Battle of Gettysburg Reenactments Are Placed on Hold

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Here is a taste of Priscilla Liguori‘s article at ABC 27 News (Harrisburg):

The future of Gettysburg battle reenactments is uncertain. The committee that has put together the event for 25 years says it isn’t happening next year.

Organizers say they’re putting a pause on the reenactments as they reevaluate and decide what to do next.

“Due to logistical issues and costs, they needed to postpone next year’s programming and hopefully it’ll be back over the next couple of years,” said Jason Martz, of Gettysburg National Military Park.

The event isn’t put on by the park but by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee.

Organizers took to Facebook to make the announcement and sent us a statement saying, in part, “doing non-five-year events which are much smaller, increasingly varied visitor interests, a decreasing reenactor base, the risks of totally outdoor weather-related events, and a staff that has done this for 25 years are all factors in the decision.” 

Read the entire article here.

Lincoln Impersonators Unite!

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On Saturday, during a visit to Gettysburg with my Pennsylvania history class, I met Abraham Lincoln.   It was actually George Buss, a former teacher who has been impersonating Lincoln for over thirty years.

I though about George today when I read Olivia Waxman’s Time article about a gathering of Lincoln impersonators.  Here is a taste:

For Lincoln impersonators like Tom Wright, the work is serious business.

“When you’ve got this outfit on, you’ve got to be proper, and make sure you don’t do anything that would take away from Abraham Lincoln,” says Wright, a 71-year-old from Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Indeed, when it comes to historical second skins, the attitude is as important as the accoutrements. “To me, this guy was important to the country because he saved the Union,” says Wright. He and his wife, Sue Wright, recently joined dozens of other faux-Lincolns for the 25th annual Association of Lincoln Presenters, a conference of reenactors, amateur historians, and other Honest Abe enthusiasts held April 11-14 at the Amicalola State Falls Lodge in Dawsonville, Georgia.

There were 22 Abrahams, 12 Mary Todds, one Robert Todd, one Jefferson Davis, and even one George Perkins Marsh (Lincoln’s ambassador to Italy) present at the event, which began in 1990. The Abrahams, of course, always steal the show.

Read the entire piece here.  I wonder if George was there.

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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.

“A probationary member in a pastoral utopia of armed nostalgia”

<> on June 30, 2013 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Dan Johnson, a writer from Los Angeles, describes how, as a teenager, he used Civil War re-enacting as a means of escaping the world in the wake of September 11, 2001.

Here is a taste of his piece at Salon:

My first day back at school was Sept. 10, 2001. I went from being a soldier in a fictional approximation of a long-defunct 19th-century army to being a boy in a 20th-century educational system. At home my time was much more my own, but my status had been greatly diminished to that of a child. A teacher welcomed me back to the “real world” even though everything about a return to supposed adolescent normalcy felt unnatural.

I first saw footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center on the cafeteria TVs. In the days after, I sat in my parents’ house watching moribund repetitions of structural collapse, airport security checkpoint footage and the omnipresent tears of victims’ families. The high-pitched roar of combat air patrols replaced the regular wash of passenger jet noise from planes landing at nearby Dulles Airport.

The world of the dot-com suburbs was in a state of flux. A promising future braided with the trappings of supposed progress threatened to unravel in the face of the new national pastime — brooding paranoia. In a time when nobodies from half a world away can fly planes into skyscrapers unimpeded, anything is possible. The lucrative undergirding of Pax Americana was suddenly in question.

There was a certain feeling of entrenchment in the re-enacting community that fall. We hobby soldiers did in literal what the rest of the country did in abstract — we dug into the bedrock of national mythos. It’s an age-old remedy in times of fear and insecurity. We sought our deliverance in the calm certitude of the past. Rarely is that enough.

As the world around me changed, re-enacting became an all-important excavation. I built a system of spiritual trenches to safeguard a comforting idea of history. I wasn’t alone. Far from it. The harder I dug, the more I found like-minded pseudo-soldiers doing the same.

I linked up with others in a vast labyrinth of breastworks cut into the loam of Americana to protect us from a future more intimidating than any of us could have imagined then.

Read the entire piece here.

Has the Sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War Been a Failure?

Earlier this month The Wall Street Journal‘s Cameron McWhirter argued that the 150-Year Anniversary of the Civil War “has been disappointing so far.”  He based his argument on the fact that the sale of Civil War relics and memorabilia is down, government funding has been limited, the number of re-enactments have dropped, and racial issues have brought unease. 

Jesse Marx, writing at The Week, has also pointed to the declining number of reenactors and re-enactments.

But Nick Sacco, writing at his blog “Exploring the Past” is not buying all of this negative press about the Sesquicentennial.  He writes:

…we should proceed with caution before deeming the entire commemoration a failure. Rather, we should consider the ways people are engaging with and learning about the war through their experiences in history classrooms and at a free-choice informal learning settings like Civil War battlefields and museums. Measuring the extent to which people demonstrate changes in knowledge through their learning experiences at Civil War sites can tell us more about the influence of the Sesquicentennial than the purchase of a teddy bear with a Union or Confederate kepi.

According to Sacco’s long-term calculations, attendance is actually up at Antietam, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Fort Sumter,  and Vicksburg.  Check out his post here.

Gettysburg’s 150th: A Re-enactor Weighs In

Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg, PA


What would the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg be without reenactors?  

Some of you will remember “Lewis Norman,” our soldier’s correspondent from the Civil War.  Norman has taken us through the battles of Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, McDowell, and Chancellorsville and in the process has offered some reflections on “living history” (reenacting) as a form of public history.
Today we have a piece from Willie P. Mangum. (Not his real name). Willie is a Ph.D candidate in American history and a Confederate reenactor.  I hope you enjoy his piece on living history and race at a Culp’s Hill reenactment.  Enjoy!  –JF
I have reenacted the Civil War for over twenty-five years and cannot escape the boyish joy of material culture, hanging with friends in the woods, and playing army. At the same time I am an academic historian very aware of the hobby’s limitations in the modern historiographical landscape. Because of this bifurcation of my historical interests, reenactments like the one I participated in last weekend at Gettysburg are filled with satisfaction, anger, and uncertainty. Let me explain with one example.
On Saturday evening our small group of Confederates assaulted the fortified Union position on “Culp’s Hill.” The actual “fight” went so much better than the highly choreographed and completely dull and misleading scripted scenarios the spectators see in the open fields. Our lines went up the wooded and rocky hill in repeated waves, double-quicking through the thorny brush and just as quickly falling back before heavy Federal fire. As one line fell back, another pushed through it to the front. 
I challenged my friend to see who could make it further to the top amid the confusion. Like most Confederate soldiers at Culp’s Hill, I eventually “took a hit.” This meant that my exhausted legs faltered, I stumbled on rocks, I lost my balance, and fell to the ground in a twisted lump. At least it was several yards ahead of my friend.
We lay “wounded” just yards from the Union position. My friend and I gave ourselves over to the Yankees as prisoners and their guards corralled us with others in a huddled circle behind their lines. I wasn’t particularly trying to be in character aside from just acting defeated. I sat with my arms crossed before my knees and my head down.
Others, however, attempted to express the recently-captured experience by being loud and defiant. Maybe they were correct in their portrayal, but the efforts to protect their officer from separation or help a wounded friend was hindered by poorly performed stage drama that made me want to get away from it all.
We eventually did, but before that I witnessed an extremely unique and complicated scene. As we sat in our prisoner pile, an African-American gentleman walked into our midst and began rifling through our haversacks. (I recognized this man from other events and know him to be a high-quality living historian, but I don’t know him personally.) He took all the food and bags of tobacco he could find.  This was unusual for a number of reasons. All of our gear and possessions are considered personal property and usually a scenario involving theft is followed by a return of the “stolen” goods. But as far as I could tell, he kept everything. I liked that, probably because I didn’t wear my haversack for that scenario and thus lost no food or tobacco.
But the more intriguing aspect of this “theft” was how his actions represented the seriously inverted power dynamics present in the later years of the Civil War. This man walked among us with an air of impunity, not even stopping to acknowledge the men he pilfered. I recalled the many historical instances of newly freed black men and women who exerted personhood and independence by haughty and contemptuous treatment of former masters. I never see this at reenactments and here it was happening before me. What a thrill. 
What elevated his actions even further was the reaction of some of the prisoners who resisted this freedman with impotent epithets of outrage. This improvised moment was a rather sophisticated and fascinating look into the evolving racial realities for Confederate soldiers and black men as slavery fell apart.
While I observed this, I also cringed. In hindsight I am certain the prisoners who reacted were doing so “in character” and did not harbor any actual animosity toward an African-American reenactor (who they might well have known). But this hobby is full of people who are not shy about expressing modern opinions about race and racial politics that liberal academics like me consider uncouth, at best. While I watched the interactions, I feared that the wrong word might get aired or a genuinely insensitive sentiment might have been uncovered. I prayed that it would end before one did.
As the scenario wound down my friend and I prepared to depart the area. As I left, I saw the African-American gentleman. I had to say something about how much I appreciated his portrayal and what he had just done. I croaked out a quick “that was good, thank you” in passing. Unless I missed something, I don’t think he acknowledged me. As I slunk back over the breastworks toward our own line I wondered if he harbored the same uncertainty about me as I did toward the prisoners he had just agitated. I was, as we academics say, troubled.

A Soldier’s Correspondence from the Civil War’s 150th: Chancellorsville

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War upon us, Lewis Norman (not his real name), a Ph.D candidate in American history at a major research university and a Civil War re-enactor, offers another column about re-enacting and the experience of war.  See his previous columns here.

I am sure that there a variety of opinions about historical re-enacting among the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I do feel it has the potential to be a legitimate and valuable way of getting people excited about the past.  As an academic historian-in-training and a re-enactor, Norman’s columns will attempt to bridge the gap between these two approaches to encountering the past.  Enjoy!–JF

The Battle of Chancellorsville is widely known among historians both amateur and professional as General Robert E. Lee’s finest victory.  It is equally known for being the location where Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson was shot by his own men after completing one of the most daring flanking attacks of the entire war.  All of that imagery is alive and well in the wilderness of eastern Virginia even now for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  Consider a few of the reflections I offer here as an expression of my experiences on the “front lines” of the 150th anniversary of the war as it played out for the national reenactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 6 and 7, 2013.
A few of my “pards” and I decided to head to the battlefield an entire day early (on the 5th) for the purpose of seeing the actual ground on which the battle had taken place.  Here’s an initial point that perhaps most history buffs and scholars do not know; reenactments rarely take place on the original ground.  Because most of the biggest battles of the war are preserved by the National Park Service, living historians are not allowed to fire weapons on that land.  Therefore, most of these large national events (yes, even Gettysburg) actually take place on land nearby.  That said, our initial trip to see the battlefield was full of foibles due to our own navigation mistakes.  However, one of the mistakes led us to the small display at Kelly’s Ford.
After our brief stop at the relatively unassuming but no less educational “Civil War Trails” marker for Kelly’s Ford, we pressed on to the main NPS visitor’s center for Chancellorsville.  There we had an opportunity to hear a ranger talk on “The Wounding of Stonewall Jackson” and even saw the monument dedicated to the event.  The vivid detail of the action as told by the ranger was everything many of us “Civil War nuts” originally loved about the war.  It was full of grace and power and literally the stuff of legend.  (Had I encountered it pre-graduate school, I would have certainly loved it more.)
My comrades had found an awesome camping location a bit off the beaten path of the mainstream rows of tents.  Despite the rock I slept on Friday night, it was a comfortable camp with a quaint timelessness to it.  Camped along a mostly-stagnant creek with enough firewood to keep us warm in the 40-degree nights, we had our usual mixture of “guy talk” around the fire.  It blended the 21st and 19th centuries with surprising ease.  We discussed modern sports, Victorian clothing, and every reenactor’s favorite… the hobby itself.  The battles over the next few days were lackluster, so instead of focusing on the unrealistic scenarios and overcrowding of the public battles, I’d like to discuss two important moments from the weekend.
First, there was a distinct air of celebration to the Confederate mood, far more than I’ve experienced at other battles in my years in the hobby.  From the themes evident at the ranger station to the overt celebration of the Confederacy at registration, I could sense that the Spotsylvania County event organizers were playing to the home crowd.  I am not certain that I find fault with their decision to be economically savvy, but as a historian I definitely took pause.  There was little indication of the divisive issues of the war, namely slavery, brutal violence, and the incredibly vitriolic debate over political power.  Instead, it seemed a tribute to Scarlett O’Hara’s South, complete with both Generals Jackson and Stuart (who, to their credit, were both actually present at Chancellorsville).  Maybe I haven’t quite come to terms with what it means to celebrate the Confederacy, but this event seemed to me to be a particularly glowing spectacle of Old South festivity.
Second, the “civil war within Civil War reenacting,” as a pard called it, was quite evident at the event.  This contemporary war is being fought between two types of living historians.  There are some, calling themselves authentic or campaigners or progressives, who prefer a more realistic set of scenarios.  Rather than getting excited about “powder burners” and events full of romanticized battles, progressives prefer the harder aspects of war life such as marching most of the weekend, eating only what soldiers had (even at that time of year), and sleeping only with the gear soldiers had.  The other side of the contemporary war are the mainstreamers.  These folks are more interested in celebrating the war through a carnival atmosphere.  They enjoy eating elephant ears or soft serve ice cream.  The highlight of their weekend is the “din of battle” while loading and firing as fast as possible, often refusing to “take a hit” because it means they will miss out on firing their musket another few times.  They sleep comfortably, on cots, sometimes in heated tents with portable Coleman stoves. 
This division, though, is about more than how the two groups “enjoy” the hobby.  They represent a difference in how people choose to celebrate and understand the war.  If you’re a reader from Dr. Fea’s circle of professional historians, especially regarding the 19th century, this is an important point to acknowledge.  This division in “the hobby” also represents a division in the book purchasing world; it’s an attitudinal difference reflected at Civil War Roundtables and even among the young scholars that grace your classrooms.  We need to decide, as scholars and historians and even “buffs,” what we intend for the Civil War to mean.  There will be no consensus, but there should be a conversation.
While Chancellorsville is not the “end” of the 150th, or even the pinnacle (which I assume will come next month at Gettysburg), it certainly marks a sort of Confederate high tide.  As we reflect on this all-important anniversary of the Civil War, we have a real opportunity to decide, collectively, what it means.  For some heritage is the key issue.  For others, celebration is part of the identity formation that makes history so very important to our collective present and future.  As I looked around and saw youngsters in the ranks or running about in camps, I wondered what this event meant to them.  Was it just fun?  Did it have any reflection of the horrors of war?  Do campy fake-blood medical demonstrations help give us any better understanding of the brutalities of 19thcentury warfare?  As we continue to live in the long-standing consequences of the Civil War through race, class, and sectional differences that live themselves out in contemporary political and social discourse, let us remember to reflect as thinking people on the realities of the Civil War.  That said, there’s nothing completely anachronistic about enjoying a lemonade while you think.