The Future of Civil War Reenactment

by Chris Gehrz

September 12, 2018

Yesterday a colleague reminded me of a New York Times article that I had noticed this summer, but not read closely. Alongside striking photographs by Daniel Arnold, Bryn Stole reported on the 155th commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, at which 6,000 people reenacted the roles of Union and Confederate soldiers, nurses, surgeons, chaplains, and even nuns.

If you’re interested in the Civil War or historical reenacting, all of the article is well worth your time. But I was especially interested in the question of why there were 80% fewer reenactors at Gettysburg in 2018 than in 1998, when Ken Burns’ documentary series and James McPherson’s bestselling academic narrative had helped amplify Americans’ interest in their country’s civil war.

The question of declining participation in Civil War reenactment — one that reenactors themselves and other Civil War buffs discuss at length — is not a new one. Five years ago, Narratively published Jesse Marx’s profile of people reenacting the Battle of Mine Run, which took place about five months after Gettysburg. Marx noted that the world wars seemed to be taking over reenactors’ interest as the 150th commemoration of the Civil War neared its end, but he mostly emphasized economic and generational shifts:

The old guys are getting out of the game and, although it’s a young man’s hobby, the kids aren’t necessarily rushing to take their place. What was considered hardcore only a couple decades ago is now looked down upon. Meanwhile, the Great Recession has taken its toll on what was already an expensive endeavor. Time, in this case, may not be on their side. Their numbers have dropped significantly in the last 15 years and may never return.

Stole also mentioned cost of the hobby (“A reproduction Civil War rifle alone can cost more than $1,000”) and generational change as factors in the decline of Civil War reenactment. But she focused on something that didn’t come up in Marx’s profile of New Yorkers reenacting a Brooklyn regiment in the Union army: the importance of slavery and race in the history and memory of the Civil War.

In the 1980s and ’90s, “the whole tone of the country was different,” said Thomas Downes, 68, a retired machinist from Cleveland, who has been re-enacting for the Union side for 38 years.

“Up until the last five or 10 years, the social causes of the war did not come into what we do,” he said. “We were paying tribute to the fighting man.”

“It wasn’t ‘I’m racist and I want to glorify slavery,’” he said. “Nobody really thought a lot about the social reasons of why the South went to war. It was just these poor guys who were underfed, undermanned, underequipped, fighting valiantly to the last man, until they couldn’t stand anymore”…

It’s a vision of history placed in narrow context. The military details are meticulously researched and recreated down to the stitching of a uniform, but the broader social and political realities of the Civil War — the profound struggle over slavery and emancipation, racism and equality, citizenship and disenfranchisement — are largely confined to the margins.

Still, those issues can’t be ignored. After a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, where demonstrators wore swastikas and carried Confederate flags, and where an anti-racist protester named Heather Heyer was killed, at least two smaller Civil War re-enactments were canceled. That the battle flag Confederate re-enactors carry is still used as a means of intimidation makes it hard to defend as a purely historical object, independent of its racist implications.

A couple of thoughts here:

First, I’ve written before that “Americans are fascinated by the past, even if they dislike history” as an academic discipline. I’m still glad that “past-related activities” (or “popular historymaking”) like reenacting help Americans forge deeper connections to the past than what many experience in middle/high school and college history classes. (Marx observed that reenactment even helps some of its practitioners “to reconnect with their ancestors in the same way, as one veteran puts it, that Christians practice the Eucharist, Jews practice Passover, or Muslims practice Hajj.”) But Stole’s story also points to the importance of learning to think historically about the past.

She quotes a Union reenactor who is himself a history professor: “Re-enactors look at the war as a four-year period between 1861 and 1865 in which you can cut out all the stuff leading up to the war and very much ignore everything that happened afterward…. We don’t get tangled up in all the messy bits, which are the causes and outcomes, which are complicated and uncomfortable…” Which means that reenactors ignore much of the context, causation, and complexity that help us understand the past both as familiar and alien. And by disentangling themselves from the “messy bits,” reenactors risk blinding themselves not only to aspects of that complicated historical experience, but to the ways in which the past is never really past.

Ideally, reenactment would evolve to find ways to incorporate some of that complexity. For example, in my favorite book on Civil War memory, Confederates in the Attic (1998), journalist Tony Horwitz found that the “freedom of slaves didn’t figure much” in the motives or purposes of reenactors, for whom “ideology rarely intruded on the hobby”; but then, he observed, the reenactments he attended “were blindingly white affairs.” But Stole spoke to African American reenactors like Nathaniel Williams, Sr., who learned belatedly that his ancestors fought for the Union as cavalrymen: “‘I had no idea we were in the Civil War,’ said Mr. Williams, his horse grazing in a field behind his tent. ‘It was never taught to me. It opened up my eyes to a lot of things.'”

From what (little) I’ve read, it seems that most reenactors still want to bracket off questions of slavery and white supremacy. “We’re not here to debate slavery or states’ rights,” one Confederate accountant/reenactor told Horwitz, twenty years ago; this summer an engineer from Michigan told Stole that he and others “portray Confederates because they were the underdogs and they had all the odds stacked against them… The politics that caused the war, we don’t even care about.”

But it might not be that simple… Stole’s mention of a German “unit” taking part in this year’s Gettysburg reenactment made me think back to Horwitz’s encounter with Wolfgang Hochbruck of the University of Stuttgart, wearing Union blue at the Shiloh battlefield site:

For Wolfgang, as for many Germans of his generation, fascination with war was freighted with a much more complex self-doubt. “It is not easy to grow up with the knowledge of belonging to one of the most destructive people in world history,” he said. “I think some of the Confederate reenactors in Germany are acting out Nazi fantasies of racial superiority. They are obsessed with your war because they cannot celebrate their own vanquished racists.

And perhaps that’s still true. But re-reading that passage, I wondered if we might find American reenactment of the Civil War changing in a couple of ways.

On the one hand, Confederate reenactment may decline simply because it becomes less and less socially acceptable — if not actually illegal — to be seen to “celebrate [our] own vanquished racists.” On the other, there might be more reenactors like Wolfgang — a conscientious objector who opted out of military service in his native country and “hoped that both his academic work [teaching American studies courses on the Civil War] and his reenacting would ultimately buttress a pacifist message.”

Could reenactment grow into a “past-related activity” that immerses participants not just in the supposedly ideology-free minutiae of soldiers’ lives, but in the complicated thoughts, feelings, loves, and hates of those people — and in the process helped Americans wrestle with their own “complex self-doubt” as a people?

Maybe not. But if you’re a fellow Civil War buff, read the articles by Stole and Marx and pick up a copy of Confederates in the Attic.