Is This Group Ready to Reenact Olustee?

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Jimmy Price notes that reenactments of engagements in which black soldiers participated have already taken place, though on a smaller scale. Even in these cases, however, it is not at all clear as to how the racial element was choreographed/interpreted. He also questions whether the general public would only “stomach” reenactments in which African Americans proved victorious. I don’t know.

A number of you have questioned whether a sufficient number of Confederate reenactors could be organized to reenact battles in which blacks took part. Does this video of the 2012 re-dedication of the Florida Division, UDC’s monument on the Olustee battlefield help?

One of the problems that I can’t seem to get around is the clear limitations that a reenactment offers in these specific cases. It’s one thing to be able to simulate some of the violent acts involved, but it seems to me that the crucial component is the understanding of why it happened and how it fits into a broader interpretation of the war as a whole. Perhaps I am going to get into trouble for saying this, but I just don’t trust reenactors to be able to do this. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’ve seen way too many examples of reenactors – both blue and gray – who have skirted the tough questions of race when raised. Perhaps there is a natural tendency to do so in such a setting. Then there is the question of how they should discuss these issues. Perhaps a select few could do a competent job of explaining these issues in character, but whatever benefits are gained from such a presentation its limitations are pretty clear.

I guess what I am saying is that most people need significant interpretive scaffolding before being exposed to such a reenactment and the wide range of emotions that would no doubt surface.

19 comments… add one

  • James F. Epperson Jul 12, 2013

    What you are really asking is: Will they include the post-battle executions of USCT? Of course they won’t.

  • Daryl Black Jul 12, 2013

    4:11 — 4:19. Grey Gardens. That is all.

  • Will Stoutamire Jul 12, 2013

    The aftermath of Olustee was pretty gruesome. In the Confederates’ own words…

    http://books.google.com/books?id=WRC9QOdYDYcC&lpg=PA77&ots=WYnaRN5j__&dq=black%20wounded%20at%20olustee&pg=PA73#v=onepage&q=black%20wounded%20at%20olustee&f=false

    It’s a small battle in the military history of the CW, for sure. But the racial implications are no less complex than those at Fort Pillow or the Crater.

  • Boyd Harris Jul 12, 2013

    I am currently researching the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park for my dissertation on the establishment and interpretation of Civil War State Parks. I attended the reenactment weekend for Olustee this past February and saw my first ever battle reenactment. The battle is put on every year during the anniversary. Very little interpretation is provided for the audience and I saw no evidence of African American reenactors, with the sole exception of a man driving a Union wagon. Most of this can be honestly explained as a lack of African-American participants in reenactment, however, the tenor of the Olustee Festival is strongly in favor of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. (What you see in the video is pretty spot on for the reenactment weekend)

    What troubled me most about the battle reenactment was that it took place on the actual battlefield and the event was more spectacle than education. People cheered for their teams and vendors were selling food during the battle. The most common refrain I heard throughout the audience was: “When is someone going to die?” I heard it so much that it actually started to bother me, as if the audience would be satisfied if someone actually died. My interpretation of this response is that it is predicated upon the public’s perception of the bloody nature of the Civil War and does not take into account the reticence of reenactors to “die” too early in the battle. Who wants to lie on the ground for thirty minutes, while everyone else has all the fun?

    Perhaps the best example I have of the disconnect between the spectacle and the history was the reaction of a woman near me during the finale of the battle. After trading volleys for about thirty minutes, the Confederates advance on the Union left which signifies the beginning of the Union retreat. The Confederates fired one full volley, and several Union reenactors fell to the ground. The lady near me, a thirty-something African-American, burst into wild cheers. Which unit were the white Union reenactors representing? The 8th USCT regiment.

    The Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park does a pretty good job of interpreting the battle and even includes mention of the atrocities committed by Confederate soldiers following the battle. The reenactment that takes place there every year, however, continues to highlight the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. That is what the audience that attends wants to see, so therefore that is what they get. I see no way that the current reenactment of Olustee can be changed without alienating the majority of the audience. I mean, for the past several years each person attending this reenactment has returned to their car to find a copy of the League of the South’s official newspaper underneath their windshield wiper. That is the audience attending this event. Challenging the spectacle that this audience has grown accustomed to is a lost cause. (I make no apologies for the pun.)

    • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013

      Hi Boyd,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this particular commemorative event. I am not surprised by anything you stated here and I suspect it constitutes a major barrier for any realistic reenactment of such a battle.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 12, 2013

      I went to the Olustee 140th. It was my first reenactment event and I was with the 5th USCT. The people in the unit were nice but the group was not very well organized at all. The 5th is the same group that two other Black men were in who left that group to become Confederate reenactors. That story was featured here on this blog a couple of months ago.

      http://cwmemory.com/2013/05/05/what-happens-when-your-usct-unit-disbands/

      Anyway, my experience at Olustee was great. I enjoyed the experience of reenacting- learning the manual of arms; learning the precision way things were done (like how to put on the soldiers’ accoutrements and how to stack arms); how to go from column of fours to line of battle; and so on. Sure, I could read those things in a book… but it was a lot of fun and an education to experience them (hey- I just used fun and education in the same sentence). two things also stick out to me from the experience. My unit arrived at Olustee after dark (and after everyone else) and when I stepped out of the car, I was blown away at the site of the encampment. There were dozens of tents, the fires were going and I heard the drumrolls. I swear, I felt like I’d stepped back in time! That moment made the long drive from Ohio suddenly worth it. I also remember this moment when the regiment was in the battle reenactrment. We were marching through the woods on the way to the field. We stopped for a moment and I looked in front of me. All I saw was the column of blue soldiers and the flag. Nothing modern. Again, another “back in time” moment. When I came home, I told my wife what a great time I had and then she got involved, too. There definitely was some neo-Confederate element there at the event but no one in particular bothered us. I’ve always wanted to go back for the event.

      Civil War reenacting is an event which offers people a chance to “touch and feel” Civil War stuff- uniforms, equipment, flags, encampments, etc. You get to hear something of what the war sounded like. But that’s about it. For me, it merely provides a glimps of what was. So, on its own, no… you will not get “the understanding of why [the war] happened and how [a big battle reenactment] fits into a broader interpretation of the war as a whole.” But, as part of a Civil War Era Balanced Diet, which includes reading books, watching programs, and visiting battlefileds and museums, I think reenactments/living history can be part of good historical nutrition.

      As I mentioned, I will be in uniform tomorrow at Fort Stevens in Washington, DC, weather permitting. And I think it might be only me, so wish me luck.

    • Yulanda Burgess Jul 13, 2013

      Mr. Boyd,

      You stated, “….no evidence of African American reenactors…” at Olustee in 2013. This is a traditionally established USCT event. I don’t know how you missed their participation in 2013. The site is vast and there are two days of battles. There are various units from across the country who fall in to portray the 54th Mass. If you were expecting 100s of USCTs at this event you were over estimating the number of those who portray USCT soldiers and officers. I have personally attended this event myself with two van fulls of soldiers several years ago and they continue to attend. My experience was pleasant. I can’t speak for the African American men who attend but their repeated participation would indicate that nothing would overwhelmingly keep them from attending. There is typically a commanders meeting prior to the battle scenario in which group rules, logistics and other facts established. This is the case with most events. I have never heard of any guys behaving extremely badly at Olustee given the usual prejudices that occur in the day-to-day world.

      I asked those who have participated in the past to post their photographs and After Action Reports on the USCT Living History discussion board as it appears that we are doing poor job in documenting our presence at these events.

      Also, the majority of USCT battle sites state parks or are on private property. The NPS is more inclusive in presenting USCT history (progress!!!) and a oversee battle sites like Petersburg, and Appomattox, just to name two.. There is a project pending by the USCT Living History Associate to put together an actual inventory. Wilson’s Wharf: private property. New Market Heights: private property. Honey Hill: private property. For Pillow: state. Saltville: maybe municipal.

      Keep looking in the right places.

      -Yulanda Burgess

  • Barb Gannon Jul 12, 2013

    The answer is no, never happening, forget about it. Reenactors will not do it, and others would be offended by it. Can you see this happening in Florida given current sensibilities. (No, The Zimmerman trial is not playing in the background as I type this.) Re-enactments are entertainment, the end, they sure ain’t history. Boyd, I am actually glad that people see them that way. Reenactments are private activities that cannot and should not be governed by others, including academic historians.

    • Boyd Harris Jul 12, 2013

      Barb: I have no idea how many of the spectators viewed it as spectacle and how many view it as history. Willing to bet that many viewed it as both. I personally viewed it as spectacle. I agree that they should be private activities, but I do have a problem with the reenactment taking place on the actual battlefield. It should also be noted that the state only owns about three acres of the site, and the rest is owned by the US Forest Service. The battle reenactment, therefore, occurs on federal property and involves the assistance of the US Forest Service. In my view that makes the argument that this particular reenactment is a private activity very problematic. I am still thinking about all of this in regard to my project. Nonetheless it is a very fascinating aspect of Civil War commemoration and, I agree, a pretty accurate view of Florida’s racial history and current society.

  • Mike Pride Jul 12, 2013

    What really needs to happen first at Olustee is this: Use modern scientific methods to find the mass grave of intermingled black and white Union dead and erect a suitable monument to their sacrifice.

    A clearer interpretation of what happened there on Feb. 20, 1864, would make the field far more educational to visit. I have no problem with the old monuments — they also represent a phase of our national history. But the emphasis in this video on the principles for which the Confederates fought and died is excessive and retrograde. Under those principles, racism and chattel slavery thrived.

    Many re-enactors are the most astute and persistent students of the war I know. But I agree with Kevin Levin and other commenters that a true re-enactment of the battle of Olustee is unlikely to occur as long as the Lost Cause dominates the thinking of so many participants.

    BTW, although I have now lived most of my life in the North, I was a Floridian until I was 31. I’ve been to Olustee twice and would love to be able to say I am proud of the way the battle is remembered and interpreted there. .

  • Eric Leonard Jul 12, 2013

    The annual reenactment at Olustee is in February, and is a huge event for the area. For the past two years, we’ve taken high school volunteers down as part of a training program. There is a small group of African Americans who present programs attempting to integrate themselves into the story. Make your own conlusion as to how many visitors to the event sit and listen. The USCT and 54th Mass presence at the battle is mentioned in the event narration, but is not well demonstrated through participants. For Andersonville, Olustee is a big deal, as the battle occurs only days before the first prisoners arrive, and the prisoners taken at Olustee form the greater part of the 100-150 African-American soldiers imprisoned here. We talk about this at Andersonville; at Olustee it is briefly addressed in their exhibits.

  • Jimmy Price Jul 12, 2013

    I’m not sure that the chubby octogenarians in gray shown in this video are representative of Confederate re-enactors.

    One of the few aspects of the Gilliland article that I agreed with is the tendency of media to show the most extreme group of loons and give the impression that they are the rule rather than the exception with re-enactors, and I think that’s what you have in that video.

    Speaking from my own experience, the Confederate re-enactors that I have encountered with the 23rd USCT have been friendly and supportive of what we’re trying to do. I’m sure there are plenty of curmudgeons who feel sick when they see us, but at least they keep their mouths shut.

    One thing that I didn’t hit on in my post, but I think should be mentioned, is the safety aspect of this type of re-enactment.

    I would never be comfortable in a situation where you have a USCT re-enactor laying on the ground with a Confederate re-enactor looming over him with a bona fide weapon in his hands.

    It should NEVER happen.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013

      I am more interested in whether the perspective embraced by the group as a whole represents a barrier to a more inclusive reenactment as opposed to whether any individual is representative of Confederate reenactors. That said, I agree with your broader point.

  • John Heiser Jul 12, 2013

    Odd how the photo of the original monument dedication shows a large United States flag that overshadows all while the re-dedication has one Stars and Stripes hanging limply to the side. I guess they did not want it to get in the way of the countless Confederate flags and hand-held wavers in the hands of the dancers that adorned the ceremony?

    Obviously it was more important for the organizers of this garish event to remember the Lost Cause and define the wartime divisions between North and South in 1864 rather than honor the fallen at Olustee in 2013.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013

      Reflects poorly on their patriotism compared with their ancestors.

  • Brad Jul 13, 2013

    I agree with Barbara Gannon that it’s just entertainment. You’re putting your educator’s hat on when you say that “the crucial component is the understanding of why it happened and how it fits into a broader interpretation of the war as a whole.” It also comes off as elitist when you say “perhaps a select few could do a competent job of explaining these issues in character…” Not everything has to have a message and I don’t believe people always necessarily want that.

    Perhaps re-enactments (which have no interest for me) will lead to finding out more about the issues surrounding the Civil War.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 13, 2013

      I am aware that I run that risk, but it is based on my own observations. It’s a purely descriptive claim that I am willing to admit may be widely inaccurate. In the end, I am looking at this from the perspective of an educator. If people want to describe me as an elitist than so be it.

      Not everything has to have a message and I don’t believe people always necessarily want that.

      But it does leave the audience with a message one way or the other. There is no way around that.

  • Brad Jul 13, 2013

    Obviously you can’t check what you do at the door, which is to educate. However, I think people are looking for entertainment principally, without thinking about the underlying meaning.

    For example, when you go to a jazz concert, are you looking to analyze chord structure, substitutions, etc. or just to listen. I know that when I go to one, I’m generally going to listen, not to analyze. Similarly, I believe that when many go to a reenactment, they’re just going for the entertainment.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 13, 2013

      Whether they desire to be entertained is, in my view, irrelevant. My guess is that spectators believe that what they are seeing reflects to some extent what happened. That implicit assumption is a move toward wanting to know something.

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