Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Reenactors: Educators or Entertainers?

Federal reenactors march into the melee at the 2008 Gettysburg Reenactment.
In the past weeks, many historians and columnists have added their say to the ongoing discussions regarding the pros and cons of historical, especially Civil War, battle reenactments.  Indeed, the proponents on both ends of the argument offer compelling points.

To preface some of my own thoughts on the issue, allow me to first share a story from the Pickett's Charge Commemorative March on July 3.  As the 40,000 participants of that afternoon gathered at the Union lines, a somber moment of contemplation was to take place as echo taps stretched down Cemetery Ridge.  I snapped to attention with a salute as the buglers emerged from the masses to trumpet their fitting tributes.  From the position I stood at, the moment was temporarily ruined by a small handful of Confederate reenactors who childishly insisted on storming the stonewall despite the pleas of park rangers who urged they stop.  Having none of it, the half-dozen or so men pushed through the crowd to the disgust and disappointment of all those in the immediate vicinity.  With this unfortunate incident being much smaller than the infamous "rogue reenactment" in the park in 1988, the event was nevertheless stupendous.  Tears streamed down the cheeks of many a visitor as taps played.  As the photo below suggests, many simply stood there to soak in the view surrounding them.

Visitors ponder at the Bloody Angle after the "rogue reenactor" charge of July 3.
The isolated reenactor incident at the stonewall, however, I feel correlates with the ongoing controversies and debates regarding the reenacting hobby.  Civil War Institute director Peter Carmichael was recently quoted in a Wall Street Journal article, which stated: he "calls re-enactments an 'unfortunate distraction' from a deeper understanding of the Civil War, including the motivations of those who fought and its legacy. He said he favored living history encampments, where people can hold a musket or eat hardtack, giving them a tangible experience of the past. But people can learn the most from National Park Service historians who rove the battlefield, he said: 'All you need to do is stay in the National Park and you'll come away with a very deep understanding of what happened here.'"  There is a strong degree of truth in these words.  Typically, more people pay to attend the Gettysburg battle reenactment than who go on free ranger programs on the actual field.  In some ways, I can see how many consider this a distraction.

As both a professional historian and a reenactor/living historian, I am all too aware of the decades-old tensions between academia and mainstream history.   The matter comes down to the question: who can and should speak for history?  At what point can professional historians let go of the reins of truth without compromising historical integrity?  How can they do so without reinforcing the negative "ivory tower" notion in that process?  There are no clear-cut answers to these trying questions.

An extending dilemma to this predicament centers on the role of the reenactor as an educator.  Let us take into consideration the caliber of living history organizations such as the Liberty Rifles.  Their authenticity standards are superb and they exhibited great professionalism as they contributed to the Gettysburg anniversary.  On the other hand, look at the small band of renegade, boisterous Confederate impressionists who charged into throngs of visitors with little tact or respect.  Through their actions, we can see how this playground mentality Carmichael speaks of certainly resonates within the trade.  But perhaps it is also important for us to recognize that most reenactments are only as good as those who are participating in them. Reenactments can be respectful; they rest solely in the responsibility of those participating.

Like Civil War history itself, Civil War reenacting stands at a crossroads.  It seems that a vast majority of the hobbyists are no longer the correct age or have the proper waistline to represent the average Civil War soldier.  Having gotten their start in the 1960s or 1970s, so too will many of them still tell you that the war was about tariffs and states' rights.  Younger reenactors now have the opportunity to stray away from the "stuff over substance" that plagues many a reenactor impression.  They also have the power and means to properly embrace the true causes and legacies of the war through their impressions, and yes, even reenactments.  The matter is in their hands.

WWII veterans watch the D-Day Ohio Reenactment in Conneaut in 2011.
Yes, some reenactments are distasteful--but not all of them.  If all reenactments were disrespectful, I somehow doubt the gentlemen above would come to watch them.  Just maybe there is room for reenactments in the realm of historical study.  Just as how academics can ensure the accuracy of their work through solid research and citations, reenactors could and should provide equal understandings to their living history impressions.  Reenacting can be more than fireworks or the showing and telling of "stuff."  It can be a golden opportunity to reflect upon the loudness, loss, and important themes of military history.  If historians of all branches, both formal and amateur, desire to make this goal a reality, they might be better off building bridges to facilitate such dialogue instead of burning them.


  1. Re-enactments have evolved into entertainment for mass audiences and bear little, if any, resemblance to the actual event for which they are named. As a hobby, it excells in sparking an interest in the time period, be it Civil War, World War I, II or whatever; but few reenactors are actual historians who can provide a balanced view of American history or the political and social views of the time period they represent. Enthusiasm for the hobby is one thing, but age (for a growing number of participants), expanding waistlines, bad impressions (of which there are many) and the disrespectful acts like that exhibited by the rude idiots on July 3 at Gettysburg, only provides the public with a poor representation of our history. They make it a joke; its not only bad history but it's also disrespectful. Running a marathon is not for everyone, nor is the hobby of Civil War reenacting. But I agree, Jared. Reasonable discussion between reenactment organizers and academics could lead to what could be a balanced portrayal of a battle event without the actuality of bloodshed. Unfortunately, I doubt that will ever occur thanks to what reenactments, especially Civil War events, have evolved to- big business where money and the take at the entance gate overrides what is presented on the "battlefield" and the common needs of the everyday person living today who simply cannot do without a cell phone or Pop Tarts in their haversack.

  2. I've been reenacting for 12yrs. Just something I do for me. I never thought of a reenactment as anything to take too seriously. I do my best from an authenticity standpoint and have fun. It's entertainment with a dash of education thrown in and about as real as pro wrestling.
    I got way more, personally, from the Iron Brigade march than the reenactment and was honored to be a part of it.

    Matt Locke
    Liberty Rifles

  3. Some of us not only build bridges, we ARE bridges. I seek information from historical and academic sources, then strive to become the embodiment of that information in "touchable" form for the public at large, the historical tourist, if you will.

    I hadn't heard of the disrespect that took place at the Angle during Taps. Saddens me.

    I hope that reenactments continue, that we work on having right "stuff" AND right knowledge so that we can intelligently talk about, and demonstrate, all of it.

    I don't see this as an "either/or" question. This is a "both/and" issue, IMHO.