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.