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Re-enactments of battles between Northerners and Southerners are very popular in the United States. But tensions around racism and the collective memory of the South are undermining this American tradition.

The show had kept its promises. On the sunny prairie, rows of Confederate soldiers, dressed in their gray uniforms, had thrown themselves into the fray, letting out shrill cries supposed to frighten the enemy. Opposite, the "blues" of the Unionist army, infantry and cavalry, had responded by firing cannons and rifles. Clouds of powder had escaped from the weapons, forming circular volutes. On this fall Saturday, the re-enactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek (Virginia), a deadly clash between the Confederate States Army of the South and the Union Army a few months before the end of the Civil War ( 1861-1865), had taken place according to a well-established scenario.

In each camp, men had collapsed in the green grass, face down, allegedly dead or wounded. Military doctors equipped with leather kits had pretended to examine them. The officers on horseback had moved through the ranks with a look of concern. It was vaguely understood that the southerners had suffered a crushing defeat, a prelude to their surrender in April 1865, at the end of a war that was to put an end to slavery and forge the future federal state. Then, to applause, the actors from both sides, several dozen men and a few women, came to greet the spectators, seated along the meadow on camping chairs, bags of XXL popcorn in their hands.

Despite the sparse ranks of the public, the good-natured atmosphere could make people forget the threats that had weighed on the event the previous days. When suddenly, a wind of disbelief blew on the white tents of the Confederates: a homemade bomb had just been discovered in the canteen tent. The actors and their families, already busy enjoying a steak and mash around the campfires, had to evacuate part of the premises by order of the sheriff. Cedar Creek had just been overtaken by the historico-political controversies which, for months, have raged on the place of statues and Confederate flags in the American collective memory.

Unbolting of statues

Since the violence in Charlottesville (Virginia) in August, where a woman protesting against a gathering of white supremacists was killed by a car, the North-South tear, never completely closed, has widened again. Anti-racist groups, sometimes overwhelmed by radical anti-fascists, challenge the glorification of southern symbols and the legacy of slave states. This movement was born in 2015 after the tragedy in Charleston (South Carolina), where a white supremacist, Dylann Roof, killed nine black worshipers in a church. The unbolting of statues has spread across the territory, leading Americans to wonder about the causes of a terrible war (620 dead), a source of heartbreak for many families and for the entire country. In this climate, several re-enactments of battles were canceled, “Confederate soldiers” were targeted with tear gas.

"These reconstructions say nothing about the main reason for the war, that is to say the maintenance or not of slavery"
Melvin P. Ely, professor of history at the University of Williamsburg (Virginia)

As the sun sets over the prairie of Cedar Creek, Clydie Toms is in a rage. “They ruined our weekend for us”, this solid southerner gets carried away, on the arm of her friend, in the uniform of a Confederate soldier. “They are the fascists, not us”, she adds, in an allusion to “antifa” groups. His vehement remarks on the “minorities [black] who take advantage of the system leave little doubt about his ideological leanings. "We expected demonstrations, we were even asked not to react if we were attacked, but there, I do not understand", also laments Chris, 49, trucker during the week, southern infantryman at the weekend. Like many, this resident of Pennsylvania, seated under the white canvas of his military tent, wishes to remain anonymous by “fear of reprisals”. Came to reenactments for "the atmosphere, the campfires and the love of history", he assures that he does not conceive of the hatred that any allusion to the Civil War now triggers.

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Melvin P. Ely has an idea on the matter. “Certainly, the reconstructions of battles and the maintenance of Confederate statues in the public space do not pose the same kind of problems. But their political exploitation by the far right and the far left is the same, explains this history professor at the University of Williamsburg (Virginia). And today, there is a stain on everything directly or indirectly related to the Civil War. »

“Really unhappy climate”

For part of public opinion, seeing the bravery and sincerity of the two camps play out on the same level is difficult to pass. Others believe, on the contrary, that one side of history cannot be erased. And the gap is widening, yet another avatar of the "cultural war" relaunched by the conservative right and the current administration, which is dividing the country. Don Terrence, responsible for the reconstruction of Fort Branch (North Carolina), organized without incident at the beginning of November, judge “this really unhappy climate” and regrets that his hobby has become “collateral damage” societal tensions. “A person or a group with a political agenda is enough to put everything in danger, but we cannot let history die”, sworries the sixty-year-old with a strong southern accent.

The actors, themselves, readily explain that they seek only to depict the life of soldiers and their families on the battlefield, ready to wear the gray uniform of the confederates or the blue tunic of the unionists according to need. "In Fort Branch, a young black actor participates on one side or the other", assures Mr. Terrence, before proudly concluding: “We are not racists, we are historians. »

Nevertheless, throughout the fall, the organizers of reconstructions wondered if it was very prudent to maintain them. “We discussed it, but our educational mission is to share history, without hiding anything,” says Kathy Dickson, one of the managers of the site of Honey Spring (Oklahoma), where the reconstruction of the most important battle has been held for more than thirty years "In Indian Territory", which saw Native Americans and African Americans clash. “It was never our intention to glorify the South, she insists. If the current debate can provide an opportunity to educate people, so much the better, but we must recognize that the polarization is strong. » For her, as for many of the actors or spectators fond of these shows, the reconstructions are a work of pedagogy. It is true that, in American schools, this part of History is not the best taught, especially since the versions vary according to the States. "Attending the re-enactment is worth all the lessons of the books", says Amber Johnson, who came to Cedar Creek with her children, despite the threats. "They are under the protection of God", assures the young mother with a smile.

"Culture War"

This “educational” approach makes Mr. Ely, the history teacher, jump, for whom these reconstructions present a distorted historical vision. “Not only are they generally embodied by white men over 50 years old, whereas the soldiers were more like 20 years old and many African-Americans participated, but above all, they say nothing about the main reason for the war, that is to say the maintenance or not of slavery. » Overall, it is accepted that these shows do not promote a political agenda, even if, individually, most of the actors have a point of view on the subject. “Of course we have an opinion! », confirms Ken Mattson, 47, a farrier in real life and on the battlefields in Unionist uniform. Perched with all his gear on his horse, he rather defends a tolerant approach to North-South relations and racial issues. “After the battles, we try to debate, but often the most committed prefer to keep quiet. »

Doretta Brown, "Confederate soldier's wife", long ivory cotton dress and straw hat, is not one of them. “We did not take part in this war but we are proud to be on this side of history “, proclaims this sexagenarian accustomed to participating in about fifteen reconstructions a year. Alongside her husband, she prepares the meals there, sets up camp, makes the campfire, cleans the weapons. While readjusting the ribbons of her hat, she maintains that the causes of the conflict remain "subject to controversy". “We don't defend slavery, but the South was not mechanized; he needed a lot of manpower, she asserts candidly. Hand knitting, vintage hat tied on a perfect bun, Denise goes one better. “The cause of the southerners was just, and it all started with a question of taxes and freedom. But today the liberals want to sanitize history,” strikes this Virginian strapped in a long red finery worthy of a character ofGone with the wind. "Our ancestors would have liked to free the slaves, but the blacks were like children, they had nowhere to go", she explains, visibly convinced.

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Attentive in the public, Confederate soldier's cap screwed on his hairless skull, Rafael Rodriguez, 32, shares these views. "Technically, I should be a Yankee", explains with a smile this fellow of Puerto Rican origin born and raised in New York. But ever since he moved to North Carolina, he feels "southerner" much to the chagrin of part of his family. “I understood that the flag, the Confederate statues did not symbolize slavery or white supremacism, but the freedom of States which wanted to live according to their own rules. » On both sides, many still regret that this fratricidal war of the XNUMXe century finds a contemporary echo. Everyone also recognizes that, for two years, the inability of their compatriots to debate in all serenity has increased, which, by extension, could sign the death of these reconstructions. In the meantime, Fort Branch is scheduled for November 2018. "culture war" in progress worries its organizers, but they fear above all being defeated by the inexorable aging of enthusiasts, actors and spectators. A disappearance that would deprive America of one of its most popular pastimes.

Source: © The United States is still torn apart over the Civil War

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