Glenn W. LaFantasie: The foolishness of Civil War reenactors

Roundup: Talking About History

Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. More: Glenn W. LaFantasie

Last month, the Civil War sesquicentennial began with a bang with a "living history" event in Charleston, S.C., that commemorated the firing on Fort Sumter, the momentous act of violence that started the war.

If you’re not familiar with what "living history" means, this is a term that Civil War reenactors use to describe their hobby of dressing up in Union and Confederate uniforms and acting out battles and other significant events that occurred between 1861 and 1865. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired (for real) on Fort Sumter, a military installation manned by federal troops, and continued the bombardment for more than 30 hours, when, outgunned and almost out of supplies, the Union commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered the fort and its garrison. It was the fall of Fort Sumter that began the Civil War, and modern reenactors pretended to do it all over again, only this time they did not use live ammunition, did not keep modern Charlestonians from getting their sleep by sustaining the thunder of cannons through the night, and presumably did no damage to the preserved stone walls of the Fort Sumter National Monument, which is located on an island in the middle of Charleston harbor.

In fact, the "living historians" at Charleston fudged the history more than a little by firing their first shot at the fort at 6:45 in the morning rather than at the very famous historical time of 4:30 a.m. Presumably, this enabled the reenactors to sleep a little later than their historical counterparts did 150 years ago. Then, when the mortar shot was finally fired to begin the reenactment, it barely sailed up 40 yards or so into the sky, although the noise it made was,according to the Charleston Post and Courier, "thunderous." But the newspaper also reported that the pyrotechnics left something to be desired: Rather than the "star shell" of a century and  a half ago, the explosion seemed more like a "bottle rocket." The fireworks technician in charge of the mortar shot explained that the burst was "intentionally weak, as a safety precaution to the crowds of people on hand to witness the waterfront ceremony." So much for historical accuracy....

In fact, the entire idea of commemorating the Civil War strikes me as perverse, including bloodless battle reenactments. Why would anyone want to replicate one of the worst episodes in American history? Why would anyone want to pretend to be fighting a battle that resulted in lost and smashed lives on the field and utter grief among the soldiers’ loved ones back home? Is there any uplifting message to be derived from such playacting? What’s more, these "reenactments" are contrived and orchestrated. In order to avoid everyone falling down and playing dead during these battle plays (or no one falling down at all), reenactors decide by lottery in advance who will clutch their heart and tumble to the ground as though they’ve been hit; some of the fallen inevitably try to lie still if they are supposed to be dead, others try to simulate wounded men by crawling away from the scene of "carnage" (if you pay attention, you’ll see that they’re actually crawling to the nearest shade tree), while still others sometimes try stealthily to get their hat over their faces to avoid sunburn....

comments powered by Disqus