I’m not sorry to be missing Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary these next three days. Too much of the occasion will be taken up by reenactment events, which reenactment participants call “impressions.” But too many of the reenactors are too corpulent and all of their uniforms too clean to give a true impression of the ragged, lean and hungry Rebel and Union soldiers who fought in the plowed fields and orchards south of the Pennsylvania town on July 1-3, 1863.
The 13th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, of course, fought at Gettysburg on July 2, as the color regiment of Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade. Their experiences before and after their share in the battle also are interesting—particularly their approach to the field and the disconsolate retreat back to Virginia after, by some estimates, 49 percent casualties. All of that has been recorded fairly dispassionately in various posts here.
I attended the 125th anniversary of Gettysburg, back in 1988, which, mercifully, was much less attractive to the costumed and so all of the fields were quiet on the appointed days and more appropriate for commemoration of tens of thousands of killed, wounded and missing, some of them my own ancestors, all of whom were Rebels. On July 2, I walked from attack point to attack point down Seminary Ridge sticking small Rebel battle flags in the ground beside the monuments for their Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Georgia units.
Thus the event should be remembered on both sides, it seems to me, with whatever reconciliation and emancipation commemorations the park service decides is appropriate. It wasn’t the first battle the Rebels lost but it was the largest up to that time that the Union had clearly won, so it did provide the push for what President Lincoln later called “a new birth of freedom.”
These reenactor bonanzas annoy me because they turn into carnivals leavened only by the sulfur smell of the genuine black-powder rifles and cannon, of which there will be more than the usual number this week. Firing blanks of course, which do not provide the real sound—an ear-splitting crack—and so merely add to the phoniness. At least the Brit’s Telegraph says there will be enough cannon to give an approximation of the original scene. The Telegraph’s reporting, ironically, is probably the most complete we’re likely to get. American news media are hobbled by their political focus on history, especially Civil War history since it concerns African slavery.
And therein is an interesting detail the Telegraph reporters found: several black reenactors portraying “civilians” at Gettysburg—presumably, in a few cases, representing the real servants/slaves who followed their Rebel “marsters” to war. I saw one such black reenactor—only one—in 1990 at the 125th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox. He was sitting with some white reenactor Rebels.
Good for them, the black reenactors, I mean, few of them as there are, for having the guts to buck contemporary racial politics to add some truth and verisimilitude to the circus: the three-ring parade of incongruously pot-bellied and double-chinned white soldiers in their spanking-new uniforms and far too many hoop-skirted women for anything like accuracy. All they need is a steam calliope on iron-rimmed wooden wheels playing Danny Boy.
But enough of the curmudgeon. It’s all very, very good in at least one respect. It’s really not possible to ever bring back the real days of 1863. Thank goodness.
UPDATE: According to some Civil War bloggers who attended, as I expected there was little or no major news media reporting of the Gettysburg anniversary from Gettysburg. Which is quite an oversight, considering the thousands of folks who showed up to hear the lectures and walk the fields, even when it was raining. However, thanks to Breitbart News, the Internet was there and these five hours worth of discussion and reenactment videos are the result. Have a look.
Reblogged this on Poore Boys In Gray and commented:
What do you think of the re-enactments?
While reenactments may not give a dirty, filthy, and smelly account of the true harrow our ancestors encountered, however, something is better than nothing. I fear in another few years their will be no re-enactments done at all. These volunteer participants go to great expense to do these re-enactments, which are in my opinion a wonderful way to remember your ancestors sacrifice. I personally had never thought about the sacrifices they made until I was researching my own family’s civil war history. I had an ancestor who returned home without leave and was hung as a deserter, when he was only returning home to help feed his wife and twelve children. Or how the soldiers were starving, without adequate clothing, and got lost from their regiments, The stories of the civil war and why it was fought need to be told to each generation. The false accusations about Southerners needs to stop. The hatred needs to stop, the past cannot be changed nor should it ever be forgotten. The excitement on a young child’s eyes when they first hear a canon fire is priceless. In my opinion, this is such a wonderful way to get young people interested in the history of our great nation. Just in my own opinion, no matter how cheesy these re-enactments might be, I truly feel it gives those who attend a moment to reflect about past and for some gets them wondering what part their own family ancestors played in the Civil War.
Thanks for the comment, Linda. I’m not sure what hatred you’re referring to. Most Americans these days, being descended from people who came to the country around 1900, have no dog in the fight. Us Civil War descendants are in a small minority. And, interestingly, it’s always easier to find reenactors portraying Rebels than Union. The individualism, I’m sure, rather than the slavery, is the lure. In fact, I have read, in Europe where Civil War reenactment also is popular, German reenactment organizations require participants to be Union for five years before they can be a Rebel. Otherwise they would have no Union ones.