That’s a loaded question. Why living history? What purpose does it serve in today’s world? Wouldn’t it better to leave these oftentimes painful memories in the textbooks where they belong? Aren’t public displays of this sort just excuses for extremists to display their historical symbols of hate and to robe themselves in uniforms of violence and oppression? Aren’t these displays dangerous given our current social climate?
I have been a U.S. Civil War reenactor and living historian for close to a decade, and much has changed in the world during that time that has made these questions and more both relevant and necessary to ask every time I put on the uniform. Yes, history is full of painful occurrences and violence. Yes, certain people relish the display of hateful imagery and therefore could use the pretense of a reenactment to further their agendas. Yes, reenacting can be dangerous. But what purpose does living history serve? Besides educate, it serves to address these difficult questions and to create dialogue that hopefully can help us grow as a society and to learn from the discourse along the way.
The United States Civil War serves as a low point in our democratic experiment- a time when our country divided into armed factions and actually went to war for among other reasons the right to own black men and women as human chattel- but by no means represents the sole time in our history that we as a people were racially hateful, divided, or violent. From the moment the ink dried on our Constitution human slavery was both protected and encouraged by (some of) those who drafted it, with the hopes that it as an institution would just “go away” at some convenient time in the unforeseeable future. Unfortunately, by the time of the outbreak of hostilities in 61’ there had been decades of in-fighting, compromise, legislation both for and against, and even a war fought with Mexico for the sole purpose of expanding it. It wasn’t going away, and we as a people were frankly on a crash course at that point which took four long years and over three-quarters of a million lives, and a Constitutional Amendment, to finally stamp out. And then everyone lived happily ever after, right?
Unfortunately little was accomplished in the way of race relations by the abolition of slavery and the conclusion of the conflict, and the Confederate flag found itself in the hands of many a hate group and violent individuals that would seek to appropriate its imagery for their agendas in the 150-plus years since Appomattox.
Then why on earth should there be public events where that flag is flown again? To me there are many ways to look at how to answer that. First off, it is important to understand that the Confederate States of America do not hold a monopoly on hate as far as our collective history as a nation is concerned. Under the auspices of the flag of the United States of America Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Woman, Irish, British, Homosexuals, Canadians, and Germans (and others) in no particular order have faced various forms of discrimination or persecution at various times, including today. The Confederate flag represents the four years when things completely fell apart, when the federal government was openly challenged and the rights of individual states were touted as paramount. It represents a historically significant epoch of our then-young nation and shows how dangerously close we
came to not succeeding as a country. Yet today it also symbolically represents the folding up
and storing away of hate and violence, only to be unfurled again and again in the years that followed to represent things like Jim Crow laws, the concept of “separate but equal”, and the Ku Klux Klan. This of course does a grave disservice to the hundreds of thousands of American men who died during the conflict on the wrong side of history, but unfortunately the villainy that has been done in association with that flag since the war cannot be undone.
So here’s the rub.
To me, living history can be looked upon as a catharsis that is not altogether dissimilar from addiction counseling. Whereas in addiction counseling an individual publicly admits that he or she has a problem and wants very much to address it, living history publicly admits that our history has been very ugly at times along the way and that we as a people should be willing to publicly admit it and to talk about it openly in order to better understand it. I am Confederate reenactor. I do not represent the Confederate States of America because I agree with what it stood for. I do not represent the Confederate States of America because I want to see the Confederate flag flown in such a manner as to make others uncomfortable. I do not represent the Confederate States of America because I want to see the return of racial segregation. I represent the Confederate States of America because it is an aberration, a shocking reality, a stark example of what civil war looks like, and something that I feel very strongly needs to be fleshed out in order to fully comprehend.
Every time I put on that uniform, every time, my mind reels with what it represents. It represents a human being, not all that different from myself, who was willing to die for something he believed in. Something that had torn his country apart. Something that seems so fantastically impossible when you read it in a textbook that it becomes just that, a two-dimensional otherworldly time when people must have been so very different than who we are today.
Yet they weren’t, and that’s why to me it is so very important to continue to reenact the U.S. Civil War and to promote living history in all its forms, warts and all. A student cannot confront a textbook and ask it an ugly question publicly and demand an answer. A two dimensional watercolor of a battlefield cannot convey the power of violence and it’s after effects. If we fold up our war like some old flag and stick in a closet eventually it won’t get spoken about any more. Which would be a tragedy, since there is so much more that we all could learn from it.