My ancestors were not slaveholders. But my great-great-grandfather fought. He had federal troops coming into Norfolk. He said, ‘Nuh-uh, I’ve got to join the army and defend my home state.’
This is a quote taken from an article published yesterday in The Atlantic. The woman who made this statement, a white Southern lady who helps run one of the largest Confededate cemeteries in the nation, said it to the piece’s author: a Black man. She spoke to him politely and seemed bothered by the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ tendency to raucously shout neo-Confederate slogans every Memorial Day. And yet, in the same breath, she added:
I don’t mind that they come on Memorial Day and put Confederate flags on Confederate graves.
The cognitive dissonance described here – denouncing racism yet endorsing a racist symbol – is jarring, and also jarringly American. Nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in one particular area of Civil War remembrance: re-enactments.
I am firmly against Civil War re-enactments. I believe they are displays of ahistorical white supremacy which erases the sheer evil of slavery from Civil War narratives. They place white trauma at the forefront of remembrance, and glorify the deaths of teenagers who fought to keep a genocidal system in place.
But this wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, I used to love them. At the height of my special interest in the Civil War, I viewed re-enactments as a wonderful way to step into the shoes of the oftentimes-young men who fought on both sides: a way to perhaps comprehend a little of what was going through their minds as they marched into battle. Nourished on a diet of Ken Burns and other white historians whose skewed perspectives I hadn’t registered yet, I organised an informal Civil War re-enactment at my high school for extra credit. We smacked at each other with pool noodles and played Capture the Flag under the guise of reenacting Antietam. I played Robert E Lee: something I will forever look upon with deep shame, but which seemed fine to me at the time thanks to the myth of Lee’s “antislavery” ideals. That Halloween, I dressed as a Union soldier, in a makeshift costume of jeans, a wool coat, a little leather purse, boots, and a blue kepi. The dry warmth of the Northern Californian fall made me sweat under my thick jacket, but I stubbornly kept it on, declaring I was Private Aditi from Pennsylvania (the state of my birth).
I spoke to real re-enactors, too, and got to live my then-dream of playing a Pennsylvanian soldier in an actual Memorial Day reenactment. I learnt how to fire a muzzle-loading musket (filled with a blank, no bullet) without falling over from the blast. I got to charge around and yell and pretend to be a teenager in the Union Army. I went home thrilled that I’d gotten a chance to go back in time and pretend to be a soldier, after all the reading and documentary-watching I’d done.
During the course of this, I asked a handful of re-enactment participants about the reasoning behind picking a side to portray. The only person who replied said: “Some of us chose loyalty in remembrance of ancestors who fought,” and went on to state that her ancestor had been in the Confederate Army, so she depicted a Confederate civilian. This is a sentiment commonly echoed by a rather large chunk of white America: heritage, not hate, is what leads people to hoist Confederate flags and cosplay as Confederate soldiers. It’s the sentiment I wrote about when I was eighteen, in a spurned op-ed submission to the New York Times:
By all means, honor your fallen ancestors. Pay your respects to them; appreciate their immense bravery in the face of danger. But do it in a way that separates the men from the cause they were fighting for: recognize the individuals and their actions, while appreciating that the ideals they were fighting for are outdated, flawed, and extremely prejudiced.
And please, please don’t use it as an excuse to fly the Confederate flag – the ‘American Swastika’.
But herein lies the question I did not consider, and which Confederate re-enactors do their best to ignore: what if your heritage is hate? As I read a more diverse set of sources, focusing on books written by Black historians and novelists, it struck me that recognition of the individual soldiers who fought for the Confederacy is still a celebration of the Confederacy. Contrary to what I had believed when I was eighteen, the actions of these men cannot be separated from the ideals for which they fought. Just as nobody can honour a Nazi soldier without being antisemitic and anti-Roma, honouring a Confederate soldier’s memory and so-called “immense bravery” gives legitimacy to the anti-Black cause for which he fought.
Yet this fact is continuously downplayed during Civil War re-enactments, where whiteness is the status quo: I was one of the very few brown faces in the one I attended. Why are they so white, when a sizeable portion of Union soldiers were Black men, many of whom were refugees escaping slavery in the South? Simple: on the mock battlefield, there is no room for the ugly truth about why the war was fought, beyond a vague statement about “states’ rights”. Civil War re-enacting culture is a deliberately constructed bastion of whiteness, created as a form of worship directed toward a glorious white past.
This is best encompassed by the fact that a disproportionate number of re-enactors participate as Confederates. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a hate group whose pro-Confederate propaganda is akin to a cult, organises its own re-enactments to celebrate “Southern culture”, which they define as an exclusively white phenomenon centred around Confederate mythology. Of course, the battle flag is everywhere, a garish blood-red symbol of white nationalism floating over what we are meant to believe is a celebration of innocent heritage.
Image description: Confederate re-enactors firing their muskets. A Confederate battle jack flies prominently in the background. Source: Wikipedia.
Civil War re-enactments are a blot on historical education. They attract racists like flies, and through whitewashing the Civil War they are inherently anti-Black. I am ashamed that I organised an event like this, rooted in racism, at my school with the support of my teachers. And I am ashamed that I ever considered this a good way of experiencing history. Because, quite frankly, re-enacting is one of the worst ways to disseminate truthful history. It’s time for Civil War re-enactments to go the way of the soldiers they “honour” – and die.