On December 20th, the Memphis monument dedicated to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was quietly removed by Memphis Greenspace. The non-profit had purchased the former Forrest Park (known as Health Sciences Park since 2013) earlier that day for $1000, giving it control over the Forrest monument. For the same price the city simultaneously sold its easement on Fourth Bluff Park, which held a Jefferson Davis monument (and a less well-known bust of Confederate soldier and Memphis journalist James Harvey Mathes). With $250,000 raised from a host of unspecified sources, Memphis Greenspace removed the monuments, and they remain hidden in storage awaiting their final fate.Embed from Getty Images
Above: The pedestal for the Forrest monument remains where his statue stood since its dedication in 1905 (image Houston Cofield/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Where the Forrest and Davis monuments once stood there are now empty pedestals or foundations that frame a whole new public discussion on heritage and memory. As Confederate monuments are removed from a host of public spaces, the absences they leave confirm shifting attitudes toward Confederate heritage even as they continue to evoke neo-Confederate memory and spark White nationalist activism. On January 6th, for instance, a handful of White nationalists protested near Health Sciences Park displaying the banner “`Diversity’ = White Genocide.” Another group unable to penetrate the circle of police surrounding Health Sciences Park drove around Memphis’ freeway in a “rolling protest” waving Confederate flags; however, some of those protestors distanced themselves from the unabashed neo-Nazis who gathered at the park that once held the Forrest statue.
Dedicated in May, 1905, the Memphis Bedford Forrest monument memorialized perhaps the most polarizing of all Confederates. Forrest’s obituary in the New York Times labeled him “notoriously bloodthirsty and revengeful,” invoking Forrest’s role in the April, 1864 battle at Fort Pillow where his soldiers were accused of murdering a large number of African-American soldiers who had surrendered or were wounded. In 1880 one newspaper reported on the Forrest monument proposal and complained that “General N.B. Forrest’s treason is to be commemorated by a monument at Memphis.” Nevertheless, Forrest was celebrated by unrepentant Confederates as an unschooled but tactically brilliant field general. In 1891, Nashville’s The Daily American encouraged its readers to contribute to the Forrest monument fund, indicating that there “was no braver General in the Confederacy than N.B. Forrest; no officer more daring and heroic. The monument should be worthy of the man.” Planning for a Forrest monument began shortly after his death in 1877, and in 1901 the foundation for the statue was laid. The most sacred of all relics was buried at the monument site in November, 1904, when Forrest and his wife were exhumed and reburied at the feet of the monument’s pedestal. The couple remains buried in the park now, but it is expected that they will be re-buried in Elmwood Cemetery, where both were originally interred.
The first wave of Confederate monument removals was in 2017, but there had been protests of Confederate monuments since the 1950s. The Forrest statue, for instance, was targeted by protestors in March, 1956, when the statue was splashed with white paint and its sabre removed, and a replacement sword was subsequently welded onto the Forrest statue. When the saber was again taken in 1962, officials decided not to replace it. In 1979 Memphis activist Isaac Richmond petitioned the city to remove the Forrest monument, likening Forrest to Hitler. In March, 1986 the statue was spray painted with “KKK,” and in September, 2013 Forrest’s monument had red paint and an anti-Ku Klux Klan message emblazoned on it. In August 2015 “Black Lives Matter” was painted across the base of the Forrest monument, and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan offered to pay to move both the statue and the Forrest graves to its “Christian Revival Center” in Arkansas. In 2015 Isaac Richmond was again protesting the monument, and he and a group of protestors dug a ceremonial shovel of soil from the Forrest grave days after the Memphis City Council began to debate its removal.
Deliberations over the removal of Confederate memorials intensified in the wake of the Charleston church murders in June, 2015. In August, 2015 the University of Texas moved a statue of Jefferson Davis from the campus mall to an indoor location (removing three more in August, 2017), and a year later Louisville, Kentucky relocated a Confederate monument to Brandenburg. However, most communities did not act until the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. On August 11-12, 2017 a host of alt-right groups gathered in Charlottesville to contest plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, and a protestor was killed in weekend violence.
The most prominent removal of Confederate monuments prior to Charlottesville came in New Orleans, where four monuments were removed in April and May. Like the Memphis sites, the New Orleans monuments were removed but foundations, columns, and landscaped spaces once associated with the statuary remained behind. New Orleans’ Lee Circle, for instance, is still graced by a towering 60’ column and eight-foot “lookout tower” that Robert E. Lee had stood atop since 1884. The 1891 Liberty Place Monument is also a foundation without the plaques and monument that decorated it for more than a century; and the General P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis statues left behind the pedestals on which they once stood.
A series of monuments was removed in the weeks and months after Charlottesville, and nearly all of them left foundations in their wakes. On the night of August 16th, for instance, Baltimore removed four Confederate monuments. One of these, the Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee Monument, was dedicated in May, 1948 in the midst of a post-war revival of neo-Confederate politics. When State’s Rights Presidential candidate Strom Thurmond visited Baltimore that October he visited the new statue to pay homage to the rebel Generals then attended a rally at which 1000 people were waving Confederate flags and delivering rebel yells.
Like nearly every Confederate monument being removed, the Lee-Jackson monument has been a magnet for activism since the moments it was being dismantled. While the statue was being removed August 16th, police monitoring the process permitted onlookers to take selfies, and afterwards a stream of observers took pictures of themselves on the empty pedestal. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh suggested the pedestal eventually should have a plaque installed that outlines the monument’s history and describes why they were removed. Within a day of the Jackson-Lee monument’s removal, protestors intent on redefining the space installed a papier-mache statue on the empty pedestal. Pablo Machioli’s “Madre Luz” depicts a pregnant Black woman with a baby on her back, and it was first temporarily displayed alongside the Lee-Jackson statue in 2015. When the Lee-Jackson monument was removed in 2017, “Madre Luz” was returned to the pedestal, though it was toppled off the pedestal within a day. Many more Confederate monument spaces have been graced at least temporarily with impromptu artworks. For instance, when the Baltimore monument of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney (who presided over the 1857 Dred Scott decision) was removed, Baltimore artist Shawn Theron placed a painting reading “Spread Love” on the empty pedestal. After a monument in Durham was removed by protestors a metal heart sculpture was installed on the vacated pedestal, only to be removed a day later.
Memphis’ sale of Medical Sciences Park was a unique effort to avoid laws that prevented the city from removing the Forrest and Davis monuments, and many other states’ Confederate landscapes are legally protected. Frustrated by such regulations on North Carolina monuments, on August 14th protestors in Durham, North Carolina toppled a 1924 rebel soldier statue off its foundation. In Boston, officials decided to cover a Confederate monument with a wooden box while they debate what to do with the statue; the Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee that sparked protests in Summer 2017 leading up to the Unite the Right rally remains in place, shrouded in fabric.
Some communities have concrete relocation plans for the monuments themselves, but others simply have placed the statues in storage. After a Confederate monument was removed from the Howard County, Maryland Courthouse grounds in August, it was given to the local Ellicott City Museum. In Gainesville, Florida the United Daughters of the Confederacy paid to remove the statue of a Confederate soldier at the Alachua County Administration Building, moving it to a local cemetery. Lexington, Kentucky monuments of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge were removed in October. The city suggests it plans to relocate them to Lexington Cemetery, where Morgan and Breckinridge are buried, but the statues remain in storage now. Baltimore likewise proposes to place its removed monuments in a local cemetery, but at the moment they are being stored awaiting a final decision. New Orleans announced in May, 2017 that it planned to install a water feature at Lee Circle, but the monument’s column remains isolated in the traffic circle now. The city indicated it had no plans to rehabilitate the Liberty Place monument site, instead resolving to leave the square foundation in place as a mute material testament to the brazen memorial to White supremacy.
Perhaps the absence of Confederate statuary will provide new spaces for celebratory monuments commemorating a new host of heroes and heroines (e.g., Missy Elliott), but that strategy risks simply reproducing a tired notion of triumphant public art. There is of course no single strategy for reclaiming the Confederate memorial landscape. In the Ukraine, thousands of Lenin statues have been destroyed or decapitated, with one Lenin monument near Odessa now dressed as Darth Vader. In London, a blank pedestal in Trafalgar Square has been adorned with rotating commissioned works striking a variety of tones.
While most removed Confederate statuary now languishes in storage, other controversial monuments have been placed in new public contexts. For instance, Grūtas Park in Druskininkai Lithuania is decorated with 86 Soviet-era monuments as well as Soviet guard tower and camp remains. Memento Park in Budapest holds 42 Communist-era statues that simultaneously interprets Soviet tyranny and places monuments in new contexts inviting a host of group images that mock the statues’ ideological designs. After India secured its independence in 1947, Dehli’s Coronation Park became the home to a scatter of British colonial statues including a 49-foot high marble monument to King George V. Once the site of three royal celebrations known as Durbars, the park today holds colonial busts, statues, and empty plinths that have largely fallen into disinterested ruin.
The Confederate memorial landscape and the statuary removed from it will inevitably remain disputed things. Efforts to simply efface them are unlikely to be an especially effective mechanism to illuminate the White supremacy that has routinely distorted Confederate history. Empty pedestals and plinths may well materially shape public discussions on Civil War heritage and color line privileges that Confederate statues have often masked and evaded. Some communities have championed moving the Confederate monuments to cemeteries apparently removed from public reflection, and others have suggested placing these statues in museums might provide a sanctioned reading of Civil War heritage. Those approaches may work in some ways, but the absent voids left by Confederate monuments can provide important public material confirmation of neo-Confederate history-making and memorialization. Empty plinths may become visible scars effectively illuminating the ways race and privilege have long concealed themselves within Confederate memorialization.
Confederate Women’s Memorial Base (Baltimore) 2017 image from BalPhoto
Coronation Park (Dehli) 2014 image from Harshanh
Forrest Monument 2017 image from Houston Cofield/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Jefferson Davis Monument Base (New Orleans) 2017 image from Bart Everson
Republic of Councils Monument (Hungary) group image from Memento Park
The heroes of Confederate hagiography long laid an unchallenged claim to Southern public spaces and American White imagination. However, few if any Confederates immortalized in the rebellion’s memorial landscape are still viewed as untroubled icons of honor and manhood. As monuments to neo-Confederate heroes are now rapidly being removed from public space, one of the most interesting Confederate icons is Robert E. Lee’s famed horse Traveller. Traveller is himself a symbol used to narrate the Confederate cause, and he has had the status of relic since the 19th century. The most sacred relics are the physical remain of a venerated figure’s body or the things with which their body was intimately contacted (e.g., clothing). A relic is some object or material place that is experienced as an active presence representing values that followers aspire to reproduce (see Gary Vikan’s description of relics). Traveller may seem a distinctive figure to cast as a relic, his status largely beholden to his connection to Lee. Nevertheless, Traveller’s materiality provides an illuminating story of Confederate history-making.
Perhaps the most famous of all Southern horses, Traveller was born in Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1857. The horse that became known as Traveller was an 1100-pound 64-inch high American Saddlebred sired by a race horse known as Grey Eagle. Traveller’s owner J.W. Johnston originally named the horse after the Mississippi Senator “Jeff Davis,” who of course would become famous as the President of the Confederate States of America. Despite Johnson’s 1908 claim to have sold the horse to Lee, he sold Jeff Davis in 1861 to Captain Joseph M. Broun, who re-named him Greenbrier. In 1861 Broun was serving alongside Robert E. Lee, and in Traveller lore Lee reportedly took a fancy to Broun’s horse. Broun’s brother Thomas wrote in 1886 that “in the fall of 1861, he [Lee] first saw this horse and took a great fancy to it. He called it his colt, and said he would need it before the war was over. When the general saw my brother on this horse he had something pleasant to say to him about `my colt,’ as he designated this horse.” Lee resigned from the US Army on April 20, 1861 when Virginia seceded, and he would assume command of Virginia’s secessionist forces three days later. Thomas Broun indicated that his brother sold Greenbrier to Lee in February 1862. Lee renamed the horse Traveller. Read the rest of this entry
In May, 1919 Indianapolis, Indiana’s “Southern Society”—a group of Indianapolis residents composed primarily of former Southerners—proposed to the Indianapolis Parks Superintendent that a Confederate memorial be moved to one of the city’s parks. The memorial had been erected at Greenlawn Cemetery in 1909 to commemorate Confederate prisoners of war who died in Indianapolis’ Camp Morton. Just over 1600 prisoners had been buried in Greenlawn, but by 1919 the former cemetery had become a modest, poorly maintained city park crowded by factories and railroad lines.
The transplanted Southerners’ interest in preserving the Confederate memorial found a receptive audience in the 20th-century North. While Confederate monuments were being erected throughout the South in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Civil War monuments were also part of a Northern landscape that aspired to unify the once-divided nation. When the Greenlawn memorial was erected by the federal government in 1909, it was part of a national reconciliation over the legacy of the rebellion that commemorated the foot soldiers of the former Confederacy. The Confederate cause would be largely forgiven by the generation that had grown up after the war, and monuments dotting the South and North alike publicly confirmed a national reconciliation. Yet that forgiveness emerged from a nation committed to Jim Crow segregation, and monuments like the Greenlawn memorial aspired to reconcile and unify the White nation that had waged a civil war a half-century before. A century later the Greenlawn memorial illuminates the ways the Confederate monumental landscape has long distorted Southern heritage and leveraged Confederate mortality in the service of White nationalism. Read the rest of this entry
In 1961 the United Daughters of the Confederacy presented Phoenix, Arizona with a memorial dedicated to Arizona’s Confederate soldiers. The “Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops” is a copper ore stonework shaped in the state’s outline that rests atop a pedestal graced by petrified wood. The monument sits on a plaza alongside 29 other memorials at the Arizona State Capitol that range from war memorials to a Ten Commandments monument. The Phoenix Confederate memorial is far removed from the heart of Civil War battlefields and Southern centers, but it is now part of a nationwide debate over the contemporary social and political consequence of Confederate things.
In the pantheon of Confederate things, statuary is perhaps somewhat distinct from the flags, license plates, and assorted collectibles emblazoned with Confederate symbols. Statues and memorials aspire to make timeless sociohistorical statements and define or create memory, capturing idealized or distorted visions of the war that say as much about their makers and viewers as their subject. Yet as time passes monuments routinely begin to appear aesthetically dated or even reactionary. Viewed from the vantage point of the early 21st century, many Confederate monuments are simply documents of 150 years of shallow fantasies of the South and the Confederacy. Some of those public monuments can possibly foster counter-intuitively reflective and sober discussions about the Civil War, which is a century-and-a-half heritage rather than an objective historical event. However, such discussions risk being circumvented by contemporary Confederate defenders who distort the Confederacy’s history and studiously ignore why an imagined Confederate heritage has become so appealing—if not unsettling–well outside the South.
While it rarely appears in standard Civil War narratives, Arizona can claim a genuine Civil War history. Swaths of southern Arizona and New Mexico territories were claimed by the Confederacy a century before the monument was erected in Phoenix. A secession convention agreed to leave the Union and become the Arizona Republic in 1861, and in February 1862 it became recognized by the Confederacy as the Confederate Territory of Arizona. Confederates fought under the Arizona banner through the war, but the Governor of the Confederate territory retreated to Texas in July, 1862, and for most of the war the military presence in the region was by Union forces.
The vanquished Confederacy began to memorialize its cause almost instantly. The town of Cheraw, South Carolina claims to have erected the first Confederate memorial, a cemetery marker erected in June, 1867 (while the town was still occupied by Union forces); a Confederate memorial was dedicated in September, 1867 in Romney, West Virginia. These earliest monuments to the Lost Cause were nearly all cemetery memorials, but the South began busily erecting public monuments to the Confederacy in the late-19th and early 20th-centuries. Scores of statues were placed in former Confederate towns, mostly by a host of ladies’ memorial associations who assumed the care for the Civil War dead and would become the leading proponents of Lost Cause ideology. From its first issues in 1893, Confederate Veteran zealously tracked such monument construction efforts (for example, compare their 1893 monument inventory), and by 1914 they gushed that roughly a thousand public monuments dotted the South: “Year by year with increasing rather than decreasing devotion all over the Southland monuments are rapidly being erected to the heroes who died in the effort of the Confederate States to win a national life.” Read the rest of this entry
Last week a stirring Civil War memorial in Sterling, Virginia was ridiculed for its commemoration of a Potomac River engagement at a site known as “the river of blood.” The gorgeous riverside spot on the Trump National Golf Club was dramatically remodeled after Donald Trump purchased the former Lowes Island Club in 2009. Part of that remodeling included the placement of a war memorial between the 14th and 15th holes commemorating a slaughter of “many great Americans, both of the North and South” whose blood reputedly turned the Potomac crimson. The plaque at the bottom of a flagpole exclaims “It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!–Donald John Trump.”
Northern Virginia has a rich landscape of Civil War sites, and the memorial to Civil War dead is perhaps earnest, but there is no evidence that such a battle occurred along the shores of the present-day Trump course. When Trump was challenged this month over the details of this otherwise undocumented battle, he replied with characteristic arrogance that the location “was a prime site for river crossings. So, if people are crossing the river, and you happen to be in a civil war, I would say that people were shot—a lot of them.” When pressed that he had manufactured a historical event, Trump dismissed demands for scholarly verification: “Write your story the way you want to write it. You don’t have to talk to anybody. It doesn’t make any difference. But many people were shot. It makes sense.” Faced with scholars’ challenges, Trump protested ““How would they know that? Were they there?” Read the rest of this entry
On the afternoon of July 7th, a column of reenactors will launch yet another futile assault on Cemetery Ridge, 150 years and four days after the slope was originally charged by 12,500 Confederates who left half of their number dead on the hillside. The Pickett’s Charge performance will cap four days of reenactments at Gettysburg a century-and-a-half after the battle. Visitors will be able to tour camps with roughly 10,000 reenactors and watch the key moments in the battle from grandstand seating or a live pay-per-view “battlecast.” This summer similar sesquicentennial reenactments will be held at the Battle of Corydon (Indiana), Morgan’s Raid (Ohio), the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky), and the Battle of Chickamauga (Ohio), following 150-year anniversary reenactments at Manassas/Bull Run in 2011, the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Antietam in 2012, and the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 2013.
We are now in the midst of the 150th commemoration of a series of America’s most horrific military engagements and a war whose legacy continues to provoke anxiety. These battlefield reenactments are not about historical inquiry, since we have dissected every hour of battles like Gettysburg, and the Civil War has been relentlessly analyzed by a legion of scholars. Reenactments instead uniquely evoke the bodily and emotional experience of 19th-century warfare: conventional historical narratives debate the social effects and results of the war or even single battles without satisfying resolution, but a reenactment is a concrete physical experience for participants and audiences alike. Reenactments sidestep most of the historiographical discord over the war over 150 years, betraying that many of us dislike a disputed history lacking clarity, especially one that has been linked to America’s complicated regional divisions and racist heritage. The physical experience of warfare is not especially clearly captured by conventional scholarly narratives, but reenactment evokes the affective and bodily experience of combat. It is of course impossible to capture the genuine visual horrors or experienced terrors of Civil War combat, so reenactments simply evoke some of the aesthetics and sensory cues of engagements and aspire to honor anonymous foot soldiers without clear reference to the structural discord that fueled the war.
There are myriad types of reenactment including forms of living history such as Renn Fairs and museums that can range from highly scripted theater to largely improvisational and informal discussions. Battlefield reenactments are partly distinguished from these other performances by their effort to demonstrate reenactors’ mastery of the materiality of soldiers and the movements of troops on battlefields like Gettysburg. These battlefield reenactments strip away the complicated legacy of the Civil War and pedagogical narratives to a bodily combat aesthetics, a portrayal of the war articulated in sensory bodily dimensions—smoke, sound, temperature, sight, and space–we all can experience and grasp. Gordon Jones’ 2007 dissertation underscores that reenactment appeals to many reenactors and audiences because it is an intense emotional experience: muddy hillside charges, clouds of gunpowder smoke, sweat-soaked period uniforms, and chest-rattling cannon-fire make a distant but hallowed heritage seem “real and tangible.”
Leigh Clemons’ analysis of battle reenactors suggests that this embodiment of foot soldiers in battle implicitly celebrates combatants’ anonymity; reenactments are essentially a populist theater that mirrors the reenactors’ identification as “ordinary” people. The week before he goes to participate in this year’s Gettysburg reenactment, Clint Johnson made the same point when he indicated in the Winston Salem Journal that “reenactors go out in the heat and the cold, and the blazing sun and the chilling rain to honor the men of both sides. It’s as simple as that. These Northern and Southern men left their homes to fight a war in which they had no personal stake.” Gordon Jones concurs that reenactors celebrate the Civil War soldier as an honor-bound citizen cast into an inconceivably unpleasant war beyond our 21st-century comprehension.
It would be easy to fixate on reenactment as transparent nostalgia, and battlefield reenactments do tend to focus on the bodily sensation of battle and sidestep the thorny sociopolitical heritage of the war. Yet studies like Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic have risked casting reenactors simply as clichés standing in for a caricature of the White South. Jones’ demographic research on reenactors does verify that they tend to be White middle-class conservatives. For instance, Jones found that 67% of reenactors described themselves as Republicans; 92% of his sample was White; and 56% had not completed a college degree. Nevertheless, only about 40,000 people can be considered reenactors, so their imagined Civil War is not necessarily an accurate reflection of Southern culture or broader American visions of the war.
W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s assessment of Horwitz’s clever if flawed study concludes that reenactment reveals “our age’s hunger for intense and `authentic’ experiences” (a similar point is made about living history by Richard Handler and William Saxton). Rather than focus purely on reenactors themselves (despite the rich ethnographic possibilities), we might instead divine a telling desire for such authenticity in reenactment. Some of this likely reflects our aversion to scholarly master narratives. For many people, scholarly history often has not been particularly compelling or accessible; social histories of the war and the subsequent century-and-a-half paint a complicated heritage that squarely confronts privilege, class, and racism that continue to inspire our collective anxiety. Yet a reenacted battle also frames a story of sorts that coherently unfolds in time and space, and that implicit narrative of warfare—people locked in combat, bound by a commitment to honor–is ironically much more coherent than our everyday lives.
Scores of people have long ventured to battlefields to physically experience those spaces. In 1903 thousands of spectators witnessed about 430 veterans who met at the site of “the Crater” in Petersburg, Virginia to recreate the 1864 battle in which they had exploded four tons of dynamite at the site. Ten years later veterans marked the 50-year anniversary of Gettysburg, with surviving combatants meeting in positions at the site of Pickett’s Charge. Those reenactments were not about the sensory experience of battlefield combat; instead, gathering soldiers from North and South crafted a contrived vision of reconciliation that awkwardly ignored Emancipation and racism and granted Southerners their honor in defeat.
The Civil War’s centennial was marked with reenactments in 1961 at Manassas and Fort Sumter and Antietam in 1962, but the Manassas reenactment damaged much of the battlefield, resulted in a series of injuries, and caused some observers to question warfare as entertainment. The National Park Service Director subsequently created a policy that did not authorize future reenactments on Park Service properties.
Many reenactors are certainly exceptionally well-versed in the minutia of everyday life in the war, and much of the highly particularistic detail valued by reenactors—encyclopedic knowledge of uniform fabrics, the biographies of soldiers, the topography of local battlefields—is outside the interest of most scholars. Reenactments aspire to fire our imaginations with material authenticity, so much of the reenactment discourse revolves around prosaic if not mundane details such as clothing stitching and firearms and spatial movement of forces. Scholars routinely point out that no representation or discourse can capture a historical reality, and some reenactors do somewhat naively fancy reenactment as a relatively seamless simulation of a battle. Yet reenactment is at its heart a structured imagination of documented events and material culture, and it has no power if it does not invoke what we consider to be verifiable realities. Those realities of uniform details, troop placements, and camp life are actually much more straightforward to interpret than the broader meanings of the war itself, so the realities of reenacted Civil War battles seem more more coherent than more ambitious narratives about the war itself.
“Authenticity” is a clumsy term, but battlefield reenactments are real experiences that exactingly recreate an inaccessible historical reality; their authoritative claim to authenticity is based on the seamless materiality and immediacy of the physical experience: seeing intricately detailed buttons and uniform trim, feeling the percussive impact of gunfire on the battlefield, witnessing the choreographed movement of soldiers, and hearing the sounds of screaming and firearms on the battlefield provide an experience we do not derive from even the most eloquent textual narrative.
The picture of the Civil War painted by battlefield reenactments is necessarily particularistic, focused on the sensory experience of combat. Pedagogically, reenactments are likely to only provide details of everyday soldiers’ lives that do not illuminate the war itself, and we could accuse reenactments of concealing the complicated heritage of the war itself. Tony Horwitz wrote a piece in The Atlantic last week that presciently questions the American tendency to cast the Civil war as a heroic and noble cause and battle as glorious; Leonard Pitts has similarly championed seeing the war’s irrefutable link to enslavement and racism.
Reenactments likely do not undermine the tendency to reduce the war to a show of honor and battlefield glory, but they do not necessarily lapse into ideological distortions of the war either. Battle is an inexpressible experience we laboriously imagine yet cannot articulate, and the reality of grim combat between Americans evokes our apprehensions about how tenuously the nation has always been held together. Reenactments can push the boundaries of historical interpretation and narrative in novel ways, and they likely reveal the anxieties provoked by challenging social histories and the limitations of conventional historical scholarship that cannot evoke the physical experience of war so effectively.
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Florida Agricultural Museum reenactment image from iambrianna
Gettysburg 2009 Pickett’s Charge image from ronzzo1
Ohio reenactment image from proftrusty
Stonewall Jackson 1962 Manassas Reenactment image from Frank Harrell