Friday, April 16, 2010

Tame re-enactment can't convey Civil War tragedy


Courtesy photo
By Matt Brabb
Connection Editor

The Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Payson has come and gone. It was a fine show. General Lee was there, as was President Lincoln. Still, I can’t help but think what a tame way a re-enactment is for Americans today to try and comprehend what a tragedy the American Civil War really was.

Make no mistake, I’m not slighting the Town of Payson’s effort to entertain and educate Rim Country residents about the Civil War, nor do I mean to belittle the efforts of the actors who did the best they could to recreate history.

It’s just that I’m an avid Civil War buff (though I’ve always detested the word “buff”) and I’m aware of just how devastating the war was for America. I’ve visited several battlefields including Shiloh, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Spotsylvania, and Gettysburg.

Today, these sites are gentle farmlands, peaceful meadows, and silent forests. Apart from the occasional meandering mound of earth, the remains of a 150-year-old breastwork, there is little indication that these pastoral fields once were witness to the most savage fighting Americans have ever engaged in.

Consider that at the battle of Spotsylvania, a battle that most Americans who aren’t students of the Civil War are unfamiliar with, 4,192 Confederate and Union troops were killed outright. That’s one battle, in May of 1864. In the almost nine years the United States has been fighting in Iran and Afghanistan, there have been 4,232 U.S. service members killed in action. In the Civil War in four years 620,000 Americans perished. This at a time when the United States had a population of only 31 million, today that figure is some 309 million. One in every 50 Americans alive in 1860 was killed in the Civil War.

I’m in no way trying to minimize the sacrifices the American men and women fighting in the Middle East have made, and continue to make for all of us. I’m just trying to put in perspective just how devastating the Civil War was.

A controversy erupted last week when Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell declared April to be Confederate History Month. Passions were naturally stirred on both sides of the issue. From one perspective, it is a celebration of a shared, valiant attempt to create a new nation. From another perspective it is the misguided attempt to make heroes out of traitors. Traitors who chose to leave the Union to protect the otherwise indefensible “peculiar institution” of slavery.

It is not my intention to take a position on the matter. Clearly how one feels about it depends on a number of complicated personal opinions, not the least of which is what side your ancestors fought on (though many of us had forebears on both sides).

I only know that the Civil War has a unique hold on the imagination of Americans even today. There won’t be a WWI re-enactment at Green Valley Park any time soon. Grown men and women don’t put on the costume of the typical American soldier or civilian from the War of 1812 as they did last weekend for The Battle of Payson.

It is well that Americans still celebrate and honor those who fought in the Civil War. Whether or not you approve of Confederate History Month, it is worth taking a moment to remember people like Private Edwin Jennison, whose photo accompanies this piece. He was killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill in 1862 at the age of 17. It’s a black and white photo, so you can’t tell whether he is wearing blue or grey. You can Google it if you really want to know.

But first, take a long look at his face and ask yourself if it really matters.

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