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.