A couple of weeks ago, I read this article about Civil War reenacting. It was a surprisingly unapologetic account of "the hobby," and a pretty accurate summary of what most reenactors and reenactments are like: "a mash-up of camping, American history, Halloween, and playing war."
I would love to argue otherwise, to offer some ringing endorsement of reenacting. But the fact of the matter is that the author is going easy. If I go by the numbers alone, based on the many reenactors I've met over the past decade, reenacting is about playing cowboys and Indians, getting drunk around camp fires, and making tasteless jokes about death. In fact, when I stop and think about battle reenactments, they are strikingly disturbing things. I am certain they bring no honor to dead men, no matter why those men died. Dulce bellum inexpertis, wrote the Dutch scholar Erasmus, war delights those with no experience of it. Unlike most reenactors, I don't believe the public has a distorted view of reenacting; the public is probably right about how strange, childish, racist, political, and misguided many reenactors are.
But there are rare gems. People who love history with such an intensity that it drives them not only to dress up like long-gone soldiers but also try to truly understand the experience. These people aren't interested in quoting Monty Python and don't vote Tea Party. Instead, they are hypnotized by buttons and braid, entranced by the prose of the past. These are the sort of living historians I prefer to spend time with. One of the most basic reasons I reenact is that I like the discussions and revelations I have around camp fires and dinner tables talking with these people. It makes me love history all the more.
The second reason I reenact is for the experience. There is absolutely no other way to understand the physical nature of the past. Thanks to reenacting, I know something - something - of what it was like to live in the past. I've carried a full pack and a musket across the Virginia hills like hundreds of thousands of young men did during four years of civil war. I know what it's like to spend tired hours huddled close to a campfire as the smell of smoke settles into every inch of your body. I've slept on the gun platform of a 1771 blockhouse and watched the sun set over Lake Ontario. I've woken up from a fitful night under a canvas tent to find two inches of snow on the ground and the water in a tin canteen next to me frozen solid. I've helped row a ship's boat down the Chester River in Maryland. And after many long weekends I've come home exhausted, cold, dirty, bruised, and battered, but intellectually rejuvinated.
That's why I reenact. Because my understanding of the Civil War or the Royal Navy or historic tailoring without marching and rowing and sewing would be merely flickering shadows. Describing these things without the experience would be like describing a food I'd never tasted. I reenact because I can't imagine imagining history without it.