Remembrance Day…But Remembering What?

By Sarah Johnson ’15

In conversation with other CWI Fellows last week, we began discussing the strangeness of the annual Remembrance Day Parade. Originally conceived as a way to recreate the procession to the cemetery in 1863 to hear the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, it seems to have morphed into something different all together. If we are honoring a recommitment to the preservation of Union, why do Confederate reenactors march in the parade? If we are simply celebrating the soldiers of both sides of the Civil War, why does the parade end at the site of the address that rededicated the nation to Union emancipationist victory and a “new birth of freedom?” To sate my curiosity, I decided to go out on assignment and interview people before the parade began. I interviewed spectators and reenactors alike and asked them the following questions: 1) Is the parade a yearly tradition for you? and 2) What are you here celebrating and remembering today? Here is what I found:

Photo credit to the author.
Photo credit to the author.

Spectators gave a wide variety of answers. All but four said that it was a yearly tradition for them, but those four said that they had marked in on the calendar for next year and were planning on making it a tradition. The most common theme among the spectators was an idea of a tangible connection to history. Many people felt as if the parade connected them to the past and helped keep history alive. Most were not interested in the larger questions of the legacy of the Civil War, but the majority emphasized the need to remember all Civil War soldiers simply because they fought and died for freedom (somewhat ironic, because while Confederate soldiers may have been fighting for their personal freedom, the entire system of chattel slavery undergirds the Southern antebellum political economy). Many made references to “ragged and barefoot” Confederate reenactors; one man said it just about made him cry. One woman said, “…although we are certainly glad the Union won, we have compassion on Southern soldiers.”

Photo credit to the author.
Photo credit to the author.

Other spectators I spoke with referenced the proximity to Veterans Day and seeing the parade as a natural extension of honoring veterans of all wars. I approached a few gentlemen wearing “Vietnam Veteran” hats and asked them my questions. When I asked what they were remembering, the man in the middle stared me down and gruffly replied, “VETERANS.” As I could tell the conversation was over, I thanked them for their service and walked away. As I left, I heard another man say firmly to him, “Good Answer.” The strangeness of this, however, is that few reenactors are actually soldiers. Sure, some reenactors are veterans, but seeing men who have actually seen combat stand on the sidewalk and salute random people dressing up in uniforms is strange when one actually thinks about it. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Photo credit to the author.

Surprisingly, the most disappointing responses came from reenactors themselves. The responses I received were almost wholly superficial, like “It’s Gettysburg, this is what we do,” “I love dressing up!” and “This is the last great reenacting event. It’s like a party—we get to see everyone before the close of the season.” This last comment came from a long haired, hardcore Confederate reenactor. After he shared his thoughts with me, however, one of his comrades nervously said, “…Well, and I guess remembering…something…” The only person who refused to speak to me was a reenactor resplendently clad in a Confederate Cavalry Colonel’s uniform. When I explained who I was and asked if I could ask him some questions, he grunted “Depends,” and promptly walked away.

Photo credit to the author.
Photo credit to the author.

For the majority of participants, Remembrance Day has become an excuse to strut one’s stuff and “keep history alive” without really explaining what that means. I did, however, have a refreshing conversation with a group of African American USCT reenactors that made the whole day worth it. They told me that they were here to honor Lincoln and the dedication of the cemetery. They told me this was where it all started, Civil War to Civil Rights, and also told me about their plans to honor their USCT ancestors at a recreation of the Grand Review March in D.C. in May.

My conversations with people before the parade were very interesting and shed light on the ambiguity of the event itself.

4 thoughts on “Remembrance Day…But Remembering What?”

  1. I think it’s a worthy investigation however it would have been a little more interesting if the writer had explored the origins of the event which has been going on in its current form for close to 60 years. Establishing a base, showing what the organizers meant it to be (be the GAR or SUVCW) would have illustrated the events evolution into what it has become quite effectively I think. There’s still time to follow up.

    Finding the diversity of opinions as to what it means to currents audiences and participants was inevitable and almost predictable.

    A couple of concerns regarding statements made:

    [quote]”The strangeness of this, however, is that few reenactors are actually soldiers. Sure, some reenactors are veterans, ”

    Far more reenactors are veterans or active service personnel that you realize… ask around, you’d be surprised. Be mindful of painting with the broad brush

    [quote]”This last comment came from a long haired, hardcore Confederate reenactor”

    Well which was it “long haired” or “hardcore”? because you see, “hardcore” reenactors don’t generally do the “long hair” thing ,also they don’t often refer to any “season” and, in fact, most “hardcore” reenactors don’t necessarily participate in the Gettysburg Remembrance day parade, due to the nature of the event (no reenactor standards and not really a reenactment at all).
    Also, it’s been my experience with so called “hardcores” that they would have known exactly what the parade was trying to commemorate and would, more than likely and gladly explained to you all the ways it fell short of its purposes.

    The topic is a worthy one, research it more, establish that base and talk to more people, lots more. I think it would make for awesome reading if it were filled out and expanded. Its too complex and important an event in the life of this funny liitle town not to dig a little deeper

  2. Nice article. However, I agree with commentor jfkorber; a lot of re-enactors are veterans or have family members currently serving.

    Also, while I agree with the articles premise that a lot of people don’t consider the deeper conflicts of the Civil War, isn’t it positive that they attend re-enactments/living history events? If the re-enactors and living historians are doing their educational job, then the public should leave with a better understanding of the war and America. Just my thoughts…

  3. I appreciate how Sarah has given Civil War reenactors a chance to explain why this hobby has such deep personal and historical meaning for a wide range of people. Too often we make quick assumptions about the diverse motivations and the tensions between escapism and historical commemoration are often lost in outside commentary. This topic, as Sarah suggests, demands further research, andy I hope that a Gettysburg College student will follow Sarah’s suggestion and consider doing a more scientific survey of reenactor opinions as part of a broader study of this hobby. .

  4. This was very eye opening. I am a past president of the New York Dept. Auxiliary to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and have been a member for over 25 years. Most members of these organizations will tell their goal is to perpetuate the memories of the union soldiers who gave their lives to keep this country together. You will find there are a lot of reenactors who do not belong to any of the 5 Allied Orders of the Grand Army of the Republic (Sons on Union Veterans, Women’s Relief Corps, Daughters of Union Veterans, Ladies of the Grand Army, Aux. to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War). Most can show ancestry on both sides of the conflict. I feel it is ironic that each side was fighting for a cause, not the same cause. But a cause they both believed enough in to give up everything the held dear to them including their lives. That is what makes us Americans. Even Gen. Grant reminded us — they are our brothers.

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