Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Civil War Re-enacters (or is it "Re-enactors"?)

Civil war re-enacters do serve a purpose, in that whenever someone wants to make a movie featuring battle scenes from that war they always have a large group of extras with their own uniforms that they can use. But outside of anyone filming the re-enactments it seems a bit grotesque to recreate (in a "nobody is actually going to get hurt here" sort of way) the most brutal fighting this country has ever seen. Mind you, I can certainly sympathize with "playing war", having done that a lot as a kid, though it got a lot less fun when my brother insisted on us being an Army field hospital instead of combat infantrymen and you know what's a lot of fun? If you guessed "pretending to be an Army medic in the woods of Westchester when you're 8" then I'd have gladly traded places with you back then.

The fascination with the Civil War is particularly strong here in Virginia, where the boulevard I work on is named for Robert E. Lee and there's a Jeff Davis highway nearby. The Lee thing I sort of understand, as Lee (and his ancestors) were prominent in Northern Virginia since the time of the Revolution, but Davis was a Kentucky native who settled in Mississippi. His only connection to Virginia was serving in Richmond as the Confederate president. So clearly this isn't so much about "local pride" as it is "Confederate pride".

I figure the key reasons why even today (150 years after secession) there is so much pride in the Confederacy are as follows:

1) It was a long-shot lost cause from the get go. With less population and industry than the North and West, the South never really had a chance. With better generalship, the Federals should have been able to take Richmond within months and swept into the other state capitols by mid-1962. There is always a certain romanticism about a cause that was hopeless from the beginning.

2) The whole thing might have been a minor event (along the lines of the Whiskey Rebellion, perhaps) if the Federals had only been able to crush it early. Instead, with better generals and more motivated soldiers, the South was able to rack of an impressive string of early victories that extended the war and gave the Confederates hope that they might actually win it. Indeed, their only chance of winning was if the North gave up or foreign countries brought pressure for a truce.

3) There's always something appealing to people about "rebelling". Who always looks more dashing and heroic in popular culture? The James Deans, Marlon Brandos and Bugs Bunnys are always standing up to authority, and regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the cause it's always cooler to be the pluckish upstart. (The fact that the Confederacy was also preserving a more conservative and unyielding system of oppressing slaves is generally downplayed or overlooked by those extolling the Confederacy--which is to be expected, because it's hard to reconcile fighting central authority while siding with another type of oppression)

4) Let's face facts, the Confederate battle flag is just plain cool looking from an aesthetic point of view. It's a freaking red field with a slashy "x" running across it! The only thing that would make it cooler looking is to add a sword and some flaming skulls.

5) The South just had some terrific Generals, most notably Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson who beat stiff odds on many occasions against forces that by any measure should have wiped the floor with them. Even lesser known southern generals like Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jeb Stuart were able to do significant damage against superior forces. While the North's two best Generals--Grant and Sherman--get their due, their reverance in the North and West just don't compare to how the South treats their generals. This is in part due to Sherman being best known for a march across the deep South that was arguably a series of war crimes, and Grant generally operated when he had overwhelming odds over his opponents. Reverance for your generals makes it easier to personify your cause.

This mostly explains why the Confederacy still remains popular among a lot of southerners (and strangely, some northerners, who for all they know are descended from soldiers killed by southern bullets) despite the fact that the Confederacy was an awful time for the people who lived under it--constant shortages of everything, long death rolls, ultimately bluecoats romping through the land destroying everything they could--and despite the fact that the cause was built on a defense of slavery. Perhaps though, in the spirit of accuracy, the Civil War re-enacters will go several days without eating (and even then, only eating hardtack), use only 1860s medical techniques for treating their injuries, and come home to find that their house was burned down.


  1. I'm thinking that nobody that actually experienced war would ever "play" war.

  2. Lacochran, I think that's exactly right.

  3. Err, a few mistakes from a Southerner who grew up in the middle of Civil War-land if there ever was one. Chattanooga, my hometown, was the focus of one of the Wars turning points.

    Have you ever seen a Civil War re-enactor? I used to work in a Civil War tourist destination and observed much of that sub-culture.

    First of all, the South was actually doing a good job at winning the War until Gettysburg (although there are some strong arguments that the Battles for Chattanooga were actually the turning point since Chattanooga was the gateway to the Deep South and all major rail lines crossed through there.)

    In the long run, the South couldn't have survived. However, if Gettysburg had turned out differently, there's a good chance the South could have prevailed or extended the war. Both sides were overtaxed, although conditions in the South were far worse due to the agrarian economy and the naval blockade that the Yankees, umm.. North established and cut off trade routes for cotton and tobacco.

    Secondly, the War was in absolutely no way fought over slavery. The War was fought over the rights of states to decide their own laws and destinies. Hmmm...just this week, where have we seen this debate? Arguments over the 10th Amendment did not end with the Civil War and continue to plague domestic policy to this day.

    Slavery was an important issue, but it was the main issue in the states right's debate. Just like the health care lawsuits, AZ immigration law, and taxes continue to be issues under the states rights/10th Amendment debate.

    Even the Emancipation Proclamation was publicity stunt by Abraham Lincoln. The South was in rebellion and wasn't following the laws passed by the North, so only Union sympathizers (who were unlikely to own slaves) would have listened. Slavery was already abolished in all of the Union states, so in effect the Proclamation did nothing.

    The War is important to the South because it forever changed our destinies. Terms such as carpetbagger and slurs like "cracker" originated during that time. Had the War not occurred, the South would still be based on agriculture.

    Also, families are typically much more tight-knit in the South, and we have a stronger tradition of oral history. On both sides of my family, my parents grew up with relatives that were born shortly after the Civil War. My parents experienced a South that doesn't exist any longer (some of it good like the food and some of it bad like segregation.)

    My great-grandmother's family had a rice plantation in Louisiana. My dad remembers spending summers there and playing among the ruins of the slave quarters. Who experiences situations like that? (It was hardly the image of a "plantation house" and more like a farm.)

    The War was terrible and split families apart. The part of TN were I grew up actually tried to join the Union and form the state of Franklin. Strategically, it wouldn't have made sense since it was surrounded by the Confederacy, but it shows that not everyone in the South was a supporter of the Confederacy.

    Violence and disease were rampant, as were crimes against women. Since most of the fighting happened in the South, women and children developed a strong distrust for Northerners which prevails to this day. There were untold thousands of women who were raped and attacked by pillaging Union thugs.

    In many ways our country has still never healed from the scars of the War. It's a mark against humanity that the concept of slavery was ever permitted in the U.S. However, the issues arising from the War still influence modern politics.

  4. Adrienne, first, I appreciate your comments and the perspective of a genuine southerner with southern roots. Part of the reason for my post is to get an idea of the attachment to the Civil War, particularly among southerners.

    While I agree that the war wasn't "fought about slavery" in the sense that Lincoln's original aims weren't to abolish the practice but merely to prevent secession, the root cause behind secession (and a major pillar of the Confederacy) was the preservation of slavery. Ironically, the practice may have survived at least another decade or so (until the cotton bubble burst, or the land was rendered poor due to overharvesting the cotton, or the abolitionists had enough power to force emancipation) had the South not tried to secede.

    I'll note that the Emancipation Proclamation, while not having much if any effect on slavery in the seceding states (except where Union troops were occupying) was a "publicity stunt" only to the extent that it was intended to affect foreign opinion--which it did. France, England and Russia had been on the fence about intervening, which was really the best hope the South had of getting a stalemate. The Proclamation was very popular in France and England, and caused enough domestic pressure to keep those governments from stepping in. True, there was still a chance by the time of Gettysburg (and Lee's invasion of the North was intended to encourage France and England to step in, at least as arbitrators), but those governments were very reluctant to help a breakaway country founded on slavery at that point.

    The reason I say the Confederacy was doomed from the start--despite a string of early victories--was because even with some smashing victories where greater casualties were inflicted on the North than the South, the South simply couldn't afford the losses. Antietam was a good example--roughly equivalent numbers were lost on each side but Lee's forces could hardly afford to replace theirs. So long as the North still had masses of farmers and immigrants to feed into the meat grinder, they could win a war of attrition. Even winning Gettysburg probably wouldn't have saved Lee's forces. I'd grant though that Northern public opinion was lukewarm at best about the war at least until Atlanta fell in mid-'64, but I think the South's chances of victory were overrated.