In reading Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields this week, I came across a passage where author Edward Tabor Linenthal referenced a speech made in 1962 by Civil War historian Bruce Catton. Speaking at Gettysburg College, Catton was previewing the then-upcoming centennial celebrations planned for the battlefield. In decrying the “sentimental haze [that] will cloud the landscape” during the anniversary, Catton was particularly critical of reenactments.
I pass this on not to disparage re-enactors—especially because I have many friends who reenact—but in an attempt to generate a little discussion.
Catton said reenactments “require us to reproduce, for the enjoyment of attendant spectators, a thin shadow-picture of something which involved death and agony for the original participants.” Battles were not waged in a “spirit of fun,” Linenthal wrote…
but were “desperately real and profoundly, if unforgettably tragic.” A battle was not just a “tournament in which brave men did gallant things for the admiration of later generations.”
Linenthal went on to explain that “certain modes of veneration that initially were commemorative in nature became primary strategies for reviving the past, Battle reenactment was one such strategy.”
“It’s not that we pretend that this is real,” said one reenactor Linenthal quoted, “but it gives you an ever greater respect for those men who really endured it. We can never reproduce what war was like, not should we want to, but our endeavor is to never allow the sacrifices made by those who have gone before us to be forgotten.”
So, what’s the deal: Are reenactments forms of crass, disrespectful entertainment, or are they important forms of commemoration and education? Are they both? Neither? Something else entirely?