Question of the Day: Reenactments?

In reading Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields this week, I came across a passage where author Edward Tabor Linenthal referenced a speech made in 1962 by Civil War historian Bruce Catton. Speaking at Gettysburg College, Catton was previewing the then-upcoming centennial celebrations planned for the battlefield. In decrying the “sentimental haze [that] will cloud the landscape” during the anniversary, Catton was particularly critical of reenactments.

I pass this on not to disparage re-enactors—especially because I have many friends who reenact—but in an attempt to generate a little discussion.

Catton said reenactments “require us to reproduce, for the enjoyment of attendant spectators, a thin shadow-picture of something which involved death and agony for the original participants.” Battles were not waged in a “spirit of fun,” Linenthal wrote…

but were “desperately real and profoundly, if unforgettably tragic.” A battle was not just a “tournament in which brave men did gallant things for the admiration of later generations.”

Linenthal went on to explain that “certain modes of veneration that initially were commemorative in nature became primary strategies for reviving the past, Battle reenactment was one such strategy.”

“It’s not that we pretend that this is real,” said one reenactor Linenthal quoted, “but it gives you an ever greater respect for those men who really endured it. We can never reproduce what war was like, not should we want to, but our endeavor is to never allow the sacrifices made by those who have gone before us to be forgotten.”

So, what’s the deal: Are reenactments forms of crass, disrespectful entertainment, or are they important forms of commemoration and education? Are they both? Neither? Something else entirely?

11 Responses to Question of the Day: Reenactments?

  1. If done right, meaning that those representing soldiers wear period-correct uniforms and accouterments, and the tactics used are exact, then this helps those visiting historic sites and such to get a sense of what the soldiers wore, ate, and how they slept, and how they fought.

    However, this tends to get undone by “farbs,” i.e. those who just come to burn powder, and don’t try to be as authentic as possible.

  2. I’ve never been involved with any battle re-enactments myself. Nonetheless, I would think that the chief benefit of civil war re-enactments is for the people involved in it themselves, to vicariously enjoy bygone eras. In that sense those who are all about authenticity in costume, food, bedding, tactics, and so on, are similar to enthusiasts of Regency novels of Jane Austen or any other people whose historical interests include a high degree of vicarious enjoyment in the actions of the past. Some have much higher demands to enjoy the experience than others, though.

  3. Steven,
    Can we, as reenactors, ever truly accurately portray the soldiers of the period? I believe we cannot, we don’t have the fear that must have been part of “seeing the elephant”. We don’t have the blood and guts spewing forth all around us, decapitated bodies, a canon being fired and a man just disappearing. Our commanders cannot accurately portray the battle since they have no clue what was in the minds of those commanding at the time nor do they know they precise turn of events that was experienced at that time. We are all “farb” to some degree.

    This being said, I try to be as accurate as possible but I realize the limitations we bring. I reenact to bring the history of our country to life. When I see young children with their eye wide open and soaking it all in I know I’ve done the right thing when I started reenacting. I love to talk about the uniforms, the rations, the tentage. I particularly like when we have the different styles all close by, from the A frame tent to the dog/shelter tent to the campaigner style. We all bring something different to the table.

  4. If reenactments are so deplorable, disrespectful and disconnected with the reality of the participants’ experience, then why did many of the soldiers themselves return to the battlefields for reunions wearing their uniforms and swords, carrying guns, pitching tents, cooking food over fires, and reliving charges? (I can also well imagine that a significant number of Civil War soldiers never wished to think again about their experience, nor set foot on a battlefield.) People’s motivations for reenactment, whether as participants or spectators, surely differ, but all clearly share a keen interest in the War. Why judge?

  5. The way society views things can change over time–that is a part of our changing culture. Standards of taste and decorum evolve. Our view of the manner in which we commemorate historical epochs is also subject to change. I think it is the manner in which we as individuals approach re-enacting, either as participants or spectators, to see whether it it dignified or not. There is absolutely no question that the scope of a large scale reenactment is something to behold, but each participant and each spectator gets a different feeling from the experience– whether pure entertainment or afterwards a sober reflection on the sacrifices of the soldiers. Given the fact that few people read anything today, let alone history, the reenactment provides perhaps the only method of communicating history most effectively and vividly. I can recall during the 125th anniversary of Appomattox I was a participant and watched as the Confederates marched past us on the very spot where Chamberlain’s men stood to receive them. One Confederate re-enactor made the march on crutches, principally because his ancestor was there 125 years earlier and he wanted to do the same. Others had begun the 125th series from Bull Run to the end that day. After their 4-year experience, they left their weapons on the field as their ancestors did and went home after obtaining their paroles, never to participate as re-enactors again. There was not a dry eye in the village that day–it was not entertainment, but pure emotion. Today, there are many who enjoy living history events in an effort to educate and also to experience the association and personal bonds formed between their friends who participate in this unique hobby. They, too, eschew the tackiness and commercialism often seen at larger reenactments. Keep in mind that re-enactors pay the price to experience the emotional reaction– not only paying the promoters to participate (something which many spectators don’t realize) but also putting up with the grudging commercialism themselves. Also keep in mind that in Catton’s day, battlefields were not as threatened with development as they are today. Part of the commercialism at large reenactments is used to counter that development because a portion of the profit can be used by the promoters for preservation efforts. Re-enactors share a communality of interest in this period of history that transcends just reading about it vicariously. They want to experience it. Many are as educated and aware of the facts of the Civil War as any guide or professional historian, but they also go beyond it to achieve an emotional reaction that our more staid society of the 1960’s might not understand or appreciate.

  6. In many ways, I was a “reenactor” when I wrote Hiram’s Honor: Reliving Private Terman’s Civil War (see I wanted to feel what it was like and I must give credit to the reenactors that I interviewed in doing research on uniforms and equipment for the book. I found them to be sincere and conscientious (realizing that not all are) and a real aid in my writing about the Civil War experience of my ancestor in the 82nd Ohio.

  7. Can we apply this same thinking to the reenactments that take place on film, I wonder? Is “Glory” somehow superior to live reenactments because it portrays the horror of war in richer, gorier detail? I don’t think that anything we do to remember these battles is going to accurately convey the horror of war. How, then, do we decide where the line should be drawn? How close an approximation is close enough to warrant our attention and acceptance?

  8. I no longer reenact, for personal rather than historical reasons, but I loved it when I did. I read the comments above, and each is absolutely correct–everyone reenacts for different reasons. There is a poem by Walt Whitman–“Cavalry Crossing a Ford.” . . . their arms flash in the sun–hark to the musical clank . . .the splashing horses loitering stop to drink . . .

    I was walking from one part of the Gettysburg battlefield to another, all alone, when I heard those exact sounds. I looked up, and a group of Union artillerymen were moving a couple of guns across a small creek to set up in another place. The harness and the wood creaked, the commands were the same ones that would have been used in 1863, the horses pulled and splashed, the couplings of bridles and harness jingled and glinted in the sun.

    I stood, transfixed. I wondered how long it had been since that field had heard those sounds. I was humbled beyond description, shedding tears for the ones Whitman described in the poem. I have read Bruce Catton, and he has moved me to tears as well, but nothing has ever affected me like that hot afternoon, and that is why I support reenacting.

  9. It does not matter how accurately they are dressed. The ones I have seen are not dirty enough, thin enough, and weather-beaten enough to give an idea of what troops in active service must have looked like. By all means let those who enjoy the hobby do so, but it is not re-enacting in the strict sense of the word.

  10. An interesting discussion! I tend two have two prevailing thoughts on the subject. I think to a certain degree, recreating and re-enacting death on ground where men truly fell is indeed crass. I’ve always been a proponent that we avoid reenactments on actual battleground. To reenact on actual battleground obfuscates the powerful sense of reflection, memory and sacred that we should feel. That being said, yes, I think much can be learned from reenacting. Getting some sense (though never a full one) of what a soldier’s life is like: the heat, the uniforms, the firing process, the tactics, etc. All of this can be incredibly educational and certainly very provoking for outsiders, especially youth.

    Ben made an excellent point earlier. We create war and death all the time in movies and fiction. Why should being physically present at a reenactment be any worse? I think the crucial point is to make sure its educational, that it honors the past while understanding we will never come close to truly experiencing it.

  11. I have given this a lot more thought. Now that I am doing this Masters in Military History, I can definitely say that actually seeing a group of men march in an oblique line or execute a right wheel is much better than reading about it. At the 125th Anniversary of Shiloh, I was walking around and came upon a young “captain” demonstrating the firing of a cannon for the observers. All the steps necessary were overwhelming at first, but I watched him call his orders several times, and I finally got the idea.

    Hw was a charmer, btw. He was a Confederate, and, of course, they ran low on ammunition every so often. He had a great “bit” where he explained that Rebel ingenuity existed as well as the Yankee variety–then he ordered his men to take the dead skunk carcass from the ammunition box and proceed to “load and fire!” It still makes me laugh.

    I agree, however–a battle should never be reenacted on hallowed ground.

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