The American people paid considerably more in terms of lives lost and physical devastation during the Civil War (1861-1865) than during any other time in their relatively young history as an independent nation. The war fought between the Union states to the North and the Confederate states to the South claimed the lives of 620,000 soldiers, equivalent to the casualties suffered by the United States in all other wars combined. Not to mention the destruction of Southern cities like Richmond, Charleston and Atlanta.
On the weekend of August 8th and 9th, Governors Island, located between Manhattan and Brooklyn in the New York harbor, reenacted its annual Civil War weekend with customary fanfare amidst the throngs of visitors.
The 172-acre land was home to the United States Army and Coast Guard for almost 200 years until its sale to the city and state of New York in 2003. Minutes from the heart of the city, yet accessible only by ferry, the island seems like the perfect setting for a historic retelling of the Civil War due to the vast areas of empty space and hilly terrain, along with the presence of two 19th century defensive fortifications like Fort Jay and Castle Williams, which do an adequate job of trying to mirror the landscape of the various battles and living conditions of the past.
The re-enactors are comprised from the “119th New York Volunteers,” “The Gawd Awful Mess and Battery G of the First Pennsylvania Light Artillery” and “The Soldiers of the 1st Minnesota,” under the constant presence and supervision of the “National Park Service.”
The showpiece event of the weekend’s festivities has to be the firing of the US Model 1857 12 Pound Light-Gun Howitzer, or “The Napoleon” Civil War cannon, operated quite competently by Battery G of the First Pennsylvania Light Artillery, with the utmost importance given to the safety of onlookers and volunteers alike.
Governors Island will be host to various events like music and dance concerts, film and food festivals and also some art exhibits during its annual summer run as a haven for New Yorkers or tourists hoping to find a peaceful picnic spot or catch the mostly free cultural happenings.
The Civil War demonstrations similarly had to share the island with Afro-Brazilian, Senegalese and Guinean dancers, showcasing their considerable rhythmic skills accompanied by the most spontaneous and skilled musicians you might be fortunate to see and hear. It is sponsored by the African Film Festival, whose mission is to promote the understanding of the African culture through dance and short films.
The lasting image of the weekend, more than the reenactment itself, was the pick-up game of baseball played by the actors in their Civil War uniforms with the huge cannon in their midst, acting like a kind of voiceless umpire, pausing only to innocently flirt with the young ladies walking past them.
The combination of America’s favorite pastime with its most important political and historical event added to the sights and sounds of its immigrant population, giving the wider world a glimpse of 21st century Americana at its best: varied and inclusive.
Civil War Reenactment at Governor’s Island Last Week
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Photo and Video by Kaushik Majumdar.