulder.”
    To those of you with whom I have shared a field, or memorial or funeral, thanks for your effort. To those who have lined stadiums, ball parks, camp grounds, National Battlefields and cemeteries, as spectators not wanting to see blood and gore, I thank you for sharing our honoring of American heroes from both sides.

    Capt. Don Lay
    4th Alabama Cavalry, Co. F
    Russell's Rangers
    (4th U.S. Cavalry)
    Birmingham, Alabama

    Reply
  13. JohnPelham

    Having been a reenactor for most of my life, I have seen many great moments and many fallacies related to our impressions. Of course we can't go out and “kill each other” to become more realistic. If that is what you wish to see then you are in need of a good telvision with massive F/X or a better psuchiatrist to attempt fixing whatever grows inside your mind.
    We do not suffer as they did but on a few occasions I have seen or been near serious accidents with the “hobby” of reenacting. Some of those injuries were the loss of an arm in an artillery accident, someone shot through the neck by a bullet at Gettysburg and a friend seriously injured when a real bullet passed through his penis and out his buttocks. During a naval battle, a friend and myself were injured when cannon primers went wrong, entering his arm, and my thumb and hand. Our goal is not one where we maim each other for the excitement of the crowd. Safety is paramount, making our impressions somewhat boring to persons like yourself.
    Few reenactors are not privy to the feelings of dehydration and the wonderful “chapped” feeling that comes with wearing wool trousers. Many of us have doctored crotch wounds which appeared to be the result of having squatted on a belt sander. Black powder and sweat have burned thousand of eyes of those who lay on a field trying to honor the lives of our ancestors who fell on the field of honor.
    Perhaps my late friend and poet, Sgt. Ben Gormley said it best in his poem, “The Reenactor”. He said, “I have shouldered a gun in the blistering sun and I've shivered at morning formation. …and though I taste not of death, not the cannon's fierce breath, I shall not let his memory moulder.”
    To those of you with whom I have shared a field, or memorial or funeral, thanks for your effort. To those who have lined stadiums, ball parks, camp grounds, National Battlefields and cemeteries, as spectators not wanting to see blood and gore, I thank you for sharing our honoring of American heroes from both sides.

    Capt. Don Lay
    4th Alabama Cavalry, Co. F
    Russell's Rangers
    (4th U.S. Cavalry)
    Birmingham, Alabama

    Reply
    1. Doug

      I am a reenactor as well 20+ years, most of my life as well. I have been there and done it. I went through Pickett’s Charge and the surrender at Appomattox. I too want to thank those that take the field with me as well as those that watch us from the stands. For us it is all to real. Reenacting brings us closer to our ancestors that fought and died on the fields of that tragic war across this country. I hope that people come out and understand what they went through to preserve this nation. I am currently bringing up the next generation to take the field my nephews. I surely hope they have enjoyed doing it as much as myself.

      Reply
      1. Doug

        To follow up I forget to mention my unit. 60th Virginia Infantry Company K “Osceola Guards”.
        1st Lt Doug Camper

        Reply

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