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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Mark L. Shanks
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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