Monday, July 8, 2013

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

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.   

(You may also recall that a few days ago we published another doctoral student/re-enactor piece by "William Mangum."  I also encourage you to read this recent post at "Freedom by the Sword" on the tensions between re-enactors and academics.

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

To say that I looked forward to the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg would be a terrible understatement.  In fact, I had been counting down the days for the better part of a decade. I could not wait to set foot on that “hallowed ground.”

As I arrived at the Blue Gray Alliance Gettysburg Reenactment I was struck by the sheer volume of participants.  I have been at some large reenactments in the 150th series, but this one was the largest to date.  There were rumored to be over 10,000 re-enactors present. While I was getting my start as a re-enactor during the 135th anniversary series, I didn't make it to any national events.  Those were the largest renactments of all, marking the pinnacle of the hobby in the shadow of noted Civil War films (Gettysburg and Glory) and the popular PBS documentary by Ken Burns. This 150th series does not seem to be garnering quite the same crowds.

The organizers planned six battles over the course of the three day event.  Unable to attend the first battle, I arrived right before the start of the second and got an amazing opportunity to fall in with the First Minnesota as they fought on Culp's Hill.  It was an awesome moment that brought aspects of the war to life for me.  As I knelt behind real breastworks, loading and firing my musket, there were no modern eye soars in view.  All I could see were woods, smoke, charging Confederate soldiers, and my Union pards around me.  The fight grew intense and amid the din of firing I trained my ear on the first sergeant's command to “load... ready, aim, fire."

The next day I participated in a less-poetic fight.  Portraying the 28th Massachusetts, part of the famed Irish Brigade, we charged into the Wheatfield for a very hot and quick confrontation.  I found myself struggling back up the hill to camp.  It was an exhausting few days and all I could think about was the excitement awaiting us the next day as we planned for Pickett's Charge.

Throughout the weekend I was quite taken by how many men love re-enacting the Civil War because it makes them feel like they are experiencing what the “real soldiers” experienced.  I don't feel that way at all.  In fact, our hobby is full of inconsistencies and anachronisms, not the least of which includes our physiques, our antibodies, and our limited time of service in the field.  We  use portable toilets; we occasionally see ambulances, cars or power lines; we  go back to work on Monday.  These realities, to say nothing of the lack of a legitimate threat of death, separates us from the men of 1863. To compare ourselves to those men based on our ability to recreate a shadow of their experience is insulting.

On day three I grew ill and could not participate in Pickett's Charge, but by all accounts it was moving for those who took part.  Overall, I found the “event” to be a curious blend of the “best” and “worst” of the hobby.  While in one sense the combat scenarios were interesting and illuminating, but some of the small things that happened to me made it a difficult weekend to endure.  Going home sick caused me to reflect on the unspoken, often unacknowledged, aspects of being a soldier.  I told my wife that I felt awful abandoning my “guys” in the field.  It hit me that the sense of camaraderie that I have with the guys in my home unit is strong.  I cannot even fathom what it must have been like for the men of 1863 to wrestle with the emotions of a war that kept them from home and injured their friends.

This re-enactment was “the big one.”  The 150th series may be the beginning of the end of the hobby.  We will always have some people re-enacting the Civil War, but it is unlikely that there will be another surge of several thousand new folks involved.  I'm not sure whether to lament or celebrate that reality.  When I initially told Dr. Fea I wanted to write these columns, I hoped that they would shed light on the memory of the Civil War.  But I think what I've learned most from these events is that the memory of this conflict remains contested.

The longer I study, write about, and reenact the Civil War, the more I am inclined to agree with the American poet Walt Whitman, who lamented that the “real war” would never get into the history books.  The more I learn and experience the Civil War, the farther away from it I feel.  Based on my understanding of its brutality, that distance is a blessing.