When I arrived at the reenactment at the Redding farm this morning, I was determined to spend more time with the living historians, who had seemed – overall – quite a bit more chatty and willing to engage with the spectators than the reenactors in the camps. This is part and parcel of the division between reenacting and living history though as I understand it: reenactors may engage with the performance for a variety of reasons, but living historians have a pedagogical interest. Yesterday, tintype photographer Rob Gibson suggested the main reason people began re-enacting was “99% fun” from what he’s gathered in his many encounters. A reenactor today told me he takes part in the non-spectator events to try and grasp what it was like then – to feel the utter “solitude” that one experienced in the haze and madness of battle.
When I entered the living history tent event featuring General Longstreet – played by Ron Hawkins – I was struck by how engaging he was as a performer. He told incredibly specific biographical bits with excellent delivery, padding the encyclopedic nature of some of his information with well-timed jokes. When discussing his studies at West Point (including his budding friendship with Ulysses S. Grant), he admitted he wasn’t the best student: “64 out of 68. But I graduated!” The audience laughed, whooped, and clapped at his comic delivery. He discussed introducing Grant to his fifth cousin, Julia Dent, Grant’s future wife; he claimed he took no responsibility for the match when Grant would give him grief about introducing them. “I figured,” Longstreet said, “that’s why he stayed in the Northern army – to get back at me for that.” More laughs from the crowd. He referred to the war as “this unpleasantness,” and though he was in the Federal Army when Fort Sumter occurred, he said the decision was “made for me,” and that he had to fight for “his nation” (i.e., the Southern states). I left the event to go watch some of the Battle of the Eastern Cavalry, but as he was the first truly engaging performer I had seen at these events thus far I was hoping to chat with him later about character preparation and performance overall.
In the grandstands, we again participated in the pledge and the national anthem (with the same reminders to remove caps and be involved/loud in the recitation and singing), and again heard the Gettysburg Address by local-celebrity-Lincoln Jim Getty. As the third largest cavalry fights of the Civil War began, this seemed to be a more dramatic staging overall: the clang of sabers and swords, the horses galloping across the field into another encounter, the debonair costumes of the cavalry (much is made of the fashion of some of the cavalry men historically). Perhaps it was more dramatic because the battle was happening at a closer distance to my seat, I thought – but then I realized that none of the cavalry men, in the first three encounters and clashes I witnessed, acted as if they had been harmed. Highly implausible in reality, but of course – how would one achieve this in an orchestrated and performed environment, where one could quite literally be killed or seriously injured (and others, should the horse take off) if one attempted a realistic fall off a horse?
As I was watching for any in-saddle casualties (there were eventually a few), I saw two “rebs” turn and run, attempting to desert amidst the fire from dismounted Union cavalry. In the most violent action I have yet witnessed, two other Confederates turned and shot the deserters as they ran up the hill towards the spectators. The shooters then walked up to the deserters and executed them as they lay wounded on the ground. The audience gasped. “They lost heart,” the announcer said, “but it wasn’t the boys in blue who shot them.” I brought up this incident to my host (a seasoned reenactor and a scholar), and he believed that the event was deeply ahistorical: in the midst of battle, what soldier would move to higher, bare ground and expose himself to the enemy, risking his life to punish deserters? Clearly, this was a dramatic choice, and one that was made for a gruesome shock value. I should add that the two rebs really were bad at playing dead: they moved their arms, heads, and chatted after dying quite a bit.
In the living history area, I wandered into a couple sutler’s tents (the Regimental Quartermaster has a tent here, but was not selling slave tags today – cat house tokens were, however, available) before meeting some men from the Harney Relief Society. One man had 12 years experience as a reenactor, and I asked him if he had seen any black soldiers at Gettysburg. He had not seen any black reenactors at Gettysburg thus far – but, he said, he had encountered black reenactors on campaigns in Virginia. And they had played slaves. This reenactor also saw a major issue in not making the role of slavery in the war and the role that slaves played in the Confederate camps clear. “You can’t sanitize history,” he said, “because we’ll do the same stupid things again.” His colleague mentioned that yesterday afternoon an African American woman (spectator) had started doing an impromptu slave performance, though he could not share any more details because he had only heard about the incident in passing.
How do black reenactors – both those depicting soldiers in African American regiments and those portraying slaves – grapple with race in this historical narrative? How do they negotiate an overwhelmingly white re-enacting community? And what, for those playing slaves, do they see as the political benefits and/or ramifications in depicting enslaved peoples? How does it influence their own identity, and why do they choose such roles?
I was hoping to press General Longstreet more about the role of slavery, since I had heard him discussing it on July 4th – but his tent area was packed. So, too, was General Sherman’s, but I eavesdropped on his conversation with a spectator curious about preparation. Sherman said there was room for everybody in the living history community, but new participants are put on a year’s probation, wherein they study, watch more senior living historians, and where it is determined whether or not they mesh well (socially, outside of the Civil War world) with the group as a whole. The ultimate goal? “We study, we’ll tell you what we know, you can take it or leave it,” he said. He hopes that spectators hear the two sides to the story, then reach their own conclusions. Dates are important, he offered, but the narrative is key: “go tell them a story…and they’ll remember that.” This living historian also claimed he learned a lot from spectators: a group from West Point asked him about his time there, and he had very little information – they gave him contacts at the school that could help him navigate the archives. In closing to this spectator’s query, “we are,” he said, ” a family organization that tries to keep history alive.”
In this row of generals in the living history village – with Union and Confederate side-by-side, I simply had to chat with Stonewall Jackson. The man has been elevated to heroic/martyr status in the area where I grew up (I saw the musical Stonewall Country a couple times at Lexington’s Lime Kiln Theater, and Lee-Jackson day was a state holiday). Jackson was dead by Gettysburg, but his organization – Lee’s Lieutenants – felt duty-bound to include him since he’s such a popular figure, according to the woman playing his wife (they have been “married” for one month). People like to ask him the “what-ifs” for Gettysburg: what if he had been there, what would he have done differently? We discussed the heat (this might sound like small talk, but it was oppressive, and these people are wearing some serious clothing), and I told them how much I admired their endurance: he pointed out that they were living historians and not reenactors. Reenactors, he said, tended to be “overweight and diabetic,” and did not endure the heat nearly as well; this stereotype is one I have heard repeated several times while here.
After seeing the Battle of East Cavalry at the reenactment, I decided to visit the actual battlefield and listen to one of the park rangers’ talks on the engagement. While the visit was informative, the handful of “Civil War buffs” amongst the group of 40-ish attendees seemed to revel in debating the particulars of military maneuvers. My main military strategy take-aways: Custer was quite obsessed with his looks and was a fight-loving adrenaline junkie, J.E.B. Stuart really screwed the pooch on this one, Stonewall Jackson was a micro-manager whereas Lee was quite a bit looser in his leadership-style, and military historians still really like to argue as to the mind-set and/or motivation of various generals and leaders. 1 Ranger Matt Atkinson offered his own interpretation, but suggested that others might disagree: “It’s Gettysburg. No one agrees 100% of the time on anything in this area.”
I spent the early evening back downtown, popping into two more museums and some galleries. Outside the Shriver Museum I was handed a mock playbill for Confederates Take the Shriver House!, a fifteen minute amateur production that attempts to stage the beginning of a Confederate house invasion in order to lure visitors into the museum. I saw little of the production due to the crowd, and heard only about half of it: the body mics were not working for several of the actors and the Confederate living historian had problems opening the door during the climactic moment, much to the audience’s amusement. It was clear I wasn’t going to get into the house any time soon because of the crowd, so I started making my way to the Wills house (because it’s not every day you get the see the bed Lincoln slept in before he delivered the Gettysburg Address).
On the corner of Baltimore and Breckenridge, I introduced myself to a man I was incredibly excited to see – the only black reenactor I have encountered thus far. “Who are you playing?” I asked. He wasn’t sure, beyond the fact that he was a “free black businessman.” He had come on Wednesday for Pickett’s charge, he said, at the request of some friends: they hadn’t brought his uniform today, and he hadn’t taken part in this scene. He hadn’t done any research or any role development, and admitted he really wasn’t totally aware of the historical situation. “But you are fighting for the Union?” I asked – mostly because he was wearing the brown pants I had seen so many Confederates (including the one attempting to bust down the Shriver’s door) sporting. He said he was; I told him I’d heard of black reenactors taking on slave roles. He was surprised, but not as much as I was when we shook hands goodbye and I asked who he was fighting with. “14th Tennessee,” he replied.
As should be clear from above, I am no military historian. There were Union and Confederate units in Kentucky – perhaps, I thought, there were Union regiments in Tennessee too (though I was pretty sure this was not the case)? There were not, as far as I can tell; however, a little bit of internet digging reveals that there is some question as to whether or not freed blacks were on the roster for the 14th Tennessee – and that this has been used to claim that the war was not about slavery, that blacks supported the Confederate war effort, etc. It seems that the man I met on the corner of Baltimore and Breckenridge had been recruited by his friends to become an (unwitting?) accomplice to Lost Cause adherents.
This is my next to last post on my trip while in Gettysburg, but I find that the longer I’m here, the more questions I have – and I haven’t even begun to discuss the art, food, and countless other “product tie-ins” that I’ve encountered. And there are several museums I haven’t mentioned. There’s still a lot to suss out. Clearly, the quest for authenticity – and how varying groups/individuals define that – is an overarching concern here. But what about role preparation and the performance? Who is the performance ultimately for? How do individuals – and now, if I can find and contact them, blacks who play slaves – situate their own identity and political beliefs within these historical narratives? The manipulation of history is another clear trope throughout these events: under the guise of presenting “facts,” many of the educators/presenters at these events then make it clear that they expect the spectators to draw conclusions. Can any conclusions be drawn if history is “sanitized”? And how can history be “family friendly” and wrapped up in this commercialized package – is it still history if the messiness is left out?
My final performance encounter of the day: Fritz Klein playing Abraham Lincoln, standing just off the central traffic circle in downtown Gettysburg. He was there explicitly for photo ops – he just came from Mount Rushmore, his publicist explained as she handed me a flier about his speaking engagements tomorrow. “Hear Abraham Lincoln live!,” the flier exclaimed: the second page of the flier, which I did not even notice until I got back to my hosts’ house, is what appears to be an evangelical statement from GBC church, hoping that Gettysburg “will become the turning point of your life.”
Even a seemingly innocuous picture with Lincoln takes on new and problematic dimensions in this town where politics, beliefs, and history seem to clash daily – if not hourly.
(And yes, I am just as sun-burnt as I appear in this photo.)
- I am fully aware that this reductive analysis of complex military strategy means I will never be a military historian, and I am totally okay with that. ↩