BUFF, AS IN CIVIL WAR
By Stephen Cushman, Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1999
Some words or phrases imply assumptions I happen to disagree with. In the context of the Civil War, "home front" is an example. To speak of the "home front" in connection with the Civil War is to use an anachronism, since the phrase came into our language during World War I, when a distinction between people who lived at home in peace and people who faced the "red animal" across an ocean actually meant something. But to Katherine Couse, cringing at Laurel Hill in May 1864 while the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania swirled around her house, or to Jennie Wade, killed in her kitchen at Gettysburg, this distinction meant nothing. Well, of course, some might argue, but doesn't the distinction between war front and home front hold wherever civilians do not confront actual combat, as in most of the North?
I don't believe so. In fact, one of the ways to think about "civil war," a way that perhaps still acknowledges the long history of Southern discomfort with the term, is to think of it as war in which the boundaries between war front and home front are anything but stable and clear. True, more fighting happened in the South than in the North, much of it in Virginia alone, and so the name "War of Northern Aggression" has some appeal, especially if one ignores the firing on Fort Sumter. But the fact is that effects of warfare, whether actual fighting between armies, the threat of actual fighting (as in the minds of the citizens of Harrisburg or Philadelphia after Lee invaded Pennsylvania in 1863), or the violent and destructive consequences of actual fighting (the New York draft riots of July 1863 or the Confederate raid on St. Albans, Vermont, in October 1864, a raid that many would now consider terrorism), extended far beyond the battlefield. Furthermore, and more important, beyond the worrying and nursing and grieving and mourning and financing and supplying and laboring and cheering that have made up the work of noncombatants during the later wars abroad, civilians during the Civil War, both North and South, felt deeply uncertain about the future shape of what they called home, about exactly where its front would be. When the phrase "home front" was coined 50 years after Appomattox, it was coined to describe a realm in which people don't feel deeply uncertain about the future shape of home.
Some people might disagree about this particular phrase, and I can accept their disagreement with something like respectful detachment. But in the case of certain other words or phrases my respectful detachment collapses, since those words or phrases imply assumptions I cannot stand. In the context of the Persian Gulf War, "collateral damage," an Orwellian euphemism for civilians killed in the bombing of Baghdad, would be an example. In the context of the Civil War, one of the worst offenders is buff, when used as a noun to mean someone interested in the events, conditions, and legacies of the years 1861 to 1865. Of course, there is at least one big difference between "collateral damage" and "buff." Whereas "collateral damage" disguises the killing of innocent civilians in neutral, bureaucratic language, most people who use the term buff have no conscious intent to obscure or conceal. The term does, however, obscure and conceal, just as it illuminates and reveals, much that is important.
Different dictionaries emphasize different aspects of the word, but the ones I looked at all point to the association of buff with firefighting and firefighters. Significantly, the closest relevant definition in the second edition of Webster's New International (1960) does not imply any necessary connection with interest in the Civil War ("An enthusiast about going to fires"), but the Third New International (1986) includes the etymology of the word (from "the buff overcoats worn by volunteer firemen in New York City" about 1820) and makes the connection implicit ("FAN, ENTHUSIAST, DEVOTEE"). The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) gives no examples that involve the Civil War, but both the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (1969) and the second edition of the Random House Dictionary (1987) do:
a devotee or well-informed student of some activity or subject: Civil War buffs avidly read the new biography of Grant. (American Heritage)
Informal. One who is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about a given subject: a Civil War buff. (Random House)
What's the matter with these definitions? Who could object to being called "well-informed," "enthusiastic," and "knowledgeable." Although the Oxford English Dictionary gives examples of usages from 1931 to 1968 that include "police buff," "choo-choo buff," "hi-fi buff," "disarmament buff," "ballet buff," and "sports buff," it's pretty clear from the history of the Webster's definition, as well as from the examples given in the two other dictionaries, that, at least in the United States, the Civil War centennial has tinged the term buff with particular associations. Regardless of the examples in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is English, after all, my bet is that when asked to fill in the blank in the phrase "so-and-so is a -- buff," most Americans would supply "Civil War." Or, to design the test differently, if asked to complete the sentence, "My friend who visits all the battlefields is a Civil War --," more Americans would volunteer buff than fan, devotee, or enthusiast. Although the dictionaries show that there have been other kinds of buffs since 1900, the centennial made the phrase "Civil War buff" idiomatic and in doing so reflected the emergence of a new attitude toward the war.
What's wrong with the definitions above, or, more accurately, what is incomplete about them, immediately becomes apparent when we try to use buff as though it were merely a neutral synonym for a well-informed, enthusiastic, knowledgeable person. If, for example, one were to call a well-informed, enthusiastic, knowledgeable student of Christianity "a Jesus buff," that epithet would sound disrespectful and offensive to many ears. Or if we called a passionately committed specialist in the history of the Nazi concentration camps "a Holocaust buff," the tasteless trivializing behind the phrase would be palpable. We would never think of describing Abraham Lincoln as "a Union buff," Jefferson Davis as a "states' fights buff," or Frederick Douglass as "an abolition buff."
The ludicrousness of these examples shows the difference between what calling a person "a Civil War buff" denotes and what it connotes. What it denotes is someone well informed, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable, but what it connotes is that this well-informed, knowledgeable enthusiasm is not really serious but a little quirky and eccentric, a harmless private hobby on the order of collecting bottle caps or matchbooks from around the world. It also reveals a distance in time and mind from events and conditions, including some of the ghastliest that the 19th century produced. It shows that the renewed interest accompanying the Civil War centennial was wide but not necessarily deep. In fact, it may have been wide and continue to be widening precisely because the distances in time and mind guarantee that it cannot be deep, or at least not so deep that it could interfere with one's enjoyment of the domestic prosperity and relative peacefulness of the United States before and after Vietnam.
When Patricia Polacco closes Pink and Say by telling us to say the name of Pinkns Aylee out loud and to remember it always, is she telling us how to be good Civil War buffs? I don't think so. If we return to the precentennial definition in Webster's, "[a]n enthusiast about going to fires," the adoption of buff to describe one interested in the Civil War should make us uncomfortable. On the one hand, fires, especially large fires, are beautiful, sublime, and hypnotic, except perhaps for those who are phobic about fire. Quite understandably, some people might be enthusiastic about watching one. On the other hand, large fires necessarily involve the destruction of property or the environment and often involve injury or loss of life. How can one be enthusiastic about these things, unless one is some kind of ghoul or sadist? War has the same two-sidedness, a doubleness that Whitman captures perfectly in his Memoranda. In an entry for July 3, 1863, immediately preceding one about Gettysburg, he describes watching "long strings of cavalry" pass from north to south along Fourteenth Street in Washington: "How inspiriting always the cavalry regiments! ... This noise and movement and the tramp of many horses' hoofs has a curious effect upon one." But this exhilarating spectacle soon gives way to another that moves from south to north, the geography of its movement replicating in miniature the constant flow of bodies back from the fighting:
Then just as they had all pass'd, a string of ambulances commenced the other way, moving up Fourteenth street north, slowly wending along, bearing a large lot of wounded to the hospitals.
One can be a buff about the cavalry pageant but not about the ambulance convoy or about a boy hanged and thrown into a lime pit. When Polacco tells us to say the name Pinkus Aylee and remember it always, she charges us with a deep memorializing that is the very opposite of chasing after fire trucks for the thrill of watching buildings burn.
Here then is the problem with buff. Its employment after 1960 to describe interest in the Civil War confirms that the boundary between war and peace within the United States feels so secure that people who want to can cross that boundary for their own amusement. In places and times where the boundary between war and peace feels insecure, interest in war is not a form of amusement. There were no Civil War buffs in Atlanta in 1865, no World War II buffs in London in 1945, no Vietnam War buffs in Saigon in 1975. McPherson may be right when he claims that many people fascinated with the Civil War are preoccupied with the multiple meanings of freedom, but a country in which there are two million copies of Killer Angels in print, a country in which supposedly nobody reads anymore, is a country that feels stable enough to entertain itself, while commuting to work or lounging at the beach or before turning out the light at night, with a story of a battle that involved more than 50,000 killed, wounded, and missing people.
It is only in the safety of peace that people can have fun with war. When a man plasters his pickup truck with bumper stickers reading, "Happiness Is a Northbound Yankee," "I had rather be dead than a Yankee," "Keep the history, heritage and spirit of the South flying [with picture of the Confederate battle flag]," "Forget, Hell!", "Send more Yankees/They are delicious" [with a picture of a mosquito], "Lest we forget the Civil War; America's Holocaust," "American by birth/Southern by the grace of God," "Welcome to the South/Now go home," and "When I'm old/I'll move up North/& Drive like I'm dead!," he appears to be carrying out a kind of deep memorializing that keeps the war present in his mind and that of anyone who sees his truck. But in fact he's having it both ways, since it is only because the war is so long gone and absent from most people's awareness that he can afford to brandish these inflammatory slogans. He appears to urge remembrance, but he does so in terms that depend on forgetting. If the Yankees who have overrun his Southern home felt as ardently as he about keeping sectional tensions alive, he might think twice about the possible effects of those bumper stickers on his insurance premiums.
In all fairness, many of those whom other people label buffs are committed to deep memorializing rather than to amusing themselves. Describing three different audiences for Civil War history, McPherson's essay "What's the Matter with History?" distinguishes among professional historians, the general readers who bought 600,000 copies of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), and those he calls Civil War buffs, including under this heading the members of 200 Civil War roundtables, 40,000 reenactors, and 250,000 subscribers to four popular Civil War magazines. Although McPherson charges the last group with ignoring political and social issues in their preoccupation with military matters, it is not at all clear to me that many of his general readers aren't out for their own amusement or that many of his so-called buffs aren't doing what they do in deep remembrance of realities that are anything but amusing.
But it's hard to know for sure. In the same spirit that, according to Corwin Linson's memoir My Stephen Crane (1958), led Crane to "wonder that some of those fellows don't tell how they felt in those scraps!" I often wonder how each of the two million owners of Killer Angels feels about the book or how each of the professional historians feels about devoting a life to Civil War history or how each of the 40,000 reenactors feels about reenacting. I even wonder how a genuine buff, someone who looks to the Civil War for amusement, feels about that amusement. Is he or she really amused? How and by what?
As for me, though I confess there are many moments when I can manage to forget the war and think about something truly amusing, the war itself is not a source of amusement. I'm not enthusiastic about chasing firefighters, and the word buff does not describe me. For one thing, I don't feel as secure about the boundary between war and peace as I'd like to, for reasons I'm still trying to discover. In the meantime, what word does describe my condition and that of people like me, however many or few we are? I'm not sure, but I think it might be the word "sufferer," as in the phrase "allergy sufferer." I think I must be a Civil War sufferer. How else can I explain the itchy throat and watery eyes when, on my way home from work each day, I pass the road sign for the Wilderness?