Harvard Versus the Civil War Reenactors

Historians in the News

Lewis McCrary is a TAC senior editor.

...In May, Drew Faust, president of Harvard and an acclaimed Civil War historian, was invited to Washington to deliver the National Endowment for the Humanities’ prestigious Jefferson Lecture. While some lecturers shy away from controversy, Faust seemed to relish the opportunity to atone for her predecessor Larry Summers’s sins of political incorrectness.

Faust properly observed that the purposes for going to war are often muddled, reminding the audience of the Bush administration’s rush to Iraq after 9/11. But then the real enemies of history were in her sights. Ron Paul and latter-day advocates of nullification—the former guilty of “declaring Lincoln and the war responsible for arrogations of central power that Tea Party originalists and libertarians are dedicated to overturn”—were classed with “significant segments of the American population, particularly in the South” who “continue to reject the slavery as a fundamental cause of the war…”

Reenactors help to enforce this false narrative, said Faust, reflecting on her childhood experience of the Civil War centennial, which took place against the backdrop of the 1960s civil rights movement....

To the reenactors at Bull Run, Faust is the one guilty of forgetting. “History is always written by the winners,” said one middle-aged man in a Union uniform after the battle. Though he was from Buffalo, he sympathized with the South. His views had in part been shaped by popular histories like Alexander Hunter’s 1905 novel Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, which tells the story from the point of view of the average soldier. There was no latent bigotry in the encampment, he insisted, with black and women reenactors welcome. And while the participants gathered around the campfire largely eschewed talk of politics, “most people who come to these things are conservative....

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