Embedded with the reenactors – American History – Salon.com

Embedded with the reenactors – American History – Salon.com.

I’ve been involved with reenacting for most of my adult life, sporadically but intensely. And to be perfectly honest, as a historian I have truly mixed feelings about that. In part, it’s the whole “honoring one’s ancestors” aspect of reenacting / living history, which I’ve never fully understood; in part it’s the notion that someone who has never done primary-source research, has perhaps watched a documentary or two, and partially absorbed a secondary source (usually dubious) can tell a wide-eyed public that he/she is a “historian.” But more about that later. I want to ruminate on this for a couple of days and write something up. And if anyone is reading this, I’d like to read their opinions about the merits/flaws they see in historical reenacting … let me hear from you.

Author: Paul Lockhart

History professor at Wright State, historian of pre-modern Scandinavia and of European warfare.

8 thoughts on “Embedded with the reenactors – American History – Salon.com”

  1. Ok, so I’m not a reenactor, only a historian-to-be in a field that attracts completely different and way crazier brands of weirdos (e.g. ancient alien theorists), but here’s my two cents.

    The impression I get from reenacting overall is that it often reduces history to the minute details of military tactics and technology and trivial aspects of material culture, to the point where the reenactors I’ve encountered tend lack a thoughtful or even vaguely accurate understanding of the past. Not that material culture and so forth aren’t important — I could bitch all day about how history education at all levels does not include enough about material culture — but it’s a problem when people think of themselves as historical authorities because they hunted down authentic 1860s buttons (unlike those farbs over there!), while their knowledge of the wider social/political/etc context of the Civil War is superficial at best, pieced together haphazardly from the romanticized and politicized notions that permeate our popular culture.

    The fact that so many reenactors don’t have a good grasp on history outside of the immediate physical realities of whatever war they’re reenacting* feeds into a much larger issue, namely that people generally have a hard time understanding that people in the past weren’t just like us and didn’t believe the same things as us, not even people in the relatively recent American past. We as a culture have a really big problem with projecting our experiences and worldviews onto the past — and that’s how we end up with pundits who claim that the Founding Fathers totally believed the same things as 21st-century evangelical Protestants and writers publishing books about how the girls involved in the Salem Witch Trials were child abuse victims acting out. I suspect that plenty of reenactors think that wearing an itchy wool jacket (or whatever) for a day gives them some sort of direct pipeline to the experiences of individuals in the past, and don’t ever think about how the inner lives of such individuals differed from their own. And then, of course, add in the notions of ancestry you brought up in your original post, and I think you end up with a situation in which reenactors can identify way too much with a past that never existed and look to reenacting as a way to validate that identification.

    *And only some of those physical realities at that, since, say, a well-fed middle-class guy who has never known any real want in his life and who will be going back to his desk job tomorrow can’t ever replicate the experience of a half-starved teenage soldier who is terrified that he could die any minute, except through a really good imagination.

  2. @Kate–first of all, the Bronze Age link was hilarious. Second: your comment was dead-on, and I’ll have to admit that it mirrored a lot of my own feelings about reenacting. Here are a few disjointed thoughts about my experiences with reenacting, starting with the good ones.
    –I have learned a great deal from the hobby — and to me it’s always a hobby, I’ve never been able to see it as some kind of ancestor-worship — and a lot of it comes down to how something *feels*. Some highlights (the ones I can think of at five in the morning):
    –Chickamauga 1999: marching with a relatively authentic Confederate battalion towards the sound of a battle, down a dirt road with nothing modern in sight, and as the battle sounds crescendo all of a sudden there are shell-bursts overhead. OK, so they weren’t really shell-bursts but really good pyrotechnics. And a few minutes later the first “farbs” became visible.
    –McDowell 2007: watching a full Confederate brigade break camp and go on the march. I can’t explain it; it was just really impressive.
    –Gettysburg 1981: my first real event. Most of it was pretty awful. But I went on a march with a few friends, following the same route taken by the 20th NYSM on the morning of July 1, 1863, on a miserably hot day. A real eye-opener, especially since I was eighteen and in very good physical condition.
    –some seventeenth-century event in 1996: teaching a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, all new to reenacting, how to do pike drill using Johann Jacobi von Wallhausen’s KRIEGSKUNST ZU FUSS…in Plattdeutsch.
    And I’m sure there are others. My point is that there are a handful of experiences that have, perhaps, given me a little taste of how someone in the Civil War or in the Thirty Years’ War *may* have experienced something. Is this useful to me as a historian? Maybe. It’s given me some insights, for example, into the complexity of military drill, and I think I’ve drawn on this a couple of times for the books I’ve written. Is it useful, perhaps, for historical fiction? Perhaps. At least I won’t fall into the same trap as a famous Revolutionary War historian who has always insisted on describing black-powder smoke as being “greasy” and “black” (it’s not, folks; it’s white, acrid, and pretty dry).
    –I’ve learned a lot about material culture, and you are right on the money for decrying the lack of education in material culture that goes into historical training. In part it was my affinity for the material culture that first drew me to reenacting Civil War (I loves me some muskets!), and of course I didn’t need to reenact to get this info. MOST of what I’ve learned about material culture from fellow reenactors is demonstrably wrong. But at least reenacting gave me the incentive, for example, to learn about the cut and construction of men’s clothing between 1500 and 1870 or so.
    –But what it all boils down to is friends…and familiarity. Almost all of my closest friends I’ve met through reenacting. Most of the fun I’ve derived from the hobby comes from seeing old friends at events.

    Those things said, though…I can’t disagree with anything you’ve written. I know very few reenactors who really know the historiography of the Civil War; for many, I would suspect that they know it at the Ken Burns level (pretty superficial, in other words). For some, knowing the history — as you point out — means becoming obsessed with the details of material culture. Most depressing — reenactors who become absorbed with those details and can’t even get them right! I know LOTS of reenactors like that. Or those who know a great deal about the material culture of a particular era and still can’t quite figure out how it all fits together.

    It’s a fun hobby…but it’s a *hobby*. I don’t like the notion that reenactors are “historians,” because it plays into the whole idea of history as the “everyman discipline,” that all history takes is enthusiasm and the ability to memorize a few key dates, events, and salient but interesting fact-lets. I don’t like the notion that reenactors “educate the public,” because I shudder to think what “the public” takes away from watching a reenactment or — worse yet — talking to reenactors.

    I’ll end here because I’ve been trying to respond to your comment for two days now and every time I do something keeps me from completing the response. I’ll be posting about this again — funny how my lifetime of reenacting has made me ponder a great deal on what history — as a discipline, as a hobby — can or should be practiced.

    I think it’s interesting, though, Kate, that the few reenactors with whom I can have intense discussions about history (and NOT about button backmarks!) would not disagree with you, either.

  3. Some more thoughts, since I clearly can’t shut myself up (maybe I should take you up on that offer to write a guest post after all, heh):

    – What is the deal with the whole “everyman historian” thing? So frustrating. I feel like history and science get the worst deals of all academic disciplines. Plenty of people see science as a hoity-toity and possibly evil field that’s conspiring with The Man to hide the truth about evolution/climate change/vaccinations/wingnut cause du jour from the public. History, especially American history, is treated like something anyone can do and is maybe the most acceptable discipline to the anti-intellectual crowd, so everyone and their mother has an opinion on history cobbled together from half-digested BS on the History Channel. (Unless, of course, you’re a historian working with something like form criticism of biblical texts, in which case you’re a pointy-headed liberal conspirator just like those evolutionary biologists.)

    – Back to material culture and reenacting — the problem’s not just the obsessive focus on material culture, it’s also the narrowness of that focus. Like only the strictly military details matter. How many Civil War reenactors think about, say, the homes soldiers would have left behind: the architecture of ordinary nineteenth-century houses, the stuff that would have been in those houses, the sort of routines that people followed at home every day? Isn’t that stuff just as important to understanding soldiers’ lives? I mean, yeah, muskets would figure pretty heavily in a soldier’s life, but wouldn’t said soldier also be remembering sleeping in a warm bed with his wife/siblings/whatever or the sampler which his little girl was embroidering when he left? Granted, this problem is not limited to reenactors by a long shot — I’ve known people on the philological side of classical studies who’ve never spent much time thinking about the basic material realities of the lives of ordinary Greeks or Romans.

    – As silly as renaissance faires and SCA are, in my experience those folks usually have the right idea — that’s it’s all just for fun.

  4. Interesting stuff, views from both sides of the reenacting community.
    As a reenactor, its good to see a snapshot veiw point of what we do from someone outside the “ranks”. However, I like to think I have knowledge the general public may not have. Also, its been in my charge to see, read, learn, travel and understand more than the general public…which I find increasingly easy.
    People have their passions, I look at fans (taken from fan-atic) at sporting events, painting their bodies in team colors and striping to the waist in freezing weather and I say “wow, ya gotta be into it to do that!”, But I understand Im not that much different, Im passionate as well…only Im more interested in history, not as much in sports. However, generally, I feel the public sees the sports fan as the more socailly acceptable figure and the reenactor more as the nut-case. Curious.
    My passion leads me to purchase historically based period uniforms, I find I creates a visual interest, something a book usually doesnt generate. Its a great hook to begin a history “lesson”. You put on your best tap dance shoes (right now Im my minds eye sees Richard Gere in the movie Chicago) and go to a place the public has interest. Or, reading their questioning eyes, engage with a hello and hope a comment may lead to substantive questions. Often, I guide my comments to such thoughts that the person may not have considered previously.
    A thought… my appearance can be intimidating as well, but approachable because of a more casual environment and Im just sort of an average Joe…weird, but more average. Paul, to many would be very intimidating, he KNOWS “lotsa stuff” and people may feel inadequate to even begin a conversation. I read Pauls books…lord help me…but I use his insights to good effect. Dressed as I would be as a reencator, my visual look can help me site his work, lead people to read, yes, Ive actually seen people write down books I recommend.
    I dont think of myself as an anomally in the sea of reenactors, but perhaps so.

  5. Lots of interesting stuff in these replies…certainly enough to merit a spin-off into another post. Thanks, Kate, for the prompts on “everyman history” and presentism / teleology — two of my historical pet peeves, along with *post hoc propter hoc* reasoning, the notion that anything could “change the course of history” (as if history had a course — my mentor, the late Gunther Rothenberg, once told me while we were discussing Toynbee that he had one overarching theory of history: “Shit happens”), and the oft-voiced claim that Topic X “isn’t in the history books.” Aargh. Anyway, posts on all of these coming up in due time, starting with “everyman.” I think.

    Doug: All points well taken, and don’t get me wrong — I’d be the last person to completely dismiss living history and reenacting. Living history adds a great deal to NPS (and other) historical interpretation programs. I’m proud of most of the programs of which I’ve been part. I agree, too, that the general public tends to see reenacting as bizarre, while not finding anything wrong in the extremes of fan-ism in popular spectator sports. I’ve never understood how it is that watching people play any kind of sport is less weird than reenacting; at least reenacting involves getting out and doing something, not just sitting upon one’s ass and downing Doritos and crappy beer. Reenacting generally isn’t understood outside the hobby. Remember Rich Iott, a GOP House candidate from Ohio (Tea Party, actually), in the 2010 elections? Witness Chris Matthews (Hardball, MSNBC) responding to Iott, a WWII German reenactor: “Is this some kind of homoerotic thing they do, they put on these uniforms and dance around? What do they actually do?” I have no love for Rich Iott or his politics, but I also know a whole bunch of WWII German reenactors…and I don’t know a single one who wouldn’t quail at the idea of being associated with Naziism. And I have no idea where the “homoerotic thing” and “dancing around” comes from; I think that you could just as easily level the same accusation at football fans, equally unjustified but equally logical. That’s a topic I’d like to return to later, too. My problem was with reenactors who genuinely think that they’re historians — and that all comes down to Americans not really sure what it is that historians actually do. That’s definitely the next post.

    Kate: Points about familiarity with material culture and everyday life definitely taken. I have known a few intrepid (read “possibly insane”) souls who have done everything they can — have in fact devoted their lives — to living something close to an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century lifestyle, as close as they can manage, at least, including a number of people I’ve met who spend their lives in cabins in the Blue Ridge without utilities and eschewing MOST modern conveniences. I’ve known a few more who have at least taken the trouble to work at living history museums (Sturbridge, Connor Prairie, Plimoth Plantation, etc.) to at least get a real taste for it, and to get some experience with basic farm chores and livestock maintenance. Too bad there aren’t opportunities to hold down a job at a textile mill in Lowell, Mass. or something similar. But these are the rare, rare, rare exceptions. The vast majority of reenactors, I suspect, don’t have that familiarity with everyday life in the period they study — of “knowing what someone from [insert appropriate year here] would have known.”

    Awesome stuff. Now if only I can generate this level of interest in future posts, I’ll be ecstatic. P

  6. I have mixed feelings myself really…I enjoy watching it but as Glenn Fantasie put it(author of twilight at little round top)…they are essentially reenacting events that caused such suffering and heartbreak for people and their families…it is an interesting discussion and I must say I have been to quite a few living history events so…I guess I do find them interesting

  7. @Jason — Sorry for the late reply. I do see your point, though I’ll have to admit that I was never very troubled by the notion that reenactments are usually depictions of events that caused suffering and heartbreak — any more than I would shy away from writing about something that caused (or causes) suffering and heartbreak. Maybe that’s because I just can’t get into the “ancestor-worship”/honoring-the-deeds-of-one’s-forefathers aspect of reenacting. Not dissing it, mind you, just something I don’t fully understand and don’t feel any particular need to do myself. And, like yourself, a lot of people find reenactments interesting. And if it makes people *interested* in history, even if they get the details (or even the big picture) wrong, I can’t be *entirely* against it.

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