Archive for July 13th, 2009

Are re-enactors real historians?

Posted on July 13, 2009. Filed under: American history | Tags: , |

This is a question I first encountered two years ago at a conference, where the answer was emphatically no. But as I think about it, it seems like people who re-enact historical battles are almost uncannily similar to the historical people they are pretending to be.

Think of the Civil War re-enactors. Why do people like to re-enact its battles? For a number of reasons: a friend of theirs is doing it, and they get interested and start themselves; they are military buffs; they have an ancestor who fought; it’s exciting and involves travel and audiences; they become an established part of state and local celebrations; it’s an expression of their patriotism; they want to try to understand how those long-ago men felt, fought, lived, and died.

Now think of the actual Civil War. Why did men fight in its battles? For a number of reasons: friends were enlisting and they wanted to go with them; they had ancestors who had fought in earlier wars; it was exciting and involved travel; it was an expression of their patriotism; they wanted to take part in the most important event in American history since the Revolutionary War.

In each case, men have multiple reasons for going into battle, some personal and some political, some deep and some a little more shallow. Both groups are motivated by the same spirit of joining in something larger than themselves. Just as re-enactors try to live the experience of real soldiers, so those men who enlisted during the Civil War tried to be real soldiers, since the vast majority of them were farmers who had no experience of soldiering or war. There’s a steep learning curve regarding uniforms, weapons, drilling, camp life, and battle for both groups.

So I say re-enactors are as much historians as anyone else who comes to know a period in time intimately, and they come closer to really living as their subjects did than most of the rest of us who work strictly in our own time from our own computers.  Somehow it is seen as dreadfully amateurish to dress up and re-enact history, while reading and writing about it is respectable. Re-enactment is seen as pop culture, publishing articles and books as “real” history. But I side with the re-enactors here. It may be very hard to translate their experience into scholarly writing, but we should all have to walk an actual mile in our subjects’ shoes before we write one more word about them.

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