Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"A Battlefield Letdown"

I had visited the thickly wooded location of the Revolutionary War’s “Battle of Saratoga” (it was close to Rachel’s college, Skidmore.) “Location” sounds like they shot a movie there. This is the actual location. There is probably a better word to describe it. But it eludes me at the moment.

I had walked the rolling farmlands of “Gettysburg”, where, though many Southern sympathizers called the encounter a draw, the Confederate advance was halted, and the outcome of Civil War recalibrated in the direction favoring the North.

It was a thrill to find myself at these historic places. Though I missed the actual action by a century or two, standing on the exact spot where that action took place, my body vibrated with excitement, imagining regular people, just like me, who once stood where I stood now, facing blistering enemy fire, and they didn’t say,

“I just remembered. I have a dentist appointment”, and they left.

They just stayed there. And they fought, and they died. And they killed too. Which itself couldn’t have been easy, though it understandably surpassed the alternative.

“Kill – die. Kill – die. I think, kill.”

Ordinary people, doing extraordinary things, which, in my estimation, includes anything short of running away. That’s what draws me to battlefields – a chance to soak up the (retro) action, and tip my hat to the participants.

So you will not be surprised to hear that when Dr. M drew my attention to a newspaper announcement of a nearby Civil War reenactment, I excitedly replied,

”Let’s go!”

And we did.

The location was about sixty miles away. We used Dr. M’s IPhone for directions. We had no choice. With no advance scouting to inform us where the enemy was currently situated, we were obliged to fall back on a technological crutch. (You could tell I was “up” for this adventure.)

Things started to go weird pretty much from the beginning. When we got there, there was a prominent sign saying,


Okay. I was already off-kilter attending a Civil War reenactment staged in Southern California, a state in which no Civil War activity had ever taken place. I can’t tell you precisely, but the nearest “War Between The States” battlefield? I would say, thousands of miles away. It was like attending a Civil War reenactment in Germany.

And now, augmenting the geographical dissonance,


I am no great scholar of the period, but I don’t think they had parking during the actual Civil War.

“Where do we put the wagon?”

“Away from the cannon fire.”

It was also not helpful that the “battlefield’s” locale sported another sign reading,

“Available For Birthday Parties.“

Now don’t get me wrong. A Civil War reenactment set in Southern California does not mean a confrontation between “North” and “South” wearing cargo pants and flip-flops. Heading to the “battlefield”, we immediately noticed the participants were appropriately armed and attired.

But they were all from California. So they had tans. And not quite the lineage one might wish for. There was no “My great-great Grandpappy fought with Stonewall Jackson.” It was more, “My granddad came out here to work in aerospace.”

Partisan loyalties did not run that deep. When I asked one Confederate-clad artilleryman why he was dressed in gray, he told me he was bicycling past a field near his house when he heard firing, and when he went over to see what was going on, they asked him if he wanted to shoot a gun, and he said, “Sure!” Since that re-enactor group dressed in gray uniforms, when he signed up with them, he dressed in gray too.

The re-enactor’s decision was thus determined less by “I don this uniform to protect the cherished values of Old Virginia” than by “They let me shoot a cool gun, so I joined up with them.”

The shearing fabric of illusion was continuing to shred.

The newspaper announcement mentioned the event would include five major Civil War encounters. Unfortunately, a muddy “battlefield” had led to their cancellation. I wondered if inclement weather would have affected the real thing.

“Sir, the battlefield is very muddy.”

“Fine. I’m taking a nap. Wake me when it dries up.”

In lieu of staged battles, we were provided with a demonstration of “skirmishing.” Skirmishing involves the opposing sides standing in two lines about a hundred feet apart, shooting at each other.

That’s how they fought back then (though perhaps they stood further apart. This was a scaled-down “battlefield.”) Trenches would not be invented until World War I, originated, I believe, by British army Lieutenant (which for some reason is pronounced Lefftenant) Lionel Trench, who observed,

“It is my contention that, were we to dig long, narrow, somewhat deep slits in the ground, the bodies of our men would be less exposed to the enemy than they are standing up.”

“We do have kneeling.”

“Kneeling is a step in the right direction, if one may (STIFLED CHUCKLE) call ‘kneeling’ a ‘step.’ The slit, however, is kneeling’s natural culmination, being superior to kneeling, and a vast improvement over standing there in the open, allowing the enemy use one’s body for target practice.”

And thus, the trench was born, named after its originator, Sir (he was later knighted for his efforts) Lionel Trench. Unfortunately, it was too late for the seven hundred thousand Civil War combatants who met their Maker, standing up.

As I witnessed the skirmishing, I wondered if the re-enactors ever selected a specific enemy soldier to shoot at, and how it felt when the object of their attention did not fall down. I had noticed that, though volleys of rifle fire were released at what appeared to be frighteningly close range, virtually nobody seemed to get shot.

Once in a while, a soldier on one side or the other would be “felled” by an enemy bullet, crying, “I am hit!” This made me wonder if such dramatics were choreographed in advance, or if it was improvised on the spot by a soldier who was tired of reloading his “period” rifle, which I also noticed, took considerable effort.

There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask the re-enactors. But I was concerned I might unconsciously expose my skepticism about the entire event, which, lacking “It happened here” authenticity, seemed nothing more than a chance for bored men to get out of the house, play “dress-up” and, as the only re-enactor I spoke to revealed, shoot guns.

Fearing the detection of a patronizing smirk, I judiciously kept my distance. It was clear that the participants took this all very seriously. And I was determined to avoid the ire of battle-weary veterans. Even pretend ones.

“I’m ready to go,” I informed Dr. M, the skirmishing still in full swing.

“How come?” she inquired.

Summarizing my sense of the event’s disheartening artificiality, I replied,

“Not enough people are falling down.”

I really should have known. Because it’s happened before. I have always wanted to visit the location of the D-Day landing, on the beaches of Normandy. On the event’s Fiftieth Anniversary, the D-Day landing was re-enacted, four blocks from my house, on the beaches of Santa Monica.

It was not the same.

It is time that I learned that.


PG said...

I am stymied!
Knowing both your excellent talent for reportage and your whimsical gift for invention, I can't decide whether you are 'serious' or just making all this up. A re-enactment of D-Day in Santa Monica?
Around these parts, there is an annual celebration of the Battle of Queenston Heights, if you're ever in the mood while in town. I believe it is held in a rather level provincial park near the precipitous cliff. (No one wants to make that mistake again!)
A brother of a friend of ours is a Civil War buff and moved to Gettysburg to open an 'antiquities' shoppe for the tourists. A lot of his most historically accurate collectibles are hand made.
By him!

Frank said...

I always wondered what was so civil about the Civil War eh.

Mac said...

Yeah, I can't picture the D-Day landings in Santa Monica either. Did the "allied forces" run up the beach and storm the Shutters Hotel?

Ian Diamond said...

Late to the party but I do recall reading about the early battles of the Civil War - especially the first Battle of Bull Run - in which there was parking for the 100s of observers who made the short trip from DC. In fact, soldiers families regularly followed the troops and provided meals and other services for the combatants. They had to park someplace, too. I doubt there were signs however.