Gone with the Wind?

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“Sunday morning’s Mass was absolutely magical for me,” said Cindy Lambert, an office manager in New Orleans who portrays a nun in Civil War reenactments. “In all the years we have [reenacted], this is the first time we had a Latin Mass with Gregorian Chant. Many folks were awestruck by the beauty of it all.”

The Latin Mass, of course, was not a reenactment nor were the sentiments expressed so well by Mrs. Lambert. Her words indicate how the ceremonial and ritual of the past satisfy the yearnings of those living in the present.

This struck me one day not so long ago when I had occasion to accompany an out-of-state friend to Gettysburg battlefield here in Pennsylvania. In front of the visitors’ center I saw a man dressed as a doctor of the late 1800s doing what I then learned is called “living history” or “reenacting.”

My curious nature got the better of me, so I approached the gentleman to inquire further. He was a distinguished man, as shown in his polite manners and respectful demeanor. His deportment, however, was not that of the twentieth century but rather something of long ago.

He said that after retiring some years before, he had begun doing volunteer work for the National Parks Service. Becoming interested in reenactments, he had researched his character very well, purchased clothes to authentically match his “impression,” and was having a great time teaching others about the last century.

“What drives you to do this,” I asked.
“It gives me the opportunity to escape this century,” was his prompt reply.
Considering that the United States has been the leading nation of the twentieth century, this was a remark I never expected to hear from an American. After all, we have everything we need to be happy: fax machines, cell phones, computers. We even survived Y2K! And here is someone wanting to break away from all this.

He is by no means alone. Over 100,000 Americans nationwide, sharing that same desire, have made reenacting their “hobby” as well. Clearly, the modern world does not have the same attraction for everyone.

Looking back to the beginning of this century, we see that mankind was marching forward with an enthusiasm for technology and what was thought to be true progress. The 1939 New York World’s Fair, for example, chose a curious theme: the “World of Tomorrow.” Not only did it present a glimpse of the future with a showcase of different technological advances, it supplied a catchy name as well. Even so, visitors to that “World of Tomorrow” were still enjoying a look at the past. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, published just two years earlier, was a best seller in 1939. Later awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Mitchell’s book soon became an all-time-favorite motion picture as well.

The society depicted in that story captivated America and the world. In spite of being a sugary-sweet romance with some illicit and indecent messages, it portrayed on the big screen appealing aspects of aristocratic life, packed full of ritual, charm, gallantry, and other ideals that were quickly becoming passé.

Once again, Hollywood presented a false alternative: a civilized world, with ceremony, manners, and allure, but with an overtly immoral message. It was an invitation to either reject the true ideals that still existed in those days or to accept Hollywood’s skewed, dissolute version of life in the 1860’s. That seemed to be the only alternative.

Reenactors think otherwise. They do not accept Hollywood’s distorted view, nor are they willing to allow those times to be “gone with the wind.”

This hobby, therefore, is more than just a pastime, and my goal was to find the reason why people threw themselves into it so wholeheartedly. They spend thousands of dollars — one family told of an annual investment exceeding $4000 — and endless hours to portray someone from the last century. Their desire seems far greater than the simple joy that a hobby brings. “Reenacting isn’t just a hobby,” affirms another man at Gettysburg, “it’s a lifestyle.”

Is this a way so many Americans have found to escape this “World of Tomorrow” and return to the world of yesterday? “Yes, there are many wonderful advances in the world these days,” said Susan Carpenter, a member of United Daughters of the Confederacy from North Carolina, “but it just seems like people within themselves have gone backward.” Mrs. Carpenter described it well: “I grew up lost in the 1860s. I always felt I was born at the wrong time.” She went on to tell how she stumbled upon reenacting through her involvement in the United Daughters and, yes, she had seen Gone with the Wind as a child and “loved it.” Even as a child she knew the “movie was not very authentic. The book is better, and I have read it countless times. I never wanted to be Scarlet,” she continued “because she was not what I thought a Southern lady should be.”

Reenactors know what southern ladies and gentlemen should be, since their intense studies provide a clear perception of what is authentic and what is not. This search for accuracy goes right down to the person virtually living the life of the one he portrays. “When I wear my habit,” Mrs. Lambert said, “I ‘become’ a sister in my head and in my heart.” This is only attained through hundreds of hours of research, which allows for an exact impression that goes beyond mere imitation. Reenactors realize that the clothes are an important part of the person. “You can’t put on those clothes and behave like people do now,” Mrs. Carpenter said, “your way of walking, your way of moving, what you can and can’t do, and your entire mindset changes.” This mindset could never be achieved using today’s clothing.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, then come to Gettysburg! Attending my first reenactment there gave me the opportunity to meet people, in their element, who live out this hobby. What I found left an indelible impression. Arriving at the battle site, I could not believe my eyes. There, in living flesh, was one of my heroes, Stonewall Jackson, astride his famous horse “Little Sorrel.” It was an auspicious beginning to a very memorable day.

I found myself walking around the first few minutes as if in a daze. It all seemed so surreal, yet authentic at the same time. Everyone was dressed in what many referred to as “costumes.” I somehow found it hard to label them as such.

Scenes surrounded me, as if from a movie, of gallant men upon their fierce steeds ready to wage war, with little boys looking on in utter amazement. When was the last time you saw a child (or an adult) gaze with admiration on another human being? At this event it was common. It was as if someone had opened a window to the past and, looking inside, saw a room full of the great men and gentle ladies of yesteryear.

Everywhere I looked there was a spectacle to behold. A precocious little girl approached one lady carrying a parasol that matched her hoop skirt. “You look so beautiful,” said the child, “from your head to your toes.” Then she quickly added, “You look like the Queen of England.” No doubt, the recipient of such a noble comparison was very moved, and why not? How often is someone admiringly compared to a queen? Attend a reenactment and you might think you are walking amongst royalty, such is the elegance.

At a certain distance from me was an activities tent where attendees, sitting on bales of hay, could enjoy everything from a banjo recital to a lecture on etiquette. As I entered and took a seat, I noticed a light mist covering the area, adding to the dreamlike aspect of this event.

Suddenly a magnificent sight caught my eye. A lady and her “beau” were sauntering across the hillside. He was dressed in a spotless military uniform. She wore a black dress that, shimmering in the sun and blowing in the light breeze, seemed to be made of silk. Because it reached the ground, as all ladies’ dresses did in that period — it was considered indecent for ladies ankles to be showing — she seemed to be literally floating on air. Looking over my shoulder to see if I was alone in my appreciation of this idyllic scene, my eyes fell upon two elderly ladies seated in a distinguished manner. Sitting on a bale of hay can be anything but dignified, but they, also dressed in period dresses, transcended their meager seating arrangements and displayed an impeccably erect posture. How refreshing, I mused.

Leaving my bale of hay to mingle a bit, I ran into a lady named Susan Taylor. She owns a shop that makes 1860s-style formal dresses. Learning that she was dressed in one of her own creations, I couldn’t resist venturing a rather mischievous question: “What do you wear when you’re not in period clothing, blue jeans and tennis shoes?” She promptly and proudly responded, “No I wear long dresses. I like being a lady.” And she was.

Having up to this point visited only the Northern section of the reenactors, I felt it was time to stroll on over to the Southern camp to see what they had to say. Without more ado, I approached a group of people sitting around a campfire, relaxing in the world of yesterday.

One young man, upon being questioned, was more than happy to share his reasons for reenacting. It was the customs of the time that attracted him so much. Men were obliged to “follow the gentleman-like code” in those days. “When a lady was in the campsite the men were very respectful” he said. “The ladies didn’t have to sit around and listen to cursing” and things of that nature. “It’s a great feeling,” he added. “You don’t want to come back, honestly you don’t.”

I had to chuckle when he pointed to a friend and explained how they both were “very much out of uniform.” With a certain pride at knowing what proper etiquette required, he continued: “We should have our jackets and hats on around these ladies. I am a gentleman first and then a soldier.” He went on to say that these rules are always followed to perfection when reenactors get together. Well, almost always!

One of the ladies chimed in: “If a man was talking offensively in front of a woman, she was allowed to tell him to clean up his mouth or leave,” which custom of the time obliged him to do without hesitation. “That’s what we need nowadays,” she added decidedly.

As I left Gettysburg that day, her words lingered in my head. It’s true. What we need today are those ideals of the past — honor, courtesy, respect — so well illustrated by those who participate in reenactments. Although I am not a reenactor, I sympathize with Mrs. Carpenter, who said, “It’s very hard to go home after a weekend [of reenacting] knowing you have to return to the way people are now. It just means so much for people to be polite and mannerly” and treat one another in a civilized way.

Entering the parking lot to find my car, I could not believe my eyes! Some latecomers were arriving for the evening’s formal ball. Among them was a lady who looked and dressed just like Scarlett O’Hara. No need to worry though, reenactors know what a Southern lady should be and how a gentleman should treat her. Maybe those days are not entirely gone with the wind after all. Or just maybe we are seeing glimpses of the real “World of Tomorrow.”

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