Are re-enactors real historians?

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.

3 thoughts on “Are re-enactors real historians?

  1. I grew up in a family of Civil War reenactors and was very active in the “Civil War community” through college. I don’t go to many events these days, but my family still does.

    In my family, reenacting came out of a general mania for history. Neither of my parents is an historian, but they are both avid readers of history (popular and academic) and my mom is on the governing board of the Society for Women and the Civil War — I started attending their annual conference when I was in 8th grade.

    Now, I’m getting my PhD in American History from Harvard with a focus on material culture (my adolescent rebellion involved breaking away from the Civil War to study the Colonial Era). I’m not sure I would have been as interested in material culture if I hadn’t spent all those weekends in a corset, cooking over an open fire. If nothing else, those early experiences have made me much more sensitive to the materiality of history — the built environment, architecture, clothing, tools, etc.

    Also, I can load and fire a muzzle-loading rifle and play the fife. Never know when that might come in handy.


  2. It all depends if you are referencing Reenactors or Living Historians. I have been a Living Historian for many years, and find the “Reenacting” end of the hobby absurd. I do not participate in “battle”, but try to have as authentic as possible clothing and equipment to portray to the public what the soldiers looked like, slept like, there food, and the hardships encountered by them. The material culture advancement by the living historian community can not be discounted.


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