Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Guest Post: Fear and Loathing at Shiloh

In a special guest post today, we offer up some thoughts from friend of the blog Vanessa Smiley. Vanessa is a good and stalwart interpreter and Civil War-geek. When she shared with me her experiences at the Shiloh reenactment this past weekend, I asked her to share them with all of you. -John

A portion of Shiloh's bloody harvest.
Everyone is and has been talking about the Shiloh 150th commemoration, whether it be the NPS event starting this week or the battle reenactment that took place this past weekend. It has been called the 'Antietam of the West.' All the events surrounding its 150th anniversary have been heralded as being one of 'the big ones' this year. Over 23,000 casualties of both sides in two days - a pretty significant and bloody battle.

I made the 14 hour road trip to the Shiloh battlefield this past weekend. I'm attending as many Civil War 150th events as I can and so I've been looking forward to this "big one" for months. My boyfriend Clayton and I decided to attend the reenactment this past weekend instead of the NPS events next weekend. Clayton had the unique opportunity to join nearly 600 reenactors/living historians to portray the 15th and 16th Iowa Infantry. Clayton would have the chance to arrive near the Shiloh visitor center via paddle boat on Friday night and the opportunity for some living history interaction with visitors to the park on Saturday morning before marching 5 miles to the reenactment site and straight into battle. In other words, this was Clayton's chance for his civil war "squee" moment.

I came along for the ride.

I am a living historian and while I enjoy the chance to don my corset and rugged work dress (I usually portray a working/lower class woman), this time I decided to go strictly as a spectator in modern clothes. Mind you, I've never done this - usually if I attend reenactments of Civil War battles, I'm dressed in my Civil War clothes and doing some sort of living history demonstration (cooking, laundry, etc.). I rarely get a chance to watch the battle itself. I wasn't sure what I expected but it sure wasn't what I ended up experiencing.

First, let's quickly crunch some numbers. Historically, over 44,000 Confederate soldiers and over 66,000 Federal soldiers fought in this two day battle. There were over 6300 registered reenactors for the Blue and Gray Alliance 150th Shiloh Battle Reenactment. That number also includes women and children, so probably 300-500 of that number were not actually soldiers. There were approx. 60 artillery pieces and too many cavalry to count. Clayton, who was in the thick of it all, told me that the Confederate reenactors outnumbered the Federals about 3 to 1. I was told that there were an estimated 35,000 spectators that attended the reenactment.

Historically, during the first day of battle, the Confederates had the upper hand. They made a surprise attack early on April 6, 1862 and battle raged all day, leaving many dead, wounded, and dying on the field by night fall. By the following morning, April 7, however, the Union army had received reinforcements and rallied to victory, albeit a costly one with 23,000 casualties. The Confederates eventually retreated from the field.

I ended up not attending Saturday's battle reenactment of the first day, but I did manage to make it to Sunday's fight, which was a reenactment of (what else?) the second day. I sat in the heat and sun with hundreds of other people behind yellow caution tape stretching from one end of the field to the other, all directly behind the Confederate artillery. From my vantage point, I was able to see most of the battle, including the final moments when those boys in blue advanced from the tree line, large United States flags waving at intervals along the immense column, and watched as they overtook the Confederate army and ended the battle.

As I sit here trying to gather my thoughts on all of this, I feel the tears well up and I'm overcome with emotion. The experience that I had was, cheesy as it sounds, life changing and powerful. It's hard to relive it.

The rumble of cannon: something to
cheer or contemplate? / CC Roger Smith
As I sat there feeling the vibrations of the artillery rattling my teeth, I was finally able to grasp just how terrifying this war was for these soldiers. The ground literally shook from the constant artillery bombardment, the smoke from the artillery pieces often obscured the view of the field, the pounding of hooves from the cavalry as they rode by in haste, the explosions of various sized gunfire. If I closed my eyes and aimed my ears at the field, I could get a fraction of a sense of a battlefield 150 years ago.

But that's not what makes me cry as I think about my experience. What was really most powerful were the reactions of the spectators around me - and not in a good way.

Whereas I came to this reenactment looking for a sense of meaning and a sense of understanding about this horrific war, most of the people around me came here for entertainment, for the sport. It puts a sour taste in my mouth now just thinking about it. The people around me only wanted a good show. Whenever the three artillery pieces directly in front of me either all fired at once or in quick succession, the crowd would clap and cheer.

Did you read what I just wrote? They clapped and cheered! I was more horrified at their reactions to this event than I was about my new understanding of war. I was more emotionally affected by their reactions than I was by the meaning I had gone there looking for.

These people were laughing, cheering, talking, clapping, and taking pictures like this was some high school football game. I honestly felt disgust. I was disgusted at them. I was disgusted at myself for being a part of it all.

I had this naive notion that everyone was there for the same reasons I was there. And when that naive bubble was popped, I was so incredibly hurt. I began to question everything.

When John called me and asked how my trip was, knowing I had looked forward to it for some time, I told him that, while it was overall a great trip, I was coming out the other side a changed person.

He listened quietly as I described what I've typed up above. He listened as I also described the women who, towards the end of the battle as the Federals finally broke the Confederate lines, shouted flippantly, "Where's Forrest when you need him?!" I told him about the horror I felt at it all, how I just couldn't believe what I experienced, and how I was still trying to understand it.

I went there to try to find meaning in that place and what happened there. I ended up gaining a better understanding about the way the people who attend these events think.

And it terrifies me.


  1. It's been a long time since I've been to a reenactment (well, a Civil War one anyway), so it is interesting to get a report from someone else who has done living history about what it was like to spectate at such things.
    It appears that not much has changed though since I've been inactive. I remember similar responses by the audience all the way back to 1998 when I saw my first event. The audience did the exact thing described here, applauded when there was a large volley of the cannons right in front of us or after all the cannon fired quickly after one another. Reenacting of the Civil War goes back over 50 years now, and if you go back to descriptions of those first reenactments, you'll find similar stories. It's one of the reasons why I came to dislike battle reenactments over time (and it took years for this to happen to me because how one views things changes from when you are a young teenager to a young adult in college).

    Also, as described here, one of the things attainable out of actual battle reenactments is the sound, vibration, and confusion of a battle. That's about all you can hope for, and is great. I've experienced that too, and it can be very powerful. But, there is the problem when you open your eyes. There are all kinds of problems with how battles are commonly done at reenactments. Too many to list in this comment.

    I believe that the audience response and the way reenactments are done can be traced back to the roots of reenacting, historical pageantry. Pageantry...I think that word right there sums this all up. I don't like engaging in the pageantry of Civil War battles. Remembrance and education on the other hand, I'm all in for that. But pageantry, no thank you. If there is a way to do a battle reenactment that isn't pageantry, them someone let me know, for I would be really interesting in knowing about it. Maybe taking away an audience might help.

    At least there's this to consider, looking at the numbers that showed up at Shiloh (6,000 or so, for being a "mega event" during the 150th anniversary, that's about 4,000 below normal, but maybe some of that has to do with $4 a gallon gas) and what I've been hearing about through the grape vine in the reenacting community, pageantry of battles might decline drastically during this decade.

    1. Actually 6,000 is pretty close to what all of the big Shiloh events have drawn from the 125th on, of course the weather has been a factor in all of these, the 125th Chickamauga was even smaller than that.

  2. I was there as well doing CS artillery, this was as close as Ive been to a crowd at a large scale reenactment and I also was disturbed by the reaction to our fire. This does tie into something else that I have wrestled with for some time and that is the value of doing any type of firing for a living history program, particularly for school groups. I know you get the smell, the sound, etc, but does the cheering reaction outweigh that? Hard to say.

  3. This plays into one of John and Jacob's themes on this this blog, how to get people interested in the past, especially the Civil War. I think the problem here is how the two groups (us as Civil War historians and enthusiasts and they as the general public) view the war and the reenacting of the war.

    We see the death, destruction, and human interest as part and parcel of a greater understanding of America and the movement toward democracy and freedom. These key engagements in the costliest war in American history (casualties) to us are sacrosanct with places such as the Hornet's Nest, Peach Orchard, and the Shiloh Pond maintaining an almost holy existence in our minds. We know and think we understand the import of the engagement, the sacrifice, and the meaning(s) of the death and destruction. This is all because we study it, pour over it, argue amongst ourselves about, then repeat the process over and over again.

    The general public usually has only the barest understanding of the very things we hold to be sacred. They do not understand the emotion of the Dixon Coin, the ironic nature of Lew Wallace, the future greatness of Pvt Stanley of Arkansas, or the thousands of other stories and people involved in critical combat. While it is easy to denigrate them as mere children who are entertained by booming guns and flashy charges with gleaming bayonets, that would be too easy and too simple. These people are at least there, they are having a personal experience with the war and the accoutrement that go with it. They may inappropriate in their reactions - from our point of view, but we need to look into our own historical pasts and remember when we were also proverbial babes in the woods. We most likely had reactions of similar type, yet as we learned we matured in our understandings and actions we acted differently and had different expectations.

    Hopefully the cheering crowd will study and learn, and come to a deeper understanding of the war and what it meant. If the reenactment, including the cheering, is a vehicle to moving them down that road then so be it. At that point there has developed a common, if misconstrued and greatly misunderstood, bond between the public, us, and the war. I am far more worried about those who did not take the time to come out and see the reenactment, for they are the ones who have a thin and meager sense of the past.

    1. The question that nags me about this though is, "Can historical reenactments (like Shiloh) be that vehicle in moving them down the road?"
      Personally, I don't think so. The booming of cannon and tacky charge complete with the rebel yell don't get at the very core of the Civil War, or any war for that matter. If you think about reenactments as quasi live action movies, the greatest war movies are at their core, anti-war movies that focus on raw human emotion. I've never been to a reenactment that could (or did) focus on human emotion - it was all spectacle. I just don't see how spectacle can move visitors beyond that current stage when all the reenactors get to rise from the dead after taps is played and head back to camp to dream of the next show...

  4. National Park Service battle reenactment policy:

    1. OK,
      So yeah, the National Park Service doesn't let reenactments on its land - but I'd argue that is more a reflection of the failed attempts during the Centennial and government bureaucracy than anything else.

      At this point, I'm even skeptical about whether or not historic weapons demonstrations really "move folks down the road." By far, the majority of weapon's demonstrations that I've seen on NPS battlefields have focused more on esoteric military technology and inconsequential tactical facts, rather than the human element of war and death.

    2. Jacob, I agree completely. I have tried to come up with ways to make it work, but just can't. When I can, I spend most of my presentations about who the soldiers were, what motivated them, and then what sustained them. I have had the best results from people during those programs.

    3. Although not necessarily Civil War Battlefield related, but still a historic weapons demonstration nonetheless, I think the legendary "Gun Talk" is a pretty good example of one way to make weapons demonstrations more interpretive: