A few years back — I think it was 2009 — I took a summer trip back home to the Youngstown, Ohio area after having endured my first few months of graduate school in Calgary, Alberta. While back home, I went to a biannual local event, the kind that attracts a certain breed of generally harmless miscreants: a Civil War reenactment. Granted, there are lamer ways to spend your time, but not many, and since I’m a historian who focuses on the Civil War era, viewing one of the more popular modern manifestations of the war in contemporary culture seemed like a good way to spend an afternoon.
Now, I didn’t hightail it over to Gettysburg, or Antietam, or any one of the other major battlefields in the eastern theater. No, I went to a little green space with a pavilion and some adjacent woods known as Argus Park, located in the somewhat upper-class Youngstown suburb of Canfield, Ohio. Every two years, Civil War reenactors from various “lodges” in Ohio and surrounding states gather at Argus Park to recreate the bloody Battle of Canfield. Okay, that’s not quite true. In fact, this little slice of the Western Reserve in Northeastern Ohio did not host any fighting between Union and Confederate armies during the war, though it did supply plenty of Union soldiers who fought in the South. There was no “Battle of Canfield.” Rather, the Argus Park reenactors put on a sort of generic Civil War battle, with some nods to the 1863 Gettysburg battle in Pennsylvania and the 1864 Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia.
In addition to the fighting, the event included recreated army camps and a pavilion-style cook out. Spectators also had a chance to peruse the merchandise tents of local trinket dealers who hawked their wares, which included various types of toy cap guns, a bunch of Civil War-related chachkies, and some period costumes — among other treasures. There was also a food stand where you could purchase a pickle-on-a-stick and root beer, and if you were brave enough, you could chat up “Abraham Lincoln” and “Robert E. Lee” as they wandered the park. Somehow, I never worked up the gonads to ask these two historical luminaries if they shared a car on the way over.
The “battle” itself was fairly entertaining: its big draw was the firing of a couple small cannons which were loud as hell and sent a hefty steel orb into the air before it landed with a rather unceremonious “thud.” As a general history dork, I enjoyed the afternoon at Argus Park, but attending Civil War reenactments on a regular basis, let alone actually participating in them, is not something I’ll probably ever do. The whole event, however, has remained in my brain for a few years now, and periodically makes me raise the question of what exactly people “get” from Civil War reenactments. Hell, what did I get from going to this thing? Well, I’m obviously interested in the Civil War, but it’s not like I really learned anything there. Plus, as I noted earlier, there were no battles in Canfield, Ohio, so myself and the other attendees didn’t go to witness a recreation of a local historical event. So what’s the draw of reenactments?
In his excellent book Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, journalist Tony Horwitz spent time with a bunch of reenactors. “Hardcore” reenactors obsessed over getting every period detail right and intentionally starved themselves while laying in tick-ridden fields to get a “period rush” by recreating the generally miserable experience of the average Confederate infantryman. Less dedicated “weekend” reenactors, whom the “hardcores” derided as “farbs” (a generally nonsensical, all-purpose term of disdain) for their mercurial commitment to reenacting, filled up the majority of the “armies” and “civilian camps.” One woman remarked that the appeal of reenacting lay in the chance to, however fleetingly, escape the twentieth century, if only for a weekend, by going back to a simpler time.
We Americans— me included sometimes— are suckers for this type of disengaged-from-reality nostalgia. For a good many folks fed up with the soul-devouring office-based doldrums of the modern world, a “trip” back to the nineteenth century offers simple pleasures: camp fires, slow-cooked food, no electricity, the warmth of family around hearth and home, rolling, freshly tilled farm fields, a cultural environment unspoiled by the inane jabbering of 24 hour media, and, oh yeah: a cataclysmic war that killed 600,000 people.
That last one’s the stickler, and it represents the general problem with nostalgia: it’s not reality-based. While I admit there’s an appeal to the idea of a “simpler time,” the nineteenth century wasn’t really a “simpler time.” And the Civil War wasn’t a simple gathering of folks in a pretty field. Rather, it was a brutal taste of Hell-on-earth. Tens-of-thousands suffered physical and mental anguish in the form of shrapnel and bullet wounds, amputations, shell-shock, gangrene, imprisonment, dead family members, horrible illnesses ranging from cholera to typhoid, and untold psychological anguish. Add to all that the fact that the war was fought over the right for one group of people to enslave another group, and you get an overall moment in time that was fascinating and horrifying, but not something you’d really want to authentically recreate.
On the surface, there’s certainly nothing wrong with Civil War reenactments. Hell, I might even go to another one someday, but there is something curiously unsettling about the way Americans yearn for that “simpler time” that was never all that simple. That many Americans in particular have chosen the Civil War as a point of reference for historical nostalgia has always struck me as a bit unfortunate.
Reenactors like to say that they are “honoring” those who fought in the war by recreating their heroism, but by substituting real violence for mock-violence, I think we lose a certain level of appreciation for just how horrible this war was and why it’s not something of which we should be proud. The war happened. And if it was going to happen, it’s good that the right side won. But by choosing to recreate decapitated bodies and battlefields strewn with bloated horse carcasses via the bloodless miming of actual battle, Civil War reenactments tend to make the war into yet another American stage play devoid of the nastiness of actual history.
All that said, I enjoyed the reenactment at Argus Park. Perhaps that makes me a hypocrite, but if that’s the case, I’ll just say I went for the pickle-on-a-stick.