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US: War as a spectacle - Antietam



When a country launches a war, it is usually confident of winning it, and the public mood is almost euphoric. Disillusionment sets in later. After the war there is a wave of pacifism until next onset of bellicosity engenders another wave of triumphalism. The History Channel deals mostly with US military campaigns in which the US won thanks to the heroism of its troops. This is a narrow view of history and can be a misleading one.

Travelling through the Old South, I have been struck by the number of battlefields and the reenactments of the battles in mock warfare. These re-enactments reached a new high this week with that of the Battle of Antietam. Why December was chosen is not clear, since the battle was fought on September 17, 1862. Be that as it may, it was a mammoth affairs. Some 13,000 civilians, dressed up as Union or Confederate soldiers, fought it out before a large crowd of spectators, who as a side show were lectured about the kinds of guns used, the chow the troops ate (boiling pots of it were on display), and similar details about the art of war in the America of the mid nineteenth century. Of course, not one of these "soldiers" was killed.

The reality, which we can capture from photographs of the time, was quite different. The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest in the Civil War. It was fought along Antietam Creek, on both sides of Sharpsburg in northwest Maryland, some 75 miles northwest of Washington, DC. The Army of the Potomac was headed by General George B. McClellan, the Confederate Army by General Robert E. Lee, who narrowly escaped defeat. McClellan's losses were actually heavier (12,000 to 10,000), but. Lee was forced to withdraw to Virginia, so the Union could claim victory.

I wondered what the mood of the spectators was. For most of them it seemed to be an interesting spectacle. There was little sense of the horror of it all. Books about the battle have significant titles. James V. Murfin, The Gleam of Bayonets (1965) and John W. Shildt, Drums along the Antietam (1972) present the battle as heroic epic. The tragic reality was revealed in photographs of the dead, as in William A. Frassanito, The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day (1978). Do these reenactments keep alive the hatreds of the Civil War? Do the promote the idea of war as though it were a Hollywood blockbuster? In other words, do they do more harm than good.? How do Southerners fell about it? Do they think the South really won the battle? do they feel humiliated at Lee's "defeat"? Only Southerners can tell us. How does all this relate to the present confrontation with Iraq? The two moods, triumphalism and premonition sharply divide the public.

Ronald Hilton - 1/2/03


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