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Reenactments, Military

Reenactments, Military. The vibrant subculture of battle reenactment is too often thought of as merely a hobby or as activity unworthy of sustained analytical attention. Americans have commemorated wars in a number of ways. Patriotic rhetoric, for example, reinforces the primal themes of patriotic orthodoxy: war as holy crusade that brings new life to the warrior and the nation. It asks the living to rededicate themselves to the ideals for which the warrior died. Monument building is designed to instill the lesson of sacrifice in the civic consciousness, and preservation of battlefields is designed to “freeze” the message in a commemorative environment. Battle reenactment claims to offer participants—and to a lesser extent observers—imaginative entry into a heroic past. Such reenactments are important cultural rituals, and the activities and motivations of reenactors—ranging from those who offer “impressions” of Revolutionary War and Civil War soldiers in public events to those who participate in reenactments of World War II battles on abandoned military bases—deserve serious attention, as does the impact of such spectacles on audiences.

There were many kinds of battle reenactment in the late nineteenth century. At commemorative events, Confederate veterans subsequently retraced their steps in the Pickett‐Pettigrew charge during the Battle of Gettysburg, but shook hands with Union veterans at the angle, the High‐Water Mark of the Confederacy. Such events would become an enduring feature of Gettysburg National Military Park commemorative events, celebrating the ideology of reconciliation between white veterans of both sides. The U.S. Army occasionally used Civil War battlefields for war games, and in the early twentieth century—the era of great historical pageants—battle reenactments were common.

The modern era of battle reenactment, with its emphasis on large numbers of participants (10,000 at the 125th anniversary of Gettysburg in 1988) and on historical accuracy in troop movements, uniforms, and other details of nineteenth‐century life, was sparked by the centennial of the Civil War (1961–65), and subsequently by bicentennial celebrations of 1776 in 1976. Experienced reenactors recall the first major reenactment of the Civil War—the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1961—as lacking in accuracy, but by September 1962 and the reenactment of the Battle of Antietam, specific units—the Ninth New York Zouaves, for example—had begun to appear, and attention to historical detail had improved. By the mid‐1970s, reenactors had formed the Brigade of the American Revolution, and distinct groups within the reenactment community had formed, distinguished by their commitment to authenticity. “Farbs” (reenactors who practice twentieth‐century behaviors during reenactments) were looked upon with contempt because of their “weekend warrior” attitude, specifically their failure to attend to historical accuracy. More diligent reenactors would study their unit's battle tactics and activities, while still others were concerned with “absolute” authenticity, including minute attention to detail in clothing and equipment.

The large‐scale reenactments that have occurred since the Civil War centennial of the 1960s have sparked controversy. An eminent historian of the war, Bruce Catton, worried that such spectacles both romanticized war and obscured the issue of slavery over which it was fought. Likewise, John Hope Franklin, prominent historian of African Americans, viewed such activity as a form of memorialized forgetting. Much of Civil War commemorative activity, he believed, celebrated glorious battles and heroic lives of the nineteenth century, while enduring forms of racism continued to shatter lives in the present.

There are revealing cultural attitudes encoded in battle reenactments. Southern events celebrated the ideology of the Lost Cause, and at least some Confederate reenactors offer an implicit objection to modern racial integration. Similarly, commemorative events at the site of the Battle the Little Bighorn—which would often include reenactments—solidified the classification of Native Americans as barbarians and savages, while George Armstrong Custer and his men were celebrated as sacrificing themselves for the opening of the West. In 1976, the Confederate air force sparked widespread controversy in the United States and in Japan when during their World War II Airpower Demonstration in the United States, they offered a simulation of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima before 40,000 spectators.

Reenactors believe their activities are valuable for a number of reasons. Some offer a “civic virtue” argument, emphasizing educational merit and the opportunity to spark the public's imagination. Some speak of the opportunity for personal transformation, to enter into the world of the past, if only briefly. Some speak of reenactment as a form of commemorative respect, to recall and honor the sacrifice of those who died. Clearly, battle reenactment can mean all of these things to participants, and it may signify yet another protest against modernity and the concomitant urge to recover an illusory and idealized past.
[See also Battlefields, Encampments, and Forts as Public Sites; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bombings of; Memorials, War; Patriotism.]


Jay Anderson , Time Machines: The World of Living History, 1984.
John Bodnar , Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, 1992.
Edward T. Linenthal , Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields, 1993.
Dennis Hall , Civil War Reenactors and the Postmodern Sense of History, Journal of American Culture, 17 (Fall 1994), pp. 7–11.
Jim Cullen , The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past, 1995.
Tony Horowitz , Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, 1998.

Edward T. Linenthal

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