[Editor’s Note – This column originally ran on the site on January 24, 2011.]
This week’s inductee into the “Overrated Hall of Fame” is … Civil War reenactments.
I recently saw yet another news story about some local group trying to keep some company from putting up some store on some Civil War battle site. I’m being purposely vague, because the details don’t matter. We’ve preserved more than enough Civil War sites in this country.
I’m no fan of Walmart, but another one of their mega-stores plopped down on some plot of unused Virginia land would do more people more good than a few bronze info-plaques and a wooden visitors center hawking Stonewall Jackson shirts to hicks still lamenting the South’s lost (racist) cause. (States’ Rights my ass … it was about slavery, crackers.)
Spare me any lectures about how we need to study the past so as not to blah blah blah … [yawn]. I know that and I get that. But we have done all that and then some with the Civil War. You ever drive through the South? You can’t go more than six miles without seeing a sign directing you to another Civil War memorial. (You do not experience this same phenomenon in the North, because other than Gettysburg, those redneck Dixie dicks never did any real invading. Losers.)
I don’t hate the preservationists, nor do I hate the sheeplike families of four who stop in and snap a few pictures of plaques they don’t even bother to read before hoisting their fat selves back into the minivan and heading for lunch at Cracker Barrel (a redneck family favorite they haven’t visited since that morning’s breakfast). No, I hate what results every time the battlefield saviors get their way and another expanse of perfect-for-commerce grass and trees gets designated as “historical.”
Every preservationist victory leads to the convening of some of America’s biggest phonies, the yahoo Civil War re-enactors who will use the newly commemorated battle site as a funtime campground where they’ll spend leisurely weekends playing dress-up and fiddling with fake muskets in a lame attempt to pay tribute to Civil War soldiers. Shame on these disingenuous dufuses. They’re not paying tribute at all. They’re just getting out of the house for a weekend of hanging out with the boys. Nothing they do is an authentic tribute to the hundreds of thousands of American (and ex-American turned traitors … yeah, I’m talking about your treasonous ancestors, Mr. Modern Day Johnny Reb) who fought in and died in that war.
Have you ever seen pictures or video of one of these re-enactments? It’s a few hundred doughy nerds playing soldier, smiling like butchers’ dogs because they know they’re not really going to take a lead ball to the brain as they retrace the steps of a real attack that left a few thousand dead or injured. The worst injuries suffered by re-enactors are strained Achilles tendons and Pabst Blue Ribbon hangovers.
They look nothing like the real soldiers they are imitating. Every real Civil War soldier in every Matthew Brady picture is an unsmiling, half-starved but fully hardened sunken-eyed mass of fatigue. Their hollow eyes and vacant stares convey the unassailable fact that these men have seen and experienced indescribable pain and horror, pain and horror they endured for months and years.
But our weekend pseudo-warriors? They have a grand time for a few days, using their “tribute” as an excuse to get away from wives who don’t respect their hobby (how could they?) and whiney kids who wonder why their man-child fathers have more toys than they do. If they really want to impress us with their Civil War tributes, I have a few suggestions. This is for you, Useless S. Grant of Concord, New Hampshire, and you, too, Robert E. Least of Tupelo, Mississippi. Try to include some of the following the next time you leave home to do ferocious battle in the shadow of the Bull Run snack bar:
How about you add a little gangrene, mix in a runny dose of dysentery and fold in some borderline starvation, then top it all off with a field-hospital-amputation-without-proper-anesthesia-or-post-op-morphine. Still having fun around the campfire at night?
Instead of driving your Bob Evans-fueled ass to the “battle” (oh, please) in your Ford F-Series supertruck, try a 900-mile walk first, sustaining yourself on hardtack and, if you’re lucky, the occasional horse steak. And no more lubing up with Mountain Dew all day and beer all night. Just go dip your canteen in that fetid stream off yonder and hope you don’t scoop up some deadly bacteria in the process.
You no longer get to wear those insulated, steel-toed Timberland boots either. You have to wear the same shoddily-constructed, cushionless shoes you were issued 14 months and 1400 miles ago. Please leave that Everest-ready North Face sleeping bag and collapsible cot at home. Just sprawl out on the ground between a couple of blankets. Sweet dreams, softie.
When you wake up, you don’t get to empty your Elvis-level jampacked bowels in a nice clean restroom or even port-a-john stocked with hand sanitizer. Just mosey on over behind those trees and squat down with a few hundred other outdoor shitters, then wipe your filthy ass with whatever you can find to do the trick.
And finally, don’t march with toy guns that do nothing more than make a medium-sized “pop.” Load those fuckers up with real bullets and have at it with the people playing dress-up on the other side. You and your mid-level accountant friends from Pennsylvania can shoot real bullets at all those systems analysts from Georgia. Now that would be some re-enacting that would make the rest of us stand up and take notice of your efforts.
Even if you do all of the above, I won’t respect your efforts quite yet. You have to do all of this not for just two or three nights but for two or three years. What’s that? Yeah, I know. All of a sudden your don’t feel like such a “re-enactor” anymore. You feel like a child on a Halloween retreat.
But re-enactments won’t stop. Too many Americans have an excessively romanticized concept of the Civil War. It’s almost seen as quaint. What else can explain the urge to re-enact the bloodiest war in our history? Re-enacting war might be the most perverse, bizarre form of entertainment there is. I doubt it happens in other countries.
Does anyone re-enact the crusades? I don’t recall seeing annual footage of people storming Normandy beach each June. I think we can safely assume that thousands of Japanese don’t make merry by dressing up in 1945-style kimonos and then pretending to disintegrate in the streets of Nagasaki every August.
If anything, re-enacting Civil War battles disrespects the real soldiers. Making a camping trip out of the worst horrors ever experienced in this country denigrates what really happened. So trash those ill-fitting uniforms, burn those silly blank-shooting guns and find another way to escape from the horrors of family responsibility for a weekend. You might think you’re honoring those who fought, but trust me, the world will little note, nor long remember what you did there. (Sorry for the theft, Abe.)
Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.