Magazine article The American Conservative

Harvard's Civil War: Historical Reenactment Remains a Grassroots Tradition

Magazine article The American Conservative

Harvard's Civil War: Historical Reenactment Remains a Grassroots Tradition

Article excerpt

Several men lay dead in a northern Virginia pasture. It was a hot summer morning in July. Cannons boomed in the distance. One of the dead, overcome by the heat, suddenly got up and walked toward a crowd at the edge of the field. A few dozen yards away, sweaty spectators clapped politely. The man, dressed as a Union soldier from 1861, smiled and waved to the spectators, whose casual bleacher-wear revealed the miraculous resurrection was all a part of the show.

Over 37,000 people turned out for the sesquicentennial commemoration of First Bull Run. A fifth of them were amateur performers who drove from near and far for this Super Bowl of Civil War reenactments. Manassas, once a sleepy town a day's horse ride from Washington, is now a sprawling exurban satellite of the federal city. In the 1990s, Disney sought to capitalize on the region's patriotic tourism with a large theme park focusing on American history. A coalition of locals and luminaries like historian James McPherson and actor Robert Duvall fought Mickey Mouse off. But until the real estate bust of the late aughts, strip malls and subdivisions threatened to surround the battlefield, a national park visited by nearly a million tourists every year.

The National Park Service takes its mandate for preservation seriously--so much so that it won't allow reenactors to use the original field, lest they stumble on an artifact or stray bone. The simulated battle took place a few miles away, on a site unadulterated save for some very large power lines dominating the horizon.

The thousands of spectators were a greater impediment to time travel than this industrial intrusion. The massive scale of the event meant that it felt as much like a county fair or drag-racing meet as a carefully constructed historical diorama. Besides the sweet aroma of fried dough from the funnel cake stand, partially concealing the faint but unmistakable air of hundreds of porta-potties, the place was as likely to smell of sunscreen as blood or gunpowder. The most conspicuous casualties, one photographer pointed out, were "lots of dead water bottles" strewn across the field. Despite the distractions, the event did not fail to evoke "the mystic chords of memory." The feast days of many cultures have often taken the form of a traditional carnival, with participants celebrating a collective identity that springs from a particular historical event.

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But some professional historians are concerned that popular reenactments--likely to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors as the sesquicentennial commemorations continue--damage our collective sense of the conflict's meaning. In May, Drew Faust, president of Harvard and an acclaimed Civil War historian, was invited to Washington to deliver the National Endowment for the Humanities' prestigious Jefferson Lecture. While some lecturers shy away from controversy, Faust seemed to relish the opportunity to atone for her predecessor Larry Summers's sins of political incorrectness.

Faust properly observed that the purposes for going to war are often muddled, reminding the audience of the Bush administration's rush to Iraq after 9/11. But the real enemies of history were in her sights. Ron Paul and latter-day advocates of nullification--the former guilty of "declaring Lincoln and the war responsible for arrogations of central power that Tea Party originalists and libertarians are dedicated to overturn"--were classed with "significant segments of the American population, particularly in the South" who "continue to reject the slavery as a fundamental cause of the war . …

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