If you travel by air in the United States, you have probably spent time in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Even by the low standards of contemporary travel, it is a particularly unpleasant place to wait. The corridors are too narrow; the gate areas crowded with chairs and luggage; a CNN soundtrack and fluorescent lighting combine in an aesthetic of unbearable brightness. Yet thanks to my planning, my son and I have arrived at our gate with more than an hour to burn. Gabe is only seven, but he has already learned to bristle at the regular warnings broadcast over the loudspeaker about airport security, smoking, and the like. We haven’t even really started our trip, and I am already wondering if I have made the right decision by bringing him.
We are surrounded by young men in fatigues. This will be another familiar sight if you are a regular traveler. You may even have clapped [End Page 41] spontaneously as a column of soldiers in uniform walk through the airport—returning to or returning from one of the many theaters of operation where American troops are currently deployed. The soldiers sitting near us, though, aren’t going anywhere right now. They are doing what we are doing: killing time. They are chatting, loafing, playful without becoming boisterous; from what I can gather they are headed to their homes on leave, perhaps after basic training.
These men—there are no women in this group—seem impossibly young to me: smooth faces, short haircuts, and a dramatic range of skin tones that reflect the multicultural military fighting America’s twenty-first century wars. With a change of clothing, they could be the students who will walk my campus in the fall. They have the ease of youth, displaying neither anxiety nor resignation. They talk about what they plan to buy during their time off; maybe they have just been paid. At some point, I catch one of them saying, “Gonna get an iPad. I have the phone, so that’s next.” Instantly I become self-conscious of the metal-and-glass tablet over which Gabe and I have been hunched, and even more so of the fact that we have been mindlessly scoring “hits” in a never-ending game of Battleship. We are surrounded by war, and we are making this journey to see more. We are on our way to watch a live reenactment of the First Battle of Manassas—which claimed some 3,000 lives exactly 150 years ago. We are going to watch grown men play soldier.
Restaging combat is not new. Historians and hobbyists alike point to examples from the Greeks and Romans. In the nineteenth-century United States, sham battles were a regular part of military demonstrations, and they became incorporated in the historical pageants staged by communities and productions like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In the 1930s, during the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Civil War, large reenactments of Civil War battles took place on the sites of those conflicts, often with the cooperation of the U.S. military, which contributed men to the mock fighting.
As the centennial of the Civil War neared, the National Park Service agreed to host similar reenactments, beginning with the First Battle of Manassas—or the First Battle of Bull Run—generally regarded as the first major battle of the War. Organizers hoped that the event would raise awareness of the Centennial and contribute to the Park Service’s campaign for improved facilities. The participants included some 2,200 members of the National Guard, as well as thousands of members of the [End Page 42] recently formed North-South Skirmish Association in period costume. The proximity of the battlefield to Washington and the novelty of the event drew immense crowds. Estimates for the total attendance for the weekend—a dress rehearsal and two performances—ranged between 80,000 and 110,000.
By all accounts, the planners of 1961 were poorly prepared for this onslaught. Traffic and parking were terrible; there was no relief from the ninety-degree temperatures; and the reenactment quickly became known as...