Photographs by Allison Stewart
The Civil War is America's deepest wound, brutally dividing our country and taking 620,000 American lives. It is also the most reenacted war in history, over 50,000 reenactors currently in America alone. For the past three years I have been following these groups and documenting their performances, on and off the battlefield. I am currently following the major battles of the 150th Sesquicentenial of the Civil War, which will continue until 2015. Living History groups from all over America are reenacting the battles as close to their original date and location as possible, role-playing the most horrifying moments from American history. However, most of these reenactments are based on photographs that were also performances. The reenactors are reenacting reenactments.
During the Civil War, Matthew Brady's Studio set the standard for war photography, particularly in aftermath documentation. Many of these documents have been proven to be false. Timothy O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardner, working for the Matthew Brady Studios, famously moved corpses at Gettysburg for visual effect. They created iconic images that became symbols for the cause, fusing together the cause and the event in our collective history. These are the images we see in our American History books. These are the images we learn from. The reenactor has learned how to die from these images and they recreate the false document again and again, perfecting the moment of death. They are reenacting the reenactments, performing the performances, and reinforcing the validity of the original photograph as an historical document. This keeps the romantic, mythic war alive and keeps the visceral truth about the experience of war a safe distance from the American people.
Reenactors prefer to be called "Living History Educators". They will explain to you what kind of food the soldiers ate, how surgeries were performed, and how the battles played out, but there is rarely any discussion of slavery at a Civil War reenactment. They are more interested in what Sarah Vowell calls "the thingness of things". The authenticity of buttons, fabric, and stitching separate the hardcores from the farbs and they prefer to share specific information regarding their impression and that person's role in the war rather than discuss the ideological factors of the Civil War or the implications of reenacting and romanticizing that particular war.