The Religion of the Lost Cause
A Baptism of Blood
From the time of the Puritans, America had harbored a sense of divine mission. So perhaps it was natural that the Civil War would come to be viewed as part of that providential plan. In the wake of the War, many Americans--both North and South--concluded that the war had been a punishment sent from God. Just as ancient Israel had been punished for her sins in the Old Testament, many now believed that a proud nation had been humiliated by God because it had not only tolerated slavery, but had allowed such a wicked institution to flourish.
But not everyone accepted this interpretation of God's providential plan. In some quarters, the war was viewed as something more than simply an occasion for punishment. Horace Bushnell and Phillip Schaff, two of the more influential Protestant clergy of their day, came to see it as a chance for national redemption and renewal. According to Bushnell and Schaff, the nation had undergone a "Baptism of Blood" that would wash way its sins.
On this point, both North and South were in general agreement. The phrase "baptism of blood" was common in the preaching of ministers in both regions during the war years, but the two differed on the nature of the sins for which they were atoning. In the North, there was a growing belief that the bloodshed taking place on the nation's battlefields was to atone for and to wash away the sin of slavery, and the wrongs done to black persons. The South, needless to say, saw things differently. Southerners came to believe that they were not just engaged in a battle to defend a way of life or an institution, they were in fact fighting in a Holy Crusade on behalf of God himself.
The Problem of Theodicy Strikes the South
During the Civil War , both sides prayed to same God for victory, and both were assured from their respective pulpits that their cause was righteous. Southerners were told, for instance, that South was fighting to preserve the divine economy and pure religion (Evangelicalism) in opposition to the North where churches had grown corrupt (Mormons), liberal (Unitarians) and denied the very word of God (Transcendentalists and Abolitionists). They saw themselves as "Christian soldiers marching off as to war," and few doubted that theirs was a righteous cause.
And yet, in the war's aftermath, it appeared that God had been on side of the North all along. The judgment rendered at Appomattox would provoke a crisis of faith in the South. Why had such a terrible thing happened to such a religious people? Was God still on his throne? Or were the horrors of defeat the result of some sin on the part of the South.
The South was forced to confront the problem of theodicy in a way that was quite unexpected. Bishop Holland N. McTyeire described the crisis of faith facing the South in the aftermath of the Civil War this way: "Some people's faith has received a terrible shock on account of the way the war ended. They prayed for Confederate success, and thought they had received assurances of
that success from God. Some went so far as to say they were as sure of this as they were that they were converted. They believed rightly that the success of Confederate arms was a proper subject of prayer, but forgot that the prayer was to be offered up with limitations and conditions. They had a right to pray, but no right to shut up God to the alternative that their prayer must be answered."
Slowly, a consensus formed as to why God had chosen not to answer the prayers of the South. The reason was the region's collective sin. But it was not the sin of slavery that they had in mind.
In the pre-war years, Southerners had fashioned a doctrine they called the "spirituality of the church." John Holt Rice stated this doctrine succinctly when he wrote that the church should "confine itself to making good Christians and avoid speaking out on matters beyond its competence." That is to say, it should focus solely on issues of personal morality, rather than trying to address such social evils as slavery. And so it was that Southern Christianity turned a blind eye to the great sin in its midst. Sin--in the South--came to be defined largely in terms of personal piety: drinking, smoking, and cussing. People felt perfectly free to indulge in the conveniences of slavery during the week, and then purge their consciences on Sunday morning in an spiritual catharsis.
As the course of the war turned against the South after 1863, and during the post war years, the South slowly came to believe that its defeat was the result of the prevalence of drunkenness, card playing, and dancing among Confederate troops and civilians. Such vices had brought the wrath of God down on their heads. No less an illustrious leader as Robert E. Lee gave this view currency. Confederate military set-backs had not been the result of overwhelming numbers of enemy troops, or any ill-advised strategic decisions by him and his generals. They were the result of "drinking, gambling and profanity."
The Two Reconstructions
Instead of seeing the nation's baptism of blood as a divine act sweeping away slavery, religious leaders in the region followed Lee's lead, and began to argue that defeat had really been an effort on the part of God to get the South's attention, and to bring it to its collective knees in repentance for the drunkenness, card-playing, and swearing that had gone on during the war years. God had allowed the South to taste defeat as part of a larger plan to purify the region, and to insure that its people were the most religious and its churches the purest anywhere. Their objective was little different from the one put forward by the Puritans: to reconstruct society along the lines of a Christian commonwealth.
At the same time the North was embarking on a process of reconstruction to bring the South back into the Union, there was also an effort on the part of the South to re-establish what many had come to believe was the divine order of the races. Under the system of slavery, the African-American had a clear place in the pecking order. He was "the bottom rail" in the social fence while the white planter was the "top rail." But to many Southerners, it seemed as if political reconstruction had inverted that social order, placing the newly freed slaves in positions of political and economic power, while disenfranchising the former Confederates. And so they searched desperately for a way to put African-Americans in their place.
One means for accomplishing this was the Ku Klux Klan, an organization led at one early stage by the famed Confederate cavalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Klan riders made every effort to intimidate blacks who had risen to positions of power in the Reconstruction governments, and to insure that every black knew their place in the larger society. Cross burnings, lynchings, and other such methods proved to be useful tools of social control in the hands of the Klan and they did not hesitate to use them. The Klan had begun as a "joke" society by a small group of ex-Confederate officers, sharing their boredom over a few drinks, and once the violence really began, Forrest quit the group. Even today his name is unfairly tarred with what this organization became.
A second means was the establishment of the institution of share-cropping in which the newly freed blacks worked for their old masters on the old plantations for a share of the crop. In such a system, a loan would be made at the beginning of the planting season for tools, seed, fertilizer, food and clothing. That loan had to be paid back when the sharecropper sold their crops. If there were profits, the sharecopper got to keep a share. The problem was that with the owner's creative financing and the high interest rates he charged, rarely would a sharecropper break even, much less earn a profit. Since the terms of their lease required them to work till any indebtedness was paid off, freedmen soon found themselves as bound to their former masters as they had been during the days of slavery.
Interestingly, segregation was not nearly as virulent as one might expect during this period. Whites and blacks used the same means of public transportation, and there was considerable interaction between the races. It would not be until the turn of the century that Jim Crow segregation would take such a terrible hold on the nation.
The Religion of the Lost Cause
One result of this effort to reconstruct Southern society into a Christian commonwealth was a new wave of revivalism that sought to bring spiritual renewal to the region. The South quickly came to see itself as the new children of Israel--God's chosen people--a righteous remnant--who had been charged with the task of saving the nation from the immorality of the North. This belief came to be known as the Religion of the Lost Cause, and the saints of this variant of Christianity were those who fought and died for the Cause, as well as such living figures as Robert E. Lee who came to be the Christ figure for this new faith. Like Jesus, Southern preachers argued, Lee had been tempted (when he was offered command of the Union army), he had suffered a crucifixion (defeat at Appomattox), and had been resurrected to new life (the Presidency of Washington and Lee). His conduct and person were flawless, and had it not been for the betrayal of his underlings (General Longstreet generally played the role of Judas in this Southern version of the Passion) he would have triumphed.
These saints of the South came to be memorialized in various ways. A statue of Robert E. Lee, for instance, can be found at Duke Chapel along with such other giants of the faith as Martin Luther and John Wesley. At St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, Lee can be seen in a stained glass window which serves to link the Confederacy with the stories of the Old Testament. Men such as Lee, Jefferson Davis , and Stonewall Jackson were said to epitomize the very best of Christian and Southern values (the two were thought to be synonymous). Lee's birthday (January 19) was celebrated throughout the South, and when the invitation was given to follow Christ at Southern revival meetings, men were invited to follow Lee and Jackson yet again.
Some Concluding Remarks
Why did Southerners succumb so readily to the Religion of the Lost Cause? For one reason, it gave the Southern denominations a reason to remain independent. Slavery, the original cause for denominational division, was now a dead issue. While the South had been forced by military might to return to the Union, there was no similar force compelling Southern Christians to reunite with their Northern co-religionists. While they had not obtained a separate nation, Southerners were able to gain their spiritual independence.
A second reason the South was attracted to the Religion of the Lost Cause, was the appeal of seeing themselves as God's chosen people. Their mission was defend this new Southern Zion--from the North's continuing heresy. The South, it was argued, would offer a pure and unadulterated Gospel free from the politically oriented religion of the North.
The principle point is that when hostilities concluded there was no agreement between the North and the South as to the meaning of the Civil War. Instead of the two regions growing closer, the chasm separating them had become wider. No longer were they divided over the issue of slavery. Now they were divided--Southerners believed--between the forces of Christ and the Anti-Christ.
Postwar (Reconstruction) Politics
Reconstruction was an era of unprecedented political conflict and of far-reaching changes in the nature of American government. At the national level, new laws and constitutional amendments permanently altered the federal system and the definition of citizenship.
In the South, a politically mobilized black community joined with white allies to bring the Republican party to power, while excluding those accustomed to ruling the region.
The national debate over Reconstruction centered on three questions:
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln announced a lenient plan, with suffrage limited to whites, to attract Southern Confederates back to the Union. By the end of his life, however, Lincoln had come to favor extending the right to vote to educated blacks and former soldiers.
Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, in 1865 put into effect his own Reconstruction plan, which gave the white South a free hand in establishing new governments. Many Northerners became convinced that Johnson's policy, and the actions of the governments he established, threatened to reduce African Americans to a condition similar to slavery, while allowing former "rebels" to regain political power in the South.
As a result, Congress overturned Johnson's program.
Between 1866 and 1869, Congress enacted new laws and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, guaranteeing blacks' civil rights and giving black men the right to vote.
These measures for the first time enshrined in American law the principle that the rights of citizens could not be abridged because of race. And they led directly to the creation of new governments in the South elected by blacks as well as white - America's first experiment in interracial democracy.
In 1865 President Andrew Johnson implemented a plan of Reconstruction that gave the white South a free hand in regulating the transition from slavery to freedom and offered no role to blacks in the politics of the South. The conduct of the governments he established turned many Northerners against the president's policies.
The end of the Civil War found the nation without a settled Reconstruction policy.
In May 1865, President Andrew Johnson offered a pardon to all white Southerners except Confederate leaders and wealthy planters (although most of these later received individual pardons), and authorized them to create new governments.
Blacks were denied any role in the process. Johnson also ordered nearly all the land in the hands of the government returned to its prewar owners ‚ dashing black hope for economic autonomy.
At the outset, most Northerners believed Johnson's plan deserved a chance to succeed. The course followed by Southern state governments under Presidential Reconstruction, however, turned most of the North against Johnson's policy. Members of the old Southern elite, including many who had served in the Confederate government and army, returned to power.
The new legislatures passed the Black Codes, severely limiting the former slaves' legal rights and economic options so as to force them to return to the plantations as dependent laborers. Some states limited the occupations open to blacks. None allowed any blacks to vote, or provided public funds for their education.
The apparent inability of the South's white leaders to accept the reality of emancipation undermined Northern support for Johnson's policies.
In the 1870's, violent opposition in the South and the North's retreat from its commitment to equality, resulted in the end of Reconstruction. By 1876, the nation was prepared to abandon its commitment to equality for all citizens regardless of race.
As soon as blacks gained the right to vote, secret societies sprang up in the South, devoted to restoring white supremacy in politics and social life. Most notorious was the Ku Klux Klan, an organization of violent criminals that established a reign of terror in some parts of the South, assaulting and murdering local Republican leaders.
In 1871 and 1872, federal marshals, assisted by U. S. troops, brought to trial scores of Klansmen, crushing the organization. But the North's commitment to Reconstruction soon waned. Many Republicans came to believe that the South should solve its own problems without further interference from Washington. Reports of Reconstruction corruption led many Northerners to that black suffrage had been a mistake. When anti-Reconstruction violence erupted again in Mississippi and South Carolina, the Grant administration refused to intervene.
The election of 1876 hinged on disputed returns from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, where Republican governments still survived. After intense negotiations involving leaders of both parties, the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, became president, while Democrats assumed control of the disputed Southern states. Reconstruction had come to an end.
From the outset, Reconstruction governments aroused bitter opposition among the majority of white Southerners. Though they disagreed on specific policies, all of Reconstruction's opponents agreed that the South must be ruled by white supremacy.
The reasons for white opposition to Reconstruction were many. To numerous former Confederates, the new governments appeared as living reminders of military defeat. Their ambitious programs of economic development and school construction produced rising taxes and spiraling state debts. In some states, these programs also spawned corruption, in which Democrats as well as Republicans shared, but which served to discredit Republican rule. Many whites deeply resented the absence of the region's former leaders from positions of power, and planters disliked the tendency of local officials to side with former slaves in labor disputes.
The essential reason for the growing opposition to Reconstruction, however, was the fact that most Southern whites could not accept the idea of African Americansvoting and holding office, or the egalitarian policies adopted by the new governments. Beginning in 1867, Southern Democrats launched a campaign of vilification against Reconstruction, employing lurid appeals to racial prejudice as well as more measured criticisms of Reconstruction policies.
Grand Army of the Republic (Union)
The Grand Army of the Republic was a veteran's organization for Union Soldiers of the Civil War, or as they would have termed it, the "War of the Rebellion." The GAR was created in 1866 to help veterans and their families who were now dispersed across the country. It lobbied for the soldiers interests in Washington and helped them to find jobs; it created soldiers' homes, and helped establish cemeteries for those who had served in the War. By 1890 it had 409,489 members. It was a powerful force in helping to ensure that promises of the Government to Civil War veterans and their families were kept..
Most importantly, the GAR was dedicated to preserve the memory of the War. In 1868 it was successful in naming the 30th of May as a day of remembrance for the soldiers who died in the War. This is the Memorial Day we still celebrate today. In the decades following the War, the GAR sponsored "Encampments" where veterans could reunite and camp together and hold memorial rituals. The last of these events was held in 1949. The last member of the GAR to have died was Albert Woolson, who died in 1956. He was 109 years old.
The work of the GAR has now been passed onto the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War and other related organizations.
The United Confederate Veterans , also known as the UCV , was a veteran's organization for former Confederate soldiers of the American Civil War , and was equivalent to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) which was the organization for Union veterans.
Prior to 1889 Confederate veterans had no national organization similar to the Grand Army of the Republic. Several separate fraternal and memorial groups existed on a local and regional level. Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1889 several of these groups united and formed the United Confederate Veterans Association. The organization was founded to serve as a benevolent, historical, social, and literary association. The UCV was active well into 1940s .
The primary functions of the organization were to provide for widows and orphans of former Confederate soldiers, preserve relics and mementos, care for disabled former soldiers, preserve a record of the service of its members, and organize reunions and fraternal gatherings.
At its height, membership in the organization was approximately 160,000 former Confederate soldiers organized into 1,885 local camps. The UCV produced a magazine called Confederate Veteran with articles about events during the war and provide a forum for lost comrades to locate one another.
The organizational structure of the UCV was based on a military-style hierarchy with a national headquarters, three departments, divisions within those departments, and finally the local camps. The national officers were at first known as "Generals Commanding" and later as "Commander-in-Chief".
Commanders were not based on the actual rank of the veteran while in service. Commanders-in-Chief ranged from former Generals to former Privates.
The UCV organized many local and national reunions of Confederate veterans. Some of the national reunions attracted thousands of former veterans. In 1875 the Confederate and Union veterans first met in reunion at Bunker Hill. In 1881 Union veterans decorated Confederate graves during Mardi Gras in New Orleans as a sign of respect. Between 1881 and 1887 Federal and Confederate veterans held 24 major reunions together. The 50th Anniversary of The Battle of Gettysburg attracted 8,000 Confederate and 44,000 Union veterans. It was common practice for both the GAR and the UCV to produce medals, ribbons, and other assorted memorabilia to commemorate reunions and gatherings. These items are considered collector's items today and are much sought after.
In 1896 a successor organization, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) was formed by sons of UCV members for descendants of Confederate veterans. The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) is the equivalent organization for the descendants of Union soldiers. Both organizations still exist today.
An organization for female descendants of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy was also formed.
The World of Civil War Reenactment
At the end of the Civil War, the sound of shots fired had not even died away before the first "reenactments" of the war were attempted. For the vast majority of the veterans involved, it had been the highlight and focus of their entire life, and it proved very difficult to let go of. Many were eager to tell their stories of campaigns and battles to their long-suffering wives and wide-eyed children, and more than one took to open fields to demonstrate their prowess with rifles. Union veterans had the chance to purchase their weapons when discharged, for the then-astronomical sum of $5.00, and those that declined to do so soon had the chance again on the surplus market, for a markedly less sum (incidentally, this helps explain why so many rifles in fair to good condition are available today on the collector's market, for the somewhat higher sum of $1,500 to $2,500 for an "unidentified" example, or from $3,500 and "up" for one that can be linked to a specific veteran). Veterans organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic, for Union veterans, and the United Confederate Veterans were established shortly after the end of the war, and soon began organizing "camp life" displays for the (by then) long-suffering families of the veterans, so Dad could tell, once more, what it had been like to suffer under "Spoons" Butler or march proudly barefoot for "Marsh" Robert. Large scale reunions started appearing in the 1880s, and by the turn of the century, the dwindling ranks of the veterans were being watched by increasing crowds of spectators as they marched in parades or "reenacted" parts of famous battles. The favorite during this period was to recreation of the battle of Gettysburg, with huge camps set up for reunions of the 35th (1898), 50th (1913) and 75th (1938) anniversary of the battle. The later reunions were caught on film, and the sight of aged men staggering up Cemetery Ridge, only to shake hands with their former foes across the stone wall at the top, cannot help but bring a lump to the throat.
The United States Army had gotten in on the fun as early as 1904, with a large training maneuver on the old Manassas battleground. In May, 1935, on the 72nd anniversary of the battle of Chancellorsville, a huge training maneuver loosely attempting to recreate the battle involved cadets from the Virginia Military College (where "Stonewall" Jackson taught before the war), U.S. cavalry squadrons and the U.S. Marine Corps. The U.S. Army maneuvered again at Manassas in 1961, this time dressing their troops up in costumish blue and gray uniforms (but still carrying their modern weapons), and attempted to recreate the battle for a large group of spectators. One source claims this was the "militarily speaking, perhaps the most authentic reenactment of Manassas that has even been carried out," although the uniforms and equipment were not even close to authentic in appearance, and the whole affair, called a "sham battle" at the time, was simply done as part of the centennial celebration of the war.
During the lead-up to the national celebration of the centennial of the war, in the early 1950s, an organization was formed that would transform both the publics view of both the Civil War and of the recreation of it ã the North-South Skirmish Association, or simply N-SSA, as it is most widely known. This organization, which is still existent and very highly active, promoted the research and construction of truly authentic dress and equipment, and centered around target shooting competitions using authentic and replica weapons, up to and including artillery pieces.
Every year the N-SSA holds two national shooting competitions at it's dedicated range at Ft. Shenandoah, near Winchester, Virginia, in late May and early October, and we highly recommend you attend at least once ã it is perhaps the most exciting single event in all of Civil War reenacting and living history, to watch gun crews firing live rounds under pressure at targets a half-mile away (if only the pressure of competition and not counter-battery fire, although we have heard rumor that it has been considered from time to time!).
By the late 1960s, interest in recreating the accurate history of the way increased, and started moving away from the organized target-shooting emphasis of the N-SSA. With help from the hoopla surrounding the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations, agencies such as the National Park Service and organizations supporting local museums and battlefields began promoting "living history," amateur (and sometimes professional) historians who donned accurate uniforms and equipment in order to put on displays to explain to the public how the men of that era had lived and fought. In the best spirit of capitalism, manufacturers and suppliers sprang forward to meet the needs of these historians, producing at first reasonably acceptable equipment and replica firearms. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s this display-oriented activity slowly grew into a full-fledged hobby, with increasing numbers joining the ranks of fledgling reenactment units, that took on the name and colors of actual Civil War era units. The available equipment, now obtained from the archaically termed "sutlers," became much more accurate in appearance (and higher in price), to the point that many of the firearms and leather gear had to be marked as "reproduction," so they would not be sold to the unsuspecting collector by the unscrupulous as authentic.
By the early 1980s, this growing camp of "reenactors" proved to be a third split in the overall Civil War recreation community ã the N-SSA was (and is) still around, the museum and battlefield based living historians were (and are) still around, but now the major focus of attention turned to the recreation of actual battles and campaigns, not just camp life and occasional shooting competitions. A turning point in the hobby came with the 1986, 125th anniversary battle of Manassas. An estimated 6,000 reenactors took to the field in front of a crowd conservatively estimated to be twice that, catching the attention of the mass media. An article in the August 11, 1986, issue of Time magazine brought national attention, and Hollywood, ever ready to catch the coattails of a trend, produced a series of (frankly rather bad) miniseries and films that used some of the reenactment crowd as extras.
In the mid-1990s a series of events connected with the 135th anniversary of the war proved what an explosive growth had occurred in the hobby. Feature films such as Glory and Gettysburg used large numbers of reenactors, and events such as the 135th anniversary battle of Gettysburg drew in an estimated 24,000 reenactors (this number, like all crowd estimates, is the mid point of a rather extensive range of estimates). Mass media once again turned their attention to the strangely-dressed hordes running across old battlefields, the New York Times proclaiming that this was the "fastest growing family hobby" in America. The "family" connection is interesting to note, as for the first time large numbers of women and children were participating, both in drag (as it were) as soldiers, and perfectly in character as wives, families and camp followers in the ever-more authentic camps. For the first time, even male civilian reenactors started appearing in large numbers, as authentically dressed and mannered sutlers (who are not reluctant to take "farb" money, by the way), photographers (who use authentic, and very difficult, wet-plate methods), doctors (yes, recreating amputations), musicians, carpetbaggers, and so on.
Today, this hobby has morphed into a wide variety of activities, so wide, in fact, that it is rather difficult to keep track of it all. Old "real" veterans organizations have changed into organizations of the descendents of soldiers (Sons of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy), who don authentic dress and study the mannerisms of the period to put on balls, cotillions and serve as honor guards for remembrance ceremonies and Confederate Memorial Day parades. Newsstands are filled with periodicals dedicated to the history of the war (Civil War Times Illustrated, America's Civil War, Blue & Gray, North & South are a few examples), a vast and bewildering array of dedicated to the hobby sutlers have sprung up, many of which argue about how their particular product is so much more authentic than the dregs that proceeded it (actually, this is very period to advertising habits of merchants of the 19th century!), and nearly every weekend throughout the year at least one reenactment, "tactical" (a more authentic recreation, usually open-ended and not scripted to an historic battle, and closed to public view), ball, "school of the soldier," or other living history event is going on in some part of the country. The hobby has even spread internationally, with events in Canada, England and Germany. The number of reenactment units is very difficult to ascertain, with new ones popping up every month and older ones fading away, but a conservative estimate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 distinct units.
In addition to the divisions between those considering themselves and their activities as living history, reenactment, and N-SSA related, a subsection of the reenactment community has more recently appeared that can most delicately be termed the "hardcore," although they refer to themselves as "authentics." These are people, almost exclusively male, so far as we have experienced, that take the concept of "authenticity" to it's maximum. Not only do they obsessively research every single piece of clothing and equipment they wear and use, they consider their overall physical appearance, deliberately starving themselves the get the typical look of the later-war Confederates, not bathing for protracted periods of time, and usually going around barefoot. All of their leather gear is worked over until it obtains a desired "worn-out" appearance, and anything made of brass is treated to give it a brownish patina. The author of this work ran into an encampment of these "hardcores" just south of the Shiloh battlefield one early spring day in 1998, and the whole camp appearance was so correct to the smallest detail that he had trouble believing he was not looking a ghosts, at first. A book was published in 1998 that talked about these "hardcores," among other current Civil War topics, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz. While it has gotten mixed reviews from the reenactment crowd, it is a highly entertaining, admittedly biased, view of how all this activity looks to the outsiders.
To keep track of all the goings-on, a subsection of media totally devoted to the hobby has appeared, with one monthly magazine, Camp Chase Gazette, several newspaper format monthly periodicals, Civil War News (sounds like an oxymoron, but is surprisingly chock-full of recent happenings), Civil War Courier, and Smoke & Fire News. There is even a magazine devoted to the growing civilian aspect of the hobby, The Citizen's Companion, and the whole aspect of the vast array of offerings from sutlers, both good and bad, has led to the creation of the quarterly newsletter, The Watchdog, that provides insightful (and fair) reviews of both sutlers and their products.
While there is a natural problem with authentically recreating the war, the reenactors are only shooting off gunpowder, for example, no miniÈ balls are loaded, the surgeons are only pretending to saw off limbs (we think), and relatively few people actually get shot, most of the participants in this hobby take their roles very seriously, and an event open to the public is well-worth attending, if only to get a flavor of what the real thing was like. One of the more transcendent experiences we have had was watching a very small reenactment in Greensboro, Georgia, that was recreating a Virginia battle called the "Mule Shoe." It was a cool morning and had rained hard all the previous night, leaving the ground unpleasantly muddy, and a heavy mist was hanging in the air. From a hillside viewing area, shivering in the damp air, we watched the approach of the Union regiments, bayonets affixed to their Springfields, battle flags hanging limply on their staffs. As they turned in to the field in front of us, a nearby Confederate artillery battery opened fire, it's deep boom shaking the ground. At that moment a weak winter sun briefly peeked through the mist, highlighting the approaching gleaming bayonets, and catching the brilliant colors of the battle flags, now flying out proudly as the men in lines of battle gave a deep "huzzah," and charged the entrenched Confederate line. It was the sort of moment where you get a lump in your throat, and just for that one moment, you were transported back 134 years into the midst of a desperate battle.
There are innumerable sources on how you can either watch or get involved in this hobby, the best we can recommend is the Camp Chase Gazette, $24.00 for a one-year subscription (P.O. Box 707, Marietta, Ohio 45750). However, if you have web access, there are innumerable sites to look into, starting again with the Camp Chase Gazette, http://oh.verio.com/~civilwar/. Another excellent source is the cyber version of Civil War News, http://www.civilwarnews.com. The be-all, end-all of web links can be found at the U.S. Civil War Center at Louisiana State University, http://www.cwc.lsu.edu. While it does not have every single link concerning the Civil War, at least yet (their stated purpose is to index them all), and the fact that they have recently undergone an upheaval in management may (or may not) affect their collection efforts, there is enough there to provide several years worth of hotlinking. Another very good source is the museums and visitor centers attached to battlefield and historic sites, which are more frequently hosting reenactments and living history exhibits.
If you decide that this is the hobby for you, we suggest purchasing one (or both) of a pair of excellent books on the subject, Springing to the Call!: How to Get Started in Civil War Reenacting, published by the Camp Chase Gazette, or Reliving the Civil War: A Reenactor's Handbook by R. Lee Hadden. Both give good overviews of what the hobby entails, including warnings about how much it costs to get started. A decent outfit, including leather gear and weapons, will set you back between $1,500 and 2,000, although there are ways, that these books explain, to start participating for considerably less.
Amazon.com lists well over 100 feature films about, based on, or having the Civil War as some sort of backdrop, and this does not include literally thousands of documentaries, reenactor videos, short-format museum films, and the various sorts of educational materials available.
My own list of "must-see" films is highly subjective, but I believe does give a good feel for some of the various aspects of the war:
1. Glory. Without a single doubt the finest movie about the war. It focuses on the story of a single Union regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, the first regular army black regiment. It has the usual and expected Hollywood inaccuracies about the ultimate battle, but the personal characteristics of many in the regiment are effective portrayed.
2. Ride With the Devil. A little-known film, but one of the very best ever made about the war; it is an outstanding, relatively slow-paced study of the vicious Kansas-Missouri guerilla war.
3. Gettysburg. A fine adaptation of Michael Shaara's novel, The Killer Angels. It is a relatively slow-paced study of the three days at Gettysburg, without as much as a hint at the preceding and subsequent actions surrounding that campaign.
4. Gods & Generals. Much superior sequel to Gettysburg, based on Michael's son Jeff Shaara's novel.
5. The Outlaw Josey Wales. An odd choice, I know, but it does give an interesting, if highly colored and fictionalized version of the rather nasty guerilla war that went on in Missouri and Kansas.
6. Ken Burns' The Civil War. Highly controversial, except among PBS stations (even a decade after being first broadcast, it remains the most-watched program ever presented on public television, and remains a strong draw every time it is rerun). It is controversial among historians of many stripes, as Burn's takes great liberties with his portrayal of a number of aspects of the war, lending a certain "revisionist" flavor, of the bad sort, to the whole thing. His worst sin, of course, is that it has an obsessive slant towards the Eastern Theater, ignoring the much more important and interesting Western Theater, for the most part!
7. The Hunley. A TBS movie about the Confederate submersible, much superior to an average made-for-TV, and fairly accurate all around in the then-known details.
8. Civil War Journal and Civil War Combat. History Channel series that explore one aspect of the war, or one battle each, in great detail and better than average historical accuracy.
9. Gone With the Wind. An odd choice, I know, but this 1939 movie captures very well the lifestyle of the upper crust plantation class in the immediate antebellum era, and while taking breathtaking liberties with pretty much everything about the war itself, contains some staggering visual effects and scenes that are worth sitting through the 4-hour epic just in themselves. It is also worth noting that a small number of living ACW veterans saw this movie before their deaths, and generally had nice things to say about it (of course they did, they were Southern gentlemen all!).
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