Campfire Ramblings - Please study, 1986
by Jonah Begone
I'm sure all of you heard the expression "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing." This is nowhere more true than in history. Thanks to the efforts of a misguided and uneducated few, a great many people believe that U.S. Grant was a drunk, the Northern states fought the Civil War to free the slaves, Confederate soldiers wore gray uniforms and Yankees wore blue, etc. etc. etc.
This misinformation is prevalent in the media, especially in what is termed "mass media." I'm sure we've all seen things on television that have made us collectively choke. One such masterpiece is the ABC Television network production of the John Jakes novels "North and South" and "War and Remembrance."
Now, I don't watch "Dallas", "Dynasty", "Falcon Crest" or other productions of that ilk because I find the strategy of using sex to enliven mediocre teleplays offensive. But at least they're honest -- they don't claim to teach morals or history, they exist to entertain a prurient segment of the viewing audience that enjoys watching people suffer. This is where the "North and South" mini-series fails miserably: it is not honest to itself nor to the nineteenth century events it tries to portray.
Victorian American society was characterized by (to our eyes) maudlin over-emotionalism and theatricality. The quotes we read in the history books may sound unreal and staged to us, but this was actually the way people spoke. (At least formally -- I suspect that during the heat of battle the communication was much less polite and more terse!) We don't even see a slight attempt to recreate this in "North and South." What we get are twentieth century people in nineteenth century clothes living twentieth century prime-time soap opera situations!
And another thing -- those of you that know me realize I'm no Confederate partisan, but still I'm thoroughly annoyed by the Southern stereotypes present in this series, and this production has them all. How many times are we going to see scenes of monstrous plantation overseers beating slaves or high-bred ladies sleeping with the field hands? And are we to believe that the women in the South were all either conniving and wicked or peaches-and-cream pure? Enough already! Let's have an honest and accurate depiction of life during the Civil War instead of yet another second-rate remake of "Gone with the Wind!
Of course I have to admit that the battle sequences in the series were very well filmed and looked great -- Hollywood's technical skills have long ago surpassed its skills at coming up with decent screenplays -- and I also acknowledge that this series may get people interested in their heritage as Americans. I just object to the "pop history" manner in which my favorite period of time is treated.
Unfortunately, however, pop history sells, and to many people "North and South" will be their only reference as to what the Civil War was like. People don't want honesty, they want entertainment; they like to read stories in the National Enquirer about how John F. Kennedy was the victim of an anti-Catholic plot hatched by the CIA, or about how ancient astronauts built Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. I recently read an explanation of how Secretary Of War Edwin M. Stanton was behind the Lincoln assassination conspiracy! Somehow it doesn't seem to be enough that actual characters (and our ancestors) lived in interesting times -- there has to be a mysterious angle or some intrigue behind the factual account.
Without sounding too pompous let me explain why we have such a responsibility as reenactors: we have to accurately interpret history for the public, and do it in an interesting enough manner so that people can get a sense of honest history instead of the trumped-up Hollywood version. Because education is such a major factor in what we do (and this explains why many reenactors are teachers), we have to make sure we don't over-simplify what was in fact a very complex period in our history. A good example is a reenactor friend of mine who does an impression of a slave-owning Maryland Yankee! Historically possible, yet not of the popular norm.
What I'm saying here is please study . It's not enough to go out to an event to blow powder, drink beer and have fun. We need to learn, "experience what it was like", and have fun. The centennial reenactors, being new at the game, pretty much blew it as far as authenticity was concerned. Now, 25 years later, we have a chance to do it right.
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In the last "Campfire Ramblings" you may remember that I mentioned the possible commercialization of portions of the Antietam battlefield, and made a plea to you to write to the appropriate authorities to voice your opinion on this matter. A few days ago I received the following letter on the subject:
Thank you for your letter of recent date concerning the rezoning of property near Sharpsburg in Washington County.
I want to emphasize that the Grove house and portions of the property to which so much historical significance has been attached, although requested for rezoning, was not approved for rezoning by the Board of County Commissioners. The portion which was rezoned is approximately twelve acres which fronts Route 34 and which, as I said, does not include any buildings on the property. Furthermore, the property in question is not a part or contiguous to the Antietam Battlefield as it is located west of the Town of Sharpsburg and is approximately one mile from the westernmost boundary of the Antietam National Battlefield Park.
I very strongly feel that the federal government, through our elected federal representatives and the National Park Service, must take the lead in adding this property to the boundaries of Antietam Battlefield National Park. It is my understanding that members of Congress from several states, including Florida, California and Maryland, have expressed interest in placing the buildings on this property under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. I urge you and others interested in this matter to contact the appropriate federal officials in this regard, and I want to assure you that I personally will do anything possible in support of these efforts.
Also, within the past week, a group known as the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, Inc., was organized. This is a private group whose purpose is to preserve this property. The Foundation address is Save Historic Antietam Foundation, Inc., c/o John Urner, Esq., 100 West Washington St., Hagerstown, MD 21740. Thank you for the benefit of your views concerning this matter.
Ronald L. Bowers, President
Board of County Commissioners of Washington County, Maryland
So there it is. While the second paragraph seems hopeful in tone I still wonder about the future. I intend to write to the "Save Historic Antietam Foundation" to inquire about the preservation efforts and voice my concern, and of course I urge you to do likewise.