Thursday, December 07, 2006
Reenacting and Me
Over at the blog, My Year of Living Rangerously, Manny writes that he has "always been ambivalent about the hobby of reenacting." I know just what he means. I have had mixed feelings about the practice for as long as I've been involved with the larger community of Civil War enthusiasts. With apologies to my reenactor friends, it has always struck me as more than a little bit strange to dress up as 19th century soldiers and engage in mock battle. We've all got our particular pastimes, of course, any of which might make other people scratch their heads. Lots of these activities take up large chunks of our free time and disposable income. According to Dave Barry, "There is a very fine line between "hobby" and "mental illness."
Unlike reenacting, though, most other hobbies don't involve pantomiming horrific scenes of bloody slaughter. We all played war at some point. I recall many times as a child when my brothers, neighborhood friends, and I were called upon to neutralize some particularly stubborn Nazi pillboxes in the backyard, or to mop up the last of the Imperial Army holdouts down the block. We had trouble with the Lakota, too. But there's something fundamentally odd about grown men dressing up to replay the scenes of historic bloodshed, perfecting how they take a hit, mimicking agony, and playing dead.
I did mention that my feelings were "mixed." That is to say, I'm grateful for the opportunity to visualize a Civil War soldier—to see a park ranger demonstrate loading and firing, for example—and I think there's real educational value in so-called "Living History" scenarios as one might see at Colonial Willaimsburg, or Mount Vernon. As Manny said, referring to a grand review, there are moments when reenactors allow us to think, "So that's what it must have looked like." Really, I think he meant that begins to approximate what it must have looked like. But this only goes so far. Often as not, a reenactment may serve most to show you what it didn't look like. The celebrated use of reenactors as extras in Civil War films has failed to prove a boon to cinematic realism. Turner's use of reenactors in the movie Gettysburg was as much a distraction as an asset, projecting America's present-day obesity epidemic back to the summer of 1863. The Romanian extras of Cold Mountain (coached by Pohanka) looked more authentic on the silver screen.
MY FIRST REENACTORS
Admittedly, my first interactions with reenactors colored my views of the hobby in a negative way. I remember the first meeting of the South Bay Civil War Round Table in San Jose, sometime in the late 80s. We had gotten the word out with various flyers, and the inaugural meeting, held in Ted Savas' living room, attracted something like ten people. Half of those were members of the local reenacting association, all impressively decked out in full uniform, portraying members of the 1st Virginia Infantry. Ted gave the talk that evening on, if memory serves, Chancellorsville. After a time, the reenactors were getting antsy, awaiting some mention of how the 1st Virginia contributed to one of Robert E. Lee's most glorious victories. And that was their first question when Ted had finished.
Ted's reply that the 1st was not present for the battle, they being part of Longstreet's command, and Longstreet being detached on his Suffolk expedition, was not received favorably. You'd have thought Ted had pulled a big leather riding glove off one hand and roughly slapped the lead reenactor across the face with it, such was the umbrage taken. The Q&A became a challenge and didn't end till Ted took the ranking living historian upstairs to consult the O.R. Membership in the Round Table took a hard dip in the 2nd month, but recovered nicely, in time.
The point of that long anecdote is that much of my bias toward reenactors initially stemmed from the sense that the time and effort put into learning about uniforms, and maneuvers, didn't leave any time for studying the Civil War (during that same time frame I also met a reenactor who could speak in great detail about CS and US uniform buttons—I think you'd have to say on an expert level—but who had never heard of Joseph Hooker).
To be fair, part of the problem was that the reenactors I first spent time around were members of fledgling organizations in California. Later, I met a broader spectrum of hobbyists around the country, including many who are more versed on the literature of the war than I will ever be. Brian Pohanka, for example, did lasting scholarship, and more than probably anyone, made people think of reenacting as a noble endeavor.
I would be interested in hearing what it is that motivates people to put the time and money into reenacting. The motivation that makes the most sense to me would be to take the study of the Civil War one step beyond reading and visiting battlefields. But even that, I think, would be a short-lived experiment, not an ongoing hobby.
The principle reason one hears, in my experience, is that reenacting honors the Civil War soldier—his service, his sacrifice. I can see that. But likewise, I can understand those who think it inappropriate. This past Veterans Day brought the widely-published lamentation of a Vietnam vet whose son is now in Iraq. In "Reenacting War," he writes that "I've never dealt well with Veterans Day. Perhaps it's because I knew too many men whose names appear on a black wall in Washington D.C." . . . . I do not believe people should 'play' war. I am upset by children with toy guns or sticks—or adults with real guns and mock uniforms who 'pretend.'"
I don't have any right to question others' motivations, but it would be refreshing, for once, to hear someone say they just like to dress up, camp out, and play army.
Helping to educate the public, and children, is another reason given for participating in the hobby, but this rationale is sometimes problematic. The uniform, naturally, and unfortunately, embues the reenactor with an air of authority—surely someone who goes so far as to dress in the uniform of a Civil War soldier will be an expert on the subject. It's a powerful thing to show kids, and adults, what an authentic uniform looked like, how the accoutrements were worn, and accessed. But they're not all students of the war, and fewer still are in the Pohanka league. I imagine it's fairly common to have "one-book-wonders" standing before classrooms of schoolchildren, pronouncing that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, a nugget that may remain with the children through all their days of learning. At the only reenactment I've ever attended, I stood by and listened to a reenactor explain to a spectator that slavery was incidental to the sectional divide, the spectator nodding in wide-eyed wonder at the revelation. An earlier entry in this blog highlighted a reenactor going into classrooms to say pretty much the same thing.
Reenacting is not a new thing. Kevin Levin has an interesting post on reenacting the Crater fight at Petersburg in 1937. But it really hit its stride in the decades since the centennial celebrations (along with Civil War publishing, and the explosion of Civil War Round Tables). I don't feel strongly enough about reenacting to say it's "right" or "wrong," as in the Veteran's Day editorial cited above. I am not a combat veteran, and have no emotional investment. It's just another hobby, except with black powder.
Photo credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society. Image of a boy standing with rifles and a drum in a room in Chicago, Illinois, as part of Civil War reenactments on the 50th anniversary of the war, with events sponsored by the Chicago Daily News held in Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois.