Confederate Reenactors Are Not Nazis, but…

[Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for the link.]

The ongoing debate about Republican candidate for Congress, Rich Iott’s hobby of portraying a Waffen SS soldier, raises a number of interesting questions about what we expect from people who choose to embrace the past through reenacting.  In the case of Iott, there seems to be little patience for the argument that one can reenact the soldier without acknowledging the government for which he fought.  Consider Iott’s attempt to distance himself from Nazi ideology:

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that here was a relatively small country that from a strictly military point of view accomplished incredible things. I mean, they took over most of Europe and Russia, and it really took the combined effort of the free world to defeat them. From a purely historical military point of view, that’s incredible.

More recently, Iott had this to say:

I think that it’s an important thing to do because we need to constantly educate people and remind people about the tragedy that happened 70-some years ago…. A lot of time is spent talking to the public, setting up exhibits. It’s a way to keep the public aware of what happened and keep it in their minds so that we don’t forget…. They were doing what they thought was right for their country,” he said. “They were going out to fight what they thought was a bigger evil.

And the reenactment unit in question offers this as a justification, which I quoted in my last post:

Nazi Germany had no problem in recruiting the multitudes of volunteers willing to lay down their lives to ensure a “New and Free Europe”, free of the threat of Communism. National Socialism was seen by many in Holland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and other eastern European and Balkan countries as the protector of personal freedom and their very way of life, despite the true underlying totalitarian (and quite twisted, in most cases) nature of the movement. Regardless, thousands upon thousands of valiant men died defending their respective countries in the name of a better tomorrow. We salute these idealists; no matter how unsavory the Nazi government was, the front-line soldiers of the Waffen-SS (in particular the foreign volunteers) gave their lives for their loved ones and a basic desire to be free.

Iott’s own justification for his reenactment preferences as well as his organization’s rationale for focusing on this specific unit can be seen in much of the discourse related to Civil War reenacting.  How often have we heard that it’s much easier to find reenactors willing to portray the Confederate soldier even outside of the South?  There is a lingering element of the Lost Cause that romanticizes the Confederate soldier as standing up against an overwhelming enemy as well as the continued insistence that the soldier be judged apart from the stated goals of the government for which he fought.

There is a blatant double-standard at work here between what we are willing to tolerate from Iott and his Nazi fetish and Civil War reenactors.  I’ve been to a number of living historian events and I’ve never witnessed an honest and sympathetic portrayal of a discussion of the tough questions of race and slavery.  Most of what I’ve seen focuses on the experience of battle and camp life.  And for those that do take on such issues we tend to praise for their honesty and bravery.  These rare instances can usually be found at museums and other historical sites.  Do we really expect reenactors from  Nathan B. Forrest’s unit to openly and honestly discuss what happened at Fort Pillow or the men who reenact in regiments that served with Mahone at the Crater?  When was the last time you heard a Union soldier discuss his racial attitudes after hearing that African Americans were to be recruited into the United States Army?  Even the movie “Glory” needed to bring the racist comments of a few white Union soldiers to a close as the 54th marched through the dunes in preparation for their final assault.

We don’t question these reenactors about their choice of uniform and interpretation and we certainly don’t question their own racial attitudes. From this perspective our collective outrage regarding Iott’s choices make little sense.  Some are emphasizing the distinction between reenacting a Wehrmacht as opposed to a Waffen SS member, but no one has argued convincingly as to why it matters.  As far as I can tell the distorted history of these men quoted above is just as prevalent in our Civil War reenacting community as well as our collective memory of the war as a whole.  For most Civil War enthusiasts the soldiers were apolitical and both sides fought for equally laudable goals.  My guess is that Iott is no more a Nazi sympathizer or an advocate of some of their methods than a Confederate reenactor yearns for the days of slavery.  The controversy not only reflects a blatant double-standard in the way we view historical reenactors, but reflects our continued belief in the exceptional quality of our own civil war.

Finally, I find it curious that most of us don’t for a minute wonder what all of this looks like from the perspective of black Americans.  Perhaps this double-standard is deeply embedded in our continued embrace of a “reconciliationist” and predominantly white memory of the war.

74 thoughts on “Confederate Reenactors Are Not Nazis, but…

  1. Andy Hall

    There is a lingering element of the Lost Cause that romanticizes the Confederate soldier as standing up against an overwhelming enemy as well as the continued insistence that the soldier be judged apart from the stated goals of the government for which he fought.

    From the perspective of someone who’s long thought Civil War reenacting looks like Hell’s own fun, and has frequently dallied with the idea of diving into it as a hobby, this neatly sums up an increasing discomfort I have with it, as well. I can even reach a comfort level with it as a sort of detached exercise in living history, focusing on minutiae of soldiering and camp life, separate from the larger cultural, political and social issues of the time. But time and again one encounters reenactors, individually and as organizations, who happily step outside their actual areas of knowledge and expertise — say, the relative merits of the Springfield and Enfield rifles, or the proper technique for baking dough on a steel ramrod — and use their reenacting instead as a platform to “educate” the public about Southron Heritage™ and all the other things that “Northern” history won’t teach you. Reenactors’ fluency with these “small things” gives them a veneer of historical authority on the “big things” when, more often than not, they have no more knowledge of than what they read on other reenactor/heritage organization website. They can tell you the names of Lee’s, Jackson’s and Meade’s horses, but would be at pains to identify names like Blight or Pryor or Glatthaar. Taken to its logical extreme, that sort of missing-the-forest-for-the-trees approach gets you abominations like the Konfederate Kids Kamp you’ve mentioned before, but much more commonly it means reenactors going into individual K-12 classrooms and Rotary Club meetings, spreading the word about the tens of thousands of black Confederate soldiers, the big-government tyranny of the Morrill Tariff, and Lincoln’s close personal friendship with Karl Marx.

    I still think reenacting has its place in educating the public, but it also has its limits.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Yes, and if we are willing to tolerate this than we should have no problem with Mr. Iott’s interest in Nazi reenactment.

      Reply
      1. Andy Hall

        I’m bothered less about Iott’s personal motivations in this than his utter and complete tone-deafness and lack of self-awareness about how this looks to others. It shows, to use a much-overused phrase, “a serious lack of judgment” in someone who’s claiming to bring common sense and traditional values to Congress.

        Civil War reenacting is widely seen by the disinterested public at large as a goofy history-nerd kind of thing, but one that’s mostly harmless. (One can argue that logically that shouldn’t be the case, but for better or worse, it is.) But seriously, reenacting the Waffen SS? Spending your weekends running around clicking heels and addressing your buddies as “gruppenfuehrer?” Seriously? You gotta be kidding me.

        This story didn’t break until Friday evening, too late to make it into the script for last weekend’s SNL. I can’t wait for Saturday.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Andy,

          I am not necessarily disagreeing with anything you’ve said. Rather, I am simply pointing out what I perceive to be a double standard.

          Reply
    2. Anon

      I’m sorry, but there were tens of thousands of blacks who fought for the confederacy. I usually don’t go on the web but I was looking to find an all German speaking northern unit and I saw this. I’m from the north, reenact the north, and have no bias that would incline me to lie. The proof of black confederates lies in the government papers and the personal diaries you can read at the national archives building, if you are so priviledged to be allowed to dig through the material. I don’t know if you can find it on their website as I gave up on that to just go to the building. Anyways, as a historian, your willingness to accept the victor’s story and disregard the possibility of more that lies underneath disgusts me. Read John B Gordons memoirs, where at the end of the book he mentions the beginnings of the generic civil war story coming together. He said that he hoped future historians would keep the truth from being hidden. Obviously he thought too highly of us.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        It’s difficult to take a comment seriously from someone who doesn’t have the courtesy to leave his name. Be that as it may, next time you spend time in the National Archives try to find one wartime account from a Confederate soldier that acknowledges that blacks were serving as soldiers in the army. Best of luck and thanks for the comment.

        Reply
  2. Marc Ferguson

    “My guess is that Iott is no more a Nazi sympathizer or an advocate of some of their methods than a Confederate reenactor yearns for the days of slavery.”

    Perhaps, but he is shockingly ignorant of the history of Europe during the 30s and 40s.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      No doubt, but my guess is that his understanding of the decades leading to Hitler and WWII pretty much mirrors the level of understanding of the antebellum period by most Civil War enthusiasts.

      Reply
  3. John Maass

    Why would one expect an honest and sympathetic portrayal of a discussion of the tough questions of race and slavery at a reenactment or from a reenactor? That is not the purpose of a reenactment/living history event.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi John,

      What do you mean that a discussion of race and slavery in the purpose of a reenactment? We know that Civil War soldiers debated these issues extensively so why is a portrayal of this aspect of Civil War soldier life not appropriate? Reenacting battles is one aspect of the broader story being portrayed or represented. It’s a choice. Perhaps you can clarify.

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      1. John Maass

        IMHO, people go to reenactments to see soldier life, battles, tactics, weaponry, and camp life. they dont go to hear political discussions of the 1860s. that is usually NOT what is depicted at these events, anyway. To learn about race and slavery, one should and has to go elsewhere. I am not saying that a “portrayal of this aspect of Civil War soldier life not appropriate,” but that it should not be expected at a reemactment. If somebody could pull it off properly and do a good job educating spectators, great, but the main purpose of a reenactment is not to eductate @ slavery and race. Just as one does not go to Gettysburg to learn in depth @ the 14th Amendment, tarriffs, and plantation wives.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          John,

          Thanks for the follow-up. I think you are right, but the fact that reenactors focus on battle tactics and the like tells us more about how we’ve chosen to remember the war and the soldiers rather than what is possible or appropriate at these events.

          Reply
          1. John Maass

            I would say, respectfully, that this is too much of a generalization, as reenactments are only 1 way to remember the war and the soldiers. reenactments are not the place to get into race and slavery.

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              Not sure I understand your point here. Why are reenactments not the place to get into these issues? You have yet to provide a justification for what you see as the scope of these events. Please understand that I am not making a normative claim as to what they should or should not focus on; rather, I am interested in our judgment of Iott’s involvement in a Nazi reenactment group as opposed to how we view Civil War reenactors. Again, it seems to me that this debate reveals a double standard.

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              1. John Maass

                As I have said above, prob poorly: soldier life, battles, tactics, weaponry, and camp life. They are not meant to get into race and slavery, isn’t their purpose. Why would they be? (Which was my orig question.)

                Reply
                1. Kevin Levin Post author

                  I still don’t understand why you mean by, “isn’t their purpose.” Where is it written as to the proper scope of Civil War reenactment? As far as I can tell there is nothing necessarily that a reenactment must look like. Choices are made.

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                  1. John Maass

                    Kevin: I ‘ll let this be my last post on this as I have tried to make the same point a few times here, and obv not well. I think it is misguided to expect that the issues of race and slavery would be a major part of a reenactment. It is not their purpose or scope, and by going to a reenactment, looking for race and not finding it, then complaining, one seems to be looking for a reason to have a beef. All things are limited in scope, and there’s a proper place for everything. When one goes to a NASCAR event, one expects to see a race (slight pun intended), not an exposition of why female drivers are so rare, why most drivers are white, etc. Quite frankly, I think you are expecting too much of reenactments, misguided as to their scope, and perhaps too steeped in race & slavery to step back and look at what they are really for. Thank you, JM

                    Reply
                    1. Kevin Levin Post author

                      I appreciate the time you are taking to respond, John. Like I said, I am more interested in the fact that we expect Iott to acknowledge the government behind the character being portrayed as well as its ideology as opposed to Civil War reenactors, who we have no problem with if they choose focus on the things that you have mentioned. Once again, I see a double standard. Thanks again, John.

                    2. Margaret D. Blough

                      JM-Then, by your standards, you’d skip such things as the reaction of the ordinary soldier North and South to the Emancipation Proclamation (rage on the Confederate side; mixed to say the least on the Northern) or the soldier vote in the 1864 election and why many soundly rejected the beloved McClellan and voted for Lincoln even through that was generally seen as prolonging the war. Personally, I think that’s every bit a part of a CW soldier’s life as what you cite.

            2. Brooks D. Simpson

              Sometime reenactments are the place to get into race and slavery. What if the reenactors were portraying the 54th Massachusetts? What if they were portraying Confederates at Fort Pillow or Petersburg? Besides, reenactors do get into these issues when they explain their “motivation” for fighting. I’ve seen that at Gettysburg. And when I hear white reenactors talk about these issues, they downplay race and slavery. “Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves … Union soldiers fought to preserve the Union … we were only fighting to preserve our rights and protect our homes …” Reenactors frequently cross the very line you claim they do not cross.

              Reply
              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                Excellent points, Brooks. You just reminded me of a performance by two reenactors – one Union and one Confederate – that I’ve seen a couple of times at Appomattox.

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              2. John Maass

                Agreed @ 54th Massachusetts, and some other rare exceptions, and that some reenactors do go beyond the line of their knowledge. But you (and others) generalize far too sweepingly, and make a rule based on exceptions. So does the New Mexico prof who seems to know all about reenactors, reenacting, living history, etc., but has never done it…
                Then again, I have many times heard professional/academic historians go beyond what they ought to be saying too! But I won’t generalize….

                Reply
                1. Kevin Levin Post author

                  I don’t think he’s generalizing at all. Brooks is pointing out that discussions of race and slavery do, in fact, take place. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to expect a reenactment at the Crater to handle the racial aspect of the battle in a way that is meaningful to both the participants and audience. It was a salient aspect of the battle and one that was acknowledged by both Union and Confederate soldiers.

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                2. Brooks D. Simpson

                  I haven’t generalized: I’ve simply reported experience.. I haven’t made any rules at all about reenactor behavior, and it’s ridiculous for you to say otherwise. As to whether or not I’ve been around reenactors, John, how would you know? You’ve admitted that some reenactors do go down this road, and all I was doing was agreeing with you from personal experience. You seem a bit defensive about this. .

                  Reply
  4. John Maass

    One other point I’d make is that the vast majority of reenactors (of all periods, not just ACW) are interested in history, tactics, weapons, encampments, and trying to get a feel for what the soldiers went through. Some do cross over the line of propriety by spouting off politicall charged interpretations of history, and I have seen this mostly in ACW events (not so much F&I War, Rev War.) This doesn’t do anyone any good!

    Reply
    1. Andy Hall

      John, I hear you, and I think we mostly agree. My concern is that, on those occasions where reenactors start popping off about things outside their actual knowledge, repeating stuff they heard at the last heritage meeting of some foolishness they read on a website they don’t remember and forgot to bookmark, it’s unrealistic to expect the general public to call BS on them. Reenactors’ (actual) expertise in their individual “impression” gives them an aura of authority, historical gravitas, even making the most ridiculous assertions. What member of the general public — let alone a kid in a classroom — is prepared to argue big-picture history against a guy who can tick off the difference between mid- and late-war Richmond shell jackets, and who begins his rant with a conspiratorial, “this is what the history books don’t tell you. . . .”

      Reply
      1. Craig Swain

        Andy, I think you are right with regard to the “aura of the impression.” The average visitor doesn’t know or even care to measure the depth or breath of the first person reenactor’s knowledge. I’ve met many reenactors who could detail the history of sack coats from memory, they didn’t have the foggiest clue what party John Bell represented. Then again when, God knows why, a hundred years from now a “reenactor” is portraying this pitiful generation, will they worry more about getting the iPods with the proper headsets and matching the correct football team players for small talk conversation, while ignoring the politics? Probably.

        Personally I think this issue is not one we resolve on the blogs or message boards, but out there in reenactor land. I can tell you that participation in the hobby is welcome from all sectors. I’ve seen groups attend reenactments with some very sharp impressions and deal with, in first person, the very issues our host has raised. Yes, even in the depths of Mississippi.

        One that stands out in my mind was a group that portrayed Federal soldiers in the Western theater. Among their crew was a reenactor who portrayed a tag-along contraband. Much of their in camp persona came out through skits they would queue up for visitors. The contraband’s character often became somewhat a Erskine Caldwell-esque type, which the audience naturally began to empathize with in spite of skin color. Such displays require a lot of mutual understanding and respect between participants.

        Reply
  5. MississippiLawyer

    I’m gonna throw myself under the bus here. I used to be a CW reenactor, but not your typical weekend warrior type. When I was in the hobby I was in the so-called “hardcore” end of the spectrum, or as mainstream reenactors called us: “stitch-nazi’s”. Most of the events I attended were invitation only and we often never even fired a shot (because nothing is more inaccurate than a reenactment of a battle). My stuff was mostly all handsewn and we slept out in the cold and marched for miles and miles, etc. Think “Confederates in the Attic”. However, that was when I was in college and was in the physical shape to do that type of stuff. I haven’t reenacted since 2004, but still have all my stuff (although I’d have to lose about 30 lbs to fit into it since I practically starved myself to get “the look”), so I may attend some of the 150th events they are having. Those events are sure to have over 20,000+, and those are very cool to be apart of just because of the numbers involved.

    Anyways, about this comment:

    “How often have we heard that it’s much easier to find reenactors willing to portray the Confederate soldier even outside of the South?”

    I don’t doubt that there is something to do with romanticism of a lost cause that motivates people to play Rebs who are outside of the south, but honestly, it has been my experience that reenactors want to play Confederates because of the variety of the outfits. Playing federal is fun, but the impression is pretty generic. When playing Reb you get to show more of your personality off in what you wear, etc. Your gear, clothing, weapon, hat is all very individualized, which is fun.

    Granted, my perspective may be skewed because I wasn’t your typical reenactor. My group of guys were very interested in the clothing patterns and stitching and all that stuff. As far as mainstream reenactors are concerned, I can’t really comment.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for adding your voice to this. You, no doubt, know much more about the culture, but you’ve also helped to make my point. Reflecting the wide range of clothing used by Confederate soldiers is much more important than sharing the wide range of views about slavery and race.

      Reply
      1. MississippiLawyer

        Our litigious and “gotcha!” society has conditioned most people to never have and to be fearful of having an honest discussion about topics referring to race (such as slavery). That’s the primary reason it is so rarely discussed. Our society has made us to feel uncomfortable about discussing such things.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          You are absolutely right, but that has, in part to due with our tendency to sanitize this aspect of the Civil War.

          Reply
          1. Joey Gee

            Hello,

            Having been grouped into the same category as “MIssissippiLawyer” He is right however even amongst my mess and units I fall in with we do deal with race, slavery etc whether Union or Confederate. However those discussions have their times and places. At school demos there is not enough time to dip into that as you well know, it could take weeks to sort though it all. Festival enactments are a mockery in general of the battle and life of the soldier and definitely not the place to jump into the race issues as many of those people who attend do not have a grasp on it themselves or have twisted the issue to meet there desires. I have been in more than one fight over the use of armed black Confeds. Living Histories are about the best bet to go into that issue, you have the ability to talk about the issues with people who generally have some interest. I know of a great program held at Chickamauga NBP for the 145th anniversary where they talked about body servants and roles of blacks in the war, Emmanuel Dabney and Patrick Lewis spearheaded this one. Also in a museum/ town here in GA the historians recreate the place with life on the home front which is not limited to the jobs but also the personalities. You have your planters, a few slaves and a couple freedmen. People really accept the roles and run with it. Basically not all of us glass over the issues to fit our needs, we just know the time and places because not everyone wants to know how it really was back then. Personally I hope to incorporate race issues into a program I am helping with at Andersonville next year, we shall see.

            Reply
            1. Patrick Lewis

              Having been invoked, I’ll jump in (and thanks for the kind words, Joey). I think the critical difference that MIssissippiLawyer and Joey are voicing here is one between setting and intent behind different types of living history events. The “Festival enactments” that you mention indeed are created and shaped to relate specific, restricted and restricting narratives of the war. The same weekend as we were interpreting slavery in the ranks of the 1st Tennessee at CHCH NMP the battle reenactment down the road — not a NPS gig, but a privately thrown ball — hosted H.K. Edgerton preaching his Black Confederate sermons (one of which I went to, and… wow). The two events both interpreted Chickamauga through the medium of living history, but one was inspired by the Rally on the High Ground initiative to expand the interpretative narrative of the war beyond the battlefield (though we didn’t really have to look beyond the battlefield to find race and slavery operating; it was found in the ranks of one of the most famous units in the Army of Tennessee, but that’s another article) while the other was inspired by a narrow understanding of the war that focuses on the military aspects of the war in large part to hide from those larger issues.

              In short, Joey points out that some reenactors have taken the medium of living history — which does undeniably have an aura of authenticity with the public — and worked to expand the public understanding of the war which that same medium has, for a half century now, helped restrict. When applied with all the historical understanding and scholarship of a local SCV meeting, you get what you get. When founded on solid historical methodology and a broad interpretative imperative you get another animal entirely. As a public historian, I find living history an incredibly potent tool to combat what Blight terms the “white supremacist” and “reconciliationist” legacies of the war, but it cuts both ways depending on who utilizes it.

              Reply
                1. Patrick Lewis

                  Kevin,

                  Frankly, not as such. The hub where most of those “hardcore,” “authentic,” and “stitch counter” types hang out on the web is http://www.authentic-campaigner.com. But even within that community there are divisions on the purpose of living history, the politics of history, and whether the topstitching on a Richmond Depot II jacket is more important than the Confederate agrarian/military/industrial complex that produced the same.

                  Generally speaking, though, the folks that come out to events like the one we put on at CHCH and the ones Joey speaks of are members of that online community. That having been said, the A-C has had some royal old battles about the meaning and legacy of the war and the best way to interpret it. (In fact, the CHCH event sparked just such a one as that a year ago which got so heated it was deleted from the list) For the most part, therefore, such discussion is generally discouraged by the moderators to keep things civil. You’ll likely find well-researched answers to gearhead questions there as normal fare. Still, it allows a (inter)national network for those who would use living history in the ways we’ve been discussing here, to announce when such events are coming up and to recruit like-minded folks to come out. Most of this, though, is done through private messages that won’t show up on the board’s archives. Lee White, who blogs with me and reads this site regularly, whould have some fascinating insights on the behind-the-scenes operation of that particular community as he has been a moderator since its inception.

                  I might venture that the ad-hoc nature of this “group” speaks to some interesting contrasts between it and the mainstream reenacting community with which most are familiar. But that could be a far longer post.

                  Reply
                  1. Kevin Levin Post author

                    Thanks Patrick. I do want to clarify that my intention was not to generalize about reenactors, but to point out what I see as a double standard re: Iott. Thanks for the link and the additional information.

                    Reply
  6. Marianne Davis

    I hesitate to comment, Kevin, because I know that it is you who will suffer with the replies, not I. Feel free to edit this to limit the outpouring of outrage.
    Not long ago, a true son of the South told me how sad he was that the Confederate Battle Flag had been co-opted by so many hate groups. Said he, “It’s such a pity, it just doesn’t mean what it once meant.” I replied, “You mean, when you look at it now it no longer just screams ‘SLAVERY’ and ‘TREASON’?”
    The irony of pickup trucks emblazoned with both CBFs and US military decals abounds where I live. Yet I remain the Last Unionist. There will always be people who want to dress up in period drag and “reenact.” That’s why we have Renaissance Fairs. It is regrettable that the men who wander around battlefields are usually 20 years too old and fifty pounds too big for their masquerades, but they are free to have fun where they find it.
    The difference between Confederate and Nazi reenactors is twofold. Firstly, is the matter of proportionality. The Nazis gleefully set out to murder the entire Jewish people, and while they were at it, as many Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists and dissidents as they could. They also tried to subjugate the planet. The CSA “only” wanted to enslave people. They started their new nation because they lost an election, and feared that they could not expand the institution of human bondage. Secondly, there is the fact that at least CSA reenactors are embracing what they believe to be their own past, and frequently in what they believe to be their own ancestral lands. They may not understand, or want to face the facts of that past, but at least they have some claim to it.

    Reply
    1. Andy Hall

      There’s much to like here, but this struck a chord:

      Secondly, there is the fact that at least CSA reenactors are embracing what they believe to be their own past, and frequently in what they believe to be their own ancestral lands. They may not understand, or want to face the facts of that past, but at least they have some claim to it.

      That’s what’s most bizarre to me about Iott’s group — it’s a military unit recruited explicitly from occupied countries like Norway and the Netherlands. What does that say about the “patriotism” of the men this group supposes to honor? I can’t quite wrap my head around that one.

      Reply
      1. Marianne Davis

        Thanks Andy,
        Such a good point you make about the patriotism of a bunch of armed and jack-booted Quislings. But as Iott said in his explanation, “They were going out to fight what they thought was a bigger evil.” Ah, yes, the great evil represented by the Allies.
        This attempts (I think. . . ) to equate Nazi with “anti-Communist” which is the functional equivalent of equating Confederate with “anti-tariff.” Both are smokescreens which cannot begin to hide the twin elephants in the room; genocide and slavery.

        Reply
        1. Raffi

          Marianne,

          The Nazi party started out as “anti-Communist” and deployed as one of the reasons one needed to exterminate Jewry was because they were the movers and shakers of the international communist conspiracy.

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          1. Marianne Davis

            Yes, that is one of the many rationals they used for their persecutions. They also cited Jewish control of international financial power, and sullying of the pure Aryan gene pool through intermarriage. My point was only that all manner of sins are covered by all manner of villains with all manner of great excuses.

            Reply
    2. Whattamisaid

      “Firstly, is the matter of proportionality. The Nazis gleefully set out to murder the entire Jewish people, and while they were at it, as many Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists and dissidents as they could. They also tried to subjugate the planet. The CSA “only” wanted to enslave people.”

      But the desire to enslave people has tremendous human cost–an estimated 4 million Africans bound for slavery died in the Middle Passage alone.

      I suspect this is one of the reasons that we don’t equate Confederate reenactments with Nazi reenactments, because the history of the antebellum South is sanitized and, in some cases, glorified. We are all clear on the human cost of the Holocaust; we are less clear on the human cost of American chattel slavery.

      Reply
      1. Marianne Davis

        Whattamisaid,
        I hope you understand that my “only” was not meant to minimize the horror of slavery as much as it was to distinguish the systematic extermination of a people from other crimes. The blame for the deaths of Africans in the Middle Passage belongs as much to Northern Americans as to Southerners, as well as to the Colonial powers of South America (particularly Brazil) and the Caribbean islands. The unique crime of the CSA was in trying to preserve and spread the institution of slavery in a world that had become awakened to it as a crime. Indeed, it owed its very existence to that purpose. I agree with you that history, all of our history is often sanitized. We can only hope that few of us would carry it so far as to glorify slavery.

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      2. David Nottingham

        I’m a re-enactor, I have Confederate and Union ancestors. My Union ancestors were one generation removed from a slave operated tobacco farm. My Confederate ancestors were dirt farmers, 13 in all and not a single one owned a slave. I find it hard to believe that they all went to fight and die on the grim prospect that they could “own” another human being. I also find it hard to believe that my Union ancestors were willing to fight and die to free a race that they cared nothing about. Personally I find it offensive for someone to suggest that they know what my ancestors were thinking just before they sacraficed their own lives. What Sherman Sheridan and Grant did to all races of the southern states is more comparative to the Nazi’s by far. And I guess what the Federal Government did to the Native Americans wasn’t as bad as what the Nazi’s did either! You people are so narrow minded.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          On what evidentiary basis do you claim to speak for your own ancestors?

          You said: “What Sherman Sheridan and Grant did to all races of the southern states is more comparative to the Nazi’s by far.” You could compare it to any number of military experiences both before and after the Civil War. One of the most thorough analytical studies of Sherman’s March is Mark Grimsley’s “Hard Hand of War” which will help you to move on beyond these kinds of meaningless points. Thanks for the comment.

          Reply
  7. Nat Turners Son

    I gone to a few battles just for fun; most are just good ole boys out having a good time playing war. They are big kids and very few are anywhere close to being a history major or even college educated.

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      1. MississippiLawyer

        Agree with John.

        Most reenactors, at least the ones that I know, are very well educated. I can think of ten or so attorneys off the top of my head that were/are reenactors.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          It goes without saying that I am not making any kind of comment about the intelligence of reenactors. This post has absolutely nothing to do with that. I just want to make that as clear as possible.

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  8. J. L. Bell

    My acquaintance with Revolutionary War reenactors makes me look at Iott’s situation differently from how I might otherwise. Americans who choose to portray the “enemy” in that war—i.e., the British army—have a variety of political views, and a variety of motivations. It would be foolish to assume they’re monarchists, or even secretly sympathetic to monarchy. So I try not to read too much into reports of Iott’s hobby.

    Still, it’s no surprise that this situation raises emotions, given the relative recency of World War II and the particular ideology of the Waffen SS. What would our political right say about a candidate who spends his or her weekends reenacting the North Korean army or the Viet Cong? Indeed, there was just a controversy (with the British government and US military involved) over whether it should be possible for videogamers to “play” a Taliban fighter in the multi-player mode of the latest Medal of Honor.

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    1. Jonathan Dresner

      It would be foolish to assume they’re monarchists, or even secretly sympathetic to monarchy.

      Unless they publicly discussed, valorized and sanitized the history of their units and motivations for depicting monarchical forces.

      And the American Rebellion was a very different kind of war, fought for very different reasons than and in very different ways than the Civil War or WWII.

      Actually, on the question of slavery, British forces were considerably more progressive than colonial ones….

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      1. John Maass

        “on the question of slavery, British forces were considerably more progressive than colonial ones…”

        I wonder if the slaves in the Carolinas, who in 1781 joined Cornwallis’s army only to be abandoned at Yorktown, left to die of small pox, or sold into slavery in the West Indies, would have taken comfort in their British oppressors’ progressive outlook?

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          John,

          Good point and one that I made in class yesterday in our discussion of the role of African Americans in the Revolution.

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          1. Ken Noe

            I’ve had both a British historian and an African historian adamantly tell me that there’s no evidence that the British actually sold any African Americans back into slavery after the Revolution. I confess that I’ve never investigated the matter myself, so perhaps period specialists could confirm or deny? It would be fascinating if this just another example of memory accepted as fact.

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            1. Jonathan Dresner

              What little I know suggests that they’re technically correct: they didn’t sell them, they just returned them.

              Mr. Maass, I’m sure you’re right, in absolute terms, but I was comparing British and American attitudes of the time. Were the British Quaker abolitionists? No. Were British policies towards slaves more progressive than American ones? Yes. Not much, in practice, but for purposes of a reenactment, there would be real differences.

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  9. Matt McKeon

    What about those guys who reenact Roman soldiers(I saw it on Spike TV’s greatest warriors, I think). Bunch of Christ killers. It’s a triple standard: Nazis, Confederates and Romans.

    The thing that bothers me about re enacting is the men playing war aspect. Armies are for killing, and that’s the one activity that can’t be re enacted.

    As far as the material culture of the Civil War, and maybe how organizing and moving a large group of men in real life is like(how are those massive events like Antietam and Gettysburg actually executed?), reenacting seems like it can be pretty useful.

    And while I think I’ve reached the level of moral development to understand that Slavery is Bad, I’m still stuck on Nazi Holocaust Worse, Much Much Worse. And Within Living Memory. And Nazis are not Americans, but the Enemy. And generally comparing things to Nazis is not a good idea, unless they also Nazis.

    On a bright note, there is an reenactment group in Japan that impersonates the Germans. Tease out the moral implications there.

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  10. Craig

    “Do we really expect reenactors from Nathan B. Forrest’s unit to openly and honestly discuss what happened at Fort Pillow…”

    Actually there *is* a group of reenactors who portray one of N.B. Forrest’s units and who *do* openly and honestly discuss what happened at Fort Pillow. (Last I encountered the group they were *at* Fort Pillow for a living history.)

    Speaking as one who was deeply involved in the reenacting hobby for some time, I would say it is important to understand first and foremost, it is not a “regulated” activity in the proper sense of the word. There are no codified and certified standards (just the opposite of Ham Radio for instance). As such, anyone with the money to purchase a uniform and transportation to an event becomes, by default, a “reenactor.” And I say that with no disrespect intended to those who are honest and forthright with regard to the hobby.

    I think the bottom line is one cannot demand that history only be interpreted by some sanctioned few. History belongs to the broad spectrum of society. People are, and should, be allowed to speak their minds. But at the same time, they are, and should be, subject to cross examination.

    If this is really a “big deal” then I’d say join up with a unit. You’ll have plenty of teachable moments.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Craig. I certainly do not mean to generalize about reenactors, but I am surprised to learn that there is a group that focuses in on issues of race at Fort Pillow. Do you happen to know if the group has a website?

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      1. Craig

        I know one of the group’s members has commented here before. Don’t know if they maintain a website. I’ll let one of their group speak for them, if they so choose.

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    1. Craig Swain

      I don’t have figures at hand, but know that several studies on the reenacting community have addressed that very question. The last statistical study I recall was posted in Camp Chase Gazette earlier this year, and if memory serves was conducted by a student from either Uof KY or Indiana State.

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  11. Daryl Black

    Hi folks,

    A very interesting conversation. I just wanted to chime in on the issue of reenacting v. interpretive performance. I have been involved in re-enacting in one way or another for nearly 30 years. Over the last 20 years or so, my view of the “hobby” has become largely negative — there is little reflection on broader issues among many “hobbyists” and the emphasis on the details of soldier life and battles does exactly what the late 19th century “re-unionists” had hoped for — hiding the causes of the conflict while making every-one of the white soldiers who fought a hero. So, even in instances where there is great attention to the details of the details of clothing etc. there is more often than not little attention paid to the big issues of politics, culture, and race. For those who would say this is a hobby and not an exercise in historical analysis I would respond every time you put yourself in a Civil War costume you hold yourself up — with purpose or without — as an expert on the Civil War. A bit of reflection and thought would go a long way here — take a few weeks to look over the literature that deals with causation, slavery, race etc. and you would do yourself and those around you a great favor.

    Now. The practice of interpretive performance can actually make use of the visual appeal of re-enacting. People enjoy the “sights” of the past — the crazy uniforms, the old-timey guns, the camp fire cooking. I have (and I think I don’t speak out of turn when I say Patrick Lewis, who posted above has too) used the uniform, gun etc. as a tool to spark discussions about social history, cultural history, slavery and secession etc. Used in such a way “re-enacting” can become a vehicle by which to combat the reunionist narrative of the Civil War established over 100 years ago.

    I must confess that I am intrigued by the opportunity to “see” some of the big scale events that will take place in the next few years. There is just enough military history buff in me to want to see 10s of thousands of “soldiers” lined up just so. So, no doubt, I’ll be seen among the ranks of the make-believe soldiers during the 150th events — but, more often than not if you see me in a rebel soldier’s uniform it will be at a NPS or state park talking about race, slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the depth of support among white southerners for the slaveholder’s nation. Call it stealth education.

    Reply
  12. Bruce Miller

    Kevin, I wanted to mention something about the distinction between the Waffen-SS and the Wehrmacht. The SS was a big, complex organization. But with one exception I’ll mention below, those who were in the SS volunteered to be in the SS, which was a PARTY organization of the NSDAP (Nazi Party). The volunteers knew they were joining a group whose purpose was to do the dirty work for the Party. That included the Waffen-SS, which was a military arm of the SS that fought along side the Wehrmacht (regular army), but was not directly under the army’s command. While by no means all SS members were killers, the purpose of the SS was to be an extra-legal death squad for the NSDAP, including the Waffen-SS. The SS, of course, was in charge of running the concentration camps. The Waffen-SS came to be especially hated in the United States because of the Malmedy massacre of December 1944, when the 1st SS Panzer Division “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” machine-gunned and clubbed to death over 70 American prisoners-of-war.

    The one exception to volunteering for the SS was in the Waffen-SS, where there were SOME Wehrmacht soldiers assigned to Waffen-SS units. Basically all Wehrmacht soldiers were draftees, and the ones assigned to Waffen-SS units were not allowed to choose. But a majority of the Waffen-SS were still volunteers.

    The SS, including the Waffen-SS, was pronounced a criminal organization during the Nuremberg Trials. The Wehrmacht was disbanded but not labeled a criminal organization. Western perceptions of a sharp difference between the “honorable” Wehrmacht and the criminal SS were often exaggerated. The Wehrmacht itself committed some hideous crimes.

    The videos and online recruitment texts of Iott’s reenactor group clearly idealize the Waffen-SS. That business about “Nazi Germany had no problem in recruiting the multitudes of volunteers willing to lay down their lives to ensure a ‘New and Free Europe’, free of the threat of Communism” is straight-up apologetics for Nazism. It’s disgusting stuff. What kind of American patriot honors and promotes a criminal organization like this that was notorious for committing the worst massacre of American soldiers in Europe during the entire Second World War?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks Bruce. I took an undergraduate course on Nazi Germany so I am pretty much up to snuff on all of this.

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      1. Bruce Miller

        The part about some Wehrmacht soldiers being assigned to Waffen-SS units isn’t so well known. I came across that little factoid several years ago researching the incident in which President Reagan attended a wreath-laying ceremony with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at Bitburg Cemetery, where several Waffen-SS soldiers were buried. The harsh reactions that Reagan’s decision to do that generated, even among many conservatives (in those days when the Republican Party wasn’t quite so authoritarian in devotion to its Leader), was largely based on the very negative image and strong feelings so many people Americans had twoard the Waffen-SS. In 1985, news of a candidate being part of a Waffen-SS reenactor group would probably have been instantly fatal to his candidacy.

        Another Waffen-SS-related footnote: Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the super-patriot Red-hunter and alcholoic demagogue, first came to national attention by bitterly attacking the Army for its prosection of the Waffen-SS thugs who had committed the Malmedy massacre of American prisoners of war. Weird.

        Reply
  13. Fraser

    Unfortunately, there are still people for whom “Hitler was fighting Communism” is a valid defense of the Holocaust. I’ve argued with them on occasion.

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    1. Margaret D. Blough

      One of the most disturbing experiences I ever had was when I visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C, and not, primarily, for the reason that you would expect although it was moving and extraordinary and, to me, sets the standard for museums that seek to deal with difficult, disturbing subjects. The reason was what happened to one of the two friends who went to the museum with me. One is a woman; the other is a man who is openly and quite comfortably gay. We split up because, as my experiences confirm, each person tends to have their own preferences in visiting museums (people who like to keep moving v. people who have to read every exhibit description, etc.). When we met up, my male friend was white as a sheet and rigid with shock. My other friend and I were very concerned. When he was able to talk, he told us that he had been at the section on Hitler’s persecution of homosexuals, including sending them to the extermination camps. He was looking at the exhibits when he heard the man next to him announce to his companion, “Well, at least Hitler got something right!” and moved on. My friend was furious at himself that, because he was so stunned that someone would say that so openly especially in that context, he didn’t confront the man since, by the time he made himself accept that he’d heard what he’d heard the man and his companion had moved on and he didn’t see him again.

      That’s when I realized that we can’t put the Holocaust in a nice neat box of something horrific that happened, but it happened in the past and it certainly couldn’t happen here whatever our faults and past offenses. If it could happen in Germany which was and is one of the most cultured countries in the world in terms of art, religion, philosophy, etc., I don’t think any culture can consider itself to be immune.

      Reply
  14. Fraser

    Out of curiosity, does anyone ever do a re-enactment of slave revolts? Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey (I guess that would be more of a “what if”) or John Brown’s raid? I can’t help thinking that while those arguably have more claim to be about “freedom” and “rights” than the Confederacy ever was, a lot of Confederate nostalgists would be horrified.

    Reply
    1. Margaret D. Blough

      Fraser-That would be interesting, particularly if you stuck to the most verifiable ones like Nat Turner and the massivie 1739 Stono Rebellion in the then British colony of South Carolina, where slaves acted. In the case of alleged planned slave revolts that didn’t materialize, identifying the facts can be very difficult. Slave owning societies were constantly paranoid about slave revolts and not only could slaves curry favor by identifying alleged conspirators but also, when whites convinced themselves that a revolt was planned, the whites would start interrogating (i.e. torturing) slaves and even free blacks to get “proof” of the alleged plot. Slaves would accuse others to save their own skins or, if already being tortured and being sure that their life was already forfeit, just to get the torture to stop. There are some who question how real some of the most famous allegedly planned but not executed slave revolts really were, including Denmark Vesey.

      The fact that there weren’t more verifiable slave revolts says nothing about how slaves felt about slavery, but more of a recognition their chances in the face of a white society that was constantly on guard. You hear a lot about things from Confederate apologists about the North being segregated between whites and free blacks while Southern whites and free and enslaved blacks went to church together being “proof” that race relations were better in the South. The truth was that there was nothing Southern whites feared more than blacks meeting without white supervision. Two books that deal well with the paranoia of Southern whites is David Grimsted’s “American Mobbing 1828-1861: Toward Civil War” Oxford (1998) and Donald E. Reynolds “Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South” LSU Press (2007)

      Reply

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