The Vexing Paradox of Johnny Reb

Published:April 15, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

An Encyclopedia Virginia contributor wandered into the office recently and we got to talking about Civil War reenacting. He’s been in the hobby for years and is even buddies with the fellow who so authentically scowls from the cover of Tony Horwitz’s 1999 book Confederates in the Attic. Although I was a reenactor myself—yes, there are reenactors even in Iowa—I got out. How to explain why?

A couple of years ago, the Washington Post reported on the hobby’s Revolutionary War iteration. “We choreograph it, time it, and most importantly, we try to keep it as authentic as possible,” offered Carl Gnam of the First Virginia Regiment. His comment is typical and, for reenactors, quite reasonable, but it also ties into a neat little bow the vexing philosophical paradox of “living history.” Only when an event goes horribly wrong—people die, but they die horribly, in the wrong place and at the wrong time—would anything much resemble actual history. (Sen. John Warner begs to differ.)

So yes, it’s true. I am cynical about reenacting. But it never hurts to remind myself how much I once loved it.

You see, for a couple of years there in junior high and high school, I was a beautiful Johnny Reb. I was hardcore. I was virulently anti-farb. Someone might come up to me and say, “Jesus, son. You look like something that crawled into a barn and died.” And I was in heaven. All that paper-route money spent on what amounted to rags, really, and for me it all totally paid off. I came home once after a weekend in the field, mud-caked & grease-smeared & let’s face it a little poopy-smelling, and my grandmother just cried. She wept, God bless her. Which is exactly what I was going for.

Finally, something I was good at.

So the other night I went and found Confederates in the Attic on my bookshelf; I remembered a particularly good chapter on reenactors. Sure enough: “A Farb of the Heart.” (Farb, by the way, is reenactor slang for all things inauthentic.) I’ve not always been impressed with Horwitz’s books (I thought Baghdad without a Map to be particularly slight), but here he really nails the hobby. For instance, he perfectly captures its cliquishness: the overweight, middle-aged farbs wearing second-hand work boots and puffing innocently on Marlboros; the hardcores who feel “that crowds of spectators interfered with an authentic experience of combat”; the civilian sutlers, nurses, and Lee & Lincoln impersonators; the few embittered ex-Real Deal guys who like to massage their tattoos and grouse, “Just like the real military—a continual f—ing screw-up”—with everyone distrusting everyone else.

There’s the phenomenon of way too many people (including yours truly) wanting to be Confederate: “When I play Northern, I feel like the Russians in Afghanistan,” a guy from freaking New Jersey explained. (This was pre-9/11, of course. Would he now say that he feels like the Marines in Fallujah?) There’s the usual griping over who has to die in battle. There’s the mind-blowing romanticization of everything, right down to Hello. “It’s an era lost that we’re trying to recapture,” a woman washing clothes in a tub told Horwitz. “Men were men and women were women. It was less complicated.” When a guy ambles past and says, “Evening, ma’am,” the woman practically faints at how Gone with the Wind it all is. “See what I mean? No one’s that polite in real life any more.”

FYI: Yes, they are. And today, we get the added bonus of NOT killing each other by the hundreds of thousands on backyard battlefields. This is where reenacting starts to make me cranky.

Another objection to what I found in Horwitz: an accountant from Connecticut who was nevertheless “fighting” for the South argues, “We’re not here to debate slavery or states’ rights. We’re here to preserve the experience of the common soldier, North and South.” That’s mostly true, but the guys in my unit debated states’ rights endlessly. They honestly believed the North was wrong. They honestly believed the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. This was hard to take, even in high school. “I hate to call it a hobby,” continues the accountant, “because it’s so much more than that. We’re here to find the real answers, to read between the lines in the history books, and then share our experience with the spectators.”

Real answers? There’s a mystical element to reenacting, but I don’t get it. These guys—the hardcore ones, anyway—know their history chapter and verse. But it’s micro-history. They know their shirt buttons. The real answers—whatever those are—can’t be found in shirt buttons I don’t think.

IMAGE: My first reenactment, circa 1983


6 Comments on “The Vexing Paradox of Johnny Reb”

  1. Danny

    Im not sure why people get into reenacting as for me I just wanted to get as close to the real thing as I could but the more hardcore you get the more you seem to grow away from it. The reenactment is never close enough to the real thing for a true hardcore. I have seen many leave it but few condemn it as you seem to want to do. Would you have us bury the Confederate flag hang up our farbish uniforms and forget it happend. If you loved it but dont want to do it anymore thats fine fall by the way side but dont condemn it cause your dishearten. The war was not fought over slavery but it was a concern included in the whole package of the war and most reenactors are there to talk with like minded people who enjoy a good debate. Remember that rose colored glasses are always better then the truth!

  2. Brendan Wolfe

    Thanks for the comment, Danny. I didn’t mean to condemn reenacting. I only meant to explain why I first loved it and why I decided to quit. I wouldn’t dream of telling other reenactors what they should do. I also have a lot of respect for reenactors. It’s a difficult hobby to do well.

    That said, I don’t think criticism of reenacting implies that I think we should or could “forget [the Civil War] happend,” as you suggest. Reenacting is hardly the only way of remembering. And what does remembering even mean? That’s not a rhetorical question, although I’m not sure if there’s any one correct answer.

    What does it mean to want “to get as close to the real thing as I could”? Why would you even want to? Wouldn’t that mean putting yourself through hell? Would the ultimate experience be getting your head blown off? Or dying of dysentery? What does that tell us about the Civil War?

    Of course, what happens if a reenactment takes us really, really, really close to the real thing, but without anyone getting hurt? I want to argue that this could potentially do more harm than good. We focus on what’s authentic — as hobbyists, we focus on what’s fun — and forget about the most important feature of Civil War battle — death.

    So we’re clear: this is a philosophical objection to reenacting. I have no beef with reenactors themselves. I loved and respected the guys in my unit; still do.

  3. Danny

    I have been the miliary for 18 years and I have seen first hand what war can produce. I have no fear of death in combat and would go back in time today if I thought just my one life could change the out come of a war fought over HOME and STATE and your very way of life. When a foreign army invades you will fight come hell or high water. There was nothing civil(war of northern aggression) about a war that took everything from the loser and then taught ever generation of its children there after they sould be ashamed of there past! The reenactment shows them we still have pride in our history and we havent forgotten the cruelty of war. So our children can see what its was like to give all for a cause other then oil!!!!

  4. Marie

    While it’s true that some people take reenacting to the extreme, “counting stitches” as they say, the majority of people I have had the pleasure of meeting while reenacting have been very down to earth and laid back about it all. Yes we are trying to recreate History, yes we want to make it as realistic as possible, but do we have disillusions that we are coming even close? Maybe. But we also know that we are so far from it, that it would be impossible to even get there. If I were really a woman from the 18th century, my legs wouldn’t be shaved, would I go to a reenactment with unshaven legs? Nope, and you are probably repulsed by the thought of it, you wouldn’t want to go to one of these and see a bunch of hairy women walking around. But in that time, the men would have been mad if their women were shaved! I don’t go to reenactments because I want to portray every single thing that happened 200 years ago with extreme precision; I go because I get the opportunity to be away from the world for three days. Three days spent outside with my husband, my son, no TV, no game boy, good food, and great friends. You spent time reenacting when you were younger; you probably spent a lot of money on the supplies and the clothes. If you hadn’t been reenacting, where would that money have gone? This or that with no real memories made? But you have this amazingly vivid story to share of a time in your youth when you were passionate about something. Not many children can even come close to sharing such a story. Reenacting gave you that. Sometimes it’s not always about the actual reenacting, it’s about the ancillary things that come with it. When I sat in the movie theater 5 times to watch the movie Titanic, I had no disillusions that Leonardo DiCaprio had any clue what it would be like to actually drown. He didn’t freeze to death, in fact the water they shot that in was probably a balmy 80 degrees. But does that make their portrayal of the time any less real to me? Perhaps, but I enjoy seeing it anyway. And I’m glad that Leonardo spends his time making movies rather then becoming a menace to society. I completely get what you are trying to say, none of the guys on the battle field of a reenactment can come close to showing us what it was really like to die, starve, be in so much pain that being dead would be a better answer, to leave your loved ones not knowing if you will come home, the fear of losing everything you own to the Crown. No, we will never know those true emotions, but we will know the true emotions of spending our time stepping away from the hustle and bustle of cars, TV’s, bills, computers, and non-stop work. We will know the passion of having a hobby that we enjoy, one that doesn’t hurt anyone else, one that other people enjoy seeing us do. Just as millions of people enjoy sitting in a dark theater, watching people that are worth more then we can even fathom, play husbands, wives, super heroes, criminals, psychos, and soldiers, we enjoy sitting outside spending time with our real families, giving a slight nod to those that came before us, those that fought for the right for you an I to even have this conversation.

  5. Brendan Wolfe

    Thanks for the comment, Marie. Reenacting is, indeed, a great hobby, one that gets the family of out of doors and away from televisions and video games. And it kept my nose in history books for years!

    I like your comparison of watching a reenactment to viewing a film like “Titanic.” As you write, Leo “didn’t freeze to death; in fact, the water they shot that in was probably a balmy 80 degrees. But does that make their portrayal of the time any less real to me?”

    Good question.

    Film, like theater and like reenacting, is all about our ability to suspend disbelief, to give ourselves up to the story. When we do that, we no longer see Leonardo DiCaprio, only young Jack Dawson. Leo doesn’t fake drown; Jack really drowns. Without that, the film fails. That’s why special effects are such a big deal — it’s not that they’re just entertaining; they become necessary to convince us that what we’re seeing is “real.”

    But those same special effects — in the way that they train us to always expect more, bigger, cooler — make it harder, not easier, for us to suspend our disbelief. Or maybe it’s just me.

    Either way, my trouble with reenacting (and it’s a “trouble” that still concedes most if not all of the wonderful points that you make) is that it is difficult to suspend my disbelief when the central fact of the thing being reenacted is largely ignored: death and suffering.*

    Could this be rectified with special effects? In a film and on stage, certainly. (Keep in mind, though, that special effects alone do not give us an understanding of death. Stories do, too, populated as they are with characters we come to know and care about.) But in a reenactment, where part of the point is for participants to “experience” what they are reenacting, I don’t think so.

    As you say, reenacting can allow us to experience “the true emotions of spending our time stepping away from the hustle and bustle of cars, TVs, bills, computers, and non-stop work.” And if that’s the only claim we make for the value of reenacting, then I agree. But as I hope my post demonstrated, others make much bigger claims.

    * Is this really the central fact of the Civil War soldier’s experience? I don’t know. If not, perhaps my argument unravels a bit.

  6. Marie

    I totally understand what you are saying that the central fact of the thing is death and suffering. You don’t see reenactments on such a grand scale of say the 1939 World’s Fair (though I personally would love to see it). Most of what is reenacted is centered around the fight. Or is it? I see a lot of people reenacting Medieval Times, where there may be swordplay, but no death and destruction. There are even people who “reenact” Star Trek. But of course, how can you reenact something that never existed? Before TV, people went to live plays and watched other people “reenact” love stories, murders, and all kinds of hilarious antics, things that they probably had never experienced. And they thought it was the most amazing thing when a magician pulled a bouquet of flowers out of thin air (really the sleeve of his jacket). I think you hit the nail on the head when you said we expect more because TV and movies can give us more. I can go to any local movie theater and see “real” blood, guts, and gore. And I will be scared out of my freaking mind. But just last week I went down to the local Theater and I saw a live show, with real people performing in front of a real audience. People clapped when someone was done singing, and we all stood up at the end because we were impressed with their performance. There were minimal clothing and set changes, yet everyone in that theater was wrapped up in it. We didn’t need special effects to feel their pain, their joy, or their fears, but these days we are hardened to more simple special effects, and perhaps all this TV and movie watching is clouding yours, and others, point of view. It happens to the best of us whether we intend it to or not. A beautiful woman I work with recently told me she was “Ugly because my thighs are so big.” I told her she was beautiful and she continued to disagree. Then I told her that “Just because you don’t look like a movie star, doesn’t mean you aren’t beautiful. Real women come in all shapes and sizes, and every one of them are beautiful in their own way.” She conceded, what could she say to that? I look at reenactments in the same way. Sure they aren’t Saving Private Ryan or The Patriot. But just because they aren’t Hollywood’s version of what happened (which I DO NOT believe is accurate either, except for maybe the blood and guts part), doesn’t make it any less beautiful to watch. No we can never die on those battlefields for real, I can never make my own cheese for the men to eat, and the children will never have callused hands from working in the fields, but that’s not the core of what a reenactment is. The core is the Human experience. The core is what anyone who has been in the military before feels for those that are with them, camaraderie. Many people feel if they are going to portray a time gone by, then they are going to do it right, and respect the way it was. So they are passionate about getting the details right. But just as a live play can never have a real Lion talking to his young Lion cub about the meaning of life, we as reenactors strive to give the closest experience we can to our spectators. And perhaps they will forgive us for not having the ability to stop the fight and pour blood on just the right spots, and start back up without having anyone notice that the blood is really gelatinized food coloring. Just as I am able to forgive the actor under the Lion mask in the Broadway production of “The Lion King” that he isn’t a cartoon like the original.

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