Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Value of Living History

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.


  1. I distinguish between Living Historians and Historical Reenactors. Living historians in my opinion appear to be very dedicated, where as American reenactors are a mixed bunch. Overseas reenactors however also appear to be very dedicated & generally put on a good show. Why we see American reenactors on video being so slack I have no idea, one would have thought they would be the best. Dissapointing.

  2. Having attended, but not participated in, several civil war reenactments, it serves to me as a living reminder of how horrible and reprehensible war can be. Sure the revelry and peripheral atmosphere would, most certainly, not have been present during the actual events, but the message of using war as a solution to disagreement remains the same. Having served in the military during the Vietnam conflict (a gentler way to say WAR), I have, since that experience, held the use of military force as the very last measure of resolving differences of social and theological ideology.

    As two snowflakes are not alike, the individual perception each of us have when we encounter such events as reenactments, provides the personal reasoning we form our opinions from. I, for one, look past the quasi-reenactors and seek out those who are there for understanding and explaining their particular interest in preserving historical facts and educating those of us who would otherwise be left in ignorance.

    Thanks to all Veterans who served with honor and hope that they should never be forgotten.

  3. this is slightly pertinent, and i think you'll find it amusing. an acquaintance of mine, rachel kelly (who makes pretty fantastic stuff), created it: