Re-enactors vs Historians vs Historians: Part 1

reenactor publicRecently I have been reading the back and forth between historians, Re-enactors and the general public over Civil War battle re-enactments. Much of the verbal hostility stems from Don Gilliland’s article, “Should Civil War Re-enactments Be Abandoned?” For the article, Gilliland interviewed Peter Carmichael, the Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. The interview casts Carmichael as an elitist, that seems to look down on many re-enactors. Historians that know Carmichael, such as Kevin Levin, criticize these aspects of the article. Peter Carmichael himself, contends that Gilliland distorts the truth of the interview.  In the incessant back and forth about Carmichael, a few folks are questioning the role of Civil War Re-enactors. Some suspect that re-enactments are unethical, turning war into a spectator sport, which is an improper mode of commemoration. Others question the historical interpretation Re-enactors provide. They claim the battles do not broaden the education of the public, and miss opportunities to teach a deeper understanding of the war as a whole. Of course these types of thoughts seem to create a rift in the academic domain as well. Historians that focus on military operations and politics see the viability in such education. Then the question must be asked, where does the public and their education fit into all of this? It is all rather confusing, yes?

There are a couple of things I want to concentrate on in the next couple of posts. Part one will focus on the relationship Re-enactors have with history and the public. Because I have commented on other posts about this issue, this focus will be simplified and fairly narrow. Part two is on the rift in Academic History, and where the public and reenactments sit in the field. I also want to point out that this is not an argument over who are the “gatekeepers of history.” I hear those words thrown around often, claiming that the internet took the proverbial key of history out of the hands of historians. Which to me is stupid! Before the internet humans used these data repositories called books, which one might find in libraries. Before that there were scrolls, so on and so on, you get the picture? That being said, let’s begin.

I am going to reference two bloggers specifically in this post, Kevin Levin and Brooks Simpson. The reason being is that much chatter on this topic took place on their blogs. I do not presume to think they are alone in their opinions nor do I think they are leading a mob to rid the world of Re-enactors. I am simply using their comments and opinions to express my own. Kevin Levin examined Re-enactors and their place in interpreting history. For the most part, his questions center primarily on how Re-enactors interpret the role of race in Civil War battles. Race is a topic I will revisit later in part 2. In one post, Kevin questions the capabilities of Re-enactors. He states,

One of the problems that I can’t seem to get around is the clear limitations that a reenactment offers in these specific cases. It’s one thing to be able to simulate some of the violent acts involved, but it seems to me that the crucial component is the understanding of why it happened and how it fits into a broader interpretation of the war as a whole. Perhaps I am going to get into trouble for saying this, but I just don’t trust reenactors to be able to do this. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’ve seen way too many examples of reenactors – both blue and gray – who have skirted the tough questions of race when raised.

Ok, here’s the deal. Re-enactors can be a valuable resource for a couple of reasons. For starters, they wear period attire, carry period weapons, and simulate movements of a Civil War soldiers. The touch, smell, and looks of those materials and actions are real. This kinetic stimulation is not something that can be accomplished in a book, historical document or picture/video.

reenactor public 2
Imagine this young kid’s excitement

Secondly, there are a lot of Re-enactors who read an awful lot of battle history and they can be a valuable resource to the public for information regarding battles. That being said, Re-enactors have a dark side. There is a bit of disagreement among Re-enactors about the portrayals of the past and how “period correct” one should be. The diverse crowd, from what I can tell, is split into three groups: Mainstreamers; Progressives; and Hardcores. Mainstreamers are easy to spot by their jumbo officer tents. Usually their wives and children accompany them in camp. If you look inside their tents, you will find a plethora of “farby” equipment (cooler, cot, etc.) They see the Re-enactments as more of a hobby. Progressives, which is sort of where I fall, tend to be more authentic. Camping equipment, food, and other items are authentic. Usually they sleep in dog tents, under a shebang, or just bivouac on the ground. However, they usually have some modern equipment. You might find a cell phone hidden in the pockets, or Gold Bond Powder in the Knapsack. The goal is to present the outer appearance of authenticity, and to assume to role including the discomfort resorting to modern leisure on rare occasions.  Lastly there are the Hardcores. If you need to know what a Hardcore Re-enactor is, read Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, and pay special attention to Robert Lee Hodge. From the outer appearance down to the 19th century underwear, these guys are as authentic as they come. There are some Hardcores that do not participate in battles, because they think those events can never be truly recreated. The common ground between these groups, discounting the “farbs,” is on the march or on the battlefield. So the question is, what is the role of a Re-enactor?

Plainly stated, the role of a Re-enactor is to re-enact the past. In this example, they are re-enacting battles of the past. That is all. Kevin seems to think that interpretation falls short, but the fact is that Re-enactors are not there to interpret. They are not there to discuss the racial tensions of the Civil War, or broaden the understanding of the Civil War beyond that of visual simulations of appearance and battle. They provide, primarily, a military visual narrative of the war. That’s it. I understand if that does not tickle the fancy of certain academia. The role and function of a Re-enactor is limited to a narrow scope. In that respect, Kevin is right when he states that, “One of the problems that I can’t seem to get around is the clear limitations that a reenactment offers in these specific cases.”  (The “special cases” that Kevin is referring to are those that deal with race. In my opinion, Kevin’s propensity to concentrate on race issues over military operations guides his questioning. Again, this is something I will come back to later.) However, the limited function is appropriate and by design.

It is appropriate because some Re-enactors fancy themselves historians, on par with those that spend their lives studying and training in the field. I have seen Re-enactors tell some of the public that the war was “not over slavery,” “Lincoln invaded the South over tariffs,”  “Sherman is in Hell,” and so on. Those sort of things I usually equate to SCV tents and flyers at a county fair, and in my opinion, Re-enactors that engage in those discussions harm the public and Re-enactors alike. At an event such as the Blue-Gray Alliance’s 150th Gettysburg Re-enactment, there were over ten thousand re-enactors of various backgrounds. My unit in particular was composed of a chef, two men in law school (one of those in the Army), an English Professor, an Iraq-Afghanistan Wars Veteran, a couple of farmers, a policeman and someone in graduate school for history, just to name a few. Do you get the picture? In bulk, Re-enactors can provide precise simulations. As individuals, there would be discrepancies in approach and narrative. Some events do counter this by providing guest speakers on certain topics, or individual characters for individual persons (i.e. Lincoln, Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, etc.)

The reason re-enactments are limited in scope by design has primarily to do with public education. As Brooks Simpson noted, many members of the academy deride those academic historians who study the Civil War, especially military operations, as pandering to an endless and mindless public appetite for gore.”  Brooks obviously recognizes the elitism of such thoughts, but the public preference is important. Re-enactments are by design because that is what Re-enactors, and the public, find interesting. Battles are more than just entertainment though. Most “armchair” historians do not read race relationships of the war, they usually read biographies or battle histories.  These passions draw them to re-enact or to visit re-enactments. It is a public interest situation. Re-enactors present visual stimulation of the past, as best they can and the public enjoys it. The reason this is so effective, and the reason battle re-enactments can reach tens of thousands of people a day, is because the public finds those things more exciting. If I sat in Chemistry class, I would find throwing sulfur in water extremely interesting because of the explosion. However, if Bill Nye began to describe the molecular make-up of sulfur and how it reacts to water I’m going to get pretty bored. I can also say the same thing with Math. I really do not care about any sort of Math other than what helps balance my checkbook. Passions, or interests, draw people. This is the reason that the BGA Gettysburg had more spectators than the number of students at many major universities. As far as limitations go, it’s an issue of perspective. Limited to what exactly and to whom? Maybe Re-enactors are pandering to a mindless public, but at least they’re making contact rather than alienating.

9 thoughts on “Re-enactors vs Historians vs Historians: Part 1

  1. And to get a good understanding of what a Mainstream or Progressive reenactor does, with an attempt at adding academic history, consult “Muskets and Memories: A Modern Man’s Journey through the Civil War” that was released in April 2013.

  2. As a primarily progressive civilian reenactor I think you are leaving out civilian reenactors. Not the ones who live in military camp, but who camp apart to depict civilian life. We spend a lot of time studying the culture of the day. The public can learn a lot from us. Of course, even in that end of reenacting there is a disparity of knowledge. Never the less I have been able to engage many visitors in discussions on race, politics, religion, economics, and life at home during the war.

    1. You’re right I did leave out Civilian Re-enactors, but that was intentional. The criticism in this case is levied at Battle Re-enactments, so that is the one I addressed.

  3. I’ve been involved with historical re-creation and recreation since the mid-1970’s and the debate addressed is an old one. I started with an American Revolution outfit as a youth and have worked my way backwards and forwards from there over the years. There are Authenticity Mavens in both the re-enactment community and in academia, just as there are folks in both camps with a more relaxed attitude.

    A battlefield is a place for seeing a very narrow view of society. A soldier is usually not a great philosopher or observer of the larger issues of the day. Though, our forebears who fought and died in the Civil War did seem much more aware than other generations.

    My wife and I like to visit Living History sites, because that is where some of the best interpretive work is done. I have been told by the Interpreters with whom I’ve engaged in conversation as a visitor from elsewhere in their Period that I added something to their day. I like to be an informed visitor and chat up on issues and events of the day with these folks.

    I fall in as a hybrid of Mainstream and Progressive when I do participate, with a very few Hardcore tendencies. The majority of what I do these days is pre-gunpowder, especially Dark Ages and Medieval time periods.

    I quite like and agree with your observations.

  4. I am a graduate student at Boise State Univ. in Idaho and in the public history class we did a section on reenactors and how they “do history” -we read Mr. Levin’s work and a few other negative articles on reenactors. I feel it is up to us as living historians to break stereo types placed on us and understand we are in a age of reinterpretation of our history. We need to adapt and change a few things if we want to be considered a type of historian.

    1. I agree with that assessment. The ultimate question is “how?” Living Historians that are not exactly education in historical analysis often out number actual historians at events.

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