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 soldierto see a park ranger demonstrate loading and firing, for exampleand 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.


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 buttonsI think you'd have to say on an expert levelbut 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 soldierhis 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 sticksor 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 authoritysurely 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.


Anonymous said...

EXCELLENT piece David. Thank you for writing and sharing it.

I too respect the re-enactment community, but have always remained cautious not to glorify war in itself. I had an epiphany (of sorts) a couple years ago after I had a new neighbor move in next door. He is a United States Marine, a Gunnery Sergeant to be exact, who took part on the front lines during the war in Iraq.

When the two of us first met, we were discussing my books and I was surprised to find out that he had little knowledge of (and even less of an interest in) my two subjects: Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart - or the Civil War in general for that matter.

I also came to realize that unlike me, he doesn’t have shelves in his office that are overflowing with books and videos about war. He doesn’t spend hours in front of the tube watching combat documentaries on the Military Channel. He doesn’t waste his time. He’s “been there and done that” for real. I imagine the educational and entertainment value of war goes way down once you’ve experienced it first-hand.

The biggest difference is that I have spent the last few years writing about war, while he's been off fighting in one.

It's difficult to complain to someone like that about having a "bad day at the office," as my "worst" day was probably a helluva lot better than his "best" day on the battlefield. I mean, what could I say? The only thing I've ever been shot with is a camera, and the only risk I have to take is going with French Vanilla or Irish creamer.

WE (the armchair historians of America), the ones that spend countless hours in the study of war, the reenactment of it, the preservation of it, will NEVER know the true feeling and emotion of stepping onto a REAL battlefield. We will never experience that test of courage, that sensation of fear, and the risk of putting our lives on the line for our country, and for our friends. They, the real soldiers, the veterans of all wars, know history like we never will, because they helped write it.

We must never lose that perspective. We must never take the responsibility of recording their sacrifices lightly and we must always strive to give them the credit that they so deeply deserve. We all have an obligation to preserve their memories so that future generations will know of their courage and sacrifice.

I look at it like this: Military history may be documented in ink, and on film - but it has been (and always will be) written in the blood of heroes.

Thanks again. - Michael

Joshua blair said...


I have to agree with you that just because someone has a wool uniform on does not make them an authority on the subject of the Civil War. The public should be aware that re-enacting is a hobby and that a re-enactor may not be the best source for information on the Civil War.

My view on reenacting is this. If you like dressing up and playing war, go for it. I believe that re-enacting attracts a lot of awareness on the Civil War and that is a good thing. However, I can see how re-enactments may offend some people and re-enactors should be sensitive to the issues that arise with their hobby.

I once thought that I may enjoy re-enacting. I thought that it may give me the feel of how it was like to have been a Civil War soldier. I decided to try it out for a season before becoming too committed. While there was some instances of "Wow! I feel like I am really there!” for the most part I was disappointed. These instances were few and far apart. However, everyone seemed to be having a real good time and that was the important thing. I got out before it hurt my wallet too badly.


dw said...


Thanks for the note, and for relating the story of your Marine Corps neighbor. I know it's not uncommon for people who have seen the battlefield up close to reach a point where they determine to "study war no more."

I remember reading once that participation in things like Round Tables and reenacting groups takes a downturn during times of actual war (like the Vietnam era after a surge in the 60s). It's harder to romanticize when it's on the evening news.


dw said...


Thanks for your comments. Sounds like we're of like mind on the subject
You're right, too, that it's expensive. Particularly for the artillery and cavalry guys. In the reenactment I went to, during the thick of the fight, a few mounted troopers came in from the side, and I thought it pretty fancy that they had scripted couriers into the scene. I think later someone mentioned that was a punishing cavalry flanking maneuver, it's just that only three people had horses, or a willingness to transport them.


Anonymous said...

Well, David here's one reenactor who does do it for the fun. I'd been a CW buff 16 years before getting into it so I like to think I'm well versed. I'll answer someone's questions if I can but thats it. I've no illusions it accurately portrays what really happened either. My favorite part is the camping out and being with the guys.
BTW, uniform "experts" aren't limited to Civil War reenacting. I've read that WWII reenactors have had long standing debates on what constitutes khaki and what is the proper shade of olive drab.


Anonymous said...

As the parent of a teenage reenactor I can attest to the statement that this is an expensive hobby, having allowed my son to invest over $6000 of his money thus far. But it is also an opportunity for interested young persons to research and participate in events that have shaped this nation's history. Our schools are so pressed for time to prepare students to take the required standardized tests that they are not able to fully expand on the causes for battles, Civil War and otherwise.
My son is required to know not only the details of the maneuvers of the battles in which he participates, but also the details and reasons behind the decisions of the officers and major persons who fought in the original battle.
One can comfortably state that there are just as many uninformed and unprepared reenactors as there uninformed and unprepared journalists. It can also be stated that the level of one's dedication to a subject determines the accuracy of material presented.

dw said...

Dear Anonymous,

You make some very good points. I can appreciate that the reenacting hobby would be especially educational for young people, and that anything that sparks an enduring interest in history is a good thing.

As for the reenactor/journalist analogy, I would argue that the journalist is more accountable for his shortcomings. The journalist who gets it wrong as a matter of course is not likely to remain employed. Whereas the reenactor who goes into a classroom and passes along erroneous information is accountable to no one, even though the damage is done.

Thanks for your comments.