In the last couple of months, I’ve been to two war reenactments. Being in North Carolina, clearly one of them was a Civil War reenactment. The other was a Revolutionary War reenactment. At both of them, folks dressed in costumes. Some were reenacting musicians, doctors or pharmacists, culinary artist, tailors, and many other trade and craft folks from their respective periods. Mostly, though, the soldiers and rifles, knives and swords and bayonets caught the most attention. They fired their guns and made cannons go kaboom.
Why would people drive from all over to stage such a ceremonious display of pretend violence? Why do people go and watch? And most curiously, what about these folks drawn to put on these events? Why do they do it?
Having talked with many of the reenactors, it is clear most of them are truly history buffs. Some of them are more than historical enthusiast; they are teachers, collectors, professors, and authors. Others have traced family ancestry to a particular war and participate as a way to memorialize their lineage.
But is that a sufficient answer? Does that justify a reason, at least in appearance, to celebrate war, violence, the brutality and beastly condition of the deprived human soul?
My knee jerk reaction is to say no. There are better ways to education the public than showing grown men pointing weapons at each other or demonstrating the lethality of cannons or how you might knife someone with a hatchet. I mean, really?
Before I lay judgement down, there first needs to be some acknowledgement. I’m not a pacifist but I wish I could be; nor am I a veteran, but the older I become I sense I missed an opportunity to learn about honor and integrity and discipline. Once, a gentleman asked me what good is turning the cheek? He said that if everyone turned the other cheek, there would be no one left to stop the bad guys. He’s got a point. A good point. But because I’m ornery and deficient with social graces, I said that if everyone turned the other cheek there would have been no cheek to turn in the first place. But since we don’t live in that world, yeah, sometimes you have to regrettably must run out of cheeks to turn. The emphasis is on the word regrettably. War entered without remorse and grief, without penitence is unjustified violence. Instead of parades when the war is over, there should be mourning for those killed and for those who killed.
Consequently, it seemed impossible to think that reenactments are a good thing. Especially if I believed there should be no hotdog stands, no souvenir stands, no children clad in Confederate flags, no iota hinting at glorifying war, how can a reenactment be a good thing? And if the answer to that question is so obvious it merits becoming rhetorical, then what of the folks putting on the event? Are they race-baiting hicks or violence enticing loafers who are too easily convinced by serial liars and propagandists?
I was about to slam the door on this one when I read a wonderful, well-balanced article titled “I’m a Good Ole’ Rebel,” written by Christopher Bates. In this article, Bates writes about the cultural influences that are at least in part responsible for shaping our opinions on the reenactment and the reenactors.
He acknowledges that there are some not so scholarly Confederate advocates who so distort facts with “mathematical sleight of hand” or just make up “alternative facts” that you can help but be suspicious of their motivations. But then there are folks like Don Worth whose sole motivation is historical curiosity. Whereas now Disney produces kid shows about Buzz Lightyear, Lilo & Stitch, and Hannah Montana, Worth notes that he grew up watching Disney programs such as “Davy Crockett, Johnny Tremain, and The Swamp Fox.” And as for toys, he didn’t play with video games; he played with “BB Guns, Lincoln Logs, Davy Crockett coonskin caps, and miniature Sherman tanks.” A radical difference in childhoods, Bates records from his interview with Worth, now and childhoods then is about orientation: Worth’s childhood looked to the past. With all the technology now available, childhoods now seem focused on fantasy or middle school social Darwinism. Think about it. When was the last time you had a child ring your doorbell on Halloween who was dressed up as Daniel Boone?
There are other cultural ties that might be informing my opinion of all this reenactment stuff too. I grew up reading To Kill a Mockingbird and other such southern books. The movies about the South changed drastically from the early days of film. Whereas the first movies celebrated and romanticized the South, think Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation, this “old south” genre transitioned into movies like The Color Purple, Roots, Mississippi Burning, The Help, The Green Book, and on and on the list could go. And if we wanted to see how our ideas about war reenactment and reenactors are specifically targeted by our cultural norms, CSI, Without a Trace, NCIS, The District, Psych, and Bones have all had episodes depicting reenactors as “social outcast…maladjusted, and well-armed,” writes Bates.
Bates notes that we can add at least one more realm of social influence on war reenactment and reenactors. One of the first scholarly analyses on reenactments was conducted by Elizabeth Young, a professor of English. She concluded, “the collective impact of an admiring reanimation of the Confederacy is the renewal of racism.” Bates divulged that Young thinks, “many reenactors are closeted homosexuals.” Tom Dunning, says Bates, thinks the reenactments are a result of “individuals threatened by a changing multi-cultural United States.” Others called the reenactments, “anti-government militia training,” and a “reactionary, right-wing, neo-Confederate movement.” In the documentary The Unfinished Civil War, which repeatedly aired on the History Channel in 2001, reenactors were called “wild-eyed wackos” and “flag-waving racist.” In an online article CNN posted about reenactments, people left comments such as “It is a redneck hobby. We should be grateful that they are providing these ‘histories lessons’ and not breeding.”
Bates concludes his essay with the obvious deduction: clearly there are folks thrilled about war reenactment for the romantic “lost cause,” racists undertones, even neo-Confederacy reasons. Of course. He also says very clearly our perceptions of war reenactors are negatively influenced by a society that hasn’t bothered to know the culture and motivations of reenactors. Most of them, he concludes, are trying to celebrate their heritage. “Heritage, not hate,” he concludes, is a legitimate reason.
Now, I’m going in circles. Is that good enough? Does celebrating your heritage by reenacting a war that was fought by insurrectionist hell-bent on preserving the state’s right to enslave human beings really count? Is that a heritage worth celebrating?
It isn’t that simple though. Talking with African-American reenactors from New Bern, North Carolina, it’s clear these reenactments are a bit more diverse than “rednecks” taking a break from NASCAR. Some heritages, every bit as worthy of respect and admiration as, say, Harriet Tubman, deserve being celebrated. Other heritages, heritages that come from common farmers or blacksmiths or musicians, the not so historically recognized but on whose back history is made and remembered, should be told. And what about those Confederate soldiers whose images are preserved in a marble obelisk in county seats across the South? Or the one in my county seat that declares a Confederate soldier to be “Our Hero?”
Yeah, I think his story needs to be told too. But he’s not my hero. He’s not worth celebrating. He is a reminder that a romanticized past will make a terrible tomorrow. He is, though, worth understanding. What convictions did he have that enabled him to fight and kill without thinking of himself as a monster, without actually being a monster? For surely, if not that man, there were men who fought for the Confederacy who were good human beings too.
What’s my conclusion? What’s my takeaway? Well, first things first, this essay started out reflecting on war reenactments in general but meandered its way thinking almost exclusively about Civil War reenactments. And I sensed a great deal of difference between the Revolutionary War reenactment and the Civil War reenactment. The former did a much better job of teaching and giving a more well-rounded understanding of the period with less of an emphasis on violence. The latter felt like a good place to set up a hotdog stand, sell toy rifles with bright orange caps at the end of the barrel, and the center piece of the event was all about killing and fighting.
Like Bates, I think I’m going to dodge a hard edge conclusion because I don’t know. Realizing just how unbalanced society portrays war reenactors has brought me to this liminal place of reserved judgement and recognition of my own ignorance. I do believe, however, that the celebration of war and violence must end. I’m just not so sure if that is what I saw or if, in fact, that’s what happened. Having spoken with many of the reenactors it is clear they have honorable convictions (most of them, anyway) that are articulated in a language I don’t quite yet understand.
Whatever conclusion I eventually come to these war reenactments make great places for photographers like me.