If “Gone With the Wind” is too insensitive for public viewing, and memorializing Confederate generals is racist, perhaps Civil War reenactments will be the next to go. After all, the hobby triggers discomfort in many Americans. It’s not just that seeing adults roleplay in expensive costumes is weird. The really awkward part is all of those Americans who dress up like Confederates or, say, unveil “the largest Confederate flag in Tennessee” at a living history event so that descendants of Confederate soldiers can place their ancestor’s name and unit on the flag. If the South was wrong—if the war was about something as ugly as slavery—isn’t it degrading to keep its memory so very alive?
Wilbert Cooper, a young black man who traveled across America for VICE in the lead-up to the recent presidential election, sees reenacting as an attempt to fantasize about living in a bygone world of white supremacy. He described his encounters with rebel reenactors and said, “I realized that it was the gulf between these backward-looking fantasies and this modern moment that has made America such an ugly and angry place to be recently.” It is clear Cooper would prefer the war to be filed away forever.
Should We Forget the Men Who Wore Gray?
Civil War reenacting involves thousands of individuals who memorialize Unions troops and African American activists like Harriet Tubman, of course; but is that enough to redeem it? After all, mock battles are pointless without two sides. Public attention of any kind is powerful, and granting visibility to the history of the Confederacy surely grants it social capital.
Conversely, invisibility is the modern equivalent of sending criminals and dissidents into exile. An abolishment of living history would be one way to ensure that even fewer Americans remember anything about the men who wore gray. If Cooper is right, perhaps we should be grateful that city officials in Manassas—the site of two major Civil War battles—have canceled their annual reenactment in light of recent events. At least one other location has followed suit: the nearby Fauquier Heritage Day won’t happen, either.
Yet Cooper fails to grasp the whole picture. The rush to obscure the past will not make our country better and more just. It is a tremendous mistake to refuse to examine the complexities of history in the name of social justice. It is culturally suicidal to reduce life into the binary categories of “correct” and “unmentionable.” Furthermore, it is a mistake to fail to recognize the benefits that historical reenacting can and does bring to America.
When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of weekends in a hoopskirt. I had fun being geeky about authenticity and telling school children about topics like mid-19th century medicine. Yet it wasn’t just a self-indulgent hobby. Here are three of the things I learned about why reenacting is important.
Reenactors Counter a Pitfall of Postmodernism
Postmodernism teaches that all beliefs are essentially the same. We show tolerance for Muslims because Islam isn’t really any different from Christianity. We embrace gay marriage because it’s just another form of love. Simply put, we tolerate others because they, too, are good.
Unfortunately, this communicates the message that tolerance is a stamp of approval. It fails to teach us to tolerate people who are wrongheaded in upsetting ways. Furthermore, because all personal principles are subjective, we have the right only to disagree with true evil—and therefore, in an odd twist that shapes modern debate across the internet, everything we truly disagree with must be evil.
If we want a society in which genuine dialogue is possible, we must counter postmodernism’s tendency to vilify anything we disagree with. We must learn to see the true complexity in others’ lives and beliefs, and we must learn how to persuade and discuss. Most of all, we need to learn to care about our fellow human beings and to see their human worth, whether or not their beliefs are acceptable. Getting to know people who are different from ourselves goes a long way toward building the ability to do all this.
We Must Care—Even For Those With Unacceptable Beliefs
Like novelists, reenactors who develop “impressions”—that is, roles based on historical research—tend to delve into the lives of ordinary people and build up an understanding of how someone from a different culture would think. I have personally never met reenactors who play Confederates because they are racist and want to live in the past. The ones I know are shaped by modern values and take a fairly nuanced view of the 19th century. However, they also see themselves as trying to balance a mainstream perspective that relies too heavily on stereotypes about the good guys and bad guys of history.
Cooper was uncomfortable when he heard “rebels” contradicting the standard, one-line textbook interpretation of the Civil War. He didn’t like the claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Of course, few historians would argue that slavery wasn’t a major factor in the tension between North and South. Yet to the people on the ground at the time, it wasn’t that simple.
The majority of southerners did not own slaves. Many prominent southerners, Robert E. Lee included, viewed slavery as a negative social institution. Furthermore, the majority of Union troops did not perceive themselves as fighting to free slaves. It is worth noting that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 specifically exempted slave states that remained loyal to the Union. Whether or not they were ultimately correct, most Americans of the mid-19th century did not think the war was about slavery.
All of this historical information, so often heard at reenacting events, is important—not because it negates the very real evil of enslaving fellow humans, but because it helps us to understand how easy it is for human beings to ignore the evils of their own time, or to fail to act on that recognition. We don’t study history in order to learn that people in the past were inferior to ourselves. We study it in order to learn about human weaknesses which we, too, are susceptible towards; and the human achievements of which we, too, are capable.
Reenactors Love History, And Keep It Alive
Americans aren’t very good at history. Shocking numbers of Millennials fail to correctly answer basic questions about history and government. In a democracy, this means we are being ruled by people who don’t understand their own country. Reenactors help nurture a community of ordinary people who recognize that history is cool, and who communicate the message to others.
Reenacting is not the same as academic scholarship. And that is often a good thing. In the past few decades, American universities have tended to look at history in ever-more fractured ways with a focus on minutiae instead of larger human themes. Much of the history that is taught to American students is highly negative: simply a series of morality tales about the evils of white males, corporate power, and social injustice. History classes tend to kill student interest in history.
Of course we need good scholars who care about small details. Yet we also need ordinary citizens who read primary sources, hand-stitch elaborate bonnets, and recognize the vibrancy of humanity across time. When reenactors speak to the public, visit schools, or host living history events, they are doing something that helps make democracy work better.
Reenacting Fills a Void in American Society
Citizens of other countries are far more likely than we are to experience things like archaic rituals, venerable buildings, quaintly historic uniforms, or folk dances. In other words, to live among tangible reminders that tie them to their own past. We, in contrast, are such a young nation that we think any object more than a hundred years old is highly antique. We lack the pageantry that would grant us perspective by reminding us our own decade is only a tiny sliver of time.
Perhaps that is part of the reasons why some people are so drawn to reenacting. The smell of wool and wood smoke answers a human for connection.
Americans are mocked for insisting on speaking English and eating Big Macs while traveling the world. Let’s not be the nation that travels through life refusing to experience anyone else’s culture. If we continue to exile all history that offends us, we might as well also forbid foreign travel and the study of literature. We might as well give up the hope of teaching our children to dialogue with others.
I don’t know about you, but I would rather not live in a country in which compassion and communication are thrown aside in favor of strong-armed enforcement of correct values. One benefit of learning about oppression, injustice, and slavery in a nuanced way is that it teaches us how important freedom is. Even, or perhaps especially, the freedom to be publicly wrong.