My dad and I went to the 150th anniversary and reenactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg (we tend to geek out over the same kind of things). It was an appropriately foggy morning, and the hundreds of onlookers chattered quietly and merrily while we searched for the perfect viewing spot. Reenactors snapped pictures of each other with smart phones and antebellum ladies carried around fancy DSLRs, using their dress as a kind of pass to get beyond the barriers set up for the audience.
The smartly dressed union soldiers loaded up onto boats to cross the river and the battle began, with the cracking fake gunshots and the booming of cannons, smoke replacing the dissipating fog. It was lively, children squealed, and as soldiers began to pretend-die, I had a sudden, obvious, and disconcerting thought.
Why do we do this?
Half a million people died in the Civil War. Families were not just torn apart, but turned against each other. Death, starvation, and destruction became the norm for many. Whole states were burned. Pretend as we might that 150 years is a really long time, the effects of the Civil War are still visible today, at least in the South.
Why would we glorify that? Immortalize it in yearly reenactments?
I tried to tuck this thought in the back of my mind, as we pushed through the crowd to follow the battle. It had moved up the riverbank and into the streets. Then everything paused for a while and we watched some Confederate dead rise again and have lunch.
“What are you doing?” somebody shouted at them; “The Union soldiers are right over there!”
“We’re dead!” One of them shouted back.
The fife and drum corps marched merrily past and at 11 AM, right on cue, the street skirmishes began. Instead of being pushed back against a hill, as we had been for the first battle, the onlookers crowded along the streets and cheered and whooped and shouted with the reenactors. Blue, sulfery smoke filled the air and although I wasn’t cheering, whooping, or shouting (I’ve never been one to do any of those), the atmosphere was charged and parade-like, a far cry from the gloomy thoughts I’d had at the start of the battle.
“Go home, Jeff Davis!” one Union officer shouted to the crowd, “Go home, you dirty rebels!” The crowd, obviously Rebel sympathizers, booed and shouted and laughed back. The gunshots were ear-ringingly bright and one Confederate took a full five minutes for his own dramatic death in the face of the Union. Aside from wishing for earplugs, it was fun, like a football game, only – oddly enough – with less antipathy between rivals.
In light of how utterly devastating the CW was, maybe this kind of reenacting – good-tempered, festive, but with just enough fake death to remind you that it wasn’t a game – may be one of the best ways to remember it. It should be remembered, in all its shameful causes and wrenching destruction; yet, we shouldn’t live in condemnation of each other for it, and we shouldn’t sweep it under the rug. Reenactments may be an overly light way to address it, and I’m not sure what the participants of the original would think of it, but the CW absolutely should be addressed and remembered.