Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Smell of the Cannon, Roar of the Crowd

Twenty-first century Civil War battles attract enthusiastic crowds across America. For some, reenactments are a big deal. Consider these estimates:

·    50,000 Civil War re-enactors currently in U.S.
·      50,000 spectators at last Battle of Gettysburg reenactment
·      $25,000 to stage a typical three-day battle event
·      $2,500 for an authentic Civil War-era outfit (One small brass button, $9.95.)
·      $700 for a realistic musket
·      $35,000 for one Civil War cannon replica.

OK, it's a very special cannon. The smooth-bore, six-pounder cast from solid brass, weighing 860 pounds and sporting a historic insignia of the Palmetto State, travels from Civil War event to Civil War event from east to west coasts.

The cannon belongs to Glenn F. McConnell, president pro tempore of the South Carolina Senate and one of the state’s most powerful leaders. This month, the cannon rolled into Columbia for the annual reenactment of Sherman’s firing on the city in 1865. McConnell, of Charleston, “commanded” the dozen or so re-enactors for a small group of spectators who applauded as the cannon spewed sulfuric smoke.

Standing among horses, cannon, muskets, women in period garb, modern-day police and EMTs, I chatted with McConnell, famous for his crusade to guard such prized relics of Civil War history as the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley. Go to http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/org12-3.htm.

S.C. Senate President
Pro Tempore Glenn
“I think we bring history alive for people,” McConnell said when asked why he works so hard on reenactments. “People experience the sights and sounds similar to what our ancestors experienced and see the world through their eyes."

McConnell was clear that he sees Southern soldiers as fighting for “the principle of self-determination. They believed that anything they joined freely, they could leave freely.” That is, the union.

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, battle reenactments from the Carolinas to California will likely draw sizable crowds. But what’s the real effect of witnessing make-believe soldiers shoot at each other, ooze Halloween blood and succumb to dramatized death?

War reenactments have been around for most of recorded history. Ancient warriors returned home and recreated key parts of battles to publicize their victories. Civil War veterans reenacted battles even before the war ended to honor fallen comrades and to tell about the war, a reason that endures. Civil War education needs special attention now as classroom history lessons sometimes fall short.

Authentic cannon replicas
blast away at Civil War event.
My history-buff father saw the benefits of hands-on education and hauled his family to war reenactments. Dad became an American Revolution re-enactor late in life. The younger boys designated him camp cook. They told me at his funeral – with full Revolutionary hero honors, that he sometimes burned their eggs.

"Goddammit to hell,” they told me he said. “I Shermanized ‘em.”

While researching my latest book (hopefully to become one of the 60,000 about the Civil War), I’ve attended several reenactments, both educational and entertaining. Children chat with soldiers around campfires, buy Civil War comic books from the sutler, whoop it up when the cannons' fire makes them cover their ears and their pant legs flap.

They aim their toy muskets, beat their spiffy drums, and wear pint-sized Confederate and Union caps as girls play war-era tunes on maple fifes. The frolicking scene stands far removed Union Gen. Sherman’s description of war: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” The happy chaos around Saturday afternoon reenactments reminds me of the 1965 Broadway musical that inspired this blog's title ("The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd").

But what are these kids learning? I wonder about unintended consequences: adulation of soldiers who fight for “your” side, right or wrong; devotion to the military as the only truly patriotic career choice and; as a logical extension, acceptance of the inevitability of war.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Go to COMMENTS page (top button) or the Civil War Odyssey Facebook page to post. Here’s food for thought, regarding a recent reenactment I attended in Georgia:

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I am Sorry To Tell You:
           As drums rolled and the ranks mustered at the battle area, women summoned children to their sides and spectators jockeyed for front-row positions. I was reminded how, back in 1860, picnickers crowded the rooftops of mansions overlooking Charleston Harbor. They excitedly gathered to witness their boys fire on Fort Sumter, before the wearying war vanquished innocence and optimism.

“I’d wish you luck,” I called out to (the Union re-enactors I had interviewed) as they headed to the battle area, “but I guess you don’t need it since the Confederates fell back here.”

“It’s the Confederates’ turn to win,” one shouted back. “We trade off.”
To battle they marched, soldiers with no self-doubts, no worry of wounds, no fear of death.