It’s been 150 years since the start of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. The wounds it left paralyse the country todayby Diane Roberts / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Every spring, two antique armies square off in a north Florida swamp. They’ve come with their replica rifles and blunted bayonets, their carefully-scuffed boots and new-grown beards, to re-enact the Battle of Natural Bridge, a late skirmish in the American Civil War. One side sports deep-blue tunics, approximations of those worn by United States troops in the 1860s. The other side’s coats are pigeon-grey, the colour of the Confederacy, the eleven Southern states so determined to preserve slavery that they divorced themselves from the Union in 1861.
Some of the uniforms are polyester, hired from fancy-dress shops. Others, especially among the Confederate “soldiers,” are hand-sewn, fashioned from wool, dyed with walnut shells, just as they would have been 150 years ago. Re-enacting the nation’s bloodiest conflict has become a popular hobby. At least 60,000 men take part regularly, and thousands more are casual participants. They choose a side (“Yankee” or “Rebel”), put together the requisite kit, and travel to Civil War sites where they play out the battles every American child learns about in school: Manassas, Chickamauga, Shiloh, Vicksburg. Some re-enactors are so dedicated that they embark on extreme diets to achieve the skeletal appearance of Confederates in the later stages of the war, when that army was starving. In his splendid book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz investigates the impact of the Civil War on the American mind and how re-enacting has become central to its remembrance. Horwitz hangs out with “hardcores,” men who wear 1860s underpants and 1860s spectacles. Some even soak their uniform buttons overnight in urine: it oxidises brass, giving that authentic 19th-century look.
The sesquicentennial has brought even more passion to re-enactments, and more debate about the war itself. The commemorations, which will go on for four years, show how resonant the conflict remains in the South—and beyond. The unresolved questions of the war’s aftermath still drive the fiercest battles of national politics. One is the struggle between the federal government in Washington and the state capitals over whose laws should prevail. Of course, that tussle goes back to the roots of the republic; the constitution intentionally divides power between the states and the feds. But the Civil War left many constitutional questions open to interpretation. The US is sharply divided into Republican and Democratic tribes, conservatives and progressives, those who feel that the federal government best promotes liberty by being small, and those who favour a stronger central government. As Barack Obama is finding, this rift bedevils any president’s ability to govern. In many important ways, America is still fighting the Civil War.