Recreating a Recreation at Massaponax Baptist Church

Grant_and_Meade_at_Massaponax_Church.410 This is a perfect story with which to follow up yesterday's post on Gettysburg.  As part of its 220th anniversary, the Massaponax Baptist Churchof Spotsylvania County decided to recreate the famous Timothy Sullivan of Ulysses S. Grant and his staff during the height of the "Overland Campaign".  The decision to recreate this image reflects the tight hold that the Civil War continues to exercise on both the identity of the church and the surrounding area. 

It's hard to know what people think they are doing when they set out to re-imagine or re-enact some aspect of the past.  Perhaps in this case it is as mundane as whether the logistics can be duplicated.  More than likely it is, in part, an attempt to establish a meaningful connection with the past, the upshot of which is some lesson or experience that has been lost to modernity.  I am reminded of the reenactors in Tony Horowitz's popular book, Confederates in the Attic, which depicts men going to extremes to recreate the experiences and look of both living and dead soldiers.  I rarely ask whether these  dramatic reenactments are accurate representations of the past since a complete picture would have to include the subjective experience and this is simply impossible.  Instead, I tend to see these events and the people involved as sharing a set of values that are every bit a function of some perceived deficiency with our contemporary culture.   In short, for many the hope or belief that we can experience or recreate the past comes down to a form of escapism.

The last few paragraphs of the story on the MBC is quite telling:

The lens peeked through the window panes of Massaponax Baptist Church, from the same location where O'Sullivan stood.  The reproduction shot is a closer photo, cropping out Massaponax Church Road in the background. The original photo shows that thoroughfare filled with horse-drawn wagons.  Yesterday, cars, trucks and motorcycles zoomed by as re-enactors sat on benches waiting for the photo.

Modern development has encroached on the historic church. The congregation recently bought adjoining land for a new building. Across the street, a sign advertises for tenants for the future Massaponax Crossroads offices.  "If you look around, there's no doubt our area is changing," said the Rev. David Hockney, pastor of the church. "The challenge for us as a church is to realize God still has a plan for us. The book of Massaponax Church's history is not finished. It's still being written."

Did the writer pick up on this tension between past and present as expressed by the participants or by the nature of the event itself?  

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4 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2008 @ 17:39

    Woodrow, — What a wonderful idea to have a reenactor visit with your Public History class. I am thinking about doing the same thing in my Civil War Memory course in which we will be reading Horowitz’s _Confederates in the Attic_. I also love the idea of analyzing ghost stories. I am in the preliminary stages of putting together a class trip to Gettysburg some time this year. Perhaps one night we can all do a ghost tour and afterwards talk with the guide about what it’s all about.

    There is so much one can analyze when it comes to different groups of living historians. It’s ashame that at least one nutcase can only see the questioning of it as a form of “cynicism” or as a personal attack. Thanks again for the suggestion.

  • Woodrowfan Sep 22, 2008 @ 17:25

    I agree, it’s an interesting issue. That’s why I am having a Revolutionary War re-enactor visit my Public History class this term. It’s part of a section on buffs, collectors, and other amateur historians.

    Last year I used a ghost story in a short section on the Molly Maguires in a class discussion of how communities remembered their history and what the story said about what memories the community felt were important to keep. I wonder what a study of “ghost stories” (term used broadly) would say about the way the Civil War is remembered??

  • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2008 @ 16:33

    Woodrow, — You make some excellent points. I think for many this is, in fact, just another example of an enjoyable hobby or even a way to kill a few hours on the weekend. At the same time I am interested in how these practices fit into a broader analysis of how we choose to remember and/or act out the past. There are indeed some very valuable lessons that can be gleaned from these activities and I was not trying to suggest otherwise. Civil War reenactors and living historians did not simply fall from the sky. I am interested in the origin and evolution of the practice.

    All kidding aside, your point about Star Trek conventions is wonderful and worth examining. Thanks.

  • Woodrowfan Sep 22, 2008 @ 16:24

    Well, I suspect part of the reason was just for fun. I don’t do re-enacting but from reading about it, I think part of the reason for doing it is just the enjoyment of doing an adult version of dress-up.

    Another reason, of course, is to try to make some connection to something that is larger than oneself. They certainly can’t recreate everything about the original experience, no matter how hard they try, but in re-enacting is it really necessary to recreate every aspect to get something out of the experience? Can’t it be a valuable experience even if you can only recreate a portion of the original experience? I suspect that a re-enactor that dresses in an authentic uniform and marches across a hot field gains more understanding of a battle than someone who spends a few minutes reading a map in a museum at the same battlefield. To be fair, I think the re-enactor is fooling himself if he thinks he gets more than a tiny glimpse of the real experience, but even a glimpse may be worth the effort.

    As for this church re-enactment, I don’t get the point either, other than as a fun event to remember a notable event in the church’s history.

    Somewhere there is a dissertation waiting for some grad student to compare Civil War re-enactors and people who dress up as Klingons and go to Star Trek conventions.

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