It was the second day of the official reenactment at the privately-owned farm, but I did not sally forth to witness another battle today. Instead I went downtown to get a sense of the local market: some of the museums, the businesses, the institutions and individuals that profit from and cater to the visitors to Gettysburg. While I did get a sampling of the wares, I also finally found a way into the big issue that had been looming – largely unspoken – over the past couple of days. Slavery, finally, was front and center in the narratives and places that I encountered today. Of course, much of this was by coincidence: had I visited some of these venues first, I wouldn’t have been wondering when, exactly, the specter of slavery was going to present itself. Yesterday’s reenactment only presented two instances: a short mention by a living historian, describing how she disguised herself as a black slave while working as a Union spy, and the reenactor playing General Longstreet, discussing Lincoln’s initial consideration of colonization with a spectator.
Today afforded more substantial inroads for thinking about slavery at the sesquicentennial, as well as examining the business of remembering. First stop today: the Regimental Quartermaster, an outfitter for reenactors, located on one of the main drags in downtown Gettysburg on Steinwehr Avenue. It only offers merchandise for men (or those wishing to play men), and it quickly became clear that reenacting is an expensive hobby/commitment. Kepis were about $40, heel plates were $25 (and needed to be specific to the corp, mind you), boots at least $100, low-end canteens $30, tents $170 – and this is before one considers the actual uniform pieces (shirt, vest, coat, pants) and the many, many other things one would need to camp out authentically. Weapons are another huge expense: reproduction guns began at $500, whereas the antique pieces that dated to the period were easily $2000. I was assured by a salesman that it was expensive to start out, but once you acquired the components you were set – one of the many reenactors in the store (the reenactors easily outnumbered the civilians) nodded in agreement as he eyed the belt plates ($12). The store also sold battlefield relics – I am not clear on the legality of this, but there were boxes of relics available to sift through; minies (or minie balls) were sold for $7.95 each.
But it was right on the counter by the minies that two heretofore largely unmentioned groups came into play. One box held reproduction bordello or “cat house” tokens ($1.95 each, 3 for $5) – the sign claimed that these were replicas of ones used in the Old West, but it is well-known that prostitutes followed Civil War regiments as well, and there were bordellos that explicitly catered to soldiers in various cities. The other box held two slave tags. For $9.95, you could buy a reproduction slave tag that identified the slave by occupation, city, date, and number (the slave tags are also for sale on their site). 1 It is understandable if there are no reenactors playing slaves in the camps, though there were slaves who accompanied their Confederate masters (and later, of course, Lost Cause advocates would use this fact to suggest that many blacks fought for the Confederacy and were supporters of slavery). 2 There were also many African Americans – contraband and free men – that worked for the Union army as hard laborers: building defenses, burying bodies, and moving supplies.While there were no black regiments at Gettysburg in the Union army, this still poses a larger issue: if women are welcome to don uniforms and reenact, would black reenactors be allowed the same latitude? I imagine they would, and there are indeed African American re-enacting regiments, but do they feel welcome in the same way women can and do at Gettysburg? I did not see a single black reenactor thus far, and I don’t know the answer. The audience in general for the reenactment was also overwhelmingly white.
Down the street is Abraham’s Lady, a shop the caters to reenactors seeking to play female roles. There were bins full of “Patterns for Period Impressions,” a large variety of fabrics, along with corset and hoop materials and various other accoutrement. By the fans, there is a sheet that deciphers the complicated “language of the fan.” Antique ladies’ manuals were in a locked bookcase: The Practical Housekeeper (1855) for $135, and Tales of Married Life (1855). One girl with her mother admired a ball gown in the back – a rare luxury for women of the time period, though many wore them at the reenactment rather than the more simple cotton dress that was the everyday-wear for most. “When do I get to start getting fancy?” she asked her mother. “When you start going to balls,” the mother replied. After he discovered I was doing research, the salesman offered me their card and pointing out there is a substantial section for getting started on their website (it does, indeed, seem quite detailed, and suggests many ways to avoid “farbiness”).
Continuing down the street even further, I came upon R.J. Gibson’s photography studio. From the outside it looked like many of the other studios along the streets of downtown Gettysburg, claiming to take vintage photographs. Because my friend Robert Davis had pointed out the Washington Post video on the studio, I went up the stairs to visit Gibson. Inside were walls covered with past customers – a variety of races and historical contexts were depicted. Rob Gibson and his studio employees- though incredibly busy – walked me through the process: he uses equipment and chemicals of the time, using the same methods as tintype photographers of the period used.
A family from California allowed me to watch and photograph their session: the mother, her son (a Union sharpshooter), and daughter had been waiting for years to get their tintype taken. Gibson touted the permanence of these pictures – they were not digital, they were fixed by this process for generations. Clearly, for this family, it was in the authenticity and the permanence that held the appeal. Along with the tintype, they will be able to receive reproductions of the image (and they are, in fact, stored digitally should a customer want more copies later). 3
Following the suggestions of my supremely knowledgeable and gracious hosts, I next visited the wax museum and the living history camp outside of it run by the Civil War Heritage Foundation. To the side of the wax museum, the Sons of Confederate Veterans were attempting to recruit members. Standing under a “1800MYSOUTH.COM” tent, one of the men manning the tent informed me that they were Gettysburg-area residents, who simply wanted to tell “the other side of the story.” 4 Since he was dressed in Civil War-esque clothing, I asked if he was also a reenactor: he was not, though some of the men in the group were – but most of them were more interested in spreading the “story.”
Inside the museum, there were books, knick-knacks, toys, and a variety of goods on the Civil War. 150th potholders, sculptures, stuffed animals, comic books, local and scholarly publications, and bumper stickers (including “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading in English, thank a soldier,” and “God, Guns, & Guts Made America Great”) were all for sale.
Inside the wax museum (after the $6.95 entrance fee), there were multiple exhibits devoted to black involvement in the war, and the display explicitly linked an economy based on slavery with the war’s causes. The overall affect was, as my host suggested, a museum straight out of the 1950s – but there were panoramas devoted to the Underground Railroad, the 54th Massachusetts, Dred Scott and other black figures (with moments of historical inaccuracy – for instance, replicating the lost Louis Ransom painting of John Brown where a black woman presents her baby to Brown on his way to execution, a symbolic rather than literal depiction): an admission to black involvement and a testament to slavery as a cause of the war that had not yet been stated during my trip to Gettysburg.
Lincoln Cemetery – a black cemetery – is several streets behind the main through-ways (pictured to the right). It is not prominently marked, and one local resident – Betty Dorsey Myers, who has written on the subject in locally published book called Segregation in Death – has almost entirely taken it upon herself to maintain the plot and simultaneously point out the racial inequities of the burial practices in Gettysburg’s history. 5 Local black men – many of whom served in the Civil War – began the cemetery in 1866 are are buried there, rather than in the well-groomed and substantially monumented Soldier’s Cemetery nearby.
As I was walking through the Soldier’s National Cemetery at dusk and looking out over the graves of World War II soldiers from Gettysburg killed in combat, another image presented itself: through the trees, an American and a Confederate flag waved proudly in the breeze, while a band playing “Dixie” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the National Cemetery could be heard.
Granted, with roots in Virginia and as a researcher on Civil War memories (and the Lost Cause very much figures into that research), I am hyper-vigilant for reconciliationist narratives of the war. However, the elusiveness of slavery in the reenactment and the marginal quality the “peculiar institution” inhabits in other venues is – in a word – problematic. The Military Park’s museum and visitor center clearly tries to redress this deficit (another visit today, but as I have another long, hot day at the reenactment tomorrow in front of me, that will have to be expanded on later), but the overall omission of slavery in the reenactment’s narrative is glaring.
My final stop of the day was at Culp’s Hill, just after sunset. I climbed the observation tower on this ridge that was central to the Union’s defense 150 years ago: at the top, two Confederate reenactors, one borderline slavery apologist, a middle-aged white couple, and a young black man were waiting. They were discussing the causes of the war and Lincoln as a leader: the talkative reenactor insisted that the elimination of tariffs by the Confederacy was the cause of the war above all else, the borderline apologist in the broad-rimmed straw hat insisted that there was very little legislation that gave slaveholders power prior to the war (my mention of the Three-Fifths compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act were dismissed). As the young man was presenting a variety of facts – the trade relations with European countries at the time and the realization on the part of several powerful Southerners that slavery was no longer a sustainable economic system – I saw lightning in the distance and took my leave. It was again clear that this debate was going to continue in perpetuity, regardless of whatever cast of characters ended up on Culp’s Hill.
As I prepare to go to the reenactment site again tomorrow, I have a host of other questions to consider: where, and how, does slavery intersect with the narratives being presented at the reenactment? Is this solely a Lost Cause endeavor? And how does the overwhelming whiteness – of the performers and the consumers – of this event influence or trouble the participants and claims inherent in these events? How can authenticity be packaged and sold, when the racialized aspect of the historical reality is marginalized or entirely omitted from the representation at hand?
- Full disclosure: a sign at the Regimental Quartermaster asked that no photos be taken while inside. I have to assume that this pertains more to customers perhaps trying on and photographing the uniforms for ideas (much like…wedding dresses?), and because they also post these slave tags on their website, I feel little guilt for going against the management’s wishes. ↩
- LATER EDIT: I would come to find in the next couple days that there was at least one woman playing a slave in the camps. ↩
- Another full disclosure: I have an appointment to have my tintype taken on Sunday. ↩
- I informed him, in turn, that I was from Virginia, and was very familiar with “the other side of the story.” ↩
- Betty Dorsey Myers, Segregation in Death: Gettysburg’s Lincoln Cemetery (Gettysburg: Lincoln Cemetery Project Association, 2001). ↩