The re-enactment season begins on the West Coast with the advent of warm weather, and I’m bracing myself for this question. It doesn’t matter if I’m rolling bandages in my civilian “home” or standing in the vendor area signing books. Somebody comes and asks, “Aren’t you dying in that dress?” I’m always honest – sometimes it’s a little hot, but usually I can say, “Actually I’m quite comfortable.”
I realize these folks are really concerned and probably don’t want me to fall into a graceful faint. (Ha!) So I try to respond graciously and usually end up explaining some of the clothing and dispelling the myth that all gals back then had eighteen inch waists. (Thanks, Miss Scarlett…)
They wander away to see “the battle.” To cheer at the supposed “battlefield deaths.” To shudder in distaste at the mild, re-created field hospital scene. To clap when Reveille sounds after Taps, and the re-enactors arise. I shake my head, but I can’t leave.
The cannons and fake gore draws the crowds. People are interested in history; they really want to know what the textbooks didn’t teach them about soldiering and homefront life during the Civil War. A re-enactment can become a perfect teaching ground.
When someone leaves my civilian “home” and says, “I feel like I’ve met the McGuire Family. I can’t believe they survived all that hardship. It makes me feel stronger,” I know we’ve done our job. When their eyes blink quickly as we explain what happened to the captain, when they realize the power of the homefront, when they ask about the knitted stockings and we remind them of the miles and miles of campaign marching, I know we are teaching history.
Perhaps a little unconventionally. After-all, it’s not a classroom. Eighth graders wander in and out asking to take selfies for their extra-credit projects. “You may take an image,” I respond, “if I can tell you something about the war.” Sometimes they dash as soon as I’ve finished my three sentence explanation of supplies from the homefront. Other times they stay and ask questions of their own. I absolutely love those opportunities to make re-enactment guests more aware of what life was like during the real conflict.
Sometimes – when I am frustrated with some aspects of the events – I remind myself of the positive moments of teaching through living history…and I also consider that perhaps my reading and research has created a trap. For example, it’s a fun distraction during a “battle” to figure out who’s going to flank who or if they’re just doing the frontal assault (again) or identify uniforms (are there really three generals on the field with only 50 infantrymen?). But those are amusing distractions.
Deep inside, I shudder at the cannon blasts and the rifle volleys. My throat tightens. I remember what it represents – even if others do not. Cannon balls tearing through infantry lines or disemboweling horses. Artillery canister blasting men to pieces. Minie balls piercing bodies and shattering limbs.
I want to cover my ears. My vivid imagination recalls the accounts of agonized screams and cries for aid or water chorusing in the battle noise. I can’t rush with the crowd to the field hospital scene – my mind is haunted by the CDV image of a young man who lost both his arms and the expression in his eyes.
My research shelves are stocked with titles like Civil War Medicine, This Republic of Suffering & Death, A Vast Sea of Misery, A Strange & Blighted Land, The Aftermath of Battle, and other such volumes. I wrote a book dealing with the aftermath of Gettysburg and how it affected the local civilians…and I read far more graphically gory details than I put in the novel.
Standing at my book signing table, I take another sip of water. By the sounds of it, the “battle” will be ending within five minutes, and I have to be ready for a rush of customers. The sun is warm; I tilt my head skyward to feel the rays on my face which is usually protected by my sturdy bonnet. A lone spectator comes by the table, leaving the show a little early. “Oh my dear, it’s so hot. Aren’t you dying?”
Images reel through my mind. Brady’s photographs of the dead at Antietam, the Gettysburg photograph of a body torn apart, “Tell my Mother I died with my face to the foe,” amputation knives, “I worked to exhausted, and still there were wounded,” gravestones with numbers instead of names, “Let us cross over the river…”, empty sleeves pinned to jackets, mourning pins, and vacant chairs.
Am I dying? What a question.