Drew Faust Reflects on War Narratives

You should definitely take a look at Drew G. Faust’s NEH 2011 Jefferson Lecture, titled, “Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian.” [pdf]  It is incredibly thoughtful.  [Click here for David Blight's introductory remarks.]  I think Faust effectively explains the difficulty of trying to capture the horrors of war as well as the dangers involved in trivializing it.  The following passage at the end caught my eye and pretty much sums up why I have little interest in attending the Manassas reenactment this summer:

There is just something about reenacting that I find troubling and yet I know that there are very serious people, who are passionate about it and who see it as a form of education.  I don’t want to be entertained by representations of battle, suffering, and loss.  On the other hand I don’t have a problem with a reenactment of a slave auction, which also depicts violence and personal loss.  This may be an inconsistent attitude on my part, but I just can’t imagine ordering a hot dog or picnicking at a slave reenactment.

What I do completely agree with, however, is Faust’s final comment regarding our current wars.  I do believe that battle reenactments help to trivialize war and prevent us from considering the tough questions that any citizenry in a democracy must consider before going to and during war.  In the end, I am skeptical that the narrative of a reenactment gets us closer to any meaningful understanding of what it means to go to war as well as the costs.

31 responses... add one

I observed a re-enactment last fall, mostly because I wanted to see the battlefield in question. It didn’t bother me, but in retrospect the “play acting” aspects muted what I knew to be the very real horrors of that and other engagements. In any event, I don’t think you are being inconsistent. I imagine most auction re-enactments are conducted solely for educational purposes, while battle re-enactments serve many purposes rather than solely educational ones.

It may be true that re-enactments “help to trivialize war and prevent us from considering the tough questions that any citizenry in a democracy must consider before going to and during war.” That is a question for a political scientist, however, or perhaps a psychologist. The more immediate problem, and I think Faust’s strongest point, is the false impression given to the public that these people are Civil War experts. There are indeed some who have great expertise in uniforms, accoutrement, weapons, vehicles and all the other components that came together in conflict.They are happy to answer questions about all those things, and often much more.But they are not necessarily equipped to discuss why the nation split apart, went to war, and reunited. I have seen interviews with re-enactors that made me shudder. How many of the thousands expected at Bull Run will know not to listen to that guy just because he’s in the authentic kit?

Yes, this is my worst nightmare when it comes to reenactors in the classroom: http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2011/05/04/reenactors-present-civil-war-history-jefferson-junior/

“Loren Reynolds from the Sons of Confederate Veterans said the goal of the organization is to present the Southern side of Civil War history but that the group does not in any way support slavery. He said the group wants to point out that the Union committed atrocities, too.

“They tell the good about the Union, but they don’t tell the bad,” Reynolds said.

Yeah, that’s some lesson.

I have a Revolutionary War re-enactor come talk to my classes, but I avoid the Civil War ones for fear of getting someone like that.

I know there are many who aren’t fans of re-enactments, but I think they serve as an incredible catalyst for generating and maintaining interest in the Civil War. The Civil War is one of the three most studied periods in American history, and there are a lot of regular people who are fascinated with and study the conflict. I think reenacting does a lot to promote that interest. I sure know that when I was a boy, they caught my imagination.

We can only hope they serve as a gateway, inspiring people to learn more…why the conflict was fought, what it means, what each side battled for, etc. And of course, I think there has to be a reality-check in place for re-enactors. Reenacting may provide a lot of insight into the life of a solider (ex: how hot those blue uniforms can get!), but ultimately they can NEVER come close to replicating the horrors and reality of coming under fire, death, fear, etc.

But in the end, I think they are a good phenomenon, and I think sometimes academics get too worried about their populist, non-academic nature.

Thanks for the comment, Zac. I wouldn’t be so quick to generalize about academics. I know of a small handful who are quite enthusiastic about reenacting.

One should distinguish between reenacting/reenactments, which some people like and others do not, and reenactors, some of whom do not pretend to be historians (as opposed to enthusiasts), some of whom deeply research their parts (past issues of armament and attire), and some who pretend that they are now real historians who are unqualified to hold forth on various topics.

That last category, however, need not be confined to reenactors, unless Connie Chastain has done some reenacting.

The generalizations people offer about this group or that group generally tell me more about the generalizer than the people the generalizer’s generalizing about. :)

My concern is with reenactments along the lines expressed by Faust and not necessarily with individual reenactors/living historians. I have nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for the work of Brian Pohanka in bringing attention to the Civil War and the life of the common soldier.

Farbs, authentics, stitch-counters…reenactors themselves disagree on whether battle reenactments are appropriate. Sure, you’ve got the overweight guys in the jaguar-skin pants who got their rebel yell from the Duke boys, or the partisans who won’t “galvanize” because “the South was right,” but the reenactors I’ve known best were also good historians when it came to the bigger issues Faust mentions. Like Brooks, I’m just not comfortable with generalizations and stereotyping.

Thanks for the comment, Ken.

I just want to clarify that I was not trying to generalize about the educational value or lack thereof amongst the reenacting community. In the end, I completely agree with you that it would be a mistake to generalize. I was simply conveying how I feel about reenactments. I’ve only been to a few and I saw a wide range of interests and focus among participants, but I never really felt comfortable.

Will the reenactors understand the war? What a silly question. Of course not. Only Faust, Kevin Levin, Brooks Simpson and one or two others understand the war.

Always nice to hear from the “Angry Old Lady of Civil War Memory.” Thanks, Connie. :)

Well, Connie, I wouldn’t go that far, but thanks for the compliment, even if it’s unfair to others who have also done so much to enrich our understanding of the war, including some people who are reenactors. I’m thinking, for example, of Brian Pohanka.

Why would the micro-level understanding and skills required to be a successful re-enactor necessarily translate to a macro-level understanding of the political, cultural and economic aspects of the conflict?

I wouldn’t expect someone like Blight or McCurry to know how to clean a three-banded Enfield, nor would most people expect them to. So why would one assume the re-enactor is well-prepared to do the tasks they’ve spent their careers at?

If you have nothing constructive to say, perhaps you shouldn’t say anything. Is there really something wrong with exploring this topic? If you don’t find it worthwhile why do you continue to check the post? You sound like a whining child who doesn’t get what she wants.

There are many comments on this blog, not to mention quite a number of initiating posts, that have nothing constructive to say, so I really don’t see why you’re singling me out.

The difference is that you have never added anything constructive to this site beyond your petty complaints that your preferred definition of Southern heritage is being challenged or attacked.

At the risk of derailing the thread or this particular comment, I would recommend to Connie three academic historians who have tried to “understand the war.”

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel interprets slavery as the primary cause of secession, but he also condemns the Lincoln administration for coercing the seceded states back into the Union.

Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, in their last co-authored volume, stated that the “southern defense of slavery ended with Slavery in the Abstract — the doctrine that declared slavery or a kindred system of personal servitide the best possible condition for all labor regardless of race.”

I am not saying that you have to agree with Hummel’s other Libertarian writings or that you must agree with Genovese’s comments at the recent CPAC convention. I do not agree with all of their interpretations, but I respect them as professional historians who have used the relevant primary sources and secondary literature to advance our understanding of that era.

Isn’t that what historians are supposed to do?

I also highly recommend Hummel and the Genoveses. They write serious history.

Thank you, Mr. Stoudt. By way of explanation, I don’t make my infrequent visits to this blog to learn about the war; I’m aware that there are gracious plenty more reliable sources out there. Ostensibly, this blog is “related to how Americans have chosen to remember and commemorate the Civil War.” My observation is that this is a very thin cover for the true purpose, which is to express derision of those who don’t see the war, or even how the war is remembered, as Mr. Levin and his fellow traveleres think they should. Put another way, I think more accurate names for this blog would be “Let’s bash the SCV” or “Let’s ridicule Southern heritage advocates” or even “I Decide Who and What is Southern by K.Levin.”

Yes, you have made this argument more than once and it still makes very little sense. I have criticized the SCV on a number of occasions, but since they do not have a monopoly on what it means to identify with a Southern past/heritage I fail to see the problem. This is my blog and it showcases my reflections on any number of issues, including how we remember the war, which I’ve written extensively about. The people who comment on this blog represent a wide background of political belief, personal history, and location.

It seems to me that you are the one who continues to try to limit discussion and you do it by your incessant whining. If you want to state your position go ahead. You are the one who has sidetracked this discussion. A number of people have shared their thoughts in response to what I’ve written. Again, instead of whining say something constructive about the issue at hand. If not then you need to go away and complain somewhere else. In fact, you can do so on your own blog.

I am a reenactor and a history major. I think very carefully before answering questions that are asked me about the Civil War. This is not the case for some reenactors. It is very easy to perpetuate the misunderstandings of the war and frequently it occurs. Last weekend I tried my best to defend the position of the lack of Black Confederates to other reenactors. It didn’t go over well.
I think reenactment has its place. I believe it will spark interest in young people to learn more about their history in general. Sure we will never be able to recapture the horror and the nuances of everything, however we all must remember that when appearing as a person of authority we have a responsibility to be informed and know what we are talking about.

Last weekend I tried my best to defend the position of the lack of Black Confederates to other reenactors. It didn’t go over well.

I’d be interested to hear more about that.

It does seem to me that those reenactors who, for whatever reason, choose to interact with the public directly and extensively (through living history demonstrations, school visits and so on) have a special obligation to get their history straight, every bit as much as a classroom teacher does. There is, I think, an inevitable expectation from the public that someone who pays as much attention to the small details — the stitching on a shell jacket, or the correct pattern shoes — would have a solid understanding of the “big questions,” as well, and that’s simply not always true.

Ah, but this is part of the problem.

Some reenactors like to stay in character, and the explanations offered by the character represent the character’s perspectives. So I could see how someone reenacting a Confederate in character could say they are fighting for rights and liberty, etc. Much depends on what comes next.

Other reenactors take the “living historian” label and decide that they can speak with authority, only what they say is their personal opinion. In short, they are the flip side of what they claim happens in a classroom. They use the garb of a reenactor to espouse a perspective that goes beyond the character.

There are ways to advance beyond this, and perhaps it would take people working together to figure out how to do so, such as staged discussions between “soldiers” on why they are fighting.

Just like any hobby you have those who take it serious and those who don’t. The Manassas Festival (yes festival because it won’t reenact anything) will be a joke on a grand scale. Looking at it from a material culture standpoint they are letting in anyone who can throw on something blue or grey with no understanding of clothing or equipment. From a historical standpoint half of those people who will be at the festival don’t even know there was a battle of Manassas or who was there or who won, lost or repercussions of that battle and no I am not talking about the Spectators. Large Scale “enactments” have little do with history and more to do with playing war, dress up, and has more in common with groups that fight in parks with foam swords on weekends than they do anything historical. You can try and justify it with comments like “it will spark an interest” but spark an interest how? In telling them it’s ok to carry 30 pistols in grey pajamas yelling “Rebel Pride” and killing all the “damnyankees”? OR That Gatling guns were a part of every major battle? I say this because when I got interested in the ACW that’s what I thought for years until I cracked a book. Yes, I cracked a book but a lot of people won’t and will walk away from the enactments thinking that is how it really was back then.

I am a historical interpreter (I hate the term reenactor). I portray both sides(Western Theater CS and US) of the conflict as well as civilian(rural Southern usually). I understand the details of the war and do my best to let others know what the war was about and how it affected the individuals and the collective. I do not sugar coat it anyway from information on the home front to the war front. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t view it as I and my friends do and instead get caught up only in the “battles”, the gear, or the myths. Also it seems that the worst of us are the public image us. I generally do not attend “festival enactments” and choose High end Living History programs held on State and National park site or private run events with standards. We keep the “Silly” out of it.

Anyways that is just my take on it. Not all of us are costumed idiots with no grasp on reality and truth who are trying to rewrite the war or white wash it because of guilt.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Joey. I didn’t mean to open up the larger question of whether reenactors/living historians have a place as educators. My concern is with the concept of reenacting war itself and the extent to which it removes the audience from its darker elements. I would have the same concern if every reenactor/living historians displayed your apparent level of knowledge and passion.

Kevin,

I agree with you that the darker elements are usually omitted and I hate that. I have strived to get people on board with bringing the darker things to light in the hobby for years. Some grasp it, others shy away because they want to remain a rated “G’ or “PG-13”. The horror of war can never truly be shown when the scenes are “re-enacted” but there are things that can be done to get maybe a small glimpse into the darkness. The biggest issue is that there is a fine line between well played vignette and hokey skit.

As an example I participated in a vignette of a Deserter a few years back. We played the whole scene through by following the records and court martial of a soldier. We did all the motions that were written and those that weren’t we did an educated guess. When it was all said and done we had people in the crowd split on the side of the soldier and the Army and most visibly upset. This was at a local historic site and not a festival enactment.

On the other side of the coin

A “history light” group saw what we had done and decided to do one for the “tators”. No research into anything. They just decided to go out and have a good old time at the local festival. They made a mockery of a serious crime with jokes, gags, playing to the crowd, etc.

It’s all a matter of who you deal with and how they play the game. Some play in the PGA and others just like to hit a colored ball into the clowns mouth.

BTW Love the blog.

Joey,

I love the idea of portraying the deserter and the way you incorporated the audience. Great stuff. And thanks for the kind words re: the blog.

During the years I taught military history at West Point, I had the pleasure of getting to know the living historians of the 124th NYSV, an Orange County, NY regiment that fought with the Army of the Potomac. I would classify their leader, Chuck LaRocca, as one of those living historians focused on educational outreach and preservation of local history. Chuck has spent years working on a regimental history of the 124th, and he maintains a full schedule of seminars and other demonstrations, along with attending re-enactments.

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