Civil War Reenactors

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Civil War Reenactors

Reenactors are those people whose hobby involves dressing in the manner of soldiers from a particular period of time in order to recreate battles from a famous war. Those individuals who choose to restage Civil War battles form the largest contingent of reenactors. They are part of a larger group of Civil War buffs who actively participate in genealogy research, discussion groups, and roundtables. The American Civil War divided the country in bitter warfare from 1861 to 1865 but its legacy has endured long since the fighting ceased. The war wrought extensive changes which shaped United States society and its inhabitants. Historian Shelby Foote, renowned for his participation in Ken Burns' popular PBS series The Civil War, observes that "any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us." The importance of the Civil War in American culture and memory makes it significant in popular culture. The Civil War has a long history of serving "as a vehicle for embodying sentiments and politics in our day." The Civil War has therefore been entwined with popular culture before, during, and since its actual battles occurred as popular cultural producers fought to determine how its meaning would apply to postwar society.

Civil War reenactments range in size from small one-day skirmishes to large encampments like the 125th Anniversary of Gettysburg that attracted 12,000 soldiers and 100,000 audience members. The larger events are great tourist attractions that feature concerts, lectures, exhibitions, encampments, and demonstrations of camp life, hospitals, Civil War fashions, and other topics. These large reenactments are often cosponsored by the National Park Service and local museums as they involve numerous volunteers and intensive preparations. The battles themselves are choreographed events where the soldiers shoot blanks and show a great concern for the safety of all involved. The reenactors who stage these events are part of the amateur and living history movement that encourages direct audience interaction and has enjoyed increasing popularity in the late twentieth century. Living history museums rose in popularity in the United States in the 1920s with the founding of automobile giant Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Michigan and John D. Rockefeller's Colonial Williamsburg village in Virginia. The majority of the people in the United States learn their history from popular culture rather than academic books and classes. Popular cultural forms of history provide their audiences with forms, images, and interpretations of people and events from America's past. Their popularity makes their views on history widely influential. Civil War reenactors understand that popular history is a valuable form of communication. They view living history as a valuable education tool, viewing their participation as a learning experience both for them and for their audience.

The first group to reenact the Civil War consisted of actual veterans belonging to a society known as the Grand Army of the Republic. These late-nineteenth-century encampments were places where these ex-soldiers could affirm the passion and the sense of community to fellow soldiers that their wartime experiences engendered. Veterans also showed their respect for the former enemies who had endured the same indescribable battle-time conditions. Community sponsored historical pageants replaced the early reenactments as the veterans largely died off, until the fragmentation of society after World War II broke apart any strong sense of community. Reenacting emerged in its late-twentieth-century form during the 1960s Civil War centennial commemorations. The battles staged during this period found a receptive audience. Public enthusiasm for reenactments faded in the late 1960s and 1970s as the result of a national mood of questioning blind patriotism and American values. The phenomenal popularity of the living history movement in the 1980s, however, quickly led to a resurgence of Civil War reenacting.

Twentieth-century Civil War reenactors have found themselves involved in the controversies between amateur and professional historians. Academics have accused the reenactors of engaging in cheap theatrics to capture their audience's interest and questioned the morality of the use of actual battlefields as reenactment sites. They have also been criticized for their sentimentalized historical portraits.

Civil War reenactors have a highly developed sense of culture among themselves. Most are generally white males in their thirties and are very passionate about the endeavor. There are a few women and African-Americans who participate, but they often meet with hostility. Reenactors are mostly not academic historians but are usually quite knowledgeable, conducting considerable research to create their historical characters and outfit themselves in meticulous detail. They categorize their fellow reenactors by a tiered system that demonstrates their amount of dedication to the activity and to the goal of complete authenticity. "Farbs" are those reenactors who lack seriousness and attention to detail and are usually more interested in the social and alcoholic aspects of the encampments. "Authentic" reenactors concern themselves with detail but are willing to allow some twentieth-century comforts whereas "hard core" reenactors share a precise and uncompromising commitment to accuracy. "Hard core" reenactors are also those who wish to ban women from participation despite the fact that many women disguised as men actually fought in the Civil War. Reenacting involves a great deal of preparation time as participants must obtain proper clothing and hardware and memorize complicated drills for public exhibition. Magazines such as the North-South Trader's Civil War, Civil War Book Exchange and Collector's Newspaper, Blue and Gray, America's Civil War, Civil War News, Civil War Times, and the Camp Chase Gazette cater to the large market of Civil War buffs and reenactors looking for necessary clothing and equipment. The reenactor must also make every effort to stay in character at all times, especially when members of the public are present.

The reenactors are largely unpaid amateur history fans who often travel great distances to participate in what can prove to be a very expensive hobby. Many participants welcome the chance to escape everyday life and its worries through complete absorption in the action of staged battles, the quiet of camp life, and the portrayal of their chosen historical character. Many also seek a vivid personal experience of what the Civil War must have been like for its actual participants. They are quite intense in their attempt to capture some sense of the fear and awe that must have overwhelmed their counterparts in reality. They find that experiential learning provides a much better understanding of the past than that provided by reading dry academic works. Jim Cullen observes in that by "sleeping on the ground, eating bad food, and feeling something of the crushing fatigue that Civil War soldiers did, they hope to recapture, in the most direct sensory way, an experience that fascinates yet eludes them." The immediacy of the battles and surrounding camp life is part of the hobby's appeal. Cullen also suggests one of reenacting's more negative aspects in observing that certain participants seek a ritual reaffirmation of their own past which may hide a thinly veiled racism in the face of a growing emphasis on new multicultural pasts.

—Marcella Bush Treviño

Further Reading:

Bodner, John E. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.

Catton, Bruce. America Goes to War: The Civil War and Its Meaning in American Culture. Lincoln, University Press of Nebraska, 1985.

Cullen, Jim. The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Hadden, R. Lee. Reliving the Civil War: A Reenactor's Handbook. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Stackpole Press, 1996.

——. Returning to the Civil War: Grand Reenactments of an Anguished Time. Gibbs Smit, 1997.

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Civil War Reenactors

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