The Secret Life of a Modern-Day Johnny Reb

Last week, Andrew Sullivan’s mega-popular blog The Dish posted an excerpt of a short essay by Lewis McCrary about Civil War reenacting. McCrary (pro-reenacting) was responding to a long lecture (pdf) given by Harvard president and Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust (anti-reenacting). I, in turn, responded to McCrary’s response by writing an e-mail to The Dish summarizing my thoughts about the sometimes-controversial hobby and why, after a few years, I quit dressing up like Johnny Reb.
A day or two later, The Dish published my e-mail and McCrary subsequently replied with his thoughts about my thoughts about his thoughts about Drew Gilpin Faust’s thoughts. Which all sounds confusing, I know, and very “bloggy.” But discussion is a good thing, and what’s important about this particular discussion, I think, is that it touches on how we choose to remember the Civil War. And that’s of special concern to those of us at Encyclopedia Virginia, especially during this much-ballyhooed sesquicentennial.
So. Rather than fisk McCrary, let me make a few general observations. There’s plenty to be said in support of reenacting, both as a hobby and as an approach to understanding the Civil War. In Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998), Tony Horwitz writes sympathetically about reenactors, even if he also is attuned to their various eccentricities. And in Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle (1999), EV contributor Stephen Cushman finds reenactments, despite their many problems, to be enlightening. When he attends a mock staging of the Battle of the Wilderness, for example, Cushman becomes attuned for the first time to the awful noise of battle:

My little Sunday afternoon reenactment amounted to nothing but a thin sliver of the real thing, and yet as the smoke cleared, as the cordons around the battlefield came down and I began the long walk across it back to my car, I had the sense that I had gotten what I came for. For some unmeasured bit of time, the sound and the smoke and the formations of men maneuvering toward each other across the field had fooled me. I lost track of time and forgot the other spectators, the traffic jam, ticket gate, rescue squads, portable toilets, sutlers’ souvenirs, seminars, and book-signing. I forget the contradictions and anachronisms and ironies of recreating the Battle of the Wilderness. I forgot about commemoration and instruction and entertainment. I even forgot about authenticity. For a few seconds or minutes on an oppressively hot afternoon in central Virginia, the smug, complacent detachment that buffers me from May 1864 slipped just a little.

That ability for some reenactments to make you forget (or, turned inside out, to make you remember) was a point hammered home by another EV contributor, Henry Wiencek, in his book An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (2003). Wiencek writes of how, at Colonial Williamsburg, a reenactment of a slave auction went awry, and if nothing else, that incident reminds us of how powerful our ability is to suspend disbelief.
These, then, are really interesting and (again) powerful arguments for the possibilities inherent in reenacting, and they might have been employed to rebut my somewhat-pat e-mail. But Lewis McCrary does not seem interested in this sort of discussion. A senior editor for The American Conservative magazine, McCrary does not seem much interested in making an argument at all; instead, in his original essay and in his response to my comments, he merely cobbles together a series of assertions about reenactors without providing evidence to back them up.
He writes that “for the reenactors, replaying these battles provides a reminder that conflict is always with us, and that some instinct, perhaps original sin, always leads men to do violence to one another.” But how are reenactors reminded of these things, and how, for that matter, does McCrary know this? He doesn’t say. Instead, he chuckles that “you need only mention outmoded concepts like ‘original sin,’ to get folks really riled up.”
McCrary writes that most reenactors’ “narratives about the war” intuitively rely on these concepts (of original sin and the fallen human condition), but again he does not say how, or how he knows this. In fact, he does not provide even a single example of these narratives.
McCrary scolds Drew Gilpin Faust for finding “false narratives” in reenactments, but then lets pass one reenactor’s insistence that “black and women reenactors are welcome.” Does such an admirably inclusive attitude jibe with an accurate portrayal of a Confederate camp? Most historians would say that it would depend, and if you’re not familiar with the controversy surrounding black Confederates, you should read our entry. Or this post at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog.
Someday I’ll write a memoir titled The Secret Life of a Modern-Day Johnny Reb, and it will detail my own confusions, played out even within my own immediate family, on this very question. In the meantime, it’s worth asking what African Americans might be doing in a Confederate camp in the first place. Were they soldiers or did they perform some other function? And why do we never see reenactors of camp slaves? Or reenactors of camp women doing their washing rather than strolling around in giant hoop skirts?
What bugged me about Tony Horwitz’s book is that he noticed these absurdities but declined to follow them up by asking what sorts of narratives they suggest reenactors are most interested in pursuing. Are they narratives designed to enhance our understanding of the conflict or are they instead designed to comfort us in the face of, for example, the tangled mess that is the war and race? (I realize, by the way, that this is a completely loaded formulation. Horwitz would, I’m sure, word it differently.)
Anyway, you’ll recall that McCrary is a senior editor at The American Conservative. As such, his primary concern seems to be in framing the hobby of reenacting in terms that are palatable to the social conservative. A trail of breadcrumbs leads readers to the conclusion that reenacting is good, honest, Christian, and American. These breadcrumbs include associating reenactors with the “common man,” in this case heroic vets and guys who clean toilets for a living. People who do not subscribe to McCrary’s view, by contrast, are “professionals” and Harvard types; they’re the sort to get “riled up” over any mention of religion. Meanwhile, McCrary employs empty phrases like “politically correct” to describe Faust’s argument while associating his reenactors with the noble rituals of a civic “liturgy.”
And he accomplishes all this while evincing no real knowledge of reenacting or, for that matter, of the Civil War. I appreciate that McCrary took the time to respond to my comments, but I’m hoping that he might take even more time to consider some of the questions I’ve posed here.
PREVIOUSLY: In Defense of Civil War Reenacting (Not!)
IMAGE: A flood-damaged photograph of the author at his very first reenactment way back in nineteen eighty-something.


One thought on “The Secret Life of a Modern-Day Johnny Reb

  1. Brendan, I suspect McCrary knows in his heart of hearts that what he tried to defend boils down to a form of cosplay; that’s why he did it so badly. You really shoulda fisked him…
    …but the photo? Adorbs.


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