October 10, 2002

Finger Lake'n Good

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My good friend Marshall invited me. He’s the kind of person who’d ask me if I’d want to drive up to Montreal just for the day or if I’d want to swimming in the gorges in October, so of course I laughed. Civil war reenactments sounded hokey, like dressing up for Halloween after elementary school. But then there’s that side of me, the side that loves the Ithaca farmer’s market, goes to the town of Greene to look at antiques, and would love nothing more than to spend a Saturday at a Civil War reenactment and apple festival.

Have you ever driven to or from Ithaca on Route 79 and come to the four-way stop where Route 38 intersects Route 79? Maybe you have taken this trip so many times that you’re curious to know what’s down Route 38. I drove 10 miles to the south and 140 years into the past to Newark Valley. With a population of just over 1,000 people, it looked like everyone from town was at this day-long Civil War fest or equally as many had come to visit.

Staged on a farm, the reenactment lasted half an hour. Fighting for the Union and Confederate armies were approximately 50 men on each side with a smattering of women and children aiding the Confederates. As it has been noted in books such as Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic the participants of Civil War reenactments take their roles seriously. Everything from the costumes to 19th century dialect spoken is as authentic as possible. Had the battle field not been lined with crowds videotaping the event and kids eating candied apples, the scene looked as realistic as some of the photographs from the 1860’s.

The careful choreography of the canon and gun fire, the army formations, and even the fake deaths left the audience with respect for such a serious and passionate performance. But aside from the formal tone of the battle, the wholesome, homespun festival was filled with smiling faces. When I wandered the crowd asking people what they thought of the reenactment they all seemed impressed by it and pleased that it was coordinated with the apple festival.

For many of the citizens of Newark Valley and the surrounding region, this annual event is a tradition and the soldiers involved in the reenactment invited questions from outsiders.

A Union soldier, Lawrence Allen of Syracuse, NY, told me of how he has been participating in reenactments for over 30 years. Just a week ago he and his wife participated with thousands of others in a 140th anniversary reenactment of the battle of Antietam. For Allen, the role of a Civil War soldier is not a personal obsession, but rather a way to honor his ancestors who fought for the Union.

Newer to the reenactments, but no less enthusiastic was Brian Keator of Virginia. After over seven full seasons of reenactments, he continues to portray a Confederate sergeant to pay tribute to “those who did it for real” and to preserve an accurate representation of the Civil War. But most important to Keator was his desire to uphold the meaning of the Constitution –what it meant to Americans decades ago and what it will mean now as the U.S. hastens to war with Iraq.

I drove to Newark Valley wondering how justifiable it was to be entertained by a symbol a war that left hundreds of thousands of casualties. And yet, I drove back with a surprisingly beautiful collection of mental snapshots: women dressed in 19th century garb, men ennobled by their roles as actors, and children participating in a celebration of history, and it was only 30 miles away.

Archived article by Diana Lind