150 years on, hit the road to commemorate the war that was almost our undoing
- Last Updated: 2:22 PM, August 16, 2011
- Posted: 9:00 AM, August 16, 2011
It is 105 stultifying degrees on rural Virginia farmland, and 8,700 sweaty people slog under heavy rifles and soaking layers of wool. For two days, in front of bleachers overflowing with 11,000 glistening paid spectators, they turn the soupy air to thunder with cannons and rifle blanks. Over loudspeakers, a color commentator narrates enthusiastically: “When we asked ‘How do they do it?’, what we‘re really asking is ‘Could I have done it?’”
Last month’s all-volunteer reenactment of the First Battle of Manassas kicked off four years of commemorative events for the Civil War’s 150th anniversary. It’s both history lesson and entertainment by death, a temporary vacation world in which observers clutch cataclysm-themed merchandise, and once they fall, mortally wounded infantry spend the night amputation-free at the Motel 6.
The recent Latter Battle of Manassas, also called Bull Run, grabbed media attention but it may be one of the only truly massive events of the war’s sesquicentennial. Most events will be small and organized on the grassroots or local level.
Even at Manassas, officials won’t say yet whether the July reenactment was financially successful enough to warrant another for the Second Battle of Bull Run on its 150th next August.
Why is America holding its fire? Fifty years ago, on the 100th anniversary of the war, the federal government tried to mount a four-year, blockbuster commemoration, but the whole event was gutted by politics.
The first commemorative event of July 1961 — the same one mirrored by last month’s sweltering rumble — proved to be the centennial’s undoing. Then, some 120,000 tourists stampeded to the circus-like replay of Manassas — digging up relics, trampling soldIers‘ unmarked graves — and the resulting furor gave reenactments a bad name.
It didn’t help that Southern states disdained mentioning slavery since many were actively defending segregation. As a result, President Kennedy banned all reenactments on federal land, so for the 150th, no National Park will arrange or host any.
Private land has been lost, too. Antietam, the pivotal clash near Hagerstown, MD, had re-enactments in 1997 and 2002, but the fields used have since been developed, and there’s no battle planned there for next year.
This year, with the issue suddenly a hot topic once more, Congress decided not to touch the 150th birthday of federal power. So any major events will have to be organized locally – and likely will not take off unless communities see potential for tourist cash.