I went to a Civil War re-enactment on Saturday. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to blog about it; how to strike the right tone of respectful and incredulous.
I grew up in New England. The war I studied as a kid (and remember studying) is the Revolutionary War. For me, the Tea Party is when a bunch of tea got dumped into Boston Harbor. The Civil War was about slavery, right? And who doesn’t think slavery is wrong?
Living in Arkansas for 8 years now, I know it’s not that simple. I love my adopted state, and I have loved learning more about the forces that shape it into the contrary “we want to be respected but we want to hold onto the past” kind of place that it is. So when a friend asked me if I wanted to come watch her 12-year old history-loving son in his first reenactment, I jumped at the chance.
After applying multiple layers of clothing (due to impending rain and cold temps) we mounted our white steed/Honda Pilot and headed north to Pea Ridge, to a site near where the aptly named Battle of Pea Ridge took place (actual battles on National Park land are not allowed). As we drove up, I found myself full of theatrical questions, a la:
Me: Do you think there’s a director? You know, someone to keep the narrative true?
My friend: I imagine that’s what the Generals are for.
The whole thing seemed like a lark. A bit of theater of the absurd. Especially when I saw this sign:
Then, as I was chortling while my friend generously stopped the car so I could take a picture, I mentioned that I planned to blog about this, and she said “Well, just be nice!”
Gulp. If I’d had reins on my horse, I would have pulled up short. She was right. Time to check my Yankee snark and pay attention to what this kind of thing really means. Now, that’s not to say that the group I was with didn’t have a healthy sense of humor about the whole adventure. Thank god they did, or I would have been miserable. But more on that later.
Here’s the history lesson: The Battle of Pea Ridge was the last effort by the Confederate army to keep the Union troops out of southern Missouri and Northwest Arkansas. It was one of the few battles where the rebel troops outnumbered the Yankees, but it would seem that poor communication doomed the Confederate effort, and they lost the battle, and nearly 2000 troops.
This version of the battle had only about 200 participants, so it seemed a little sparse to me. A few riders galloped about, and two companies of soldiers dressed in Union blue or Confederate gray lined up and slowly started marching toward each other, firing their muskets and pistols at each other. The cannons were the best part, booming with gravitas and releasing perfect smoke rings into the rainy air. It wasn’t really possible to know if what was happening on the field was true to history, but at last, the two sides met in the middle, the Confederates surrendered, and all the dead rose to their feet and the crowd applauded.
As I mentioned, the group I was with understood the, well, weirdness of what we were witnessing. They appreciated, as I did, the incongruity of having porta-potties lined up next to campfires, and selling hot dogs, chips and soda while people strode around in full Civil War era costume. They noticed the irony that we were seated in lawn chairs with golf umbrellas, snapping photos with our IPhones and digital cameras while men, women and boys pretended to shoot at each other with cap guns (impressive musket versions, of course, but loaded with caps). They laughed along with me as we overheard giggles coming from the soldiers, especially the ones who “died” and had to lay on the cold ground while their compatriots moved on.
I overheard two of the soldiers on horseback greet each other most cordially while they clanked swords:
Yankee: Hey man, how’s it going? Clang.
Rebel: Good, how are you doing? Clank.
To be honest, the day was mostly full of these kinds of moments, which made it actually quite fun, despite the chilly temps.
But there was one moment, as I was watching the line of Confederates advance on the Union troops, when I blurted out to my friend “This is silly!” And then I groaned, because I didn’t want her to think I meant the event itself was silly. I meant the living illustration of the war we saw in front of us; it made no sense. Two groups of men on opposite sides of a field, methodically prepping to shoot each other. Knowing what was coming. At one point, a “deserter” ran off, and though he was probably the smartest dude in the bunch, his own troops tracked him down and “shot” him. All I could think was “Oh, my god. This really happened. Why couldn’t they have just had a game of darts or something…it would achieve the same thing and save a few thousand lives.” War is foolish. I know it’s a tool of diplomacy, but it’s foolish.
Before the event, I was talking to my friend’s son about his costume, and he was explaining to me that he had on about five shirts. After telling me what each of them were, he idly said:
“You’d think all these shirts would be enough to stop a bullet.”
I stammered some response, but I was floored. If only he were right.
And I guess that’s my take on the whole event. The people involved take it seriously, even though some parts of it are silly. That seems appropriate, since war, as a whole, is silly. But it’s also deadly serious.