The American Civil War Sesquicentennial: Relocating issues of the Past in Contemporary War Reenactments

“Many times, the quest for authenticity is a barrier to audience interaction, as audiences do not expect authenticity or understand the reenactor’s desire for it” (Clemons 14)

Ever since it emerged as an American hobby in the early 1960’s, war reenactment has played a significant role in how stories of war are told and remembered (Thompson 30).  Although battles from many wars are reenacted today, Civil War reenactment is practiced most in the United States (Thompson xiv).  According to Leigh Clemons, associate professor of Theater at Louisiana State University, the purpose of these performances is “to educate… audiences about the history of the war and the living conditions of the soldiers who fought in it” (Clemons 10).  Reenactors succeed in this goal if they can deliver authentic representations of the past.  The quest for authenticity is integral to the practice of war reenactment – if performers do not deliver an authentic embodiment of a time period, it devaluates their demonstration because observers walk away with false information.  However, a truly authentic demonstration can cause a lot of problems. This is because onlookers tend to interpret more realistic reenactments as political statements advocating past ideals – this has been seen a lot with the reenactments of the Civil War sesquicentennial celebration (Clemons 16).  To locate this idea in a contemporary context, one can look at two main opposing groups – The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The former is an organization who’s goal it is to “[preserve] the history and legacy of [Confederate] heroes, so future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause” – they do so through reenactments and ceremonies and have been very active in the sesquicentennial celebration (http://www.scv.org/).  The latter, however, “is against reenactments nationwide” – they are the nations oldest and largest civil rights organization, and find authentic Confederate reenactments to be racist and in support of slavery (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/852680/posts).  After analysis of recent reenactments by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the response they have yielded, it is apparent that Confederate reenactors, despite maintaining authenticity, challenge current American ideals.  Sesquicentennial reenactments and their subsequent reactions by protest organizations and the media have guided issues of the 1860s back into the social sphere, and keep struggles of the Civil War alive.  To fully explore the effects that war reenactments have in contemporary American society, one must first look at its origins and attempt to fully understand the goal of looking at history through performance.

Before the Civil War centennial in 1961, war reenactment did not play a role in remembering American war efforts.  However, it was decided that performers would reenact the Battle of Bull Run to start the celebration – at this point, reenactment was largely a practice of entertainment.  However, one of the biggest critiques of the demonstration was its lack of authenticity – there were hot dog stands, tents, and other vendors surrounding the performance (Thompson 31).  Critics complained that this reenactment was “silly business,” and that the true tragedy of war was not represented (Thompson 31).  As a result, reenactments were banned from the final event of the centennial, which commemorated the surrender at Appomattox.  However, when compared to earlier ceremonies, which incorporated large reenactment demonstrations, the Appomattox celebration was seen as lackluster.  This triggered those who enjoyed reenactments to band together and create performances of their own, and war reenactments emerged as an American hobby.  However, this new wave of performers took the critiques of the centennial to heart – the notion of authenticity became the most important aspect of war reenactment.  With this development, “performative representations [began to shape] audience’s understanding of the past,” and serious groups devoted to promoting Civil War memory began to use authentic reenactment as a tool for recollection of Confederate heritage (Magelssen 2).  One such group is the Sons of Confederate Veterans – they began using performance during this time to honor those who fought under the Confederate flag and memorialize the Confederacy.  They will be discussed in more detail soon.  First, one must look at this notion of authenticity – why is it so important, and why has it caused so much trouble in the sesquicentennial celebration?

As it was mentioned before, a large goal of reenactors is to educate an audience about a certain point in human history.  Obviously, in order to do this, they must put on an authentic performance.  If they do not, it could result in miscommunication of information and subsequent misunderstanding of history.  Many individuals who engage in authentic reenactment take their craft very seriously – hardcore reenactors have been known to drop lots of weight to fit a role (Clemons 11). Magelssen argues that this allows “an understanding of the past more accessible, more efficacious, and more authentic than a more traditionally accepted medium like a book or article.” (Magelssen 6).  However, it can be a slippery slope to navigate.  Magelssen mentions that one has to consider censorship and family-friendliness when planning many of these events.  Although authenticity is important, one also needs to keep in mind that notion of accessibility – if audience members can not connect to a reenactment or living history demonstration because there is no connection to their own time period, they walk away confused.  Leigh Clemons examines this idea very closely in her research about reenactments of the Texas Revolution.

Clemons, although she does not work directly with Civil War reenactment, studies the notion of authenticity and its important role.  She discusses the idea of embodiment –many individuals, in order to create the most authentic environment possible, choose not to break character – they seek to become another person.  She explored this idea while attending a reenactment of the Goliad massacre of the Texas Revolution.  Her goal was to discover what truly made a powerful reenactment and found that it was a balance between authenticity and accessibility – “the ability of the participants to relate to people both inside and outside of their impressions…makes Goliad a very accessible event” (Clemons 14).  This balance is not something that has been seen as much during the Civil War reenactments of the sesquicentennial.  They focus more on authenticity – especially with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the idea of remembrance is more important than education.  This is the big issue at play in the sesquicentennial – “many times, the quest for authenticity is a barrier to audience interaction, as audiences do not expect authenticity or understand the reenactor’s desire for it” (Clemons 14).  Although Clemons mentions “Confederate soldier reenactors are not bound…to have an opinion on slavery,” individuals and organizations across the nation assume they do because they are so authentic with their proceedings (Clemons 10).  Authenticity becomes an even bigger issue when addressing reenactments of the Civil War.  While other wars have US troops pitted against other nations, the Civil War was an internal conflict.  Authentic reenactments of battles from other wars result in feelings of US nationalism or sympathy, but authentic reenactments of the Civil War can, and do, result in shame for our nations past issues.  Clemons mentions that “channeling past actions into present representations helps to resolidify the binaries that fuel animosities” (Clemons 16).  When groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans remember events that others are so ashamed of, it results in the resolidification of those binaries, as Clemons warns – backlash surrounding Sons of Confederate Veterans events has been seen in the sesquicentennial celebration, and can be demonstrated through the many interactions between the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the NAACP.

Ever since the Sons of Confederate Veterans started putting together war reenactments and memorialization ceremonies, the NAACP has been challenging their progress.  There were conflicts between these two groups long before the sesquicentennial.  In 2003, the Sons organized a reenactment of the Battle of Hickory Creek – it was a fictional battle “loosely based on the massive overland invasion of western Louisiana in the fall of 1863” (Martin).  Despite being a fictional battle, the NAACP sought to end it, “citing racism and hatred as its reason for opposition” (Martin).  Although it was an effort to remember southern heritage, people claimed it was an event supporting white supremacy.  What observers fail to understand is the purpose of these reenactments – they are not in direct support of slavery.  However, Patricia Ybarra makes a nice point in her essay Performing History as Memorialization that it is impossible for people to separate the Civil War from slavery.  Referring to slavery, she claims “there is simply no logic that can rectify this injustice for contemporary audiences” (Ybarra 120).  Since this separation is impossible, observation of any authentic Confederate reenactment immediately leads one to believe that those conducting it are in support of slavery.  This is not the case – their authenticity is a result of a strong desire to hold true to history and give their ancestors the respect and honor they deserve.  However, with the sesquicentennial bringing everything related to the Civil War into public light, more people, including the NAACP, have been labeling the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a disgrace to the United States, claiming that they promote the same oppressive ideals as their ancestors.

The first event that the Sons of Confederate Veterans sponsored for the sesquicentennial was a “Secession Ball” in Charlestown, South Carolina.  The NAACP met this effort head on, staging a full protest of the proceedings.  This conflict demonstrates what Clemons argued – that placing old issues in a contemporary context polarizes the community and maintains the social relevance of these problems.  With this issue, the NAACP made an interesting argument.  They compare Confederate officials to Nazi leaders and terrorists.  NAACP says that honoring fallen leaders of the Confederacy can be equated to German people honoring their Nazi predecessors (Collins).  Again, the relocation of slavery is a big issue at play – people cannot bring themselves to find anything related to the oppression of blacks ethically acceptable.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans argued back against the NAACP, stating that this was supposed to “honor the Southern men who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their homes and their vision of states’ rights” (Collins).  It is true that the Sons of Confederate Veterans are paying homage to individuals that fought for the constitution to support slavery, however, their primary goal is to remember a period of American history that has been cast aside.  Just as it was seen in Ken Burns’ documentary, Union and Confederate soldiers have been able to make amends – they were seen shaking hands and laughing at the most recent reunion.  Both sides were instrumental in shaping the nation as it is today, so it is important to remember their efforts and leaders – these demonstrations help to retain our nations history and never forget how we got here. They are not honoring the ideals of the Confederacy, despite NAACP critiques.  In fact, they make it clear that they have feelings against slavery (Collins).  They honor the courage of their ancestors to stand up for what they believed in.   The Sons of Confederate Veterans are authentic because they remember a time that everyone seeks to forget – they do not censor history, they remember it for what it is, honoring them for the instrumental role they played in shaping the United States.

Soon after this secession reenactment, the Sons of Confederate Veterans led another event – this one honoring Jefferson Davis, the first president of the Confederacy.  This was less of a reenactment and more of a ceremony, but still incredibly relevant to the issue at hand.  Members of the organization from across the nation came together in Montgomery, Alabama, wearing Confederate uniforms, adding to the sense of authenticity.  Critics, once again, claimed this was an event in support of slavery.  However, they were honoring the role this man played in Southern, and therefore American, heritage, not the notion of slavery.  Here we see a few new ideas – the Sons of the Confederate Veterans made a point to say that this event was to instill pride in Southerners because they have been taught to be ashamed of their heritage.  This marked one of the first events the group sponsored that was targeted directly at southerners and southern pride.  The group realizes that America is seeking to rid this chapter from its history, and finds it the responsibility of the South to keep Confederate heritage alive.  This event was also interpreted widely on a national scale, since it was a ceremony in honor of one man’s life and not a reenactment of previous events.  Because of this, it has been widely interpreted as a national embarrassment – reporter Josh Moon of the Montgomery Advertiser stated that “Montgomery and Alabama would once again be cast as backwards, racist hillbillies” (BBC).  American’s simply do not understand the point of the demonstrations.  It ties into what Clemons said – people do not understand why reenactors and demonstrators feel the need to be authentic.  When an observer cannot relate to these events, he judges the reenactor for being foolish and ignorant of what life is like today.  However, it is important to reiterate that these men do not condone slavery in the least.  They seek to be sure that the history of the south is remembered, and do so with success.

The NAACP is not the only organization that has critiqued the actions of the Sons of Confederate Veterans – they have also been criticized, even ridiculed, by popular news media.  Both Bill Maher and John Stewart, who host satirical news shows on HBO and Comedy Central, respectively, have made an effort to tell Americans how ridiculous the Sons of Confederate Veterans are.  They both directly attack the celebration of Jefferson Davis, spreading their ideas across the nation and getting more support against the efforts to remember the Confederacy.  This is particularly relevant because, according to a study done by Rasmussen Reports in 2009, roughly one third of Americans under the age of 40 get their news from satirical news programs (Rasmussen Reports).  This means that a great percentage of young people are treating these criticisms, largely rooted in southern stereotypes, as news.  In these programs, they blatantly make fun of individuals living in the south, somehow assuming that these events demonstrate that all southerners still advocate slavery.  Bill Maher, in response to the Jefferson Davis ceremony, that “southerners have more disconnects than AT&T,” to which the audience responds with roaring applause.  He also says that he is “not trying to offend [his] southern friends, mostly because [they’re] on meth and packing heat.”  Finally, he refers to the southerners as “the losers,” continuing the tension today.  They are not losers anymore – they are Americans who are trying to remember important moments in American history. Stewarts program makes similar claims – in a condescending address to the south, his correspondent assures them that no one will take away their sweet tea and pecan pie, and they end the segment miming playing the fiddle and spoons. The majority of people watching these shows are young, and will be the ones continuing this conflict into their adulthood – it shows that this issue, one that is being prolonged today by an aversion to uncensored American history, will continue in the future as young people maintain these beliefs and, especially, stereotypes.

In many ways, by looking at these media responses, one might draw the conclusion that many of today’s southern stereotypes stem from the fact that they lost the Civil War.  For some bizarre reason, the collective south is viewed in popular culture to be stupid, and they are not taken seriously despite their authentic memorial efforts.  What the media outlets fail to recognize is that it is not the goal of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to reenact and support notions of slavery, but remember American heritage and history. Bill Maher and John Stewart separate themselves from these people and fail to acknowledge that the establishment of the Confederacy and the Civil War were defining moments in American history, not just southern history. Maher says that the Confederate troops were fighting on the “wrong side,” and therefore should not be remembered.  They were not fighting on the wrong side; they were fighting on the losing side.  History is written by the winners, and had the Confederates won, this sesquicentennial might be focusing on the foolishness of Union reenactors.  Maher and Stewart have lost that perspective – they, too, are involved in prolonging these issues, and need to realize that rooting the conflict in southern stereotypes only promotes further tension.

Maher on Son of Confederate Veterans

Stewart on Sons of Confederate Veterans

The disagreements regarding sesquicentennial reenactments between the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the NAACP and other critics demonstrate that the conflict of the Civil War is still very much alive today.  Historian Eric Foner of Columbia University says that these events demonstrate “that we still haven’t come quite to terms with the significance of slavery in American history” (BBC).  This is true – no observers can look at these events for what they are – a commemoration of the Confederate troops that fought just as hard and long as the Union soldiers, but only received brutal criticism.  Regardless of their desire to keep slavery, which was legal throughout their lives and integral to their way of life despite being unethical, they deserve to be recognized for the role they played in the construction of our nation.  Furthermore, the Sons of Confederate Veterans deserve some support in their efforts to remember the Southern story.  Sesquicentennial reenactment efforts by the Sons of Confederate Veterans are not rooted in the support of slavery, despite popular belief.  The authenticity of Confederate reenactments throws off observers – they cannot relate, and therefore assume their efforts to support some ideology of slavery.  However, they are rooted in the preservation of American history and heritage, and they deserve some legitimacy.  Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of America is not ready to give them that recognition – most would rather cast the past aside in embarrassment, dub the south with stupidity, and live in ignorance of the fact that slavery was a significant part of our nations past.  The reenactment efforts of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans have gone against much of what contemporary America believes should be remembered, resulting in the continuation of Civil War conflict.  This conflict will never cease to exist until the Confederacy is considered to be an important chapter in United States history.  Only then will we be able to look at Confederate reenactments for what they truly are: an authentic representation of real American conflict, heroism, and heritage.

Bibliography

Magelssen, Scott, and Rhona Justice-Malloy. Enacting History. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2011. Print.

Clemons, Leigh. “Present Enacting Past: The Functions of Battle Reenacting in Historical Representation.” Enacting History. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2011. Print.

Cruden, Robert. The War That Never Ended: the American Civil War. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Print.

Cullen, Jim. The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1995. Print.

Collins, Shawn. “NAACP Chapter Opposes Civil War Reenactment.” Free Republic. 26 Feb. 2003. Web. 12 May 2011. <http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/852680/posts>.

“BBC News – Civil War: Southerners Remember Confederate President.” BBC – Homepage. 18 Feb. 2011. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-12488150>.

Collins, Jeffrey. “NAACP Protests ‘Secession Ball’ In South Carolina.” The Huffington Post. 20 Dec. 2010. Web. 12 May 2011. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/20/naacp-secession-ball-south-carolina_n_799494.html>.

“Jon Stewart’s Civil War Sesquicentennial.” Civil War Memory — Reflections of a Civil War Historian & High School History Teacher. Web. 12 May 2011. <http://cwmemory.com/2010/12/10/jon-stewarts-civil-war-sesquicentennial/>.

“Maher to the Sons of Confederate Veterans: Gone With the Wind Was Just a Movie Made in Culver City – By Jews.” Video Cafe. 18 Feb. 2011. Web. 13 May 2011. <http://videocafe.crooksandliars.com/heather/maher-sons-confederate-veterans-gone-wind>.

Harrop, Froma. “Nearly One-Third of Younger Americans See Colbert, Stewart As Alternatives to Traditional News Outlets – Rasmussen Reports™.” Rasmussen Reports™: The Most Comprehensive Public Opinion Data Anywhere. 30 Mar. 2009. Web. 13 May 2011.

<http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/lifestyle/entertainment/march_2009/nearly_one_third_of_younger_americans_see_colbert_stewart_as_alternatives_to_traditional_news_outlets>.

Ybarra, Patricia. “Performing History as Memorialization.” Print. Rpt. in Enacting History. By Scott Magelssen. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2011. Print.

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