Confronting the Great Pretenders

Dress up is for parties, not for war, and I wish Civil War re-enactors would put their energy into something else.

By Leila Mayo ("Back Page," Style Weekly, 5/23/95)

Don't get me wrong: I like dress-up as much as the next person. Putting on a costume and playing you're someone else has real, visceral pleasure. And I've done my share of dress-up, too: I've been June Cleaver - white gloves, crinolines, pill-box hat - at 1950's parties; at a Southwestern dinner I came as a trashy siren in blue jeans and 6-inch hot-pink heels. I've been an assortment of characters at Halloween.

But those who dress up as Civil War soldiers and civilians miss the point. Whether they are "re-enacting" a battle or the fall of Richmond, their costumed play acting contributes little to any understanding of historical events. While their intent may be childlike - the fun of adult dress-up in a re-creation of history - I think Civil War reenactors ought to retire their muskets and hoopskirts and go home. Unless the reenactors are willing to fully re-enact the horrific events they commemorate, they need to turn their attention to something more worthy. Perhaps without intending it, re-enactors' sanitized pantomime is a trivialization of what is one of the gravest and bloodiest eras in American history.

The origins and inevitability of the Civil War and whatever benefits it accrued are not the issues here. Who was right or wrong is not my point. The facts are the point: From 1861 to 1864, the War Between the States immersed the country in four years of large-scale, prolonged confrontation in battles. And like all such conflicts, the Civil War was a killing machine: Over half a million men died. As the years of the Civil War stretched on, for Southern soldiers in particular the deprivation was long. Many men fought with no shoes; they wore ragged, shabby uniforms; and, when they ate, they consumed insufficient, and at time spoiled, rations. There was little medicine for the sick and wounded, and at the end, no anesthesia for the all-too-frequent amputations. Because so many died and so many were needed in battle, there was no leave, often no pay, and, despite what the re-enactors would have us believe, little glory.

The horrors of the battles are legend. During the fiercest, bullets literally rained on the participants. On these battlefields most of all standing livestock fell and nearby houses were destroyed. Cold Harbor, a battle fought near Richmond, was brief and deadly: It is estimated 7,000 died in 30 minutes. Hundreds of men died at the Battle of the Crater, clawing their way out of a tunnel that collapsed, only to be greeted with opposing soldiers poised on the Crater's rim to shoot them down.

The deprivation of civilians was also extreme. Those captured in battle had a difficult time: Prisoners of war on both sides were herded into huge, ill-provisioned camps - one of the most infamous was located in Shockoe Bottom - and left without shelter, with inadequate water and food. Many starved or died from exposure.

The Civil War, in sum, was war at its standard brutality. And if you doubt this unappetizing, unromantic "version" of the Civil War, replace the images of Hollywood's sentimental pictures of the Civil War South and look at Matthew Brady's photographs taken after the battles. Brady shows us, in uncompromising black and white, the dead, the dying, the bodies in grotesque and sad postures, the starved prisoners of war. In Brady's pictures there are gaunt, hunted faces of battle survivors. There are corpses and corpses, people's sons and husbands and uncles and cousins and nephews and lovers, soldiers who often died in sad and lonely agony. At times so many died in one battle that there was no way to bury and identify them individually.

And this is what the re-enactors forget; re-enactments and their participants, adults dressing up as soldiers and playing at battle make a mockery of the real men who died and the people who were left to struggle on after them.

I am no spoil sport transplant who has just moved here and can't understand others' fascination for the Civil War South, I am a fifth-generation Richmonder and grew up immersed in the legend of the Civil War. An early memory is my grandmother carrying up the staircase, past the crossed Confederate flags in the hall, to show me a small chest. It was filled with carefully preserved Confederate currency, and she wanted me to see "what had been lost." When my other grandmother and I would go to Hollywood Cemetery to clip the ivy on the graves of her parents and grandparents, we would always walk a few yards to visit the nearby pyramid to the Confederate dead and pay our respects.

The Civil War and what it represented was part of my parents' lives, too: At 11, in 1930, my mother was president of the Richmond Children of the Confederacy. My father, for whom the Civil War was a present and real event, taught me early to recite the double names of almost all the major battles fought in the war (Antietam/Sharpsburg, Bull Run/Manassas, etc.) And because of relentless tutoring, I also knew - and was asked to recite - the names of generals and the details of what had happened at the Crater, at Cold Harbor, and during Pickett's Charge.

The Civil War, the Lost Cause, was all around me, but it never occurred to me to make of this event a playful celebration. What I learned was how to read behind the lines: My grandmothers looked tired when they talked of the Civil War. My mother was as a very small child required to visit the elderly veterans at the old Confederate Soldiers' Home, and she recalled, first, that they smelled bad and, second, that they cried when they talked of the battles.

And despite his knowledge of history of the Confederacy I wonder now if my father's interest in the Civil War didn't border on the obsessed. Like many other white Southerners, he deeply believed that the best was in the past, that the Civil War had ruined and shattered the South. His psychological legacy, and that of his family, was making do in a pinched, marginalized economy, and he died before the economic resurgence of the 1960's brought the South more into the American mainstream. Because of the Civil war he assumed the role of outsider, and the history of those four years did little to soothe him.

Today, I think of the people left behind, the old men and the boys, the widows and young girls, all facing Reconstruction years of incredibly reduced expectations: damaged houses, poor food, threadbare clothes, no money, and, more importantly, a shortage of male adults. I look at the Matthew Brady pictures and see not the glory, but the death.

So what I hate about re-enactments is not the harmless indulgence of a bunch of well-meaning adults who want to pretend - but the inadvertent trivialization of death and destruction and destruction, the lack of understanding of the horror behind the war. The Civil War was an orgy of death. It wasn't romantic; it wasn't fun. It was war, violent, brutal, unforgiving, and irremediable. It was fought in mud and vomit and tears. It shaped modern America in a real way; it also ruined a region's economy and shattered lives.

If we want to re-enact, let's have the whole story, the full story. While we parade into battle, let's set up a sound system so we can hear the screams of the wounded, the moans of the dying. Let's have some volunteers decorate the re-enactors with gallons of ketchup for the blood and pounds of rubber stuff for the wounds and torn tissue. For those who choose to re-enact death, let's use some fresh road kill on the highways to provide the smell of decaying flesh.

Dress-up is for parties, not war, and I just wish Civil war re-enactors would put their energy and interest into something other than pretending. Slapping on a uniform, polishing up that reproduction revolver and putting on that bonnet and crinoline has nothing to do with the real tragedy of the Civil War. Faced with those four years which represent the unalterable sadness of death and decay and lost dreams, we do very well to remember the words of Robert E. Lee: "It is good that war is so terrible, otherwise men would become too fond of it." For people to profess to honor a part of our nation's history, Civil War re-enactors are just too fond of war. They are, in essence, great pretenders, "re-enacting" something they do not understand and, inadvertently, mocking the bloody and grave tragedy of the Civil War.

Leila Mayo is a Richmond writer. Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


Here's my friend Kim Allen Scott's response to the preceding Style Weekly article. - Jonah

A "puritan" has been defined as a person obsessed with the fact that somewhere, somebody might be having a good time. The particular activity is not as important as the enjoyment thereof to the puritan -- a stone-faced moralist who would just as soon condemn all hilarity to the stocks.

An outstanding example of the true puritan spirit has been displayed in the latest Style Weekly penned by the great-granddaughter of Silence Dogood herself, Ms. Leila Mayo. With the disgust of self-righteous indignation Ms. Mayo tars the practitioners of Civil War reenacting with broad strokes, describing them as immature types "glorifying" the bloody deeds of 1861-1865. Tongue-in-cheek, Ms. Mayo suggests the addition of "roadkill" to reenactment scenarios for the proper odor of battle, gallons of ketchup to simulate gore, and amplification systems to broadcast the ersatz screams of the wounded men. Her argument, quite simply put, is that a realistic depiction of warfare is impossible, and therefore the practitioners of sham battles should properly stay at home contemplating the greater issues of life.

I pity the ignorance of Ms. Mayo, not only for her puritanical inability to allow others the sinless enjoyment of a good time, but for her abysmal ignorance of the entire concept of history. The mock battles and sham hospitals she rails against are mere representations of the past, nothing more. Ms. Mayo wants a picture presented to her that conforms to her own mental "reenactment" of the past and finds fault that we of the hobby cannot provide this service. Unfortunately, no author, movie maker or museum curator will be able to satisfy the unreasonable demands of Ms. Mayo for unvarnished historical "truth." The best any of us can do is offer an interpretation, a filter through which the actions of 130 years ago must pass before understanding can begin. To Ms. Mayo the Civil War is a bloodbath of mud, vomit, and destruction; to you it is something entirely different, and to me it is something else. There is no consensus on what occurred in the last hour much less the last century. Just try making sense out of several witness statements regarding a traffic accident and speak to me of historical "truth."

But the real pity here is for a woman who has lost her inner child and for her inability to allow others who have not, the freedom to indulge without damnation. Yes, Ms. Mayo, "Ring Around the Rosy" refers to the scourge of the plague, and "Davy Crockett" really did slaughter game and desert his family. Most adults, however, can listen to children reciting nursery rhymes or movie songs without sending them to the ducking stool.

A final note by Jonah Begone

I couldn't have expressed it better than Kim Scott, only he missed one aspect of Mayo's piece that sticks out like a sore thumb to me: Her apparent weariness with the American Civil War in general. (She's so tired of it she refers to it as "The War Between the States" only initially. I wonder what her forebears think of her...) It's understandable, given the relentless propagandizing her family did with her during her formative years. (Clearly, this is one family that should have spent more time at picnics and theme parks!) It's therefore not surprising Ms. Mayo would wax cranky when the subject of Civil War reenacting came up. I feel her pain: After more than 13 years in the hobby I get tightened jaws when someone gets poetic about the war, myself. (As a weekend pursuit, golf looks better and better.)

However, in her screed Ms. Mayo indulges herself in the same style of "The Civil War was a horrible, terrible, blood-spattering, pus-filled wound-smelling, flesh-rendering, bone-snapping, economy-wrecking atrocity" style of writing that characterizes the worst of reenacting literature. (Road kill and P.A. systems? Good grief!) Mayo doesn't realize that far from not understanding the pain that the Civil War represented, reenactors positively revel in it!

My advice to Ms. Mayo: Forsake Richmond and move to Los Angeles, where she can reenact June Cleaver with others, The War Between the States is only fodder material for some star's next ego vehicle and the lighting technicians regard us as being from another planet.