Wish I could be part of the festivities up in Gettysburg this week. Well, not really. I read in the newspaper that this year’s reenactment promises to be the “biggest and best so far.” That must mean that there will be more people involved, more noise, and more smoke; it promises to be an entertaining show. Maybe for next year, instead of going for the biggest and best, organizers can work on making it more realistic. You want to get me to Gettysburg in early July than give me real suffering. I’m not asking for much, just something that reflects a reenactor’s sincere interest in wanting to better understand the horror of battle. Perhaps a blow to the head with the but of a rifle or a minor flesh wound caused by a bee bee that could be extracted with period medical tools. Now that would point to a sincere commitment to experiencing the past through the other-regarding emotions of empathy and sympathy.
There is precedent for this. Consider the yearly reenactments of Jesus’s crucifixion that take place in the Philippines.
There is something admirable in their willingness to endure such a severe amount of pain in order to fully embrace what they interpret to be the significance of Jesus’s sacrifice. For many it is the only way to fully embrace both the historical event of the crucifixion as well as its spiritual import. By extension one wonders how the experience of the crowd is shaped in comparison with a less realistic reenactment of the crucifixion. Are they able to identify more closely with the nature of the event being portrayed? Of course, I am not suggesting that Civil War reenactors try to bring a bit more of the reality of the battlefield to their performance. What it does bring home for me, however, is how little suffering and sacrifice comes through in reenactments. Though I’ve only been to a few reenactments I’ve never felt anything close to a feeling of sorrow or even admiration for what the soldiers endured during the Civil War. It’s always been entertaining and fun for me, in part because I know the reenactor is not suffering in any way, and because of that I’ve always felt just a little uneasy about attending such events.
So, then why is Robert E. Lee in attendance at the reenactment of the 1865 skirmish in Aiken, South Carolina between Brig. Gen. Hugh Kilpatrick and Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler? Of course, I don’t want to make too big a deal given that Lee is what sells tickets. However, can someone tell me why Lee, portrayed by David Chaltas, is walking around with a cross in his hand? Is there any evidence that he did this in the heat of battle? On the other hand, Jerry Redmon is quite convincing – perhaps too much so.
I came across an episode of “The Outer Limits” that deals with Civil War reenacting and the battle of Gettysburg. Many of you are no doubt familiar with what I like to describe as the poor cousin of the “Twilight Zone”, which ran from 1963-1965 and than again from 1995-2002. This particular episode features the singer, Meatloaf, as one Confederate Colonel Devine, and tells the story of two young men who are preparing to take part in a reenactment of Gettysburg. The episode reflects many of our popular beliefs about the Civil War, including the assumption surrounding the decisiveness of the battle itself and our love of counterfactuals. Both men are transported back to July 1863 for the purposes of carrying out a mission – a mission that they learn early on will challenge the notion of historical determinism. While the Union reenactor is quite concerned about their predicament, his Confederate friend fully embraces the opportunity to fight for states rights and against big government along with its long lines of “welfare recipients”. For him, this stroke of good luck is a chance to meet and fight alongside his Confederate ancestor for values that he believes they both must share. What is striking is that the viewer learns next to nothing about why the Union reenactor embraces the hobby. I have to wonder whether this is just another example of our inability to fully embrace the importance that so many attached to the preservation of the Union.
As the two friends work to figure out their mission the campaign and battle develop. Of course, since they come from the future they know how the battle will unfold and try desperately to steer it in a different direction. When it is announced in camp on July 1 that J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry will arrive shortly they announce that he is off on a “Glory seeing raid” and will not arrive in time. And, of course, they try to prevent “Pickett’s Charge” from taking place, which the producers mistakenly place on July 2. At one point the two friends end up on the battlefield with the Confederate reenactor’s ancestor, who they find is a coward and shares none of his descendant’s reasons for reenacting. For this ancestor the goal is simply to stay alive and is void of anything connected to principle. The encounter raises the suggestion that reenacting is as much (if not more) about our own perceptions of the past and/or cultural values than it is about the men who actually fought in it.
The episode takes a number of kooky twists before the real mission is finally revealed. Without ruining the plot, let’s just say that their goal is to prevent an assassination that would take place in 2013 on the Gettysburg battlefield. And let’s just say that with the election of our first black president this episode, which originally aired in 1995, is rendered that much more interesting.
In other news, the state of Georgia along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Children of the Confederacy, and the Georgia Civil War commission [Have I left anyone out?] are going to honor the state’s Jewish Confederates. I just want to say that as a Jew this ceremony is long overdue. It’s nice to know that the service and sacrifice of tens of thousands of Jewish Confederates is finally being recognized. Seriously though, has anyone taught these people how to make a good potato latke?