When photographer Brandon Tauszik sent me an email pitching a series on Civil War reenactors, I was a little reluctant because there is no shortage of photos on the subject. But after taking a quick glance, I was intrigued. The color, composition and overall approach is lush and a little bit mysterious.
At first, I was transported into the dark humor of such George Saunders novels as “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and “Lincoln in the Bardo,” books that savagely satirize the American condition. But on reflection, I don’t think Tauszik’s series, called “Pale Blue Dress," is meant to be as darkly satirical as those novels. But current situations may influence the photos’ reception anyway.
Right now, the country is embroiled in confronting extraordinarily painful memories. People have taken to the streets to protest police violence and systemic racism. To see a series on people reenacting moments from the Civil War, even though people have done so for a very long time, is jarring. Confederate monuments are being toppled nationwide, and people and institutions are being held to account. A powerful struggle is definitely taking place in the United States.
I am neither a writer nor a historian, and so I feel as if my words are inadequate when it comes to describing Tauszik’s work. I find myself in this situation pretty often, especially with work on the American identity — because I didn’t even grow up in the United States. I always feel as if I’m looking at this type of work as an outsider. And so it was helpful when Tauszik also sent a self-published zine my way that includes an illuminating essay by James T. Campbell, a professor of U.S. history at Stanford University.
Campbell’s essay puts the Civil War reenactments into a broader historical context. He says human beings have been playing at war almost as long as we’ve been waging war. He cites the elaborate reenactments staged by Roman emperors, to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which included a reenactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn. But Campbell acknowledges, “In the United States today, the commemorative landscape is dominated by a single conflict: the Civil War.”
No doubt, as we are seeing right before our eyes every day, the Civil War ripped a wound in our country that has been festering ever since. The following paragraph from Campbell’s essay in Tauszik’s zine is an important one.
“The rise of the reenactor movement was part and parcel of the process of white sectional reconciliation. A watershed moment occurred at Gettysburg in 1913, when more than 50,000 aged veterans met again where they had clashed fifty years before. At the conclusion of the festivities, the men reenacted Pickett’s Charge, converging on the Bloody Angle, the low stone wall where the tide of the Confederacy had broken and rolled back, now extending hands rather than bayonets. The watching throng cheered this final act of sectional reconciliation. Few troubled to ask what that reconciliation signified for African Americans.”
That last sentence is key, “Few troubled to ask what that reconciliation signified for African Americans.” I think we’ve been told over and over but haven’t listened. And so people are in the streets asking for real change.
Campbell goes on to say:
“The Civil War reenactor movement stands today at a crossroads. The broad consensus about the war’s meaning forged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries appears to be crumbling, as the nation engages in a belated reckoning with slavery and its legacy. Buildings named in honor of slaveholders have been re-christened. Several American cities, including New Orleans, Baltimore, and Charlottesville, have taken down Confederate monuments. These actions have, in turn, provoked a visceral reaction in some precincts of the far right, many of whose members have conspicuously embraced the iconography of the Confederacy as their own. What all this portends for the future of Civil War reenactment remains to be seen, but it does suggest some stormy seas ahead.”
You can see more of Tauszik’s work on his website.
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