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What, No Blackface?

[ 104 ] September 2, 2012 |

Civil War reenactors are, by and large, a depressing lot:

Some re-enactors have formed camp bands to play music that soldiers enjoyed hearing around battlefield campfires. The most popular tunes included songs from the minstrel stage.

Groups such as the 2nd South Carolina String Band pride themselves on their accurate impressions — right down to the exaggerated black dialect of songs with inescapably racist overtones.

Unfortunately, the AP story is short and underdeveloped. However, here’s an interview with the 2nd South Carolina String Band, an interview which jaw-droppingly openly discussed the performance of minstrel songs without a single mention of the racism of the time.

Comments (104)

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  1. Julian says:

    That’s just PoMo (or PoMi). These guys are about the authenticity, man. It’s not racism – it’s verisimilitude.

    • Belle Waring says:

      The things that’s so stupid is, given that these…ah, individuals…are all from Boston (grits teeth) doesn’t it seem as though they could usefully go down to James Island S.C. or something and talk to some Gullah/Geechee speakers? Like, ask them about what kind of accents their oldest community members remember their oldest relatives having when they were children? Or how they played music? (When not playing it in the most proper classical way imaginable, since that was where they money was, on occasions.) Since I think it likely the putative Palmetto Frond Fucking Irregulars or whatever would be imitating the African-American bands in question? They seem not obviously ill-intentioned (and I know a lot of racist re-enactors, so trust me on this) but like they just didn’t think it all the way through to the end.

  2. vacuumslayer says:

    Heritage not hate…blah blah blah…

  3. Jonas says:

    Abolitionists were the real racists.

  4. Rich says:

    Funny. Contra the article, most southerners I’ve come across since arriving in the south refer to this “war between the states” thing as “the war of northern aggression.”

  5. ploeg says:

    It’s really hard to talk about how the troops spent their time without getting into minstrel songs. “Dixie” was a minstrel song.

    What’s genuinely irksome is the drive for “verisimilitude” in all aspects. First off, you’re not a 19th century soldier so you’re going to get it wrong no matter how much care you take. Second, and more importantly, “verisimilitude” often does not help those of us in the 21st century understand these people and what they did, and is sometimes an outright hindrance.

    When I visited Fort Delaware, I was very grateful that they provided us with a safeword that we could use if we wanted the reenactors to drop the playacting and give us straight answers to our questions.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Speaking of verisimilitude, until these guys start eating the bodies of decaying horses, they have no ground to stand on.

      You know, in theory I’m OK with the playing of minstrel songs–with the teaching of what these songs meant and placing them in proper context. A bunch of old white dudes in Confederate uniforms singing them with minstrel accents and no mention of race? Oh boy.

      Was there really a safeword at Fort Delaware? What was it? Hardtack? Rickets? Sherman?

      • Bill Murray says:

        I think the safeword was Biden

      • ploeg says:

        Then we have #3 reason: many reenactors seem to be there because they can act like their idea of a 19th-century soldier rather than because they want to teach and learn about the time. So that also impact how much you can learn from the experience.

        When I went, I think it was “McClellan”.

      • sparks says:

        They could black up like Jolson singing “Goin’ To Heaven On A Mule”, but somehow I don’t think that’s a good idea, either.

      • Tybalt says:

        In theory I’m OK with them playing whatever music they’d like to play. In reality too. But the lack of self-awareness, definitely on the ingenuousness of not even bringing up the race aspect and also on the pretence of walking some kind of authenticity tightrope, is hugely disappointing.

      • Halloween Jack says:

        Speaking of verisimilitude, until these guys start eating the bodies of decaying horses, they have no ground to stand on.

        You’ve read Confederates in the Attic, right? Not quite that extreme, but the degree to which hard-core reenacters are willing to go is pretty stomach-churning.

        • I was just visiting South Carolina and found the copy that I loaned my Dad several years ago. Knowing he would never read it I took it back and am re-reading it now. Such a great book. His other books are pretty great too, if you enjoyed that one. Blue Latitudes and A Voyage Long And Strange probably being the next tier down from Confederates.

          And yes, the lack of awareness by the people who celebrate the Confederacy, is astonishing.

  6. arguingwithsignposts says:

    um, thanks? for sharing.

  7. JDCorley says:

    What I want to know is why I can buy Confederate T-shirts emblazoned with traitor Robert E. Lee at every oversized truck stop in America, but I can’t buy even one hilarious caricature of Pap Thomas kicking the shit out of the Army of Tennessee with “ALL HELL CAN’T STOP THEM” across the top. He was a white Southern American, wasn’t he?

  8. LeeEsq says:

    Meh, my opinion is that nearly all historical reactors are celebrating reactionary ideas and times that should not be cherished.

  9. arguingwithsignposts says:

    Why do people want to reenact battles? If you have a hard-on for fighting war, I’m sure someone could hook you up.

    I have a lot more respect for people who re-enact stuff like blacksmithing, farming, etc. Living, not dying.

    • Murc says:

      Why do people want to reenact battles? If you have a hard-on for fighting war, I’m sure someone could hook you up.

      Yes, because that’s the only POSSIBLE reason someone could want to do re-enactments. Nobody could ever possibly do literally months of research into the time and place they’re trying to bring to life, then spend MORE time trying to get into the heads of the people who fought and died there, and to top it all off practice endlessly for hours on the talks you give out of character to the tourists and schoolkids in order to help give them some modern context to the re-enactment they just witnessed.

      It’s all about having a hard-on for war.

      • arguingwithsignposts says:

        I’m still asking: Why reenact battles?

        • Murc says:

          Why the hell not?

          Battles are often historically important, and re-enactments can help provide useful understanding of them.

          I mean, I won’t deny its also kind of fun to do, but “this is sort of fun, and also has legitimate value” is a long way from “we’re all doing this because we have hard-ons for war and killing.”

          I mean, I can watch Platoon without being accused of the latter, but I put in the effort to do some re-enactments and suddenly I’m beneath contempt?

        • Hogan says:

          Or rather, why reenact nothing but battles?

      • arguingwithsignposts says:

        Look, if you want to get your kit on and show what it was like to live in a certain period, I’m down with that. But seems like people could do a lot more reenacting of all the other shit that went on in the past that didn’t go boom.

        • Murc says:

          There are shitty re-enactors of all stripes, it is true, but I’m not sure why someone who puts in the effort to try and faithfully recreate the life of a 17th century indentured blacksmiths apprentice is less contemptuous than someone who tries to faithfully recreate the life of a Colonial militiaman.

      • DocAmazing says:

        Since we’re interested in really learning about the texture of a particular historical event, how about reenactments of the Colfax Massacre (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colfax_massacre)? I mean, since it isn’t about war, but rather about historical knowledge…

        • Murc says:

          I’d be done with that. Historical re-enactment does tend to overly focus on battles, but things like the Colfax Massacre could use the attention. I know that the Boston Massacre is re-enacted every year, although that’s admittedly a bit different.

  10. The Dark Avenger says:

    They have Civil War re-enactments here in California, which is funny for two reasons:

    1: There were never any military battles fought on California’s soil.

    2: There were attempts at banditry to help the Confederates finance the war, one such partisan was so dedicated to being a Southerner that he took the time to write a note to the boss of the expressman that he held up asking said boss not to fire the expressman for being robbed.

    Partisan Rangers in California

    Late in the war, local secessionists in California made attempts to seize gold and silver for the Confederacy. In early 1864, Rufus Henry Ingram, formerly with Quantrill’s Raiders, arrived in Santa Clara County and with Tom Poole (formerly a member of the crew of the J. M. Chapman), organized local Knights of the Golden Circle and commanded them in what became known as Captain Ingram’s Partisan Rangers. In the Bullion Bend Robbery they robbed two stagecoaches near Placerville of their silver and gold, leaving a letter explaining they were not bandits but carrying out a military operation to raise funds for the Confederacy.[26]

    Also in early 1864, secessionist Judge George Gordon Belt, a rancher and former alcalde in Stockton, organized a group of partisan rangers including John Mason and “Jim Henry” and sent them out to recruit more men and pillage the property of Union men in the countryside. For the next two years the Mason Henry Gang, as they became known, posed as Confederate partisan rangers but acted as outlaws, committing robberies, thefts and murders in the southern San Joaquin Valley, Santa Cruz County, Monterey County, Santa Clara County, and in counties of Southern California.[27] However, despite all these efforts no captured gold was sent to the Confederacy.

    Needless to say, such actions aren’t recreated in California.

    • N__B says:

      For some reason, reenactments of the New York draft riots are not popular.

    • ploeg says:

      The National Park Service forbids reenactments on the actual battlefields because 1) soldiers were typically buried where they fell, and not every soldier was recovered and moved to a proper cemetery after the battle, so you would basically be reenacting in a large cemetery, 2) simulating death and dismemberment is disrespectful to those who actually gave life and limb, and 3) large numbers of people running and marching around the property raise safety and artifact preservation concerns.

      So if you’re going to reenact, why not do it in California?

      BTW, I went through Gettysburg the weekend after the 4th of July this year. They held their annual reenactment just north of town, so the restaurants and motels were packed, but the museum and the battlefield itself were not overly crowded (they had lots of people coming through but they definitely could handle more).

      • ploeg says:

        The NPS does allow historical demonstrations (people dressing in period costume, shooting period weapons, and even limited marching in formation), but these activities are limited to specific areas of the property. Charging and simulation are out.

        • Murc says:

          Formation marching is legitimately impressive. The logistics and science around getting huge masses of men to all go in the same direction at the same time and then quickly assume a DIFFERENT formation to fight in is something that took literally centuries to work out and was lost and re-discovered in the west more than once.

        • Bill Murray says:

          The NPS (I think) did small cannonades at Stones River and Shiloh when I visited those battle sites. Those were quite impressively noisy

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      My first impulse was to wonder whether the Czechs ever re-enact the Defenestration of Prague. Evidently they do. Come to think of it, they have a tradition of reenactments, the first one being in 1618.

  11. Chuchundra says:

    Minor aside. My first wife was involved with Society for Creative Anachronism got fairly deep into it. She wanted me to get involved with it, create a persona, etc. and I considered it.

    Then I started thinking about what my ancestors, I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, were doing around this time and the whole idea became a lot less appealing.

    • Woodrowfan says:

      I had a history professor who adopted the persona of a relics salesman. He had several pieces of the “true cross” for very reasonable prices…

    • JRoth says:

      What’s not fun about hiding under hay in a wagon with a handful of your possessions tucked beneath your coat? Authenticity!

    • Halloween Jack says:

      I’ve never taken part in the SCA myself, but I’m pretty sure that pogroms aren’t involved to any degree.

  12. Major Kong says:

    When I was stationed in Mississippi years ago, the local Civil War re-enactors would perform whatever battle had taken place near there (I forget which one) twice. Once to let the Confederates win, and once the way it actually happened.

  13. Jim Lynch says:

    If memory serves, Jeb Stuart’s retinue included a bona fide minstrel/slave, who travelled with the cavalry chief on the road to Yellow Tavern. He was celebrated for making music with percussion instruments made of human bone.

  14. Richard Hershberger says:

    Huh. I actually have a recording by the 2nd South Carolina String Band. They are quite good, if you enjoy string band music, which I do. I wasn’t aware of their background.

    There is a Civil War reenactment encampment in my town each year, commemorating our minor skirmish. I don’t usually go, but last year there were a couple of vintage base ball teams I wanted to see. (Vintage base ball has its own issues, but they are at most incidentally racial. Though it would be interesting to see a ‘colored’ club.) The Civil War crowd were creepy: a lot of open Lost Cause nostalgia. I suppose the Union reenactors aren’t like this, but the crowd at this event seemed disproportionately weighted to the gray.

    • cpinva says:

      i get the distinct impression that the majority of civil war re-enactors are of the confederate variety. the “romance” of the lost cause (and oh, what a cause it was!) being the major draw. funny thing, you don’t see (or at least i never have) lots of germans doing wwII re-enactments. i guess it would be tough carting those ovens around with you.

  15. JRoth says:

    I used to work with a guy (of Lebanese Christian descent, raised in Niagara Falls NY) who inexplicably reënacted as a Confederate. He actually got his wife involved, dressing up in period garb and, I guess, spectating anxiously. Anyway, they imbibed every bit of the mythology, to the point where, at an office function, I heard his wife describe Lincoln as “such an evil man!” I almost went berserk.

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