The Pros and Cons of Historical Re-Enacting

Confederate Reenactors

Over at The Walrus, Erin Sylvester has written a very interesting and balanced piece on historical re-enacting.  I was struck by this piece because it quotes academic historians whose scholarship has actually benefited from the work of re-enactors.

Here is a taste:

If one major risk of re-enactment is that it romanticizes the past, another is that it is wildly selective: not everyone has a history that would be fun to relive, and few people are interested in playing a slave on the weekend. Inevitably, most history does not get re-enacted. Though most re-enactors are not explicitly motivated by the selectivity, some do enjoy it for nationalistic reasons. It lets them play in an imagined past, free from their pet complaints about the modern world.

Civil War events are among the most popular to re-enact, attracting all sorts of people. And some of those people really want to be Confederate soldiers. Many become interested in participating through a personal or family connection—so if you live in the South, you may have had an ancestor who fought on the Confederate side of the war. And some are then inspired to follow in their ancestor’s footsteps, perhaps too closely. For these re-enactors, it’s not just a fun hobby, it’s tied to something much deeper to their identity—and, in particular, to improving the image of their ancestors by portraying them as honourable and brave.

Kimberly Miller-Spillman is a textiles professor at the University of Kentucky who studies re-enactment costume. In her research, she has come across a number of Civil War re-enactors who are unwilling or unable to switch sides at a re-enactment. Re-enactors will often have both Union and Confederate uniforms, although neither is cheap to assemble, and will go on whichever side needs men. But some, typically men who have a strong political or family connection to one side, simply won’t. At Civil War events, the scale is usually tipped toward the Confederate side, although during the actual war, the Union Army outnumbered the Confederates.

Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many black Civil War re-enactors, and they are almost always on the Union side. Patricia Davis is a professor of communication at Georgia State University who has written about these re-enactors, and she says that many black people aren’t interested in re-enacting because they see the Civil War as a history that belongs to white southerners, or they might be discouraged because they assume that many white participants want to be in an environment where they can be freely racist. The ones who do participate, she has found, often do so because they are trying to educate people. (Similarly, in Canada, most Indigenous re-enactment takes place in an educational context.) “For African American re-enactors in particular, the causes and the consequences of the war are important for them to get across to the visitors at re-enactments, and what they often do in these interactions is they talk about how the history of slavery [and] the history of reconstruction have everything to do with racial inequities in the present,” Davis says. “And then a lot of them emphasize to me as well, visually seeing black men and women working in various ways to secure their own freedoms—they’re letting people know, ‘Look, we didn’t just sit around and wait for Abraham Lincoln and white Union soldiers to free us, we were actively engaged in securing our own emancipation.’ That has a huge impact on black children in terms of their ability to see themselves as important and valuable people.”

Read the entire piece here.

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