What’s really (no, I mean REALLY) the problem with modern Civil War reenactments?

Posted on January 14, 2009 by


Noting the recent post by Kevin over at Civil War Memory, I figured I’d toss out some thoughts about reenacting.

First, YES, I have reenacted. I started back in 1981, and then, in the midst of high school, other things became more important to a teenage boy (go figure). Then, I crept back into it to a lesser degree in the 1990s when I attended the 135th Gettysburg. I attended maybe one or two reenactments a year. Frankly, I enjoyed sitting around the campfire and shooting the breeze and… well, participate in the general silliness that reenactors like to do in camp… not to mention that the group of guys I usually hung out with can be a riot on the march (and for those who say that silliness didn’t happen on the march in the war… there are plenty of accounts that show otherwise)… sort of like a lot of out of work comedians, although our shenanigans probably end up busting the “bubble” desired in reenactors in trying to capture the chance to get as close as possible to the real experience… in other words, we might, from time to time, ruin the “ambiance” that some feel is necessary to have “an experience” (but not to the degree that a fellow took it in ruining my “experience” at “First Manassas” a few years ago, when he started talking about WW2 reenacting… geez!). We had lots of fun with the historical markers while “on the march” at the Bentonville reenactment several years ago; mostly over the historical “anomalies” between our march and what was stated on the signs.

Anyway, when I did hit the reenactment field, it wasn’t unusual for “general” (that’s a pun, get it?) frustration to set in. The commanders mean well, but frankly, drilling a bunch of guys once out of however many months just doesn’t make for a well-formed set of maneuvers, though the occasional well-fired volley still happens, somehow, from time to time. Nor does putting rank on one’s shoulders/collars, as a result of an election in a reenactment unit, “an officer make…”

O.K., that’s a little taste of frustration on the drill field; when it came to the “battle,” there were other issues. I could name a number of problems about reenactments as a form of historical presentation to the spectators, but I’ll just mention a couple here. For those who were there, how about that wonderful Pickett’s charge that took place at the 140th Gettysburg? Remember when the charge hit that small creek, shifted the flank of the Confederate line, exposing the flank to an incredible amount of fire from the Union line… and then someone, in their infinite wisdom, thought it was a good idea to have a officer’s staff meeting in the middle of the charge!? Yup, that was brilliant. Just what does that mean to a person witnessing a reenactment? Worse yet, what does it represent to someone coming to a reenactment for the first time? I can hear a spectator saying. “geez, no wonder Pickett’s charge failed!” Excellent portrayal of the real deal, huh? O.K., here’s another one… at Cedar Creek, oh, I don’t know, it was a few years back… there was a part of the Confederate line that followed the commanding officer’s orders to the letter… and slowly moved right into an unbelievably awful position. I’m not saying it never happened in the war itself, but I think what followed was more of what amazed me. First, the Confederate line faced an amazing number of boys in blue to the front… and then also on the left… and then on the right… and it seemed certain that the line was about to be swallowed up altogether. Yup, I was in that line, and turning to the sgt. major just behind me, I said, “about now, I think a lot of us would be doing our fair share of ‘skeedaddling.'” Frankly, it was silly, and anything but that which really happened in the battle. To the reenactor it’s frustrating, but I’m more worried about the way the reenactment delivers history to those who pay good money to watch the madness. Certainly, the reenactor wants to (or maybe I should say “should want to”) portray the most accurate scene possible for the benefit of the spectators, but when does personal involvement in the “battle” trump the importance of accurate history portrayed to the spectator? When do we make the distinction between a three ring circus and a real effort to portray history as accurately as we can?

Which brings me to another point. I was talking to a Confederate reenactor once and we ended up on the subject of the way that reenactors portray themselves to people in “living history” environments. Now, some of these “bark-eaters” do a tremendous job in making sure that what they have on them is about as close as one can get to what the real Civil War soldier would have had on himself. From time to time, they even give some great delivery from the perspective of the soldier, having done a noteworthy amount of research in order to portray, say, the Confederate soldier, more accurately. Yes, I know, one of the most common things that a person might here from the reenactor playing the dirt farmer turned soldier is that he wasn’t fighting for slavery, and honestly, from that level, that’s more probably more true than not from the perspective of the common dirt farmer (but, that did not mean that even this statement is an accurate reflection of all of the common dirt farmers turned soldier). From the perspective of a couple of common privates from Strasburg, Virginia (just as an example), from that level specifically, most soldiers probably didn’t believe they were fighting for slavery, though they may have had a few choice words to say about those who had slaves and the way in which the government conveniently accomodated the well-to-do slaveowners in staying out of the war. But that alone did not define the Confederate soldier, so why is it so often portrayed as a standard among reenactors?  No matter the cause for fighting (willing or unwilling), there are things that are not represented in reenactor “soldier-speak” in “living history” experiences. Honestly, I’d get a hell of a kick out of a Confederate reenactor coming up to me and saying, in their portrayal of a Confederate soldier, “I really don’t want to be here” or “I didn’t volunteer for this and I’m actually a conscript.” I’d be happy to hear a Union reenactor to say this as well, though I think the Confederate reenactor doing it would be more exciting; maybe because this would stand in stark contrast with that which is the typical “delivery” made by the Confederate reenactor as to why they are “there, as soldiers.”

I could say a lot more about how reenactments and living histories are problematic, but that’s enough for today.

All said, we’ve come a LONG way from the reenactments of the Civil War Centennial back in the 1960s; but we’ve still got some distance to go before we can even come close to saying that even “living history” events are as close as we can get to the real deal. Reenactments… well, that’s different from living histories. We can never come close to the real deal there, unless we start firing real round and minie balls and canister rounds and what-not, we start seeing the agony of those who took real hits, and we start seeing the real horror in the eyes of the men who went into the jaws of death… not to mention portraying all of the impact this had on so many families in the aftermath.