I’m not sorry to be missing Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary these next three days. Too much of the occasion will be taken up by reenactment events, which reenactment participants call “impressions.” But too many of the reenactors are too corpulent and all of their uniforms are too clean to give a true impression of the ragged, lean and hungry Rebel and Union soldiers who fought in the plowed fields and orchards south of the Pennsylvania town on July 1-3, 1863.
There is a Knoxville connection, however. Almost all of the Rebel units which fought at Knoxville in November, 1863, had fought at Gettysburg a few months before. The Union defenders of the town and those inside the fort had not. They had been in the attack and defeat of Vicksburg when the battle of Gettysburg went down to a resounding Rebel loss.
I attended the 125th Gettysburg anniversary, back in 1988, which, mercifully, was much less attractive to the costumed and so the fields were quiet on the appointed days and more appropriate for commemoration of tens of thousands of killed, wounded and missing, some of them my own ancestors, all of whom were Rebels. I walked down Seminary Ridge on July 2 sticking small Rebel battle flags in the ground beside the monuments of their Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Georgia units.
Thus the battle should be remembered on both sides, it seems to me, with whatever reconciliation and emancipation commemorations the park service decides are appropriate. It wasn’t the first battle the Rebels lost but it was the largest up to that time that the Union had clearly won, so it did provide the push for what President Lincoln later called “a new birth of freedom.”
These reenactor bonanzas always turn into carnivals leavened only by the sulfur smell of the genuine black-powder rifles and cannon, of which there will be more than the usual number this week. Firing blanks of course, which do not provide the real sound—an ear-splitting crack—and so merely add to the phoniness. At least the Brit’s Telegraph says there will be enough cannon to give an approximation of the scene. The Telegraph’s report, ironically, is probably the most complete we’re likely to get. American news media are hobbled by their political focus on history, especially this history since it concerns African slavery.
And therein is an interesting detail the Telegraph reporters found: several black reenactors portraying “civilians” at Gettysburg—presumably, in some cases, representing the real servants/slaves who followed their Rebel “marsters” to war. I saw one such black reenactor—only one—in 1990 at the 125th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox. He was sitting with some white reenactor Rebels.
Good for them, the black reenactors, I mean, few of them as there are, for having the guts to buck contemporary racial politics to add some truth and verisimilitude to the circus: the three-ring parade of incongruously pot-bellied and double-chinned white soldiers in their spanking-new uniforms and far too many hoop-skirted women for anything like accuracy. All they need is a steam calliope on iron-rimmed wooden wheels playing Danny Boy.
But enough of the curmudgeon. It’s all very, very good in at least one respect. It’s really not possible to ever bring back the real days of 1863. Thank goodness.
UPDATE: According to some Civil War bloggers who attended, as I expected there was little or no major news media reporting of the Gettysburg anniversary from Gettysburg. Which is quite an oversight, considering the thousands of folks who showed up to hear the lectures and walk the fields, even when it was raining. However, thanks to Breitbart News, the Internet was there and these five hours worth of discussion and reenactment videos are the result. Have a look.