published Friday, September 20th, 2013

Cook: Return of the dead

The past is never dead. It's not even past.

-- William Faulkner

On the eve of mock battle, the question stands taut, like a bugle note that won't fade: Why?

Why do we re-create human tragedy? Why will tens of thousands travel from all across America to this hallowed North Georgia ground to witness living historians reconstruct terrifying scenes of war?

"I can't answer that for certain," said Jim Ogden, historian at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. "It's kind of a subconscious reminder that we are all mortals."

It's not just a Southern thing.

In South Korea, historians re-create the Battle of the Naktong Bulge from 1950.

In Belgium, nearly 3,000 historians and actors re-enacted the Battle of Waterloo earlier this summer.

In Britain, weekend re-enactments of World War II history have become "all the rage," as The Guardian puts it.

In Germany, they re-create the American Civil War, with more Germans wanting to dress as Confederates than Union soldiers.

And this weekend, thousands will flock to Mountain Cove Farms to see a redo of the Battle of Chickamauga from 150 years ago.

"A way to enter into that period of history," said Ogden.

Even if you are not drawn to re-enactments, we are drawn to places of death. Travel to Europe, and we visit Holocaust sites. In France, we go to Normandy. In New York, Ground Zero.

What gravity pulls us to these places?

"The unquiet dead can haunt people," writes Philip R. Stone of the University of Central Lancashire in his paper "Dark Tourism and Significant Other Death."

Stone runs the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, studying the way people for centuries have congregated around places of death, often for entertainment (this weekend's events) or as memorial (Holocaust sites).

"Sites associated with the war dead probably constitute the largest single category of tourist attractions in the world," he writes.

In such places, the dead return, like a seance. This weekend, they will walk around in stiff wool coats and fire smoky muskets at each other before falling bloodlessly back to earth. It seems no less affecting than an indigenous rite or initiation where the living commune with ghosts, ancestors and spirits of old.

By witnessing such (fake) death, we are by extension more likely to contemplate our own life. Re-enactments allow us to play safely with death, to get as close as we can without getting burned. Like getting to crawl down into a freshly dug grave and stand around for a while. Like the graveyard feeling Ebeneezer Scrooge may have had.

We leave such places, recommitting our vows to live in meaningful ways.

We are also humbled. Our minivans parked nearby, our stocked fridges back home, we are suddenly face to face with barefoot hunger and thin blanket cold. Somewhere, in the back of our minds, a question whispers: Could I have made it back in 1863?

The Civil War is agrarian and emancipation and brother-against-brother and facial hair thick as hedges and names like Jedidiah, Stonewall and Ulysses. The war was our national crisis, marked by such disembodiment: physically, politically, spiritually. Perhaps we feel echoes of that today. Perhaps re-enacting battles is like a remembering, putting America back together again.

Imagine how awful it would be if no one came this weekend.

"It is important to remember the events that so greatly shaped our nation and in this area so greatly shaped our community," said Patrice Hobbs Glass, executive director of the Friends of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. "It's the same with doing more to understand our Native American history as with the 175th anniversary of the Trail of Tears this year, doing more to understand our women's history, and other segments of the population."

There is the danger that re-enactments romanticize violence and propagate a neo-Confederate mentality. I wonder why we do not re-create more moral, gunless moments: sit-ins, for example.

"Since the Civil War gives so much truth to those words that are essentially the creed of the United States, that all men are created equal, that men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- we really do need to remember that just fourscore-odd years into our country's history, this experiment in individual freedom and representative government just about came to an end," Ogden said.

It's as if remembering the dead helps keep us alive.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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