Yesterday I watched the close of a commemorative march tracing the steps of the Confederate troops during Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd: thousands participated and watched, marking the space where these troops moved, on the very ground this assault took place. Monuments to the charge and its participants littered the field, providing shade for people and reminding us that this is, in fact, sacred ground. Edward Tabor Linenthal called Gettysburg – along with land of other seminal American battles (Lexington & Concord, Little Bighorn, etc.) – “sacred patriotic space,” or “pilgrimage sites,” where “memories of the transformative power of war and the sacrificial heroism of the warrior are preserved,” and those who visit “seek environmental intimacy in order to experience patriotic inspiration.” 1
In his chapter on Gettysburg, Linenthal goes on to describe the centennial Gettysburg celebrations, contextualizing it in terms of race relations in 1963. The centennial events were at Gettysburg National Military Park, and were predominantly devoted to memorial re-dedications and other commemorative events. The depiction of Pickett’s charge included about 500 Confederate reenactors, who “crossed the famous field and, as they approached the crowd, stopped and lowered their flags in tribute to those who had died,” with recorded sound effects playing, followed by complete silence. 2 With the 125th, however, there were two models of reenactments: one taking place on private farm land rather than the historical battlefield, the other a continuation of some of the reflective sentiments of the National Park Service’s centennial actions – “one celebrating the power and pageantry of the battle, and the other attempting to utilize the memory of war to inspire sentiment for world peace.” 3
Today was all about the “power and pageantry.” And funnel cakes. And giant sno-cones.
The Gettysburg Anniversary Committee organizes the “Official” Gettysburg Reenactment. Admission for adults is $40 each day. Grandstand seating in the massive bleachers costs extra. Refreshments compared, price-point-wise, to an amusement park or a major league baseball game. The shuttle service, however, is free – and I took it to get the private farm land where the re-enactment is staged. The Redding family farm will be used every day for the battle re-enactments, with the same large field serving as the fighting grounds for various engagements.
I wandered up the hill beyond the food vendors and grandstands to the Union camp, where soldiers were finishing breakfast around campfires, preparing their muskets, and lining up for inspection before marching out. Interestingly, women were not only cooking and sewing in the tents, but a handful were also dressed as soldiers and preparing to fight. There is no attempt to disguise their gender beyond the uniform, as far as I could gather – more “hardcore” groups, like the Virginia group I encountered yesterday – made it clear that women could only participate in a hoop skirt capacity in the reenactments. These reenactors did not seem as chatty as those I encountered yesterday, but this was a vastly different environment: they were immersing themselves in a historical atmosphere – sleeping in simple tents, building fires, doing all the things Civil War era soldiers would do. I was a stranger in their period-specific midst, snapping photos and trying to seem unobtrusive, whereas yesterday I was in the majority in an event that aimed to integrate living historians and observers.
Though there were some living history events in the tents, I made my way to the grandstand seating for the 11 AM battle reenactment of the first skirmish. The MC reminded the audience – booming and echoing on speakers that spanned down to the lower set of grandstand bleachers at least a couple football fields away – that it was a “special time to celebrate America,” then introduced two Vietnam veterans and a young boy from Minnesota to lead the audience in the pledge of allegiance, followed by the national anthem. He reminding people to remove their caps, and asked that they recite and sing “loudly and reverently,” and not mumble the last few lines of the anthem before sitting down to watch, as occurs at many sporting events. “THIS,” he said, “is the game.”
The Gettysburg Address was delivered by a Lincoln impersonator (it clocked in at less than two minutes – I have yet to compare and see if it was redacted at all, or just sped up greatly), and the fighting began. The interpreter walked the audience through both the battle maneuvers and offered up trivia while narrating over the beginning of the “largest fight to ever occur in this half of the world.” He pointed out that the battle of Gettysburg fought July 1-3 in 1863 was ironic – Americans fighting Americans on American soil, “determining the course of this great nation.”
What began as a seemingly small endeavor swelled, as men and horses took to the field in increasing numbers. In the haze, smoke, and noise, it became clear – even at a distance – how terrifying the entire thing must have been. Even with that realization, it seemed to me that this was a pageant glorifying battle: booming artillery, rebel yells, bodies littering the field a great distance away (and we all knew they would be up and walking again once it was all over), the dramatic smoke, the whinnying of horses galloping across the field, riders waving flags. With a pre-set bugle call, the field suddenly went completely silent – the reenactors stopped mid-fight. At an hour and fifteen minutes (and three grateful hip-hip-hoorays from the crowd), the first reenactment was over.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the commercialized landscape at the edge of the seating areas and near the living history tents, trying to get a glimpse of the various events when possible (the tent for General Lee was absolutely packed, a thrilled crowd clapping along to “Dixie” played on a banjo to announce his entrance).
Two women – one dressed as a Union soldier – shared how women worked as spies (cross-dressed and not) during the war, slipping in and out of character throughout. They would use “I” when describing their exploits (one described disguising herself – thought to be male by her comrades – as a “Negro mammy” to work as cook and laundress for a Confederate captain), but then would throw in references to cell phones and current spying practices. “I died in 1889,” one woman declared – the slippage was expected in this environment.
The sutlers’ tents were full of provisions for reenactors and trinkets for spectators – hats, fabric, muskets, etc. One booth offered ferrotypes and ambrotypes to reenactors anxious to have their pictures taken in uniform.
During another living history event – before a Civil War-era chaplain asked all the married couples to stand so they could renew their vows (with the “power vested in me by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee”) – a GAC member told an anecdote. A few nights before, local residents camped out on Seminary Ridge overnight and were awakened by cannon fire (set off by volunteering reenactors) in the morning, just as some of their ancestors were 150 years ago. “It’s sacred ground,” the member stated. During the festivities he declared that “we try to be as authentic as we can,” and said that the reenactors and living historians “work very hard to bring you an authentic program.” He detailed the preparations during the winter: critiquing uniforms, public speaking exercises, and helping with historical research and role development.
But this place was not sacred ground. This was not the actual land of the battles, and it’s hard to find anything “sacred” in porta-potties, $3 bottles of water, $40 entrance fees, and giant sno-cones.
Declarations of “authenticity” must always be treated with circumspection. What does it mean, when the “sacred ground” is left behind, when “authenticity” is grafted onto another site or environment? What does it mean when this commercialized half-step into the past is accompanied by reminders of American exceptionalism and simultaneous pleas to be reverent when mouthing and singing the pledge and anthem? What are the power in these massive reenactments – the sheer scale? And can pageantry on that size compensate for the overt commercialism – while reenactors themselves wait in lines for over-priced sno-cones? How do the many historical performances – in the living history tents, in the camps, on the battlefields – and the moments of slippage between past and present create or deny a space for the sacred?
Regardless, we know the event was patriotic even if we weren’t as reverent as we might have been – Fox News was there, after all.
You can see more photos from the first day of the reenactments via my Google+ album.