Thanks to those of you who commented on the last post about the appropriateness of large-scale battle reenactments. I laid out in broad strokes my reservations, which I’ve done consistently on this site from the beginning. I certainly don’t believe that my conclusion is the only one that can be drawn and I thank those of you for carefully laying out your own preferred view. As always, I find that I learn a great deal when forced to deal with competing ideas. With that in mind I want to take this discussion in a slightly different direction.
Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. I will be in Petersburg to give an address as part of the NPS’s commemoration. At this point I know of no plans to reenact this particular battle nor do I anticipate any effort to do so. In my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, I analyze two previous reenactments of the battle, one which occurred in 1903 and the other in 1937. Neither reenactment resembles what we today would describe as a proper battlefield reenactment. The 1903 reenactment included some of the veterans of William Mahone’s Virginia brigade charging a position defended by military school cadets, who portrayed Union soldiers. The 1937 included a simulation of the initial explosion followed by a short recreation of the battle that was narrated by Douglas Southall Freeman. At no time was the division of black Union soldiers acknowledged and it goes without saying that no attempt was made to simulate the close hand-to-hand fighting that took place in the earthworks adjacent to the crater. The reenactments served specific purposes and were deemed a success by their respective audiences. Continue reading
Donald Gilliland’s article about whether battlefield reenactments are appropriate is making the rounds. The author does a pretty good job of watering down Peter Carmichael’s thoughts in a way that reinforce some of the same tired and meaningless battle lines between academics and amateur historians/reenactors. Anyone familiar with Pete’s views on the subject can pinpoint what is problematic with Gilliland’s piece. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been misquoted or have spent a hour on the phone with a newspaper reporter only to find that he/she used a small snippet taken completely out of context.
Unfortunately, what Gilliland missed in his rush to frame this debate as part of our larger “culture wars” is that the National Park Service has been consistent in steering clear of endorsing battlefield reenactments from the beginning of the sesquicentennial and has made those reasons very clear. This stands in sharp contrast with its policy during the centennial commemorations during the early 1960s. Continue reading
Just returned from a wonderful trip back to Montreal for the Jazz Festival. This was our third trip to the city for this festival and it is one of our favorites. I love the fact that you can drive roughly five hours from Boston to a city that offers a taste of Europe. We ate ourselves silly and caught a couple of excellent shows. Here are a few links to tide you over until I get back into the swing of things.
Upcoming Talks: On Thursday I head out to the Framingham History Center to work with area teachers on how they can introduce students to the study of Massachusetts Civil War veterans and Civil War memory. The center utilizes the city’s GAR Hall as a museum and lecture hall and includes a soldier statue by Martin Milmore out front. Given the subject of my presentation I couldn’t ask for a more appropriate setting and we will certainly make good use of it.
Those of you in the Boston area can catch me at the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation area on July 21. I am going to talk a bit about the Civil War Sesquicentennial and local sites related to Civil War memory. Should be fun.
Hope all of you are enjoying the summer.
First, I wanted to thank all of my friends and other acquaintances for the continuous stream of posts, tweets, videos, etc. from Gettysburg. Although I was just there last week it was hard not to feel just a bit left out of all the excitement that has transpired over the past few days. Reading your thoughts and looking at your photographs was the next best thing to being there. I also wanted to take the opportunity to thank all the employees of the National Park Service at Gettysburg for their hard work. I know many of the Park Service staff at Gettysburg and can speak firsthand to their dedication to making this event both educational and meaningful.
There is a lot I could say about the past three days and perhaps I will at some point, but for now a very straightforward observation. Apart from a few exceptions I came across next to nothing that smacked of the typical Lost Cause rhetoric. In terms of battlefield interpretation we have the NPS to thank for that. News coverage was decidedly focused on the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought the battle and when it came to drawing meaning from the battle most people, not surprisingly, gravitated to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Granted, not everyone arrived at the same meaning and in the case of Doris Kearns Goodwin I would suggest she went off the deep end in her framing of the battle’s significance. Continue reading
While in Gettysburg last week for the CWI I led a dinner discussion about the effects of the campaign on the region’s black population. We discussed two chapters in Margaret Creighton’s book, The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle. It was a really nice discussion so I decided to write up a little something for the History News Network. It’s also encouraging to see that others have touched on it as well on blogs and in newspaper editorials. The stories are powerful, but more importantly, it forces us to step back from our tendency to interpret the battle in isolation from the broader picture. We often get caught up in the details of the unfolding drama and lose sight of the fact that the movement of armies and place of battle mattered to ordinary people in profound ways. Anyway, most of you who read this blog are likely familiar with this story, but if I can offer a slightly different view of the campaign and battle for those new to this history than it will have been worth writing.
On Wednesday July 3, thousands of visitors will congregate near the “copse of trees” on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg to commemorate the 150th anniversary of “Pickett’s Charge.” From this position they will be able to imagine the roughly 13,000 Confederates in tight formation, who crossed the deadly field in the face of long-range artillery. Once across the Emmitsburg Road visitors should have little trouble envisioning the deadly effects of short-range canister and the deafening sound of Union rifles. Some will contemplate the tragedy of a war that pitted Americans v. Americans while others will hold tight to thoughts of what might have been before accepting that the charge constituted a decisive Confederate defeat. [Read the rest of the article at HNN]