Saturday, July 2, 2005

No Distraught Mothers

Aside from the usual fireworks, one of the July 4 traditions in Salem is the annual civil war reenactment at nearby Willamette Mission State Park. Men and youth from throughout the region will don Union and Confederate uniforms to revel in the glory of America's one major internal conflict.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this annual event. On the one hand, I can certainly understand the desire to explore American history in a way that moves beyond the sterile treatment of a book, magazine article or movie. On the other hand, however, it pains me greatly that war is being celebrated and that participants bathe themselves in the supposed glory of it all without gaining a true understanding of the genuine misery and agony war brings to far too many soldiers and their families.

As a youth, one of my favorite subjects in school was history. It's a love I have carried with me throughout my life. One year during spring break in college, when most of my classmates were off engaged in the frivolities of young adulthood, I curled up for the week with a 700+ page work of author Alvin Josephy and his historical look at the Nez Perce Indians. (note: I'm a slow reader)

Many of the books and magazines I regularly read involve an examination of various periods of history. My two favorite cable networks are the History Channel and A & E, both filled with documentaries of an historical nature. And most of my favorite movies (e.g., The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, Finding Neverland, Field of Dreams, etc.) are steeped in the retelling of a specific historical event or period.

Consequently, I can readily understand why some people return to participate in this event year after year.

But a reenactment does an injustice to the ugliness of war. Participants are playing out sanitized versions of a dark reality. As reported in the Statesman Journal, "When the smoke cleared, the "dead" stood up, and the Union and Confederate Civil War reenactors returned to camp together." In other words, it turns a horrific event into a friendly social event.

By and large, soldiers on both sides of the War Between the States were ill-trained, ill-equipped, ill-fed, and ill-paid. (A significant number of them were poor, illiterate immigrants.) Field medicine was in its infancy. Soldiers injured in battle were often left on the battlefield for several hours or even a day or two to die in agony. Those that were carried from the field of battle often died as ill-trained medics tried to tend to their wounds.

From the historical documents of the day, we have learned that, for most soldiers, the Civil War was not glorious at all. It was a horrible experience.

And it certainly wasn't glorious for many families. Some towns lost the majority of their able-bodied men. Some families lost most or all of their adult males, leaving behind destitute and distraught mothers, wives and children.

None of these negatives can be felt nor experienced in a reenactment. It is for this reason -- despite the part of me that loves to dive head first into historical research -- that I'm sickened by events of this nature.

War should never be glorified.

Distraught mothers should never be forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. The Glory and Horror of War

    I read your blog “No Distraught Mothers” and wanted to provide some thoughts about Civil War reenacting from my perspective, as someone who has been a reenactor for the past 10 years.

    Your main point is that reenacting glorifies war without showing its darker side; and moreover that the participants do not understand this darker side. You wrote, “participants bathe themselves in the supposed glory of it all without gaining a true understanding of the genuine misery and agony war brings to far too many soldiers and their families.”

    I think this statement does a disservice to the many fine educators and historians (both amateur and professional) who participate in the hobby. Yes, some participants just want to shoot guns and have a good time. (It is a hobby after all.) But a great many have done a huge amount of in-depth reading of books, letters, and diaries written during the period by soldiers and their families. At last year’s Willamette Mission event, the public was invited to help wounded soldiers off the field and assist in treating them at the field hospital. Some stayed for almost two hours; some were in tears. On little girl cradled a wounded soldier’s head in her lap saying, “Please don’t die, daddy.” Another woman watching the scene turned away with tears in her eyes, saying in a choked voice, “He is with the angels now.” Would her emotional response have been the same if she had read a history book or watched a TV show? I doubt it.

    The field hospitals are not the only aspect of the “darker side of war” that one sees at reenactments. They are not as obvious as the battles; one might have to look a bit harder. But one will find women and children who impersonate Confederate refugees whose homes and farms have been destroyed; widows in mourning clothes; funerals.

    At the same time it is undeniable that a Civil War reenactment does glorify war. But this was not at all out of character for the time period. This glorification of war was a huge recruiting tool, and patriotism and esprit de corps helped keep soldiers in the ranks. Crisp uniforms, stirring speeches, flying flags, fife and drum corps, and military bands were carefully designed to boost and maintain morale—most especially when the circumstances were most difficult. And even soldiers who had “seen the elephant”—a euphemism for one’s first experience in battle—saw both the glory and the horror in it. In those days also, many people were far more fatalistic about death (aided in some cases by religious concepts of predestination). I recall reading the account of Burton Porter of his part in the Battle of Brandy Station (June 1863), one of the largest all cavalry battles in the war. His unit—the 10th NY Cavalry—took 20% casualties in killed, wounded, missing and prisoners in this battle—a huge casualty rate for cavalry. Yet he later wrote, “I enjoyed this battle more than any I was ever in.” At the same time he freely admitted that he, and every man in the regiment, were fighting for their lives, and he mourned his lost friends. Love and loss were constant themes. A cavalryman, for instance, developed a deep bond with his horse (it was almost inevitable through their close daily association); yet it was very likely that his horse would die or be taken from him. Burton Porter’s horse was lucky—he was sent home by rail car before Porter was captured. When the horse finally died years later, he wrote, “I never loved any animal more.”

    Churches of the era played a huge part in promoting the war; this was especially true in the South, where “Christian duty” kept men fighting long after it became apparent that the North had far superior resources at their disposal. Read “A Moral History of the Civil War” and “The Most Famous Man in America” (a biography of the preacher Henry Ward Beecher) for more information on this subject.

    From all the reading I have done I have come away disillusioned about the “rightness” of either side in this war; both sides committed atrocities and both sides let politics prevail over morality in many ways. While I still believe that the South was wrong, I no longer believe that the North was completely right. While a war to free people held in bondage seems right to me, a war fought simply to keep unwilling states together is questionable. (And even some radical abolitionists believed that it was better to simply let the South go, than fight a war to keep the Union whole.) In the beginning, the war (from a Northern perspective) was not about slavery. It was only later, when the enormous cost became apparent, that it shifted to a war to free people—this was the only thing that could morally justify the thousands dead. Persons who could truly claim a moral high ground—on either side—were few and far between.

    Now would I have appreciated any of this had I not become a reenactor and tried to get into the 19th century mindset? I think not.

    Ken Morris


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