Nostalgia Trip

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Nostalgia Trip

Sarah L. Courteau

Civil War reenactors stake their claim to the past.

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Earlier this month I donned a bonnet and lugged a washboard to Republic, Missouri, to act the part of a laundress at a reenactment of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the first major Civil War clash west of the Mississippi. Last month I was among the sweat-soaked thousands who lined a blazing hot field outside of Manassas, Virginia, to witness a reenactment of the First Battle of Bull Run. Since editing the WQ’s special section in the Summer issue on the best books about the Civil War I’ve become obsessed with the war myself—and particularly with understanding why it holds such an enduring fascination for reenactors and the spectators who watch the battles they stage. We’ve only just begun four long years of sesquicentennial commemoration.

The 21st century intrudes determinedly on these events—from the pickup trucks that haul cannons to the battlefield, to the power lines that swoop overhead, to the rows of concession stands that sell funnel cakes to tourists and reenactors alike. (In Missouri, I guiltily snuck away from my tent at the Union camp to buy a deep-fried Twinkie.) Still, when the reenactors (or living historians, as many prefer to be called) take the field, time rolls back. The battles are necessarily condensed, but the sight of blue and gray uniformed soldiers facing off against each other through gun smoke and cannon fire is moving.

The principal difficulty with this brand of living history is that, as Tony Horwitz observes in his terrific book Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998), no matter how authentically tarnished their uniform buttons are, reenactors can’t possibly adopt the mindset of men watching their fellow soldiers die and worrying that their next breath will be their last. And no matter what hardships reenactors endure over the course of a long weekend—in Missouri, we bore heat, rain, overburdened latrines, ticks and chiggers, and inadequate water, and this was at a well-run event—they can’t compare to the experience of actual Civil War soldiers. But perhaps it’s that awareness, which was shared by everyone I talked to, that creates a sense of meaning at a reenactment: the reminder that no matter how diligent—and even strenuous—are our efforts to recapture it, the past is gone forever.

Photo: A cannon staged at the First Battle of Bull Run by Jason Pier in DC via flickr