Installation view of Gettysburg Comparison in the exhibition Conflict and Consequences at Beloit College

On weekends all across America men and women die for their country, as a hobby.  There are currently over 50,000 registered Civil War reenactors in America.  They romanticize the most horrifying war in American history; a war that brutally divided our country and claimed over 600,000 American lives. The history presented at reenactment events focuses on state rights, battle plans, uniforms, and weaponry. There is very little discussion of slavery at Civil War reenactments and very few African-American reenactors. The reenactors regard themselves as Living History Educators, but what version of history are they teaching?

The photographic documents from the Civil War have been proven false, seen by historians as reenactments themselves. Bodies were moved and shots were set up. At reenactments I watch men and women recreate these famous scenes from our history books and present them as culminating points in the theater of war. In my photographs I am documenting a reenactment of a reenactment which serves as an historical document.  Timothy O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardner, often working for the Matthew Brady Studio, created iconic images that have become symbols for the cause, fusing together the cause and the event in our collective history.  The images from Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War are reproduced in every American History textbook. The title of my project, American Anthem, is also the title of the most widely used high school level American History textbook in America today.  The reenactor has learned how to die and bloat from these images and they recreate the false document again and again, romanticizing the role of the hero soldier and validating their version of history. This keeps the mythic war alive and creates a culture that romanticizes the revisioned history of long dead world.

I am a southerner and my ancestors fought in the Civil War. I grew up hearing the stories of silver being buried under trees and aunties taking in prisoners of war.  I was taught the history and the revised histories of almost every aspect. It is still an open wound for the defeated south.  In Georgia last year for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Griswoldville, members of the Sons of the Confederacy wore “Occupied Georgia” patches on their jackets. For the duration of the 150th Sesquicentennial of the Civil War (2011-2015) I traveled to all of the major events and battlefields, documenting the reenactments and the roles of the participants.  My images compare the original documents with the reenactments, exploring the rich history of idealized, revisionist histories in art.  They look at the slippage that reflects an America that is again changing, on the threshold of globalization.

 

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