Do Civil War Reenactments Help or Hinder?

by Andy Hall

This past Saturday, a group of historians, history buffs and local residents in St. Louis organized a recreation of what is reputed to have been the "last slave sale" held on the Old State House steps in that city. (Photos via MSNBC here.) Inevitably the reenactment drew a lot of media attention, and plenty of controversy. It was organized specifically to counter the assertion made by Southern heritage groups and others that the coming of the war was only tangentially related to regional disputes over slavery, and to serve as a hard counterpoint to secession balls and this week's reenactment of the swearing in of Jefferson Davis in Jackson, Mississippi.

The "auction" in St. Louis was organized by Angela da Silva, adjunct professor of African American Studies at Lindenwood University's Historic Daniel Boone Home. Ms. da Silva, who also reenacts slave life at the Boone site, gave an interview to the local Fox News station in which she made the case for holding the event:

"These were human beings who wanted the same things we want now," said Angela da Silva, a reenactor and Lindenwood U. history professor. "Now we look at them as one lump of black mass. There's no individualization. These were maybe not even people. But they were. They had names."

They bore the pain. In reenactor Chris Sutton's home video, you don't just see it, you feel it.

The idea is to keep what happened from becoming just flat old photographs and documents in history books and instead—make it true to life: three-dimentional, real people—from the slaves who were sold to the slave owners who purchased them.

"I paid close to $800 for a skilled cook. While I was transacting business the person was hauled away and transported in a wagon, to the DeMenil mansion," said reenactor, Phil McGourty of DeMenil Reenactors. "Some [people] were actually appalled."

Professor da Silva said it was all part of honoring those history had yet to give their due.

"We pulled those [slave] names from actual sale bills...we resurrected them from files in this building," da Silva said. "They had children. They had desires. They wanted one thing: freedom.

Dred Scott was one such name. He sued for his freedom at the Old Court House only to have the US Supreme Court rule in 1857 that Scott and other slaves "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect ... [they] might justly ... be reduced to slavery".

"That was this case had such a pivotal part in history leading to the Civil War," Jeffrey Blair instructed his daughters at the Dred Scott exhibit in the Old Courthouse, not missing this teaching point, with history coming alive.

"My goal has been accomplished," da Silva said. "People do understand the horrors of what it was for families to be separated, never to be seen again and on these very steps that St. Louisans pass every single day."

It really happened, here.


The site of the "auction," the Old Court House, has a long history related to the slave trade. It was the site of public auctions of all kinds of property at sheriff's sales, usually in the course of settling estates or enforcing court orders for damages stemming from lawsuits. The Old Court House was also the site of the first hearing of the infamous Dred Scott case. Local tradition in St. Louis holds that the last slave auction on the Old Court House steps occurred in 1861, where two thousand supporters of abolition forced an end to the practice there. The historical accuracy of this claim is disputed by the stewards of the Old Court House, the National Park Service, in a PDF document here. But whatever the truth about slave auctions on the steps of the Old Court House, there is no question that St. Louis plays a central role in understanding the scope and reach of the "peculiar institution" in American history. The relatively small number of slaves auctioned by the sheriff on the court house steps over the years are barely a glimpse of the whole. As the famed "gateway to the west," on the banks of the Mississippi near the confluences of the Missouri and Ohio Rivers, St. Louis was one of the main centers of the domestic slave trade, with dealers buying and selling wholesale, in enormous quantities (left, advertisements in the Daily Missouri Republican, December 18, 1853). There are few better places to confront the realities of slavery than in the heart of St. Louis.

I'm really undecided about reenactments in general as a means of teaching history and, more than a conventional battle reenactment, this event in particular is fraught with opportunity for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Reenacting a slave auction—or any other event related to slavery—really is the sort of thing that people react viscerally to (good), often shutting out discussion and introspection in the process (bad). I just don't know how well it works as public education. But if it keeps the conversation going about the underlying issues of the war, how we interpret the conflict, and the myriad of perspectives involved, then that's all to the good.

A blogger new to me, Abbi Telander, has a great post on the reenactment, and in concluding, makes the case for events such as this:

This is part of our shared heritage. Whether or not your descendants were involved does not negate the fact that we all share this history as Americans. We share the agonies of the enslaved as well as the fight of the abolitionist and the responsibility of the owners. We have a responsibility to our past to understand it and a responsibility to our future to do better. Our nation, forged under the debate over the rights of man, went to war in an attempt to determine whether we could be one country with this shared past. Our nation has been fighting ever since over who was right and who was wrong, who deserves the glory and who deserves the blame, who deserves the benefits of citizenship, and who needs to be remembered in the annals of history.

I dare anyone who stood in the cold this morning and watched as the story of buying and selling other people unfolded to say that our sins need to be forgotten. I dare anyone present to forget this day. As my baby kicked inside me, innocent and pure, I promised her that I would someday tell her what she couldn't see today, and that she would know why it was important that she know, and why I cried when those little girls stood up to be sold.

(h/t: Kevin Levin and Bob Pollock)