Trouble For Confederate Reenactors

It should come as no surprise that reenactors who don Confederate gray and display the Confederate battle flag are meeting more and more resistance from people who question their motivation. A group of Maine men, who reenact the 15th Alabama, have experienced this firsthand in the form of heckling during parades and from those who question their racial motivation.

It’s easy to feel sorry for these men, but perhaps they would do well to take a step back and place their craft within the broader scope of Civil War memory. Civil War reenacting got its start coming out of the Civil War centennial in the early 1960s, which still adhered to a reconciliationist narrative that celebrated the bravery of the men on both sides without dwelling on the respective causes and outcomes of the war. How else do you explain New Englanders who choose to embrace the Confederate cause as worth of reenactment? As one member noted, “All were Americans, each fighting to protect the country they loved.”

The craft itself is a product of a certain commemorative culture that is now under assault from multiple sides. It was what Americans chose to ignore or distort that initially made room for a reenacting community that largely kept its focus and that of the public on the battlefield and away from the question of why these battles were fought. Ultimately, what these white men reenacted was a fantasy for fellow white Americans.

In a community that is already facing dwindling numbers, survival is going to entail having to respond to this new environment. It may mean not being able to march in public with the Confederate battle flag. More generally, however, reenactors will need to find new ways to adjust to the fact that the jig is up. The Confederacy’s goal was the protection of slavery and every soldier – regardless of whether he owned slaves or not – contributed to its many successes over the course of the war. There would be no soldier experiences to reenact apart from the pursuit of this outcome – an outcome they all understood on one level or another, especially after 1863.

41 comments… add one
  • This is certainly true across the reenacting community nationwide, but I expect certain places will be able to weather the storm a bit better than others. I’m specifically thinking of Olustee’s annual reenactment festival that heavily features a glorification of the Confederacy by heritage organizations and reenactment groups.

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    • Hi Boyd,

      I agree.

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    • Thank you. I am a confeferate reenactor and my unit will be there next year. My unit has participated at Olustee for years.
      Does or did anyone know that one year the reenactment was dedicated to the 54th Mass. All black infantry?

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      • That’s very commendable, Rupert. Unhappily, many white Floridians are not so welcoming. In 2014, the Florida chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans requested that the National Park Service permit a monument to the Fifty-fourth to stand beside the 1912 obelisk erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy. The NPS agreed and began to conduct hearings. The idea was condemned by the Daughters of the Confederacy and by Republican state assemblyman Dennis Baxley, who derided a second marker as “revisionist history.” Michael Givens, the commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate veterans, added that a second marker “will disrupt the hallowed grown [sic] where Southern blood was spilled in defense of Florida.” One of the U.S. soldiers wounded and taken prisoner there was James Henry Gooding, a corporal in the Fifty-fourth, who had been born into slavery in North Carolina and so himself shed “southern blood on that landscape.

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        • That is absurd. The “Yankees” that it’s clear they despised allowed monuments by the former rebel states whose citizens fought for the Confederacy to be built on battlefields on states that remained loyal to the Union and where the Union was victorious. (Yes, and I’m including Maryland. Antietam occurred in the western part of the state which was Unionist.

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  • Not entirely true. Many of the men who reenact do it because they had a former family member who fought in the war. It’s been in their family ever since. It’s their hobbie, heratage and their right.

    This movement to destroy everything Confederate is good and bad. Yes, state property is no place for monuments, especially those of questionable content. However battlefield and reenactments are a different story. The NPS has done an excellent job. The battlefields are well maintained and the mounments tell the factual story of what took place during the battle. Reenactments attempt to do the same thing.

    Attacking these entities would be wrong. They are not hate groups and offer the puplic a venue to learn. Attacking these groups is attacking history.

    No one is forced to visit a battlefield or attend a reenactment.

    They are not symbols used by hate groups.

    Attacking them is nothing more than pushing the envelope. Where shall we stop? Banning books? Refusing to teach to facts?

    Enough is enough.

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    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for the comment. First, I didn’t comment on the motivation of Civil War reenactors. Of course, they do it for different reasons. What I suggested is that we need to see the craft as a reflection of a certain time, namely the Civil War centennial. I suspect that groups will have to fall back to less public events, especially Confederate reenactors, who insist on carrying the battle flag, which has a history all its own that transcends its use by these groups.

      No one is forced to visit a battlefield or attend a reenactment.

      No, but our national battlefields overseen by the NPS belong to all of us. And as I mentioned in the post, some of the push back is in response to public parades in local communities. People who have a problem with this have ever right to voice their concerns.

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      • Respectfully, opposed combat is not permitted on National Park property and has not been allowed since the Civil War Centennial. Saying that “Confederate reeactors will have to fall back to less public events if they INSIST (emphasis mine) on carrying the flag…..” that statement is ludicrous. Soldiers carried the flag, which was created purposefully not to resemble an American flag when at rest, so men would not fire on their own. It was not carried for any other reason. The groups today do not espouse carrying the flag to instill hatred an bigotry in the viewing public. And if you Mr. Levin, and the uneducated public who cannot see that and refuse to see it, then you might be part of the problem

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        • You would do well to read a history of the Confederate battle flag since the Civil War era. Its meaning is interwoven with a good deal of American history beyond the Civil War itself. Thanks for the comment.

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          • Kevin Levin you and your ilk should volunteer to reenact an authentic battle we can line you all up… And recreate a Monty Python sketch where the P.C. Revisionist Historians get their just desserts…. of Lead and Steel shot! Who knows they might even build a monument to you…

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            • I love it. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Michael. Good to hear from you.

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  • I wear both blue and gray uniforms depending on the location of the reenactment. The farther you go south the harder it is to get enough Union reenactors because of the distance they have to travel and the same is true of having a dearth of Confederate reenactors the further you go north. Am I a racist when I portray a Confederate soldier and not when I am a Yank. Clothes don’t make the man and a uniform is clothing. We are in it for the military aspects of it more than to portray a cause. I know some reenactors who will not wear blue and vice versa. If were a Revolutionary War reenactor unit, would the reenactors in British uniform be booed because they represented the cause the patriots fought against even though slavery was a huge part of American society then and the patriots represented slaveholders along with the other reasons they opposed the British. The people who heckled the Mainers need to not be so shallow and see the reenactors as what they are: reenactors. Protesting is just the thing to do now.

    As for reenacting going away, it declined after the 100th and built back up toward the 150th anniversary of the war. It is diminishing now more because the cost of muskets, uniforms, etc. has skyrocketed. Other forms or reenacting are getting popular. World War II with German uniforms being worn and public living histories being staged and even Viet Nam war.

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  • I couldn’t agree more concerning parades. I suppose the pushback would depend on where the parade was taking place. The public should never be force fed anything that could be taken as offensive.

    I also agree that the NPS and battlefields are owned by the public. The public has every right to voice its opinion. I also believe if battlefields are challenged, many history enthusiasts from all walks of life will voice their opinions in the defense of NPS and battlefield.

    We are at the tip of the iceberg at the moment. No one really knows how big it really is.

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  • FWIW The Selma Battle reenactment has been cancelled because the City of Selma has started charging for expenses. A Mount Cheaha maybe for the same reason because the State is charging for reenactments. The day of free State or City support for reenactments is ending even in Alabama. While an indirect assault, on Confederate reenactment it is effective. On Facebook all I see is complaining PC, Left winger and about spending a few extra dollars by folks that have a couple of grand in equipment.

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  • I was a civilian reenactor for many years in the 1980s and 90s. I left the hobby for personal reasons, but as I have continued to observe it and think about it, it has become more and more of a problem for me to support the alleged “recreation” of a battle where a group of middle-aged men stand in two parallel lines and advance, then fire, upon each other. Usually casualties are predetermined.

    This has nothing to do with the battles fought during the Civil War, and to see faux wounds and faked amputations makes me very angry. My thesis was on Civil War medicine–this junk has nothing to do with what actually happened, and it does no honor to doctors, nurses or patients to use special effects to simulate a wounding. Would one do the same in a reenactment of an IED bombing in the Middle East? I think not.

    Reenactors would do well to return to Jay Anderson’s original definition of “living history” and start re-inventing the hobby. Glorifying four years of someone’s life is not the way to define a person–those ancestors deserve more.

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    • Tony Horwitz said, in “Confederates in the Attic” that his biggest issue with reenactments was precisely that they were too neat, clean, and orderly. Before he wrote the book, he had also covered real war in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans for the Wall Street Journal, so he had a very real idea of the carnage war inflicts. He did recognize the difficulties in getting too real (very few volunteers to have one’s head blown off) but it was something that truly made him uneasy.

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  • I am sure reenactments will both be better and historically accurate if there are only Federal reenactors.

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  • One would think Mainers would want to be the 20th Maine. Did they say why they want to be another (Confederate) unit?

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  • EBUFU (events by us, for us) are going to get more popular. These are events set up by reenactors, usually on private land, away from any modern intrusions. These are set up for no one but the reenactors, to replicate a scenario, or battle in the Civil War. These are usually invitation only, with strict authenticity guidelines. What we call “mainstream” events are seemingly going to get the negative publicity, subject to cancellation, and (as we have seen) potential violence done to the reenactors themselves. I don’t know how the National Battle Parks are going to address this problem, I have done events at Vicksburg Ntl. Battle Park, and at Chickamauga, as a Confederate, with someone replicating an actual Confederate Battle flag that was known to be on line during those battles, for our banner. We will have to see if the Park service is going to curtail such usage of the CBF.

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    • Then it won’t be authentic my friend. We don’t know how the NPS will react. For the sake of history and the committed reenactor I hope they hold their ground. History is just that, history. Those flags were carried. They identified troops, they have a place in reenactment and history.

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  • Just a thought. You can’t have an accurate reenactment without people being soldiers from both sides. Will this mean the end of reenacting?

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    • Eh, you can’t have an authentic reenactment without men blowing one another’s heads off with cannon balls. We make all kinds of compromises.

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  • Kevin,

    It’s been a long time coming. Far too often, there are reenactors who know hardly anything about the period they reenact in. Myths and Lost Cause propaganda are rife in some outfits. No, it’s time actual history makes an impact on these and other groups. It ain’t all about the battles and the cool gear folks carry. The history must have an impact, and it should be factual and true. After all, the men they portray didn’t fall from the sky and decide to fight on the fields we have preserved.

    Sincerely,
    Neil Hamilton

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    • In my experience it’s all about authentic reproduction. No, I’m not a reenactor, I’ve met many In my travels. The ones I’ve met pay a huge amount of attention to the gear they carry and pay big money for just the right equipment. The few that I know personally are incredibly knowledgeable about the war. They take it very seriously. I’ve not seen the irresponsible reenactor that only wanted to wear a uniform and carrier cool gear! Other groups? Please share. I’d love to know what these other groups are!!

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  • The more accurate understanding of the Civil War that is being recognized will also serve to lessen public interest in that history.

    As Robert E. Lee said to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, “You win some, you lose some.”

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  • I had three direct ancestors who were in Confederate service. They were brothers and with their daddy used to cross the Potomac to attend emancipation meetings in western Maryland in the mid 1850s. They were going to sit out the war but when Lincoln called up the 75,000 troops to march through Va, they felt their land was being invaded and enlisted. I reenacted for thirty years, doing both Confederate and Union to commemorate both sides. I truly dislike people who simplify truly complex events.?

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  • As the old saw goes, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

    If we are going to erase monuments to all those who tolerated slavery and aided and abetted it as well as monuments to persons who were racist or bigoted, bear in mind General Grant’s anti-Semitism and his wife’s four slaves; Sherman unapologetic support for slavery; Gen. Jefferson Davis (USA) racism regarding “contrabands.” Woodrow Wilson’s aiding and abetting of the second Klan and approval of the movie Birth of a Nation. Moreover, it is now known that Japan was willing to surrender BEFORE the Atom Bombs were dropped; Harry Truman ordered the bombs to be dropped because of his racism, not military necessity. And we all know that Lincoln repeatedly stated that he would not abolish slavery nor interfere with it so long as the Secessionist states lay down their arms and rejoin the Union.

    If it is allowable to remove a statue to one Supreme Court Justice in Baltimore because of his court’s judicial decision (Dred Scott), Then monuments to Earl Warren (Roe vs Wade, Brown v Bd. of Education) also become fair game for militant pressure groups with different agendas. The iconoclasts and vandals have already expanded their attacks to Christopher Columbus and at least one Catholic Saint. One Civil War museum has already been forced to censor its Civil War exhibits due to local pc activists, so don’t think this campaign at erasing of history won’t affect museums and battlefields too.

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    • “If we are …”
      Except we aren’t.

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      • Precisely. I am constantly bemused by people who claim to not understand the difference between a flawed human being who nonetheless performed deeds we honor. and someone whose sole claim on our attention is his strenuous efforts to promote an evil cause.

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    • Let’s see where you’re wrong:
      -Grant was no anti-Semite, as proven by the fact that he regretted his action. I recommend Johnathan Sarna’s When General Grant Expelled the Jews for an overview of this.
      -Sherman was generally apathetic towards slavery. His own remark on whether he would have to get a slave when he moved South was because of the society using slaves instead of hired servants. That’s what he himself said.
      -Japan was not willing to surrender under the terms of unconditional surrender that the Allies had made crystal clear from the Casablanca Conference onward.
      -The invasion of Japan was going to be a bloodbath for the Americans, and even more so for the Japanese. If you knew anything about Japanese preparations for defense of the Home Islands by both soldiers and civilians (there wasn’t much practical difference), and Japanese soldiers’ general track record of fighting to the last man, you wouldn’t have been so foolish.
      -Lincoln’s statement is taken out of the context of what Lincoln felt a President could do in peacetime.
      -Earl Warren retired in 1969, 4 years before Roe v. Wade.

      Now let’s see where you’re right:
      -Your general point in the second paragraph is right, whether we like it or not. Like I’ve said here before, the demands for removal of monuments or attacks on monuments have already extended to Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln.

      Miscellaneous:
      -Since you mentioned Earl Warren, I’m surprised that you didn’t mention his role in Japanese-American internment.
      -I couldn’t care less about Columbus. He didn’t discover the New World, the Vikings did.
      -I don’t know anything about this Catholic saint that you mention.

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    • And here’s another resource on why you’re wrong about Japan: http://www.internationalskeptics.com/forums/showpost.php?p=4378356&postcount=44

      On a side note, trying to negotiate a surrender by using the Soviet Union as an intermediary didn’t end well for Japan. On August 9, 1945, the same day that the USA dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and began steamrollering through the Japanese Army in occupied China.

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  • Kevin,

    I hate to submit a post that is off topic, but I was just wondering when you are intending for your book on the black Confederate narrative to be published. It is something that is on my radar and I would like to get a copy of it when it is released.

    Nathan Towne

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    • Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for the question. I am hoping to send the manuscript to UNC Press in about 4 weeks. Keep in mind that it will then go out for blind review. I will likely have to respond to questions and comments, which could take a few additional weeks. All that said, I would not anticipate seeing a book in print for another year.

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      • That sounds good. I will check it out when it comes out.

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  • An excellent essay on the history of Civil War reenacting can be found in Dr. Mark Snell’s 2016 anthology collection, “My Gettysburg, Meditations On History And Place” published by the Kent State University Press.

    Snell, a noted Civil War historian and a former participant in Civil War reenacting, offers a precise history of the art, its growing pains and his own personal experiences as a member of the 5th New York Infantry, Duryee”s Zouaves reenactment unit.

    Snell includes his failure as a Confederate reenactor when stationed in Georgia during his Army career as well as statistics of reenactment participation by race.

    For anyone truly interested in a solid education in the history and ongoing growth of this art form, Snell’s essay is required reading.

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  • The article’s ending comment, “an outcome they all understood on one level or another, especially after 1863.” most assuredly refers to Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ written during September 1862, to become effective 1 January 1863. It is notable the author failed to refer to the ‘Emancipation of Washington City’ which was passed by Congress and signed by Lincoln during April 1862. This legislation approved the purchase by the United States Government, of all slaves owned by residents of Washington City (read D. C.). The owner had a limited period, of time, in which to file their claim thereby selling their slaves. Unbelievable; numerous Washington City slave owners were out of the City during the time allotted for filing their claim; thereby unable to sell their slaves. Amending Legislation was passed by Congress and signed by Lincoln during July 1862 whereby persons out of the City who were unable to comply with the initially set limited claim filing period were given another period, in which, to file their claim, selling their slaves. Research will disclose the great majority, of the persons, benefitted by the July 1862 Amendment were Officers or members of the Grand Army of the Union. These absent military individuals; unaware of the initial legislation’s limited claim filing period, were away from Washington City prosecuting the War of Northern Aggression. Today, Emancipation Day is a holiday in Washington D.C., marking the anniversary, of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act, which president Abraham Lincoln signed on April 16, 1862.

    It is so easy, to prepare a historically based article, augmenting one’s intent, and conveniently omit facts that do not fortify the writer’s desired purpose!

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    • No, it is based on what Confederate soldiers actually talk about in their letters and diaries.

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  • I didn’t realize your unbridled hate would extend to pipe bombs at Civil War reenactments. I now fear people like you more than the Klan. I will not visit this vitriol any more. I will read Gary Gallagher and James McPherson but will stay far away from your heavy handed propaganda. Good bye.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. Do take care.

      Just for the record, I have no idea what you are talking about. What happened at Cedar Creek this past weekend is incredibly unfortunate and I do hope the authorities are able to figure out who is responsible.

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