Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Soldier's Correspondence from the Civil War's 150th: Chancellorsville

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War upon us, Lewis Norman (not his real name), a Ph.D candidate in American history at a major research university and a Civil War re-enactor, offers another column about re-enacting and the experience of war.  See his previous columns here.

I am sure that there a variety of opinions about historical re-enacting among the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I do feel it has the potential to be a legitimate and valuable way of getting people excited about the past.  As an academic historian-in-training and a re-enactor, Norman's columns will attempt to bridge the gap between these two approaches to encountering the past.  Enjoy!--JF


The Battle of Chancellorsville is widely known among historians both amateur and professional as General Robert E. Lee's finest victory.  It is equally known for being the location where Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson was shot by his own men after completing one of the most daring flanking attacks of the entire war.  All of that imagery is alive and well in the wilderness of eastern Virginia even now for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  Consider a few of the reflections I offer here as an expression of my experiences on the “front lines” of the 150th anniversary of the war as it played out for the national reenactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 6 and 7, 2013.

A few of my “pards” and I decided to head to the battlefield an entire day early (on the 5th) for the purpose of seeing the actual ground on which the battle had taken place.  Here's an initial point that perhaps most history buffs and scholars do not know; reenactments rarely take place on the original ground.  Because most of the biggest battles of the war are preserved by the National Park Service, living historians are not allowed to fire weapons on that land.  Therefore, most of these large national events (yes, even Gettysburg) actually take place on land nearby.  That said, our initial trip to see the battlefield was full of foibles due to our own navigation mistakes.  However, one of the mistakes led us to the small display at Kelly's Ford.

After our brief stop at the relatively unassuming but no less educational “Civil War Trails” marker for Kelly's Ford, we pressed on to the main NPS visitor's center for Chancellorsville.  There we had an opportunity to hear a ranger talk on “The Wounding of Stonewall Jackson” and even saw the monument dedicated to the event.  The vivid detail of the action as told by the ranger was everything many of us “Civil War nuts” originally loved about the war.  It was full of grace and power and literally the stuff of legend.  (Had I encountered it pre-graduate school, I would have certainly loved it more.)

My comrades had found an awesome camping location a bit off the beaten path of the mainstream rows of tents.  Despite the rock I slept on Friday night, it was a comfortable camp with a quaint timelessness to it.  Camped along a mostly-stagnant creek with enough firewood to keep us warm in the 40-degree nights, we had our usual mixture of “guy talk” around the fire.  It blended the 21st and 19th centuries with surprising ease.  We discussed modern sports, Victorian clothing, and every reenactor's favorite... the hobby itself.  The battles over the next few days were lackluster, so instead of focusing on the unrealistic scenarios and overcrowding of the public battles, I'd like to discuss two important moments from the weekend.

First, there was a distinct air of celebration to the Confederate mood, far more than I've experienced at other battles in my years in the hobby.  From the themes evident at the ranger station to the overt celebration of the Confederacy at registration, I could sense that the Spotsylvania County event organizers were playing to the home crowd.  I am not certain that I find fault with their decision to be economically savvy, but as a historian I definitely took pause.  There was little indication of the divisive issues of the war, namely slavery, brutal violence, and the incredibly vitriolic debate over political power.  Instead, it seemed a tribute to Scarlett O'Hara's South, complete with both Generals Jackson and Stuart (who, to their credit, were both actually present at Chancellorsville).  Maybe I haven't quite come to terms with what it means to celebrate the Confederacy, but this event seemed to me to be a particularly glowing spectacle of Old South festivity.

Second, the “civil war within Civil War reenacting,” as a pard called it, was quite evident at the event.  This contemporary war is being fought between two types of living historians.  There are some, calling themselves authentic or campaigners or progressives, who prefer a more realistic set of scenarios.  Rather than getting excited about “powder burners” and events full of romanticized battles, progressives prefer the harder aspects of war life such as marching most of the weekend, eating only what soldiers had (even at that time of year), and sleeping only with the gear soldiers had.  The other side of the contemporary war are the mainstreamers.  These folks are more interested in celebrating the war through a carnival atmosphere.  They enjoy eating elephant ears or soft serve ice cream.  The highlight of their weekend is the “din of battle” while loading and firing as fast as possible, often refusing to “take a hit” because it means they will miss out on firing their musket another few times.  They sleep comfortably, on cots, sometimes in heated tents with portable Coleman stoves. 

This division, though, is about more than how the two groups “enjoy” the hobby.  They represent a difference in how people choose to celebrate and understand the war.  If you're a reader from Dr. Fea's circle of professional historians, especially regarding the 19th century, this is an important point to acknowledge.  This division in “the hobby” also represents a division in the book purchasing world; it's an attitudinal difference reflected at Civil War Roundtables and even among the young scholars that grace your classrooms.  We need to decide, as scholars and historians and even “buffs,” what we intend for the Civil War to mean.  There will be no consensus, but there should be a conversation.

While Chancellorsville is not the “end” of the 150th, or even the pinnacle (which I assume will come next month at Gettysburg), it certainly marks a sort of Confederate high tide.  As we reflect on this all-important anniversary of the Civil War, we have a real opportunity to decide, collectively, what it means.  For some heritage is the key issue.  For others, celebration is part of the identity formation that makes history so very important to our collective present and future.  As I looked around and saw youngsters in the ranks or running about in camps, I wondered what this event meant to them.  Was it just fun?  Did it have any reflection of the horrors of war?  Do campy fake-blood medical demonstrations help give us any better understanding of the brutalities of 19th century warfare?  As we continue to live in the long-standing consequences of the Civil War through race, class, and sectional differences that live themselves out in contemporary political and social discourse, let us remember to reflect as thinking people on the realities of the Civil War.  That said, there's nothing completely anachronistic about enjoying a lemonade while you think.