Re-enacting at the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

I Company, 13th Virginia Volunteer Infantry

July 12th, 2013
Fairfax, Virginia — UPDATE

It is with sadness, loss, and regret that I add an edit to this blog entry as one of the hearty men of the “Lucky 13th”, SGT Charles Napier passed away last night.  ( and the family of the 13th feels the loss.  I knew him but briefly, but he was one of those who welcomed me into their family and I have no doubt he left the world a far better place than he found it.

My prayers are with the Napier family and the 13th family.  Godspeed SGT Napier.  May God be with Ms. Napier and all who grieve your loss.

— Carl

July 7th, 2013
Fairfax, Virginia

Earlier this week I participated in my first Civil War re-enactment. I was drawn in to the spectacle by my neighbor, fellow soldier, and fellow Southerner and there was very little choice in the matter and luckily my first experience would be on the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

If one should take on a new experience, one should make it count.

Some facts: approximately 10,000 re-enactors, about 8 battles, over 200 horses, and over 400 artillery pieces. There was a good balance of Union and Confederate re-enactors on the field and a massive crowd at each battle.

My previous understanding of re-enactors was completely colored by Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War which more or less concluded re-enactors are nuts, are racist, are of low-to-no education, are un-reconstructed Lost Cause supporters, and are highly exclusive.

In my experience with Company I, 13th Virginia Infantry, I completely disagree with Horwitz.

So, I am a noob, a farb, or otherwise novice at this and was a little more than concerned that I had decided to go out with a whole bunch of folks I don’t know to fight for the Rebs “killin” the Yankees. Further complicating things… I wear Union Blue every day as a member of the Department of Defense.

I am pretty clear who won the war.

I also don’t dig racism… at all.

BUT… concerns aside, PVT DeadGuyQuotes shows up for muster at our encampment, we set up camp, we began drilling and I learned many things immediately.

FIRST – I Company, 13th VA is a family and an open and welcoming family at that! They opened their reserves, supplies, friendship, and camaraderie to me immediately.

SECOND – this unit displayed remarkable discipline and took great pains and pride in maintaining it. I was provided a musket, dropped into formation and we immediately began drilling. I was put through my paces, duly laughed at for my failings, and made friends quickly with a former Marine-turned archaeologist, a Vietnam Veteran serving as our First Sergeant, and a host of great people from all walks of life. This motley and colorful band enjoyed having fun but was dead serious when it came to preparing for their parts in the battle.

THIRD – the demographic threw me off. I wasn’t expecting slightly less than half to be be under 30 and slightly less than half to be over 50. Nor was I expecting several fighting females. I will tell you, EVERYONE pulled their weight. Our Ice Angel serviced the battle field in 90+ degree heat and never slowed down. Our own female soldiers marched hearty and “fought” well too!

So what?

I don’t know why everyone who was there re-enacts. It’s expensive and time-consuming. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

But everyone in the unit loves it and our unit seemed to really love the spectators. Many worked hard at the “living history” piece as spectators came into camp, as we drilled before the crowds and posed to take questions. DeadGuyQuotes and one of our hearty band posed as Southern Dignitary and Royal Canadian Observer with a few “bodyguards” as we watched and commented on the battle and intermingled with the crowd – much to their delight.

Re-enacting is BIG money. Sutler’s (period merchandise sellers) charge about $1,500 to fully kit someone out with musket, uniform, tent, basic issue equipment, and sundries. Ticket sales generate huge revenue at some of the larger events. Participant ticket sales support a massive logistical support network complete with traffic control, water and ice supply, port-o-potties, and trans-battlefield movement. The battlefield itself with the various camps, grandstands, activity areas, sutler sales booth areas, and parking was many square miles.

Still…. So what?

For the historian in me, it gave unparalleled depth to events I have read about and researched. The heat, fatigue, importance of battle drill and order, the smoke and fog of war, the terrain, the starvation and lack of supply, the insufficient communications, and the sheer courage lend more color to a black and white study of war than anything short of actual war could.

For the Soldier in me, it gave unparalleled appreciation for modern methods of war, tools, and command and control. I have complete respect and profound appreciation for the American Civil War Soldier – their courage and dedication at the personal level is overwhelming. The abilities or inabilities of command and control, so easily ridiculed by modern Soldiers or historians, is something to be much better understood before opening one’s mouth.

There is a lot to learn by re-enacting.

More importantly, there are relationships to be built around a common effort. Men and women, going to the field with a unity of focus glued together by camaraderie is rare in the modern era. I want to be a part of a muster that enjoys taking care of a disparate family. That is one of the joys of being in the military after all. Why not share that with civilians?

We live in a time when civilians and military are becoming two classes divided. This is one area where there can be a common language and common bond borne of the idea of military and forged in the bloodshed of history. Why not? In a time where we are separated by common iDevices across the dinner table, why not do something to shed the cloak of everyday living and meet new people share ideas and experiences, and learn a little on the way?

Below is a review on “memory” based on perspectives from two books. Horwitz is wrong… or, at least my experience with the very unique I Co, 13th VA tells me he is.

I’d appreciate your thoughts…


Review: Prosthetic Memory and Confederates in the Attic

2 December 2007


Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. By Alison Landsberg. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Pp. xi + 215 pages. $59.50 cloth, $22.50 paper).

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. By Tony Horwitz. (New York: Pantheon, 1998. Pp. xii + 406 pages. $27.50 cloth, $14.95 paper).

Memory can be a regressive or a progressive element of change as discussed by Angela Landsberg and Tony Horwitz in their works on memory. Landsberg presents an optimistic and even hopeful thesis that collective, shared, “prosthetic” memories can cross cultural, geographical, political, and genetic boundaries to enable a deeper understanding of and relation to histories that do not “belong” to the participant and thus create empathy ultimately obviating racism. Horwitz offers a more doubtful assessment by suggesting those same boundaries will not likely enable such empathies because the participant chooses not to cross those boundaries thus prolonging and even deepening racial divides.

Both authors describe experiential-based histories as “prosthetic” histories. Although Horwitz did not use the term that Landsberg would coin six years later, the intent and meaning are the same: participants in histories that are not “theirs” come away with an understanding of that history which establishes a connection to that history. Landsberg describes audiences of the United States Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, DC, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and Spiegelman’s Maus as participants in obtaining a memory that is not strictly “theirs.” She argues that the memories generated by the participants are not the same as actually having been involved in the events represented by the presentations of the museum, movie, and cartoon, but as more enlightened because of that experience. This enlightenment comes as a result of their participation in the media form of those stories. The participants can better understand the event and better relate to the story and its impact. She argues that the media-based experience generates empathy towards the people and events behind the media-based portrayal.

Horwitz argues the same point with his energetic investigation of Civil War re-enactors and other “Lost Cause” defenders. Horwitz begins his journey asking why his great-grandfather was so enthralled of his Photographic History of the Civil War. The resulting discussion about his great-grandfather’s emigration confirms many of the assertions Landsberg makes about émigrés in the late nineteenth century. Following Landsberg’s model of émigrés, Issac Perski fled Europe for the United States and once there, worked diligently to assume the mantle of “American.” Perski used the Civil War to establish an identity with his new country by assuming the prosthetic memory of that event.

What Horwitz found in the process of answering this question led him to other means of establishing links and understandings of the past, in particular, his investigation of re-enactors and “Lost Cause” defenders. Much like Landsberg, these individuals used the experiential histories found in re-enacting battles, re-creating the daily lives and experiences of Civil War soldiers, and celebrating the birthdays and lives of the “Lost Cause” heroes and heroines to establish a link and empathy for their forebears.

While the two authors offer compelling arguments for the creation of empathy through experiences that relate to history, they do not share the same view of the result. Landsberg paints a picture of utopia where the world can come to a ubiquitous understanding of its history through various media. In that deep and overarching understanding, all people share the histories and the cultures of all other people. Concurrently, racism, class divide, cultural elitism, and oppression all fade into the background of a shared memory leading the world toward unity. Horwitz, on the other hand, implies that the shared experiences on the re-enacted Civil War battlefield further cement the divide and sense of antagonistic opposition stemming from the Civil War itself, thus ensuring continued racism and division.

Landsberg’s argument that empathy is the carrier of people to this utopia is logically compelling, but it overlooks its darker implications. If media provide for common “prosthetic memories” and yield a common identity then media can also be a very dangerous tool for manipulation and dogmatic coercion calling upon George Orwell’s assertion: “He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Landsberg relies on the independent agency of choice and thus the omnipotent power of a controlled media is not possible. Unfortunately, there is much evidence overlooked by Landsberg that challenges her weak defense.

Horwitz offers an excellent example of this regressive side. In the sub-culture of the “Lost Cause” defenders, exercise of the independent agency of the exclusive participants leads to deeper hatred and racism over unity. This is especially clear when Horwitz describes events in Guthrie, Kentucky (not even a Southern state) the Sons of Confederate Veterans chose to honor a hate-crime victim/instigator with Southern sainthood as the “border-state” town was roiled in racism and divide.

Landsberg offers a view implying that participants would not choose to establish ties with certain exclusive groups or histories. She implies that because the media can cross cultural boundaries, it will. It truly is an alluring ideal that the metaphysical “rational man” can certainly accept. The rational man wants empathy and resolution with persons unlike himself. She is logically convincing that media portrayals through films, literature, and museums can establish an understanding of those unlike us. Unfortunately, she does not look at the greater world of art nor the internet. By the book’s publication in 2004 there could have been evidence and time to examine the potential impact of the internet to support her theories. Equal access to information can be a great facilitator of her thesis that prosthetic memories are harbingers of equality.

Unfortunately, people do not often act like the rational man. Participants such as Horwitz’s re-enactors are arguably not rational men. They are tied most often by blood relations to the object of their passions. They seek the same empathy to those unlike themselves, while imagining the Civil War soldiers are more like them than not. Their insistence that blood ties are crucial suggests that the re-enactors and other “Lost Cause” defenders would not so diligently pursue their “studies” in the detail and in the trivia.

While both authors offer compelling arguments that prosthetic memories can convey empathy for the history studied, it is troubling that Horwitz’s examples of bloodline – racial – ties act to provide exclusivity. This exclusivity can use the potential of prosthetic memories to render precisely the opposite result that Landsberg intended. Horwitz does, however, offer a ray of hope. As a resident of Virginia and from childhood a “Reb” he finally dons the Union blue and experiences life as a Union soldier. As such, his experience molds his sympathies and empathies towards the “North” giving him an opportunity to share in the Northern experience as well.

Regardless of the possible ramifications, both authors agree that memories can be developed through relational experiences. Both authors illustrate that just being a part of a re-visitation of an event will provide a set of memories that are not of the event itself, whether it be the Civil War or the Holocaust, but a set of memories that reveal an empathy towards the participants in the original event. Landsberg most clearly argues these prosthetic memories are not to be confused as being surrogate memories of the event, but memories that enable a cross-boundary sharing of experiences which are not the sole property of the original participant. Horwitz, while not directly arguing for prosthetic memories, argues that in searching for a tie to their ancestors the re-enactors are accomplishing the same task by creating memories that are “relational” and offer insights and thus empathy on the characters.

Both books are interesting studies into memories and their impact on world view. It is possible that such collective and prosthetic memories can lead to a unified understanding of the surrounding world. The darker portents that yield racism and divide from a desire for exclusivity represent risks, however, that must be addressed.

Published by DeadGuyQuotes

I'm a history need, a technologist, and represent only my own thoughts, opinions or comments on this site... not anyone or thing else.

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  1. Glad to see a positive view of re-enacting from a fellow historian. I wish other historians would try it out – it gives such an insight into a lot of the seemingly inexplicable. I’ll bet you have a different understanding of the maneuvers now that you’ve done them in the kit. I certainly learned a LOT about 18th century farm work from a few days volunteering in costume.

    As to why re-enactors are looked down upon, I think there are several layers to explore. (Ooh, I almost said “unpack” there, aren’t you proud I resisted??) I think the negative image comes from the fact that “playing dress-up” is something we’re supposed to outgrow in our teens. Also consider the lingering distaste for cosplay and LARPing – still considered AT LEAST odd, even by fellow geeks who will endlessly debate who would win in a fight between Lex Luthor and the Joker.

  2. My family has always enjoying seeing reenactments/living history events. Before we became reenactors I have always had respect for the men/women & families who volunteer their time and money to make history come alive by educating the public and today’s youth. We our proud of our heritage and feel we are honoring ancestors who fought for both North & South.Its a wonderful experience for my family to have the tourist excited about the historic events.My son is a private who enjoys the battles,commarodity and the ladies wonderful cooking over the open fire. I believe it builds character for our son to endure camping in a tent 3-5 days in the heat & the cold while in wool clothing, Another wonderful thing the boys have responsibility to help at camp such as starting the fires, oil in the lanterns, carrying water, putting the flags out & away in addition to learning all the maneuvers. The 13TH VA Infantry Co I is a wonderful family group. Its a great way to spend quality family time while experiencing hands on history. My son wanted to become a reenactor so of course we made it a family affair.I disagree with Horwitz his groups seem eccentric.I agree we need to have empathy for everyone who lived doing the civil war. I couldn’t even comprehend the devastating effects it had on America. At Gettysburg the limbs of the wounded were piled to the second story in front of homes The caregivers had to drill holes in the floor boards just to let the blood escape how do you fathom that?

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