Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“It’s the Civil War dead, not ‘living historians,’ who deserve our attention”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 9, 2011

Civil War historian Glenn W. Lafantasie has a provocative new article over at Salon, “The Foolishness of Civil War Reenactors.” It’s not really so much about reenactors — though they get a thumpin’, as a recent U.S. president would say — but actually about how we, as a country, will observe the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

It should not be necessary to point out that the Civil War was tragic, not romantic, but the romanticism is what dominates public conceptions of the war. Allen Nevins, a brilliant historian whose work is now mostly ignored by younger scholars, once attempted to emphasize the war’s enormous tragedy by making this profoundly powerful point: “We can say that the multitude of Civil War dead represent hundreds of thousands of homes, and hundreds of thousands of families, that might have been, and never were. They represent millions of people who might have been part of our population today and are not. We have lost the books they might have written, the scientific discoveries they might have made, the inventions they might have perfected. Such a loss defies measurement.” Nevins wrote those words in 1961, and it seems unlikely that his admonition, or anything I could add to it, will impress Civil War enthusiasts to abandon the romantic myths of the war in favor of a stark realism that lays out, without any varnish, how Americans suffered and sacrificed as they killed one another in droves.

Even some academic historians shrink from accepting the hellishness of the Civil War. One scholar, Mark E. Neely Jr., complains that vital aspects of the war have become hidden by what he believes has been an overemphasis on the conflict’s destructiveness, what he condemns among his fellow experts as “a cult of violence.” He argues, in fact, that the Civil War was, comparatively speaking, no more violent or destructive than other wars, which may or may not be so, but his contention that the war was somehow less violent than historians have claimed flies in the face of the fact that 620,000 Americans died in the four years between 1861 and 1865. Historians haven’t exaggerated the war’s human toll; if anything, they still have not dealt effectively with the sensationalized romance — promulgated in part by the Civil War generation itself — that smothers our comprehension of the contest between North and South as an excessive expression of an American tradition of violence. . . .

It’s worth reading the whole thing.


Image: “2010 – Reenactment; Pellicer Creek Raid (Civil War),” by Flickr user iambrianna. Used under Creative Commons license. H/t: Kevin Levin

19 Responses

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  1. Dick Stanley said, on May 9, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Aside from the misplaced romance of their game, most reenactors are pathetic. They’re fat, old men whose bellies threaten to bust out of their costumes (and some equally porky-women) who don’t come close to resembling the underfed youth they allegedly portray. They look silly.

  2. Will Hickox said, on May 9, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    As I remarked on Kevin Levin’s facebook page, it’s truly amusing to see Dr. Lafantasie go off on a bitter rant about the unseemly aspects of the Sesquicentennial in what he calls our “morally bankrupt” society…only to plug his own book on the battle for Little Round Top in a paragraph purporting to discuss books on the soldiers’ lives. Well, is it really about honoring the Civil War dead or satisfying our own desires after all?

  3. WAknight said, on May 10, 2011 at 9:02 am

    I am a reenactor (though not for the civil war — the Lost Causers creep me out) myself. And I will need to read the full piece and respond more in full on my own site, no doubt.

    I will say that I generally think that battlefield reenactment is probably the least educational thing that reenactors do. I don’t think that my understanding of a battle if furthered by several thousand people play-acting it. Add to that the fact that civil war reenactment is heavy on early-war engagements where men lined up, flags waving and marched against each other boldly and rather light on late-war engagements where one side charged earthworks a la the Somme, and it’s not very representative, to say the least.

    One the other hand having the public walk through camp and talking about daily life can be very educational. Doing medieval living history, I think it’s valuable just to tell people that medieval people weren’t all midgets who ate rotten meat, and that medieval society and economics was much more complex than it is shown to be in hollywood.

    That’s connected to the fact that reenactors are a genuine treasure-trove of knowledge about the minutia of daily life and material culture (there’s a guy in my group that’s an expert in late medieval leatherworking) and personally I think that that minutia gives us quite a glimpse into the past.

    • Will Hickox said, on May 11, 2011 at 10:19 pm

      Well, *some* of them are. I reenacted as a teenager and I can attest that for every “treasure-trove of knowledge” out there, there is at least one chubby guy in a feathered hat drinking beer out of a cooler and affecting a bad Irish accent.

      • WaKnight said, on May 11, 2011 at 11:36 pm

        Truth. The best thing that historic sites can do is to keep the louts out.

  4. Jimmy Price said, on May 10, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Here’s my two cents worth, for those who care…

    • Andy Hall said, on May 10, 2011 at 4:55 pm

      Thanks, Jimmy. In my defense, I did say it was provocative. 😉

  5. tim kent said, on May 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    I don’t understand people like Lafantasie. He doesn’t like Civil War reenactments, why don’t he just not attend. He doesn’t think we should allow reenactments because he doesn’t like them. Sounds like what the war was fought about to begin with. One persons wish to force his beliefs on others. Of course, he is also trying to sell books.

    • Marc Ferguson said, on May 10, 2011 at 9:13 pm

      I don’t think he said that we shouldn’t allow Reenactments, just that they are, in his opinion, a poor way of commemorating the Civil War. Expressing one’s opinion is not the same as trying to “force” those opinions on others.

      • tim kent said, on May 10, 2011 at 11:46 pm

        I’ve been reenacting for quite awhile now and I have never forced my opinions on anyone. I allow people to fire my musket and if they ask for my opinion, I give it, but it is worth just what they pay for, nothing.

  6. Lyle Smith said, on May 11, 2011 at 12:46 am

    I don’t really like this article.

    I don’t really understand the righteous animosity directed towards Reenactors and living history by some people. So what if Reenactors are not perfect in their story telling… at least they’re acting out our history even if ever so imperfectly. Professional historians themselves can’t even write a perfect history, because they just don’t have the competency to do such a thing.

    This article is just trying to be way too cool… too progressive. Look at me, I know more about this stuff than these guys do. I know the real truth. Dear reader prostrate yourself before my righteous knowledge. What’s worse is this historian doesn’t even articulate actual facts to buttress his righteous animosity. I mean really professor, it’s a fact that the Civil War was “tragic”? There’s a consensus on this or something? This is documented where? Is it fact that 620,000 died violently during the Civil War? Really, they all died violently? Disease didn’t get most of these people?

  7. tim kent said, on May 11, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Does he have a problem with the Revolutionary War reenactors? How about World War II reenactors? Is it just Civil War?

    • Jimmy Price said, on May 11, 2011 at 9:48 pm

      That’s a great point Tim. I’ve been to plenty of WWII re-enactments where there were large groups of Americans dressed up as German and – in some cases – Nazi troops. Their rationale for doing so was that the Krauts made REALLY good soldiers and most German soldiers weren’t Nazis (an argument similar to that used by just about all Confederate re-enactors in regards to slavery). Where’s the righteous indignation for this?

      • Andy Hall said, on May 11, 2011 at 9:59 pm

        There was some pretty righteous indignation directed Rich Iott’s way last year, including here on this blog. Although his group weren’t portraying generic Wehrmacht troops; it went out of its way explicitly to portray a Waffen-SS division, and an infamously brutal one at that.

      • Margaret D. Blough said, on May 13, 2011 at 6:17 am

        I would expect, through Hitler Youth, at least, that most WW II German soldiers would have been Nazis. We can never know what was in their hearts, but, in a paranoid dictatorship, being seen as anything but fervent in one’s public devotion to the Fuhrer was a potentially fatal choice. The amount of indoctrination that the average German young man who was of conventional military age (not the old men and young boys of the end of the war) experienced was formidable.

  8. WaKnight said, on May 11, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    My main reaction to the post is not outrage but TL/DR. It seemed like a stream of consciousness essay by an academic who probably didn’t take a blog post very seriously. I could only skim it.

    Still, it’s a good excuse to write out the defense of reenacting that I’ve been planning for some time:

  9. Lee White said, on May 12, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    The right reenactors/living historians used in the right way can be very effective, but it has to be done under the right controls, etc. For example,

  10. Matt McKeon said, on May 14, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    The Revolutionary War re enactors here in Massachusetts seem perfectly OK by me, and I don’t have a trouble with CW re enactors-why should I? The WW2 ones(which I have only seen in the news) just seem wrong to me, especially the German units. I don’t know if its a logical and rational distinction, but it does. I can’t imagine what actually WW2 vets think.

  11. Solomaun Kaine said, on September 27, 2011 at 12:37 am

    Interesting how quite often the layman who lacks the letters is the most educated while the “proffesionals” prove to be pathetically under-informed. Have had a score of proffessors just like this dolt. Retired-in-place. Much like the natl. park service interpretors at “X” battlesite… Only “in-it for the chicks”.

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