I’m not sorry to be missing Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary these next three days. Too many reenactors, thousands of them, in fact. And too many of them are too corpulent and their uniforms too clean to be taken seriously as representing the ragged, lean and hungry Rebel and Union soldiers who fought in the plowed fields and orchards south of the Pennsylvania town on July 1-3, 1863.
I attended the 125th anniversary, back in 1988, which, mercifully, was much less attractive to the costumed and so the fields were quiet on the appointed days and more appropriate for commemoration of tens of thousands of killed, wounded and missing, some of them my own ancestors, all of whom were Rebels. I walked from attack point to attack point on July 2 down Seminary Ridge sticking small Rebel battle flags in the ground beside the monuments of their Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Georgia units.
Thus the battle should be remembered on both sides, it seems to me, with whatever reconciliation and emancipation commemorations the park service thinks are appropriate. Gettysburg wasn’t the first battle the Rebels lost but it was one of the first big ones the Union clearly won, so it did provide the push for what President Lincoln later called “a new birth of freedom.”
The reenactor bonanzas, however, just turn into carnivals leavened only by the sulfur smell of the genuine black-powder rifles and cannon, of which there will be more than the usual number this week. Firing blanks of course, which do not provide the real sound—an ear-splitting crack—and so merely add to the phoniness of it all.
At least the Brit’s Telegraph says there will be enough cannon to give an approximation of the real scene. The Telegraph’s report, ironically, is probably the most complete one we’re likely to get. American media often are hobbled by their political focus on the country’s history, especially this history which concerns African slavery.
And therein is an interesting detail the Telegraph reporters found: several black reenactors portraying “civilians” at Gettysburg—presumably, in some cases, the real servants/slaves who followed their Rebel “marsters” to war. I saw one such black reenactor, exactly one, in 1990 at the 125th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox. He was sitting with some white reenactor Rebels.
Good for them, the black reenactors, I mean, few of them as there are, for having the guts to buck contemporary racial politics to add some truth and verisimilitude to the circus: the three-ring parade of incongruously pot-bellied and double-chinned white soldiers in their spanking-new uniforms and far too many hoop-skirted women for anything like accuracy. All they need is a steam calliope on iron-rimmed wooden wheels playing Danny Boy.
But enough of the curmudgeon. It’s all very, very good in at least one respect. It’s really not possible to ever bring back the real days of 1863. Thank goodness.