Just Give the North Carolinians Back Their Flag and Save the Reenactment

I’ve said it before, but I find most Civil War battle reenactments to be disrespectful to the memory of Civil War soldiers. The following reenactment, which will take place as part of the 150th anniversary of the Wilderness, takes the cake.

Carolinian Grief Mason, 21, will be beaten to death – again – in a field near Spotsylvania, Va., by Pennsylvanian Stephen Rought, 22, the Union soldier who was determined to get the regimental flag Mason carried at any cost on May 5, 1864.

Modern-day Charlottean Rex Hovey, a Civil War historian and re-enactor, is behind the event, which calls for about 20 local men and 50 or so re-enactors from around the state to play the part of the 13th NC Troops. The group will take on descendants of the original Pennsylvania soldiers who made up the 141st Pennsylvania Infantry.

Is there really no other way to honor these men?

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/05/01/4879523/unusual-civil-war-anniversary.html#.U2OrzcctdxU#storylink=cpy
Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/05/01/4879523/unusual-civil-war-anniversary.html#.U2OrzcctdxU#storylink=cpy
25 responses... add one

I don’t find reenactments as problematic as you do, Kevin, but they do sometimes go over the line. For many years the Battle of Galveston commemoration has included the execution by firing squad of Nicaragua Smith. The historical event itself is an interesting part of the aftermath of the battle, and worth telling, but reenacting it as entertainment goes too far.

It becomes problematic when reenactors cross the line from representing how units drilled and maneuvered on battlefields to simulating death. There is just something incredibly distasteful about it in my mind.

You are correct Kevin, this is not only distasteful but also a bit weird.

Of the many living historians and reenactors I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with over the years many find the simulation of death absolutely deplorable. No matter the amount of fake blood, it is simply not possible to reenact the horrors of war.

I have never forgotten a conversation I once had years ago with an elderly friend who was an avid Civil War student, but had never been to a reenactment and had no desire or intention of ever going. Why I asked? He explained that as a young man he had stormed the beaches at Okinawa, experienced the horrors of battle, and saw his buddies blown away. He’d been part of the real deal and had no need to see it reenacted.

The few WWII veterans that I know tend to avoid talking about the violence they experienced on the battlefield. I see no reason to take part in the simulation of something that we can never truly know.

I find it odd that the organizer of this event would consider the killing of the flagbearer murder. I’m sure that had positions been reversed, he would be going on and on about those brave Southern soldiers.

Beaten to death?

Really???

Here’s a clue….it’s called war.

People die in all manner of horrible ways.

What a completely idiotic comment.

And this is what appears to be a motivating involvement for at least one individual. This reenactment is troubling on so many levels.

This whole event commemorating one moment in a horrific battle really baffles me, but none more than the “murder” comment.

There are some people who have a “moonlight and magnolias” or a big game of cowboys and Indians idea about how the war was fought. A lot of them appear to reenact in some way and it is not based in the reality of what occurred. I think when they’re presented with it they can’t handle it.

The reaction to the death of the rebel color bearer in this instance indicates to me these people cannot grasp the concept of what was going on. This wasn’t a trifling affair, this was life and death at the most brutal, basic level. Ideology didn’t have a role here, it was anger and the desire to survive the battle, even if it meant using the buttstock of a rifle to do it.

It wasn’t murder, it was war in all it’s horror. The realization that it’s not
some glamorous exercise in seeing who has more valor than the other but of living through it and the very survival of people and nations seems to intellectually and ideologically trip people up. It isn’t sitting around a camp or hanging out with friends on a weekend but the brutal playing out of “politics by other means.” This realization leaves a bad taste in many a mouth.

For all of the good things that have occurred this sesquicentennial that have done more to set aside old myths and bromides there are still things like this and more is the pity. Don’t commemorate it by reenacting it, that’s how a moment of war becomes one of farce, no matter how well the intent is.

I am a reenactor and I agree that the battles are unnecessary. The objective in my mind is to provide a tactile form of education for the public on the Civil War. This multi-sensory form of education could be achieved with just a camp, drills and firing demonstrations.

At the same rate, I understand why most reenactments think they need to have battles. Reenactments cost money to put on and, other than sponsors or fundraising, the only way to get that money back is through ticket sales. What are people willing to pay money to see? Battles.

Also strange is when people come to a memorial service dressed in a costume. 150 years from now when they are somberly reading the names of those who died in 9/11 are there going to be several people there dressed as George Bush and Osama Bin Laden sitting in the audience? Perhaps a small band of replica box cutter wielding terrorist reenators sitting in the back row? If reenactors were part of the memorial service it might make more sense, like a group of civil war soldiers firing off a salute, or a group of firemen raising a flag. Something like that could be tasteful.

When people come to funeral memorial services dressed in period clothing, it is usually to honor a kindred soul. (another reenactor) Some reenactors choose to be buried in their period clothing. It is how they want to be remembered by their friends.. other reenactors. As “The other Susan” stated, there some valid reasons for being at a memorial service in period clothing. I’ve never known reenactors to wear their period clothing for modern based services.

Um, wow. I did not know people took their hobbies so seriously. That made me want to go look if there was ever a Star Wars funeral, yup, there was. Who knew storm troopers at a funeral could be so touching. I wasn’t thinking of funerals for reenactors. I was thinking more along the lines of descendants showing up at a memorial and finding a reenactor there. I met one fellow that believed for quite a while that the reenactor actually knew his relative until the reenactor finally confessed he was just acting.

I don’t have a problem with reenactments. They’re democratic, with plenty of participation by regular folks. I supposed it would be more dignified to have some politician chew his way through some platitudes why we bow our heads respectfully and check our cellphones.

But we’re Americans, damn it. We don’t have any dignity. Dignity is a curse we’ve avoided.

The only historical reenactments I’ve ever attended in were at Colonial Williamsburg, and there were no battles. Lots of marching Redcoats, period dressed civilians, fifes and drums. No fighting, and no need for it. I can’t imagine the educational value being enhanced the least bit by fighting or “deaths.”

Devil’s advocate: How is a reenactment any different from a movie? They’re basically reenactments, when you think about it.

Depends what kind of reenactment it is. I’ve seen trained park rangers represent historical figures so that they can engage children and I think that is great. But I have also run across larpers (Live action roll playing) who create fictional stories from their interactions with other larpers and then tell those made up stories to visiting public who then believe it as truth. I had to convince a man who believed he was Patrick DeLacy that they did not become friends with Chamberlain from fighting near him on day three at Gettysburg, he actually served under him at Petersburg. Apparently they had been larping together and they knew that they had written each other after the war, and they knew they were both at Gettysburg, so they just made up the rest in their heads without bothering to research it.
If there is thought and planing put into what you are trying to teach an audience then acting is great. If you are just larping for your own amusement, then don’t invite an audience and make up all the stories you want.

That’s a good point, Forester. All the fictional portrayals of combat, from Red Badge of Courage to Glory, how are they different from reenactments, beyond cultural bias?

I attended the reenactment, held each year at 6:20 AM or so, of the Battle of Lexington. You’re got to get there before five, I try about 4:30 AM to get close enough to see it. I would consider it having educational value, in three ways: (1) How a community and a state choose to remember an historic event (2) the reenactment of the events of 4/19/1775 (3) creating interest in history.

A book could be written about crowd dynamics, and the mores of temporary communities like the onlookers.

Perhaps we could begin to think about this by appreciating that movies are made about a wide range of human experiences that we would resist reenacting in a public space in front of an audience.

There is also the fact that movies use lighting, camera angles, music, sound effects, editing and multiple re-takes of each shot to guarantee the right emotional impact and message. Live theater can never do that, which is why stage plays emphasize dialog or music.

“Macbeth” is a perfect example. Yes, murders occur in the play, but the STORY is conveyed through poetic dialog. Otherwise, stage combat just feels distant and fake. Somehow, I just don’t think a live reenactment of D-Day would have the emotional impact of “Saving Private Ryan.”

Perhaps reenactments like this aren’t too violent, but rather not violent enough. Or at least not impacting enough, if that makes sense. I watched the 150th Anniversary reenactment of Gettysburg on YouTube, and it was like watching toy soldiers in floor. Even Ron Maxwell does it better than that.

I recently saw a woman strangled, while her child’s neck was broken by another murderer. It was “Macbeth,” performed in a public space, before an audience.

I’ve seen it as well – wonderful piece of art. I don’t view it as a reenactment.

I bet you all didn’t realize this reenactment was actually done in the most respectful of ways and was attended by direct descendants. And the coolest part goes along with the title of this post. The North Carolinians DID get their flag back. It was incredibly powerful and moving.

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