A sort of peace can be found in reenacting the bloodiest episodes to take place on our nation’s soil.
Nothing tastes quite like black powder—a sharp salty sourness cut by a stinging sensation. The taste is always accompanied by other sensations, equally strange to modern man: the crack of musket fire, the haze of gun smoke, and the dull concussive thud of the cannon. You spit out the tip of the cartridge and dump its contents down the muzzle of your rifle. Your ramrod packs it in. Bringing the hammer to half-cock, the old primer is cast aside and a new one takes its place. You return to shoulder-arms, waiting for the Captain’s hoarse commands.
“MAKE READY, AIM, FIRE!”
A fusillade of belching fire erupts down the line. This action is obligingly returned from across the field. You are hit, collapsing in a heap of greasy wool. The ranks close in to fill the gap made by your absence, and your comrades continue the fight. You lie still while the symphony of Mars plays on. The cacophony transports you, just for a moment, to a time confined to the pages of history.
Eventually the tempo of battle slows to silence. A lonely bugle sounds. It plays the mournful tune that all Americans are trained to find solemn, even holy. The fallen rise anew, companies are reformed, and the lines are dressed. The combatants are presented to the crowd and render a salute. Tourists clap between bites of funnel cake and sips of water. So ends a uniquely American ritual, the Civil War reenactment.
I began reenacting at the age of fourteen. My father mentioned my love of history to one of his coworkers, and I was extended an invitation into a bizarre brotherhood of wool and smoke. I took to it immediately. My birthday and holiday gifts for the next several years went to supplementing “the hobby.” Some boys learned how to live in the field through the Boy Scouts or hunting. I gained these inestimable skills by doing my best to experience what it was like to be a soldier in our nation’s bloodiest conflict—all save getting blown to bits or contracting dysentery.
There is a popular conception of Civil War reenacting in the American mind, and it isn’t altogether wrong. Potbellied Yosemite Samss abound. We call them farbs, inauthentic wastrels who chirp loudest about honoring their “ancestors” while eschewing drill, wearing Pakistani made bargain bin uniforms, and sleeping on air mattresses.
My old unit encamped far away from them. I was lucky enough to have chanced into a group of educated men holding themselves to a higher standard. We were a group of military history enthusiasts discontented to merely read history: We wished to experience it. We slept as they slept, ate what they ate, and drilled as they drilled. Meticulous in our attention to the minute details of uniforms and equipment, we strive to portray reality accurately. Few other grown men bicker about clothing as much as “Campaigners”. Once a month we toured around the Southland, vagabonds in jean wool.
The type of reenactment most people are familiar with is of a public nature, held on or near historical battlefields in order to raise money for their upkeep. This is where one sees the surreal spectacle that is equal parts state fair, carnival, and veterans memorial. Solemnity and frivolity ebb and flow, an incongruent mix that sets a trance on all involved.
These strange commemorations trace their roots all the way back to the original Civil War Veterans reunions. In the early 20th century, a wave of reconciliation brought Johnny Reb and Billy Yank back together again on the very fields they marched on as younger men. Once as foes, now as friends, they camped and dined together. Between swapping stories and cups of coffee, they attempted fully to heal the wounds of their time in order to bring a unified country into the modern age.
At one such event in Gettysburg, the veterans themselves conducted the first reenactment. Former Confederates once again emerged from Seminary Ridge on Pickett’s ill-fated charge. Toting canes and crutches instead of rifles, they advanced upon their Union counterparts. Instead of greeting halting gunfire and flashing steel, they found themselves facing outstretched hands to grasp them and weep together.
The second wave of reenacting rose immediately at the war’s centennial. Men marched wearing blue and gray work wear and used binocular cases for cartridge boxes. A cottage industry for reproduction kit and uniforms arose out of this fervor, supplying this new tradition with more suitable equipment. Set against the backdrop of these festivities, Americans battled across the South with conflicting ideas of freedom and order just like their forefathers. It seemed that not enough blood had been shed, and only the gray old veterans found peace with each other.
The third wave of reenacting burst forth with the same intensity as the previous iterations. Ken Burns’s Civil War captivated the nation, and it became the most watched program to ever air on PBS. Contemporaneous media such as Glory and Gettysburg further fueled the fire. Civil War reenacting had reached a fever pitch, experiencing levels of participation never seen before or since. It finally seemed to fulfill its original intention of education and reconciliation, finally abandoning the baggage of the past. Over time this intensity dwindled, but was maintained among a smaller but more stable coterie of enthusiasts. It was at this time the reenactment took its contemporary shape, fully coming into its own as a simultaneously farcical and sincere fever-dream.
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I eventually joined the modern Army. Under Uncle Sam’s schedule, I found it difficult to wear more than one uniform at a time. I sadly hung up my wool for a poly-cotton blend. Around the same time, a truly despicable creature I will not deign to name decided to murder good folk who invited him into their sanctuary to share in the Lord’s Word. He was pictured holding the “Rebel” flag, a postwar invention based off the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. As the perennial American questions were raised again, so were new answers. Across the South, urgent and intensive inquisitions began on the remaining vestiges of Confederate memory. As the flags and statues came down, reenactors found themselves and their hobby in the middle of the culture war. Based on security concerns, many sites stopped hosting events altogether. Some decried it as the death of the hobby.
It surely isn’t what it once was, but nothing ever is. There are still groups of men willing to spend their free time marching in the woods, wearing funny clothes, munching on hardtack while trying to grasp at what it was to take part in our nation’s seminal conflict. Civil War reenacting began as a way to try to decipher what the war meant and what it says about us. It has never been easy, and it never will be.
The blood our forefathers shed still covers us today, and perhaps it always will. If we are to remember anything about the Civil War, we should remember the lesson of the men who first reenacted it. It is better to meet your countrymen with outstretched arms than at the tip of a bayonet.