Friday, January 28, 2011

The Vagaries of Character Development

One of the delightful things about reenacting is the opportunity to invent one's own character.  Lately I've been researching the War's effect on Winchester, VA (where my character, Margaret-Ellen Hamilton Copeland, grew up), hand-spinning techniques, letter-writing, and agricultural practices of the 1860s Shenandoah Valley - and trying not to get overwhelmed with all the stuff it's possible to know but that I don't have time to learn!

Not everyone creates a first-person impression (it seems less common in Civil War reenacting than in earlier periods of living history practice), but I find that it gives me incentive to delve into the place and times of the actual people who experienced the War, as well as gain a deeper understanding of their motivations and thinking.  In addition to the personal benefits, I think having a convincing first-person impression offers the public a truly immersive historical experience (I don't do reenactments purely for the fun I have - one of my main goals is to make myself available for the education and edification of the public).  My memories of going to reenactments as a child are filled with the living historians who actually took the time to take your hand and pull you into their times with them - they wouldn't break, no matter how much you tried to get them to talk about TV and the Lakers, and they weren't afraid to portray the underside of their historical eras either.

This is the issue I've been mulling over lately.  I reenact with a Confederate unit, for various reasons which I hope to ponder in a future post, but, perhaps unfortunately, this means that my interaction with the public will always work it's way back to the question "what do you think about slavery?"

Sigh.  I don't want to avoid the question, or give a pat, P.C. answer that will satisfy the school-children and their teachers.  I also don't want to give an answer that gives a false, 21st century sheen to an issue that was a very ugly and unavoidable issue of living in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1860s.  If there's one thing I despise, it's when moderns appoint themselves "Official Envoy of 21st Century Ideals to the Dark and Ignorant Past."  But I also don't agree with the kind of wooly-eyed, paleo-conservative idealism that sometimes prevails in Confederate reenacting circles - wherein slavery was just a grand misunderstanding and slaves were basically fat-and-happy farmers who didn't get paid.  I wan't to be able to portray a character convincingly - and the reality is that my character, with 2 brothers in the Confederate army and 2 slaves at home, probably wasn't a closet abolitionist.

I recently ran across this very thoughtful and satisfying article on the ISI website, which discusses the aristocratic culture of the South as observed by deToqueville in the 1830s.  Believe me, it's very easy for a Berry-ite agrarian like me to get starry eyed over "defending the Southern way of life."  But this meant far more than beating Yankees away from one's hard-plowed, hand-sown cornfields, this also meant keeping an entire people-group enslaved in order to keep the agricultural wheels turning.  I don't think this gives us free-reign to lord it over our "ignorant forebears," especially since much of our modern way of life also depends on other people or animals (farther away this time - at least Southerners had to confront slavery every time they walked out their front door) being exploited in order to provide our modern comforts (chocolate-harvesting slaves in Africa, oppresive coffee monopolies in South America, plus a carelessly anti-life culture and disgustingly cruel animal farming in the U.S. spring to mind), but it is an aspect of southern life which is hard to explain in a "sound bite."

As a farmer's daughter in Northwestern Loudon County, I imagine that Miss Copeland, with her Quaker relatives and agricultural surroundings mostly-free of the large-scale slave-holding operations which flourished just a little farther south, thought slavery was an unfortunate, but necessary, piece of the southern landscape.  Like most around her (from both North and South - even abolitionists often wrote in terms which to us would seem unabashedly racist), she probably accepted the idea that the black culture was suited for and desired little better than slavery.  She was probably something of a Unionist before Lincoln won the election, and her father was probably part of one of the abolitionist societies which dotted the South before the Nat Turner rebellion and which thought the best solution to the "negro problem" was resettlement in Africa.  Perhaps I'm lucky I picked a character from a part of the South where it would be possible to be both anti-slavery and pro-Confederate - if I were interpreting a woman from Mississippi or Georgia it might be even harder to address this issue.  Margaret was a virtuous, hard-working young lady who worked just as hard as and respected the slaves in her household, though she did not question the idea that she was right-and-properly their mistress and they were right-and-properly her property.  I can recognize the slow-acting poison which this attitude was to the South, while also remembering and honoring the Margaret Copelands of the time as regular humans who faced the challenges in their lives and times the best way they knew how, without the benefit our our 20/20 historical viewpoint.

Now if only I can get the public to sit around long enough to listen to that explanation . . . ;-)


  1. As I have southern ancestors, I've researched this to some extent as well. You probably already know some of these things, but these facts might be helpful to rounding out your character or explaining her views to people.
    First, even Abraham Lincoln didn't think blacks and whites could live together very well, and thought that freed slaves would probably be best off if sent back to Africa. Some southerners (including Robert E. Lee), on the other hand, disliked slavery but thought that blacks were actually better off as slaves in America than free in Africa, since in America they could be bettered in a variety of ways, not least religiously. Of course, Lee had already freed his slaves before the war began, so he was attempting to give the benefits of both freedom and Christian civilization.
    Also, as you mention, the idea of blacks being naturally lesser than whites was common everywhere (even in Lee's views there is a tinge of this). At the same time, though, there was a half-hidden fear of black superiority in strength. My dad has talked about growing up in the fifties and sixties in Alabama, and of course many of the same attitudes still existed then. People would assume an unsolved crime was more likely to have been committed by a black man, for example, and if it was known to have been committed by a black, the criminal was considered more dangerous.
    So part of the desire to keep blacks enslaved was probably the fear of what could happen if they were freed to live their own lives, and perhaps to take revenge or to follow their supposed bestial impulses. So of course slave rebellions just made things worse for everyone by fulfilling southern fears.

  2. I am impressed by your clear thinking, articulate blog and its readers, Maggery. May I suggest all fodder for thought would be wiser and fuller if Holy Writ were included in the mix of cultural influences: sermons of the 19th century must have been standard which took the "slave" terminology of Saint Paul as meaning the institution was forever and always supposed to exist. I know you to be as hallowed and saintly as Miss Copeland, my dear, so, to have neglected the Holy Book seems strangely out of character.

  3. naturally, the above comment is not by "Maggery" but by the housemate who found her laptop on and handy... and who doesn't know what an OpenID=URL is.

    I tried all my google account names, but failed to figure out that your Google must be open at the moment.


    ---Well Meaning Housemate and Fan