I parked my rental car along West Confederate Avenue this morning in Gettysburg National Military Park, racing to get to the outdoor amphitheater. I could hear a small horn band playing, and I didn’t want to miss the sermon: my host – Walt Powell, PhD – was the speaker at this inter-denominational service. 1 Walt began his speech by explaining how he had considered using the words of Reverend James Brand, a veteran of the 27th Connecticut, who had delivered a rather political oration at a monument dedication for his regiment in 1885 – wherein he talked about corruption and the “liquor oligarchy.” Instead, Walt discussed the sacred ground of Gettysburg, and what it meant for us today. According to the local paper, the city anticipated reaching its $750 million goal for the Sesquicentennial. But Walt pointed out that the commercializing of the sacred ground began soon after the battle and is not anything new. Rather, we should consider what is meant by the “unfinished work” that Lincoln referenced in the Gettysburg Address – rather than simply mourning the dead, the “work” to be done concerns freedom and rights, and this is the burden we bear today. 2
Following the short service, I drove through the battlefields dotted with monuments – there are over 1,300 monuments/markers in the park. The Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, all the way to Pennsylvania Memorial: the largest memorial in the park, with a spiral staircase leading up to a balcony surrounding its dome. Overcoming my weird fear of spiral staircases, I climbed to the top of the monument. From there, one could see a handful of the many sculptures that commemorate the fallen throughout the park. Visitors will drive, maybe park, perhaps interact with a monument, and then move on.
I recalled two days earlier at dusk, when I witnessed a mother taking a picture of her child, holding a toy musket, in front of the Lincoln memorial in the National Cemetery which specifically commemorates the Gettysburg Address (remember that this a cemetery that black soldiers who fought for the Union were not buried in). What “unfinished work” does this represent? Clearly, the commodities and accessories of the reenactment were making themselves present in this cemetery, where only a stone’s throw away over 3,000 Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg are buried. At what point do the monuments and markers themselves become part of this historical performance – a backdrop for spectators and reenactors to visit as an extension of the reenactment, rather than the focal point of the remembrance?
The recently opened Seminary Ridge Museum was my next stop. I was surprised to note that this was the first museum that devoted extensive space to blacks in Gettysburg and the surrounding Adams County. An entire floor in the three-floor permanent exhibit space was devoted to religion, abolition, and local black involvement in the war effort. On the same floor – in a room focusing on the Gettysburg Address – visitors were asked to answer a question posed in Walt’s sermon. “What,” visitors were prompted, “do you think is the unfinished work of freedom?” An array of post-it notes covered the area below. There were more than a few that answered with “peace,” “rights for all,” “respect,” “love all,” and “God Bless America.” One post-it read: “HISTORY MUST BE TAUGHT CORRECTLY IN SCHOOLS ENOUGH P.C. NONSENSE.” Several post-its said that prayer, hymns, and “God” should be allowed in schools – some seemingly written by children. At least two that I could see suggested that we end taxation. Yet another said that we should “end laws that allow defenseless unborn babies to be killed in the womb.” In a child’s scrawling hand, one post-it said simply “black people should never have been slaves.” There are clearly drastically different viewpoints on what constitutes the “unfinished work of freedom” in this sample.
Before I could make my way to the final battle of the reenactment, I swung back by Rob Gibson’s to try on a hoop skirt and a jaunty hat (i.e., get a tintype). A woman, dressed in a Confederate soldier’s uniform, got her tintype taken while I waited. She is on home leave from the foreign service, and has been in Gettysburg since the Blue & Gray Alliance reenactment last weekend. “They want you to reconnect with America,” she said about the home leave, “and I guess this is as good a way as any, right?” We talked for a while about cross-dressing for reenactments: she initially was not allowed to fight in the first group she sought out, but they helped her find a group that admits women into the ranks. She thinks the more senior reenactors tend to have a bigger issue with it than the younger ones, and overall she has encountered little resistance. When she does, she simply brushes it off. She also encouraged me to be in touch and come down to the Cedar Creek reenactment in the fall: rare because they fight the battle on the actual historic battle grounds.
At the reenactment, I had the good fortune to meet up with Tiffany Knoell, a PhD candidate in American Culture Studies working on re-enactments and living history at Bowling Green State University. A reenacting guest of my hosts passed on Tiffany’s contact info after speaking with her during the Pickett’s Charge commemorative march. Tiffany had several good leads; among them she confirmed that there was an African American woman in the Confederate camp, playing at times a soldier and at other times a slave (I couldn’t find her in the Confederate camp, but the battle was nigh). At my hosts’ house this evening, two other reenactors joined us (seeking what my hosts termed “safe haven” – meaning a shower and a bed at this point) and had seen the slave performance: she wore a bandanna and balanced a basket on her head, wandering through the Union camp while singing, and it was by the witness’ accounts a remarkable performance. They also informed me that there were indeed several black men in the Union camp for this event.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. At the reenactment, I found the living historian who plays Sherman alone. I asked to talk to him a bit more about performance and politics. He described his preparation in depth: he’ll do a lot of research, and slowly (and often unknowingly) find himself incorporating physical gestures of his character into his performance – and many living historians find this to be the case. Sherman, for instance, never stopped fidgeting and moving and blurting out things – and he found himself, bit by bit, adding this into his work. The biggest hurdle to overcome in his mind is simply talking to people: he witnessed a living historian playing a general who got up for a speaking event and was so scared that he could not get anything out beyond his name. He will often, he said, talk to himself, try out gestures and clothes, work on repetition for physical movements, and always try to watch himself in his mind’s eye, asking what will work. He did admit that he might see something on TV and try that out as well.
I asked him if it was at times hard to reconcile the political beliefs of a character with personal beliefs: it was, he answered, very hard. The Federal Generals Corps (his group) often sets up events and debates with Lee’s Lieutenants. He recalled a joint debate on secession that went on for 40 minutes and got quite heated – he didn’t hear the Confederate general that was participating in the debate, but the performer’s voice instead. This, he said, is a “disservice to spectators,” and a “dishonor to the guy you portray.” He believes that you can never know what that historical figure would say today, though it is “easy to do this,” to apply a perceived character’s stance to back up your own personal political positions. Though he sees that the “Civil War is being used to promote the agenda today” and that “some of these people are still fighting” the war, he believes it is the responsibility of the living historian to keep the character and the self separate. Jumping forward again: soaking after standing for half an hour waiting for the shuttle bus in the pouring rain, I commiserated with my seat-mate. Her daughter – who had lived in Richmond – visited Robert E. Lee’s tent. Upon hearing that she had lived in Richmond, the living historian embarked on a tirade about the disgraceful statue that should be removed from Monument Avenue. “Did he say Arthur Ashe?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “but we all knew what he meant.” Sherman would have disapproved.
Moving back to before the rain, when it was still unbearably hot and humid and there was a battle to be won. Pickett’s Charge, specifically. The staff began selling $5 seats to the grandstand to those without advance tickets, squeezing folks into the aisles and selling every possible seat (and, considering how the stands shook when everyone rose for the anthem, probably close to if not beyond maximum capacity). The crowd was testy (“SIT DOWN IN FRONT!”), but also a bit riled up – several clusters cheered on the soldiers, as if their encouragement would somehow change the course of history. The artillery went on for a long stretch (it was very noisy, though nothing compared to the 6 cannons per second that would have been fired in the real deal) – the “largest show of Civil War artillery in the past 148 years they are aware of,” if the narrator was accurate. The Confederates were particularly feisty today; the rebel yell was incredibly loud, carrying into the upper grandstands across the battlefield.
When the Confederates broke down the fence and charged toward the Union line, the carnage began. As the rebels retreated (without the urgency that one would expect if your life depended on getting away quickly) and the reenactors began to file out off the field, the rain began. Quickly soaked in the summer rainstorm, thousands attempted to flee the Redding farm simultaneously.
If this post seems a bit more scattered than my prior ones, it is because I am utterly exhausted – but in the best way possible. I have one more morning to squeeze in a few more stops before the trip is over, but I am left mostly asking what “unfinished work” has been accomplished by this reenactment. The scope of this initial research has gone beyond the confines of the plot of land owned by the Reddings and used by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee: the whole town has been in the throes of the Sesquicentennial, and the business of remembering the war has been lucrative indeed. Beyond the commercial aspects, there are still the larger issues of the work being (un)done by performance and cultural products. The war is still going on, in regions and cities and fields throughout the country, performed by a variety of individuals. There is, as the other guests at my hosts’ house suggested, something about the Civil War in particular that gets people politically engaged today, in ways that no other war does. 3 This was, by all accounts, a popular way for Americans to celebrate being American in Gettysburg, without needing to directly address the “unfinished work” that was begun over 150 years ago. Some could, but that was a choice – it was not thrust upon any of the spectators during the re-enactments.
In the relative cool of the morning, I walked around the Pennsylvania Memorial and looked at its bronze plaques filled with names. The starred names of those that died in battle, the performers’ bodies dropping on the fake-battlefield (to rise again), the flags waving in the breeze (as the audience sighs with relief), the sudden halt of battle: all of these are beginning to bleed together, with no resolution, though this is so clearly a drama being played out again and again. Tomorrow morning, I will re-visit the field of Pickett’s Charge – the end of the reenactment, the end of the battle, and the first site I visited on my trip here. Afterwards, I will pick up the evidence of my own brief period performance: wearing a cotton day dress, a hoop skirt, and holding still for 16 seconds while the wet-plate Civil War-era photography did its work and I, too, could forget about the mess of history on the streets and battlefields, willing myself not to move.
- Walt and Sue Powell are incredibly plugged in to the Gettysburg community, and as Walt is also a reenactor (though mostly colonial things these days), they have been invaluable resources during this research trip. ↩
- I’m not doing the speech full justice here, but suffice to say it eloquently wrestled with the overlap between memory, history, commemoration, and what we should take away from the war and the sesquicentennial. ↩
- The visitors also do reenactments of the Revolutionary and French and Indian Wars, and by comparison they do not see the level of personal and political involvement. ↩