Somebody Surrender, Quick!
By Mal Stylo
The other day after a long conversation with my pard Jonah Begone, it suddenly occurred to me that I don't care anymore who surrenders to whom next month as long as somebody damn well surrenders!
With all of us looking forward for so long to an event that represents a clear-cut Union victory, you may well ask why I say this. The reason is that Ambrose Bierce couldn't have scripted reenacting, in its present form, with more absurdity and surrealism than it has developed on its own. We now have battle reenactments where battles are viewed as interruptions to the main activities - which seem to be competing tea socials and fundamentalist revival meetings.
Yes, the tea social/sanitary fair/revival crowd is complaining in various newsletters and Civil War-related media that too much time is being used to reenact battles at battle reenactments. SHOCKING!! ("General McClellan, please get those wounded men and those piles of arms and legs out of the Dunker Church so we can clean up for tonight's dance!")
Let's face it: we reenact to escape - at least for one weekend - the pervasive regulation and complication of our daily lives. Add to this the new talk show-espoused philosophy of "sensitivity for the feelings of other persons," and it's no wonder that we try to escape 100+ years into the past where life is simple: shoot at the guys in gray and don't worry about being "sensitive to their feelings." Sure, there's some "authority" at a reenactment (e.g., the officers), but we can ignore them with impunity. Whether they realize it or not, they "govern with the consent of the governed." All we really have to do is follow the Ten Commandments plus one - "Thou shalt not fire thy musket at another reenactor if thou art close enough to do him harm."
Remember when a reenactment was two days of marching and skirmishing? This stopped at sundown so you could visit the sutlers, then resumed in the pre-dawn darkness of Sunday morning. You can't do that now because "Church" starts at 9 AM and the Dress Ball doesn't end until 1 AM. Now, Mega-Events are 3 to 9 days in duration, with about 8 hours total for battles; with the extra added attractions of fashion shows, seminars on, say, Victorian Mourning Customs, trivia bowls ("For fifty bonus points: how many rivets were used on the U.S.S. Monitor?"), etc. etc. ad nauseam. Do you know anybody (a REAL reenactor, that is) who has ever gone to one of these things, or wants to? Why aren't these seminars ever about anything practical, like breathing control for porta-potty users?
A newsletter we received from another unit last year stated in a column that the Wilderness reenactment could not be given a high "rating" because of a dearth of civilian activities (their assessment of the event turned out to be correct, although not for the reason they gave!). Care to guess how many dress balls, fashion shows, seminars, etc. took place during the real Battle of the Wilderness? Or Gettysburg?
This is not to say that there is no place for the civilian role in the battle reenactments we used to know and enjoy. At Gettysburg (the 1863 version, that is) civilians cowered in their cellars for three days or fled the area completely. One even managed to get shot. Modern civilian reenactors could cower in their own homes at any time, and flee the area AT THEIR OWN EVENT. (I will not comment on the possibilities offered by alternative number three.) Think of it: video tapes ($39.95 to the public, $29.95 for the version including "the making of..." footage for reenactors) featuring mobs of totally-period civilians leading rented horses, cows, turkeys, etc. fleeing down the Interstate from advancing hordes of mythical Yankees or Confederates, teaching people about fleeing and cowering just as our ancestors must have fled and cowered.
Another idea for a good soldier-civilian interaction event might be the New York City Draft Riots. Civilians can do what they want to do - interfere with the soldiers - and the soldiers can do what they want to do: shoot at the civilians.
Now let's look at the gospel revival groups. According to their sources, about three times as many Rebs as Yanks attend their functions. I guess that means us boys in blue will be outnumbered in the next world as well! Also, if you go to a dance (why?), drill (again, why?) or sleep (one I can relate to!) during one of "their" events, that's it, buddy - straight to eternity's furnace room you go!
One of this year's three Appomattox events bills itself as "The Final Chapter," but don't bet on that. Two more "Friday the 13th" movies followed their "Final Chapter," and in fact this may be the logical evolution of reenacting. It may indeed be "The Final Chapter" for the military phase of THE HOBBY and now we, or rather they, will reenact Reconstruction, the rise of The Gilded Age (plenty o'room for dances there!), the Settlement of the West, etc. So spruce up your citizen's clothes and practice your Virginny Reel 'cause the best in reenacting is yet to come!