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Those Civil War re-enactmentsBY: Jackie Atkins 08.14.2011
When Santayana said that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, he must have had today’s Civil War re-enactors in mind. These weekend warriors repeat actions that no one has any way of remembering or repeating. How authentic can you be if you don’t have to dodge real bullets and cannon fire?
War is swell
So, I’m there in 100-plus-degree Virginia heat listening to this Amish guy tell me his feelings about war memorabilia. We’re standing on the news media platform with 20 or so other people, most of whom wield zoom lens cameras. The platform is about six feet above the ground and exposed to the blazing sun.
It’s so hot that the ice pack I put on five minutes before to cool off my neck is now full of warm water. And the fighting hasn’t yet begun.
Amos the Amish (as I will call him) seems the only sane vertebrate in the group. After all, he’s making money on this occasion, selling Civil War artifacts to the cognoscenti. Sales, he tells me, have been off this year. “Used to be, at a big event like this, I’d be sold out before I got here,” Amos explains. I guess the stimulus package didn’t help his business either.
The “big event” to which Amos refers is the 150th anniversary of the first battle of the Civil War— called Bull Run by the Union and Manassas by the Confederates.
In a few minutes, since I did not die of a heat stroke, I would watch 8,000 men and boys re-enact the carnage that took place in 1861, sans severed limbs and crushed skulls.
Meet Miss Confederacy
Women, too, subscribe to this madness. Miss Confederacy sits in the shade of a nearby birch tree. At least, this is what’s monogrammed on the beauty contestant sash slung across her Victorian dress, so who am I to say otherwise?
“I live in Tennessee,” she explains, “but my father was from North Carolina and my mother from Texas. I am well covered in that regard.” Works for me.
When George Santayana said that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, he must have had these enactors in mind, since they repeat actions no one has anyway of remembering or repeating. How bona fide can you be if you don’t fire real bullets and never get hit with cannon fires? With these re-enactors, war is all glory and no guts.
Historians claim that enactors usually get it wrong. To my uneducated eye, the soldiers looked authentic. Maybe they were a bit old for enlisted men. But from far away, who notices?
National Park party poopers
A few nitpickers in our group pointed out that the re-enactment was staged not on the Bull Run battlefield but in a park owned by Prince Williams County. You see, the National Park Service won’t allow citizens to fire blank shells at each other on park grounds. The official reason for the ban is to preserve the grass. Perhaps coincidentally, the ban was first imposed after the centennial re-enactment back in 1961, when some real live civil rights demonstrators decided to charge “Stonewall Jackson,” and all hell broke loose from the Virginia regiment.
The day after the re-enactment, I visited an encampment and spoke to men there who represented a Union brigade from Delaware. In five minutes’ conversation I got enough misinformation about dates and places to persuade me that the historians’ cynicism about these re-enactments is well founded. These “soldiers” seemed to have memorized all the disputed dialogue from Ken Burns’s PBS series but never to have cracked open a book by Bruce Catton or Carl Sandburg.
Gearing up for Gettysburg
For my own edification I asked them if any would be up in Gettysburg at its sesquicentennial two summers hence. Each man was prepared to answer the call. Well, I said, since no battle re-enactment would be allowed on National Park land, where would they stage it?
“We’ll find something,” they said.
No doubt they will. If the Gettysburg Country Club isn’t available, there’s always the Walmart parking lot southeast of nearby Hanover— almost the very spot where Jeb Stuart attacked the rear of the Union cavalry. An authentic location with ample free parking— what more could an amateur history buff want?♦
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