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Harvard’s Civil War

Battle of Manassas

Several men lay dead in a northern Virginia pasture. It was a hot summer morning in July. Cannons boomed in the distance. One of the dead, overcome by the heat, suddenly got up and walked toward a crowd at the edge of the field. A few dozen yards away, sweaty spectators clapped politely. The man, dressed as a Union soldier from 1861, smiled and waved to the spectators, whose casual bleacher-wear revealed the miraculous resurrection was all a part of the show.

Over 37,000 people turned out for the sesquicentennial commemoration of First Bull Run. A fifth of them were amateur performers who drove from near and far for this Super Bowl of Civil War reenactments. Manassas, once a sleepy town a day’s horse ride from Washington, is now a sprawling exurban satellite of the federal city. In the 1990s, Disney sought to capitalize on the region’s patriotic tourism with a large theme park focusing on American history. A coalition of locals and luminaries like historian James McPherson and actor Robert Duvall fought Mickey Mouse off. But until the real estate bust of the late aughts, strip malls and subdivisions threatened to surround the battlefield, a national park visited by nearly a million tourists every year.

The National Park Service takes its mandate for preservation seriously—so much so that it won’t allow reenactors to use the original field, lest they stumble on an artifact or stray bone. The simulated battle took place a few miles away, on a site unadulterated save for some very large power lines dominating the horizon.

The thousands of spectators were a greater impediment to time travel than this industrial intrusion. The massive scale of the event meant that it felt as much like a county fair or drag-racing meet as a carefully constructed historical diorama. Besides the sweet aroma of fried dough from the funnel cake stand, partially concealing the faint but unmistakable air of hundreds of porta-potties, the place was as likely to smell of sunscreen as blood or gunpowder. The most conspicuous casualties, one photographer pointed out, were “lots of dead water bottles” strewn across the field. Despite the distractions, the event did not fail to evoke “the mystic chords of memory.” The feast days of many cultures have often taken the form of a traditional carnival, with participants celebrating a collective identity that springs from a particular historical event.

But some professional historians are concerned that popular reenactments—likely to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors as the sesquicentennial commemorations continue—damage our collective sense of the conflict’s meaning. In May, Drew Faust, president of Harvard and an acclaimed Civil War historian, was invited to Washington to deliver the National Endowment for the Humanities’ prestigious Jefferson Lecture. While some lecturers shy away from controversy, Faust seemed to relish the opportunity to atone for her predecessor Larry Summers’s sins of political incorrectness.

Faust properly observed that the purposes for going to war are often muddled, reminding the audience of the Bush administration’s rush to Iraq after 9/11. But then the real enemies of history were in her sights. Ron Paul and latter-day advocates of nullification—the former guilty of “declaring Lincoln and the war responsible for arrogations of central power that Tea Party originalists and libertarians are dedicated to overturn”—were classed with “significant segments of the American population, particularly in the South” who “continue to reject the slavery as a fundamental cause of the war…”

Reenactors help to enforce this false narrative, said Faust, reflecting on her childhood experience of the Civil War centennial, which took place against the backdrop of the 1960s civil rights movement. Reenactments then were “a pointed erasure of the war’s causes and consequences, a suppression of their direct relationship to the turbulent racial politics” of the day. It was “less about remembrance than forgetting.” Now it was about to happen again.

To the reenactors at Bull Run, Faust is the one guilty of forgetting. “History is always written by the winners,” said one middle-aged man in a Union uniform after the battle. Though he was from Buffalo, he sympathized with the South. His views had in part been shaped by popular histories like Alexander Hunter’s 1905 novel Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, which tells the story from the point of view of the average soldier. There was no latent bigotry in the encampment, he insisted, with black and women reenactors welcome. And while the participants gathered around the campfire largely eschewed talk of politics, “most people who come to these things are conservative.”

Many reenactors also have military backgrounds. One younger man had just returned from a tour of Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. After the sesquicentennial, he planned to join World War II reenactments, but not as an American soldier. His mother was German, he explained, and his grandfather had flown in the Luftwaffe.

A man in his mid-20s, who spoke as he cleaned the barrel of his gun with windshield-wiper fluid, said he tried to enlist in the military but failed the medical exam. He was now an accounting clerk outside of Pittsburgh, but several weekends a month he donned a Union uniform and often drove hundreds of miles to participate in the Civil War ritual. Another attendee seemed embarrassed to admit that in the 21st century, “I clean toilets.”

War, past and present, is indeed a “force that gives us meaning,” to borrow from Chris Hedges, cited many times by Faust in her lecture. For Faust, the reenactments are a simulacrum, an image that bears no relation to what it purports to represent. Whatever meaning it gives must be false. But for the reenactors, replaying these battles provides a reminder that conflict is always with us, and that some instinct, perhaps original sin, always leads men to do violence to one another.

In Faust’s interpretation, the Civil War was a tragic but necessary component of national progress. But the more provincial reenactors intuitively understand a more fundamental story, that war is a result of the fallen human condition. Their reenactment, like the carnivals of old, is liturgical; it restrains rather than rekindles violence. This ritual has emerged from the grassroots in that peculiarly American way, as a tradition untouched by Disney or Harvard. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Lewis McCrary is a TAC senior editor.