Civil War historian Glenn W. LaFantasie has a thoughtful take on why Civil War reenactments aren’t necessarily appropriate to commemorate the war’s 150th anniversary. From his Salon article:
I’ve never attended a reenactment where the Confederate encampments are replete with compliant African-Americans portraying the slaves who actually accompanied their masters — officers and enlisted men — on the march. No doubt it’s hard to find modern African-Americans willing enough to play slaves alongside modern white Americans playing Confederate soldiers; in the actual Civil War, though, slaves often did all the hard work and toting, sometimes carrying their master’s musket, blanket roll, cooking utensils and the like. In the Union army, contraband (fugitive) slaves were sometimes put to use in equally menial ways. It’s telling, of course, that African-Americans don’t often attend Civil War battle reenactments. In fact, National Park Service statistics reveal that African-Americans rarely even visit Civil War battlefields. For good reason, modern blacks are a little sensitive about slavery and anything that seems to suggest — as reenactments most assuredly do — that the Civil War was all about battles, that each side fought with equal courage and grand moral purpose, and that the war had nothing to do with slavery or emancipation.
It also boggles the mind how over the next four years the nation is supposed to go about commemorating the war’s immense brutality. How, quite frankly, is one expected to commemorate the contents of the following letter, written by a Virginia soldier to his mother in 1864?
“I wrote you a few days ago after having received the sad news of my poor, dear brother’s death. I hope you received the letters. You do not know, dear Mother, how sad I am, and how deeply I feel the loss of him we all loved so dearly … The longer I live the more convinced am I that there is no real happiness in this world without the hope of heaven. I have tried for the last six months to live a better life, and I hope that God will aid me in the effort, and that when it may please him to take me, that I will have nothing to fear. You must remember, Mother, that you have five children left yet to comfort you and compare your condition with that of other Mothers who have had all [their sons] taken. Tell Lucy that she must remember she has two little children to live for. I know her affliction is too deep for utterance, and deeply do I feel for her. She and her little ones are dear, very dear, to me. Would that I could do a father’s part by them.”
I’d highly encourage you to go read the whole thing.
If you haven’t read it already, I’d also recommend reading Lisa Wade’s post on differing depictions of national tragedies.