Civil War Reinactors… Memory vs History

A question brought up today about Civil War Re-inactors people who like to replay the battles such as Gettysburg or Atlanta or whatever.    The question was asked, why do people do this.

 My immediate response is, because they think is fun to play soldier and march out like their “ancestors” did.

Now the question brought up is of the 40,000 + reinactors why do they predominately seem to prefer the Confederates over the Union? 

My immediate thought was “Well who wants to march two feet before being shot all the time like most of the Union soldiers did in the northeastern battles.”

But seriously why do people like to dress up like say LDS pioneers and march in covered wagon or as roman soldiers or any other of those various dress up roles.  Is it a consequence of a desire to act out some of their ideas or is a larger more significant demonstration of some desire to retain a memory of the “Lost Cause“?

Speaking of that one of the subjects in class was the idea of memory verses history and how often memory can create a more popular communal notion of the past than academic history.  It is something that in a LDS context makes a lot of sense.

As LDS historians often run up against memory (the communal idealized history) when dealing with some subjects in Church history.  Memory has a strong pull in the church that to question it can bring you on the wrong side of some people.  Yet as a historian I have no problem with revering memory as well as history.

Sometimes memory’s role works to create a common communal understanding and acceptance.  It creates unity which analytical history fails often to do.  Where it can be corrected or challenged this works to show cracks in memory but in some cases those cracks can lead to a much more refined character. 

The symbiosis of history and memory means they will always challenge and shape each other and our experiences.  Accepting that allows us to understand our history and honour the memory regardless.

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6 Responses to Civil War Reinactors… Memory vs History

  1. David Grua says:

    I’ve never really bought into the firm division between memory and history. It’s really based on the assumption that history is some kind of objective category, the Truth, whereas memory is subjective and unreliable. Since the literary turn in historical circles, however, I don’t think that that assumption really holds. In my own view, memory shapes how historians write academic history, just as academic histories shape collective memory. The boundaries between the two phenomena are fluid, not firm.

    All in all, I agree that the LDS experience provides a rich playground for historians of memory. Have you looked at Eric Eliason’s dissertation on pioneer day?

  2. Jon W says:

    I have not but I would certainly be interested in the subject because I am curious how we memorialize subjects in this way.

    However I do agree that it is almost impossible to have a clean seperation because as you say there is no real objective “truth” when we are speaking of history. It is more subjective than that.

    Yet for someone memorializing a particular incident in say the American Revolution there is no talk about how petty the whole thing was or that their was not necessarily a majority in favour. Those kind of things get swept under the rug and when they come up to people unfamiliar with them it seems to be controversial.

    To me that is problem when so often history becomes immeshed in these type of national conscience issues it is difficult to tell a more objective story. That is where academic history plays such an important role and helps to clarify the importance in explaining memory in a clearer fashion.

  3. David Grua says:

    Yet for someone memorializing a particular incident in say the American Revolution there is no talk about how petty the whole thing was or that their was not necessarily a majority in favour. Those kind of things get swept under the rug and when they come up to people unfamiliar with them it seems to be controversial.

    I agree that in many instances people narrate the past in ways that minimize the controversial. But since memory is very political, there are always those that are going to contest oversimplified narratives. The divergent narratives of the Civil War are especially good examples of ways in which differing narratives battle for primacy (have you read David Blight’s Race and Reunion?). Academic history often shapes these debates, but memory also shapes how historians construct the history of the Civil War, depending on the position of the historian.

  4. Jon W says:

    Good points and no I have not. We do not have a lot of US history here in Southern Alberta (part of the reason I could not do my masters here) coupled with the fact I have focused more on the earlier part of the century I am less familiar with the stories and arguments coming prior to the advent of the civil war.

    I do agree with your comments though david.

  5. David Grua says:

    You should check out Blight. He won the Bancroft for Race and Reunion, I think in 2004. It’s great and a must-read for any historian wanting to get her/his feet wet in memory.

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