Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Civil War Blinders

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

A couple of years ago, I saw a flyer for a Civil War reenactment upstate, several hundred miles from the nearest battle. I didn't understand. What exactly were they reenacting? Who went, putting on uniforms and waving flags? Saturday, in Walton, New York, I got a chance to find out.

My girlfriend and I spent most of our time wandering around in the mud and freezing our asses off, so I guess it was authentic. We saw costumed reenactors boiling coffee over wood fires, and making stew in front of their pup tents. About two thirds were in a Union encampment, the rest rebs.

While some were fanatics with homespun clothing and handmade shoes, most of the men had pants right off the rack for eighty bucks, and a few of the guys were actually girls, their tits tucked in behind suspenders. Still, there were plenty of women in hoopskirt and petticoat drag. A guy played banjo and sang songs of the era, while Abraham Lincoln chatted with visitors and waited to get shot.

In the rebel camp, I looked for gasoline-soaked crosses ready to burn, but didn't find anything untoward except a digital camera or two. Later, an art teacher and history buff in brigadiers dress demonstrated how cannons worked, assisted by a crew of six made up of high school students he'd trained. Another participant gave out shaky bits of history while he was explaining Confederacy currency. Apparently soldiers always paid for the animals they took (false), leaving the farmers holding worthless cash after the war (true).

The skirmish at 2 was like that first battle at Bull Run when the D.C. locals came out with their picnic baskets and lawn chairs to watch the shooting. In Walton, it happened on the vast grassy expense that doubles as a parking lot during the fair. The cannon were particularly impressive, smoke rings emerging from earth-shaking blasts.

One kid asked where the tanks were. Another wanted to know how come nobody was dead. The soldiers would limp a little maybe, but nobody wanted to just lie there in the field staring at the circling mountains while everybody else got to run around and shoot. Or maybe they were put off by the cemetery across the road. Finally we got a couple of dramatic deaths when a rebel kid got tired of fighting and persuaded his father to charge the Union position, where they impaled themselves on bayonets.

Everyone seemed satisfied when it was over. There was a little bit history, plenty of smoke and bangs, and when it was over you could go eat funnel cakes and deep-fried Snickers. As for the participants, they got to wear costumes like on Halloween, and feel a part of some grand national drama the country's still obsessed with.

Every year, we turn out books and films with an updated Scarlett or Rhett. We reconsider battles. And the image of master and slave still figures so prominently in national discussions of race that I imagine I must be dreaming when I look around the train after work and see Bangladeshi men slumped next to Ecuadorians, a Chinese lady reading next to a Mexican family, folks from Cuba, Brazil, the Ukraine, and only here or there a black or white hipster American integrating the place.

In the afternoon, their kids fill the train, still boasting a range of visible ethnicities, accents all pure New York, their attitudes and clothes the same. They're Americans, our future, though when you mention civil war what they think of first may be dead relatives back in Colombia, or Afghanistan, and trawling those bloody waters won't suddenly unlock the national impasse and erase biases against accents and culture and skin. Because slavery was an extreme reflection of racism, not the cause of it. Now, after the end of the "institution," why are we still waiting to be emancipated from racism and hate which was always on both sides, no matter how many speeches Lincoln gave?

Maybe it's time for another reference point that's not so grey and blue, black and white as the statement we're fighting for democracy in Iraq. If that's not quite the truth, we should reconsider to what extent Yankees fought to preserve the union and then end slavery, and rebels fought for states' rights and to protect white privilege. The truth is always more complicated than what the bureaucrats say, lining up heroes and villains before they send us to death.

I wonder how many soldiers had those ideals to begin with. Like the reenactors, plenty went to war because they took joy in a costume, having a break from the daily grind, or just because their neighbors did. And maybe that's where we find our lessons, including the solution to racism. Not in the vast trends of history, but in smaller causes, enormous effects. What we have to do is change daily habits. Shape what the Joneses do.

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