Elizabeth Young Considers
the Meanings of Civil War Reenactment

Although the Civil War ended 133 years ago, for some people the war lives on in weekend reenactments held throughout the country. Elizabeth Young, assistant professor of English and women's studies, shared her work on this subject at an April 13 work-in-progress talk titled "The South Will Rise Again: Gender, Race, and Reenactments of the American Civil War," sponsored by the Five College Women's Studies Research Center. Young's talk introduced the audience to one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the country and analyzed what this phenomenal interest in the past reveals about the present.

Young, who became interested in Civil War reenactments while doing research in Georgia and North Carolina for a book on women's Civil War fiction, focused on the neo-Confederate movement, gender, and race in her presentation. Using film clips and examples of Confederate memorabilia--like the bumper sticker "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Jeff Davis"--Young discussed reenactments, which started in the early 1960s as part of a backlash to the civil rights movement. Despite many reenactment participants' claims to the contrary, Young argues that racial hatred cannot be separated from a celebration of the Confederacy. According to Young, the reenactments provide an opportunity for a white racist rewriting of history in which the South appears as an oppressed minority and white Southerners as victims of black emancipation.

Emphasizing questions of gender, Young characterized the reenactment culture as an environment that allows white men to reassert their masculinity and the masculine character of the Civil War South. In connection with the issue of masculinity, Professor Young also discussed the participation of women cross-dressing as men in the battle reenactments. As illustrated by a clip Young showed from a recent episode of the television comedy Ellen, in which Ellen joins her father as a soldier at a reenactment, women's participation threatens to destabilize gender boundaries and "unman" the males. Finally, Young argued that the participation of African Americans in Civil War reenactments serves to challenge the neo-Confederate nostalgia for the Old South. While white men may participate to imagine a return to a racially controlled South, African American reenactors, male and female, refocus the story of the war on the fight against slavery.

Young's work in progress reveals that there is much more to Civil War reenactments than dressing up in the blue or gray.