Moving Beyond Show and Tell
Reenactor Art Stone contemplating at Gettysburg (NG).
I had the opportunity to watch the recent National Geographic Channel special entitled "Extreme Civil War Reenactors." The show followed the footsteps of a handful of living historians, some new to the hobby and some well accustomed to it. Historians understandably have mixed feelings about these weekend warriors. Many are too old, overweight, and can in no way realistically depict a Civil War soldier. Meanwhile, other reenactors cannot (or refuse) to properly convey the true causes and legacies of the conflict--even some who perform living history demonstrations in National Parks. Many of their discussions with visitors are steeped in a quagmire of tactical and technical minutia that the average person has little desire to comprehend. Historian Glenn LaFantasie heatedly denounced reenactors in his vitriolic editorial in Salon entitled "The Foolishness of Civil War Reenactors." But reenactors, as my friend Timothy Orr contended in an eloquent rebuttal, reenactors do indeed serve a purpose in illustrating events and movements that no longer exist. I agree wholeheartedly with Tim's sentiments, and I encourage you to read his thought-provoking essay on the matter.
Nat Geo's show follows "Zack Forsythe, a Marine Corps veteran who served three tours in Iraq, making the difficult transition to civilian life with the help of reenacting." Another focal point is "Travis Brooks, a sixteen year-old high school student striving to become one of the youngest members of the most elite group of reenactors in America." Travis is guided by reenacting vet Art Stone (pictured above) throughout the program. Some of the scenes and scenarios are inevitably hokey and not "hardcore" or "extreme" by any stretch of the imagination. (Jeans, coolers, and bagged popcorn in camp.) But other moments are heartfelt and meaningful. As Stone noted, "We paid a price to preserve Union and end slavery. . . . They need to know what happened at places like Gettysburg. I felt that importance when I first came here. That's why I became a reenactor." Why should such a sentiment be derided?
The History Channel once delved into the complexities and controversies of reenacting as well. The 2000 documentary entitled "The Unfinished Civil War" took a colorful point of view to say the least, angering many reenactors who called for a boycott if the show were to be aired again. In a Civil War News interview, one reenactor noted of that show: "Every time that film airs it does more and more damage to our hobby. . . . It promotes the perception that we're all a bunch of wild-eyed wackos." Nat Geo took a more centrist approach in my view, and they more or less did it successfully.
Having reenacted a bit myself, I can attest to all the pros and cons discussed in the aforementioned articles. One of my main contentions with the methods of reenactors is how they continuously mention how different we are from people of the 1860s. This is not the best way to make the past relevant or easily connected. If we are so different, why should we care? Brooks alluded to the inherent flaws of this idea in one segment of the show. By acknowledging that many American soldiers of multi-generations have the same aspirations and desires, one can interconnect the past with the present. Meanwhile, men like Forsythe use history and camaraderie to relate it to their own experiences in a modern combat zone. We see him visit the grave of a fallen comrade from Iraq and envision a Civil War soldier doing the same 140 years ago. "They need to be remembered as people and not as statistics on the drawing board," he murmured in the Florida National Cemetery. Would it not be helpful if more historians embraced this approach?
Do not these ideas and scenarios bring a measure of reality to reenacting? Are these tenets of a younger generation of reenactors indicative of an evolution in the hobby? How have contemporary events of society shaped the way newer ranks of living historians perceive and teach the Civil War? Perhaps reenactors of years to come will move beyond the mere show and tell of equipment and awing crowds with loud bangs. Just maybe they will be able to invoke something more profound from it all. This hopeful trend will require cooperation, not criticism, from professional historians.
An excerpt from the film talking about the Manassas 150th event.