Monday, November 19, 2012

The Time I...Went to a Civil War Reenactment

On the hot South Carolinian field, the Union soldier stands outside of a tent above which perches a wooden sign: "Chief of Castramentation."

"What do you think that means?" He asks, pointing upward.

"Oh, I think you know what I think it means," I think but do not say.

He then explains to the small crowd that has formed around him that the actual term is "castremetation" and that it involves the correct laying out of an encampment, the selection of camp lines, the acquisition of a water source, the placement of troops, etc.

I hold back and do not ask if, as lead "castramentor," he is in charge of unwanted cannon balls. I am respectful and ladylike and I do not laugh at "Castramentation" least not out loud. Besides, this is war time or make-believe wartime and that should merit some kind of respect.

I'm attending a Civil War re-enactment with my friend Claire who has recently relocated from the Bay Area to Charleston with her husband, Matt. Claire loves history and so do I, so here we are at the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Secessionville. The actual Battle of Secessionville originally took place at James Island, but for today's purpose the back field of Boone Hall Plantation makes for a great stand-in. Boone Hall is best known as a one-time indigo plantation, a sometime pecan farm, and the location where goodly-sized portions of The Notebook were filmed (it's the rich girl, Allie's home). It also holds the distinction of having some of the best preserved slave houses in our nation. And today, it's playing host to Secessionville.

Earlier in the day, before the castramentation, we make our way down to the field where the battle is taking place. My one college anthropology course has done little to prepare my being dropped in a subculture about which I know little, so I'll go with description. The field is wide and long, like an outdoor bowling alley with yellowing grass. At one end is a mound, a bank really, of dirt; a barricade lined with cannons. At the other end is a grove of trees, also lined with cannons. Both ends are filled with soldiers; the mounded portion has grey men; the trees have the blues.
At the appropriate moment, the cannons go off and the large group of people, spectators, rimming the field give a collective jump. Some cover their ears, but some have already taken the precaution of wearing earplugs. The cannons are loud, really loud, and smelly. The blue men begin to move forward, very slowly. Several men have already fake died. They real fall face down on the field and I am wondering if prior to battle these guys picked the short straws. "Sorry, Larry, but you've got to die today." "Aw, come on Bill, not again!" Several of the Union soldiers, officers I'm assuming, are on horse back and I can't help but worry that they may step on the "bodies" as they make their way across the field. I wonder if anyone has ever died from a reenactment. My guess is yes.

One of the strangest aspects of the reenactment is not the actual reenactment itself, but the crowd it attracts. There are quite a few toddlers. One is even in a hoop skirt, which must be hell to crawl in. There are also quite a few older children. One boy, about 9 years old, is in a complete gray Confederate uniform, hat, saber, tassels, and all. There are also numerous women in full Civil War-era clothing. Holding their iphones and parasols, they make quite an anachronistic sight.
The Battle of Secessionville was a Southern victory and while this reenactment does not seem to glamorize war, I am left with the distinct impression that the South is perhaps not so aware that they lost the Civil War. There are quite a few people in the audience wearing confederate flag shirts and there is a distinct lack of well, black people. Later in the day, Claire and I do spot two African American Union soldiers, but that's pretty much it, aside from the several black mannequins placed in the slave quarters, which still stand alongside the plantation. I suddenly wish I had made a Team Union shirt.

Because the cannons are so loud, I decide to move slightly back from the field towards the field hospital. Excellent placement to watch a demonstration of what medical treatment was like during the Civil War. Let me tell you, the only thing more awkward than watching someone die of a gut wound, is watching someone pretending to die from a gut wound.

I'm watching the battle from a distance, when a soldier in blue begins stumbling up the field. When he reaches the field hospital, the doctor asks, "What seems to be the problem soldier?" The soldier then opens his mouth and a large blob of fake blood plops on out. The doctor and his assistants bring the soldier to the operating table- a wood board covered with a sheet underneath a canvas tent. They ask him his name and what unit he is from. The guy is in sheer pretend agony and whispers his answers. The doctor looks at the wound and explains that there is nothing to be done.

Truthfully, I am saddened by this sight. So much so that I have to fight the impulse to grab a stick and step in and reenact a scene from Harry Potter. "Vulnera Sanenteur!" I would cry and all would be amazed to see the soldier spring to his feet and declare, "I feel much better now, thanks! Cheerio." Because my magic has not just saved his life, it has turned him British. But, I fight the impulse and the soldier "dies."

The doctor turns to the crowd which has formed around the dying man, many of whom are taking quite a few pictures, myself included. "There is nothing we can do for any wound below the shoulders or above the pelvis. Most of the time we just give these boys a shot of whiskey and put them out underneath a tree, so they can die in peace." Remind me never to end up under the dying tree, fake war or not. They put a blanket over the "dead" soldier and we all pretend not to see the blanket rise and fall with his non-existent breath.
Claire joins me just in time to see a pretend amputation- which gathers a crowd four people thick. It's not pretty, but it's not intended to be. I have difficulty watching and so this is when we go farther up the field and meet the Castramentor. He explains that he is slightly different from the other field re-enactors because he is actually portraying a real person, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. When we look at him quizzically, he holds up a hand and whispers from behind it, "You know, Matthew Broderick plays him in the film Glory."

"Who is this Matthew Broderick you speak of?" I want to ask, "This is 1862 and I've never seen Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

For faux Shaw, reenactments are a way of life. He does them regularly and it is clear that he is very knowledgeable and passionate about them. Claire, an innate matchmaker, winks and nudges me right at the moment he explains that he has a fiancee who lives in Mississippi and she actually has a battle field in her backyard. Well, ladeedah, I didn't want to marry you anyway. I'm actually relieved because if being a soldier's wife is rough, being a fake soldier's wife must be excruciating.

We head back up to the home and the slave quarters. We enter these small brick shelters and realize that hundreds, if not thousands, of people lived and died in these spaces, but oddly, no one is reenacting their lives today. The thought does strike me that perhaps some of the soldiers down on the field should volunteer to reenact the life of a slave once in a while. But, perhaps I can't judge. We all reenact. Every holiday is a reenactment, and so are all wars. Most movies are reenactments of other movies (except for Indiana Jones 4, that thing is just an abomination). I know people (myself included) who've been reenacting the same fights, relationships, and breakfast orders for decades now. It could be argued that I've done a pretty solid job of reenacting the life of Emily Dickinson. The less exciting and talented part, but a reenactment none the less.

Claire and I leave Secessionville. The Battle is done for now, but it will rise like the mythological phony phoenix next year. Reenactments are always being reenacted.

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