Review: The Gunn Historical Museum’s Civil War Encampment
By John Bateman | May 20, 2011
After growing up in the Deep South, just the mention of the Civil War conjures up childhood memories of battlefield sites, rebel flags, coeds in hoop skirts and fraternity boys in grey uniforms on the steps of an antebellum house.
Each spring, every town in Mississippi that has at least one garden club will have a “pilgrimage” of old homes that is often accompanied by a Civil War encampment.
These events are more than an excuse for college students to dress up: it provides Sunday afternoon curriculum for grandmothers and great-aunts to educate the youngest generation about family heritage by visiting old houses, cemeteries and Civil War sites, even if those houses had nothing to do with one’s ancestry.
Like the name suggests, these pilgrimages were a rite of passage that I endured many humid spring Sundays.
I’ve always believed these re-enactments, at least in the South, potentially walk a fine line between romanticism of an American-style of civility and a tremendous disrespect of human dignity. If one doesn’t scratch below the mint-julep surface, beyond the “War of Northern Aggression” over States’ Rights, then the casual observer might actually think that slavery was a fading institution based upon economics, rather than a violently entrenched class system based upon skin color.
As I grew older, I half expected re-enactments where the Confederacy actually won the War, reminding me of a campus legend at my alma mater, Ole Miss. Apparently sometime in the 1970’s, the “Yankee fraternity,” as a prank at Homecoming, hung a sign around the massive confederate statute on campus that read “Second Place Trophy.”
As if southerners need a reminder that the North won.
When a friend invited me to attend a Civil War exhibit and military reenactment at the Gunn Historical Museum in Washington, Connecticut, I was initially shocked that people this far North were infatuated with Civil War history. Is this obsession similar to what I’d seen a thousand miles away? Would it be infused with animosity toward all things Southern, so that I should fake a Rhode Island accent and ask where I could order a grinder?
With this curious eye, I accepted the invitation. On the way, I confessed to my friends that I had never seen a Civil War reenactment with Union troops. For a brief moment, I half wished I’d worn something from J. Crew instead of my cowboy boots. I mean, it’s Connecticut, and I wasn’t too keen on looking like I’d just gotten off the stagecoach from Texas.
Washington, Connecticut looks like it was built by Martha Stewart as the backdrop for a greeting card. In the heart of this hamlet, a regiment of men in blue uniforms stood around white tents. Everything looked pristine and crisp beneath the dogwoods and tulip magnolias. Not exactly the setting of a wartime encampment. I walked the grounds, watching soldiers clean weapons and perform practice drills. Two men played guitars and sang, while a blacksmith sent sparks flying. Meanwhile, President Lincoln met with constituents and posed for photographs on the front steps of a church across the road. All of this pageantry made me question: why this war? It’s not exactly a celebration, but the setting glossed over the realities of a very violent civil war.
Suddenly, a thought crossed my mind. More than half of the planet had just watched the wedding of a future British monarch. Instead of zealot fascination of hat-wearing nobility and landed gentry, wouldn’t the American Revolution have been an appropriate Sunday adventure, marking our break from a hereditary class-system?
I couldn’t help but ask one of the actors about his interest in the Civil War. At first, he described himself as a history buff, before admitting that his primary interest is in the Civil War.
“But why this war? Why the Civil War?” I asked.
“Because it tore families apart. Brothers against brothers. Fathers against sons. No other American war has done that,” he answered.
Interestingly, he made no mention of slavery or human rights. In fact, all of the re-enactments outside the museum were military in nature. I saw no abolitionist protests or propaganda reflecting the political turmoil that threatened to rip the United States apart. Although the gentleman’s words reflected the tragic reality of the American Civil War, the words that hit home, for me, were lines from the Gettysburg Address posted inside the museum:
Perhaps what is significant about the Civil War is that it carried our nation one step further along the path set forth by the Founding Fathers. One step away from a decaying world of monarchs and entitlements and one step closer to a government truly of the people - regardless of class, creed, color or gender.
Perhaps we re-enact the Civil War, not to celebrate a dark and violent period of American history, but so that we remember just how much we lost—and gained—in our efforts, on both sides, to create a government of, by and for the people.