Katy Vine joined TEXAS MONTHLY as an editorial assistant in 1997 and became a staff writer in 2002. Her articles were anthologized in Best American Sports Writing 2005 and 2006, and her piece on an Odessa prostitution parlor was adapted into the movie The Client List, for which Jennifer Love Hewitt received a Golden Globe nomination. This month, Katy Vine travels to Jefferson to take us inside the world of Civil War reenactments. As she discovers, the makeshift battlefield is a place where the small details—what kind of paper you use—matter, while the large details—say, whether the battle being reenacted actually took place—might not. Here’s the story behind the story.
To get this story, you donned a full-on Confederate get-up in ninety-degree heat. What’s the farthest you’ve ever gone for an article?
That’s easy. Back in 2002, I stood inside a contraption called the Globe of Death for an article about a ninth-generation family. My participation had not been planned. Motorcycles drove around me in this little metal sphere. The costume they got for me was awesome: blue sequins and silver stars.
You note that reenactment attendance is starting to decline. Did you get an impression as to what accounts for this? Do you think it might pick up upon the sesquicentennial of the Civil War this year?
Most folks identified the bad economy as reason for the decline. It’s just more expensive to travel right now. You’re right that the anniversary might increase the level of participation.
You quote one participant as saying, “[This reenactment] is not a race thing. The war was about freedom. It was about money. We would never condone slavery.” He sounds sincere, but is he also deluding himself? How much of the War of Northern Aggression–logic you encountered was to allow the participants to have good, clean fun, and how much of it is serious historical revisionism?
Unless folks were to come right out and say they condone slavery, I take them at their word when they say they condemn it. The guys I interviewed were appalled by accusations of racism. But here’s what’s weird to me: Reenactments take place all over the world; I doubt the guys who fight in other battles feel the need to justify their characters’ actions. Nonetheless, for all kinds of reasons, the Lost Cause narrative is very important to many of the Southern reenactors. I don’t think it is an intentional revisionism on their part to allow them to have “good, clean fun,” as you say. The Lost Cause argument is a common one that began taking shape soon after the war ended and probably won’t go away for some time.
From the hundreds of people attending the reenactment and the various aspects of it, from the ball to the town skirmish, how did you determine who and what to write about so that your piece felt anchored?
I did a lot of wandering around during the event, but since I knew the officers were going to have the most knowledge of this reenactment, I had interviewed them beforehand. They were lots of fun, very welcoming, and introduced me to some of the most colorful characters.
In the past few years, numerous politicians, including Michelle Bachmann and Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, have created stirs over their misrepresentation of the role of slavery in the foundation of the country and the fighting of the Civil War, respectively. What role do you think reenactments play in either preserving or distorting the narratives of the Civil War and the legacy of slavery?
The battles themselves preserve history. In most cases, the action is structured around the documented battle, so there isn’t room for interpretation. But there are Civil War enthusiasts who go into classrooms and distort history by minimizing slavery as a factor in the war.
Sum up your experience at the reenactment in five words or less.
Oh my gosh. Let’s see: “They were busy and quotable.” That’s not very good. I think I need more time to think about that one. I’m glad I was given more than five words for the article.
Your piece on the Odessa prostitution parlor was adapted into a movie, and you’ve also become a prized resource for Jandek devotees, as the only person to ever knowingly speak to him. Are you surprised at the afterlife of your stories?
Yeah, it’s always strange when certain articles get lives of their own. It’s very unpredictable. Other articles sink like stones. Go figure.