“The Campaign in Virginia, – On To Richmond!” by Thomas Nast, 1864
Excerpts from my journal during a 2 week sojourn in Detroit Michigan, late summer 2013
PHOTOS (in two parts)
September 15, 2013, Sunday
Cold, upper 40s, 70% cloudy with altocumulus, still.
President Lincoln on the Battlefield of Antietam, October, 1862, Albumen print,
by Alexander Gardner
Yesterday [September 12, 2013] a long long bike ride to Historic Fort Wayne (in Detroit, a confusing title) to observe the annual civil war re-enactment. Johnny, my next door neighbor in Detroit, spurred my interest in this (altho he did not participate, nor did any Cavalry—someone explained many choose to participate in only the major enactments because of time and cost of gas). The North routed the South (who were greatly outnumbered by a ratio of about 3 to 1) in a “battle” complete with cannon, rifle fire, various maneuvers, lots of orders, a few drawn sabers (more to indicate direction than to assault the “enemy”), a few smiles, some quizzical expressions, a bunch of fallen “dead” (no wounded that I observed), prayers over the “dead” by a “minister,” and lots of attention by a crowd of about 40 spectators, many of them in period costumes.
Confederate Water Battery (Columbiad Guns) – Warrington, FL at the Entrance to Pensacola Bay – February 1861
Captain Rufus D. Pettit’s Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, in Fort Richardson -
Near Fair Oaks, VA
Dead Confederate Sharpshooter in the Devil’s Den – Gettysburg, PA, July 1863 – Alexander Gardner
This struck me as silly. At first. Then as men fell to the ground, as serious. And finally when an officer announced “all rise,” the event had turned supernatural and profound. I wonder if such war enactments not only entertain—the first level of interpretation—but elicit feelings of sorrow and mourning, a warning that such human activities should be only a phenomena of the past. Maybe that’s just my interpretation, not shared by most audience.
A Harvest of Death – Gettysburg, PA, July 1863 – Timothy H. O’Sullivan
Confederate Dead by a Fence on the Hagerstown Road – Antietam, MD, September 1862
A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia. April, 1865 by John Reekie
I recalled that during some of the early actual battles, those near the Washington DC capitol in particular, Washingtonians would often assemble at nearby battlefields like Bull Run in Manassas Junction to watch the action, convinced the war would be short and end in favor of the North. I wonder how many observers of those actual battles considered the folly of such activity and wished this would be the last battle anyone could watch. They could not have anticipated the length and brutality of the Civil War, nor the American Indian wars, nor the Spanish-American war with the slaughters in the Philippines, nor World War’s One and Two, nor the Korean, nor the Vietnamese, nor the Iraqi, nor the Afghani, and now—to bring this up to date—a possible new war or at least violent assault of Syria.
A nation and its people obsessed with violence.
Andersonville Confederate prison, Andersonville Georgia
After the enactment a man spoke powerfully about the need to maintain the historic fort. He listed all the accomplishments such as replacing roofs, opening interiors for visits, the various sport events held at the fort/park, and suggested that improving the park was a sort of sumud, steadfastness (in Arabic), to indicate Detroit’s ability to “stand fast” (a command an officer might give to order his troops to not retreat—as we the audience were ordered to hold our ground when the now combined North and South armies marched toward us with rifles ready to shoot).
I toured the fort—inside the star-shaped walls, and outside. About 1/3 of the structures looked renovated but the remaining 2/3s reminded me of the Manzanar Japanese-American internment camp during World War 1 which L and I visited about 8 years ago: a museum in process. Fallen plaster, broken stairs, open windows and roofs, and vegetation growing thru cracks remind me how tentative such structures are. They are not built to last, or they are but the natural world is a more powerful force. “God bless the grass, it grows thru the crack,” in the words of the folk song by Malvina Reynolds.
God bless the grass that grows thru the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.
The so-called Indian museum looked dilapidated even tho a map indicated its presence. Outside the museum a gigantic carved wood eagle. Not too far away the Indian mound dated to about 1000 CE. It was fenced off.
I roamed the grounds on my bike, a handy tool for such explorations. I kept my eye on it even when in the thrall of cannon fire, a challenge to my awareness. Before the battle, scouting for photos among the resting “soldiers,” I happened to observe a drumming lesson that a young “union soldier” gave to another “soldier,” all about different rhythms and the need to practice. The young man and some others musically accompanied the “battle.”
On the bike ride home (one hour each way), in the distressed neighborhood of Delray, I observed yet another shrine to those killed in other wars, not simulated, but real, in our own neighborhoods, outside our doors.
One might ask, why renovate and maintain this park when many Detroit parks are abandoned? I speculate that it is one example of grass-roots activism led by one inspired individual, in this case Tom Berlucci (read his interview below). Tom has the vision, others share it, the city is self destructing, radical change of direction is possible, not massively but incrementally. Hats off to Tom and the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition.
One might ask further, why reenact war? Curiosity, spectacle, catharsis. Harmless or harmful? I’m not certain.
I return to Detroit in March for 3 weeks. Please stay tuned.
Detroit’s Historic Fort Wayne Honors Military History, Serves Community (with photos), by Kate Abbey-Lambertz, 2012 (including an interview with Tom Berlucci, chairman and cofounder of the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition. The organization has collaborated with the City of Detroit Recreation Department to run and maintain the site ever since its reopening in 2002.)
New York Herald Tribune Wagon and Reporters in the Field – September 1863 – Timothy O’Sullivan
TO BE CONTINUED