Battle of Gettysburg Reenactments Are Placed on Hold


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.

Episode 10: On Historical Reenacting



Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are back and ready for season 2. In this episode, they tackle the issue of historical reenacting. Is it just another kind of historical thinking? Or is it something different? They are joined first by “Thomas Jefferson” who discusses the current state of his 1800 campaign for the presidency. He is followed by Steve Edenbo, a professional “actor-historian” who portrays Thomas Jefferson. Edenbo discusses the process of researching and embodying such a famous historical figure along with the state of his profession in a post-“Hamiltonian” world.

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.

A Soldier’s Correspondence from the Civil War: The Battle of McDowell

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

McDowell, Virginia is in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.  The town is extremely small, but its residents are proud of their Civil War heritage. There in the middle of Virginia nearly twelve thousand Union and Confederate soldiers fought one another on the side of a mountain.  It is widely considered the second victorious battle in Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s infamous 1862 “Valley Campaign.” 
Many of us arrived on Friday night. When our cell phones lost signal fifty miles before we reached McDowell, we knew it was going to be an interesting reenactment.  My weekend got off to a “good” start when I threw my knapsack (full of all my spare gear) into a cowpie.  Authenticity has an odor all its own.  We carried our gear on our backs into camp and slept out under the stars around a campfire.  Other than my au de bovine, things were looking good.
We awoke Saturday morning to the gorgeous vistas of the Shenandoah Valley. McDowell had many old buildings and, though we could see some pavement and a few powerlines, we generally felt back in time.  With an early morning reveille and an immediate call to “commissary duty,” I remembered I was in a pretend war, not on vacation.  A squad of us reported to the Commissary Sergeant for our company’s rations.  We brought enough food for 40 soldiers back to camp and distributed it.  Coffee, potatoes, slab pork, onion, apple, and fresh soft bread; it was a realistic ration and we ate it up, literally and figuratively.
Then, seemingly unannounced, we were given the order to form up.  It was evident that the rebels were near.  This was an unscripted scenario and we headed up the hill toward the threat.  Excitement was in the air.  And we marched.  Then we waited.  Grumblings flowed through the ranks… the officers had led us off track. Since we did not see any rebels, we decided to march back to camp.  It was, in some ways, the most authentic thing I had ever done at a reenactment.  We were all eagerly anticipating a battle, but nothing transpired.  Soldiers in the Civil War, especially the Union soldiers chasing Jackson in the summer of 1862, did that for weeks on end. 
We made it back to camp to recover from the wandering and the rain, which barely fazed us while on the march, and things got more intense and more annoying.  We did our best to feel “authentic” about it.  Later in the day we had a “public battle” staged in the main field where several hundred spectators watched the Confederates sweep the Union from the field.  The rain continued.  We walked across the small river and settled into our camps for the day. The ran was sapping our strength.
By mid-afternoon the weather had cleared and we began putting up temporary shelter.  We dried our gear.  Our optimism bounded as we hoped to make something of the remaining twenty four hours of the event.  Squads went out on patrol, soldiers stood guard, and we all took turns hauling wood and water and helping each other survive.  If nothing else, we learned the true dependence on the “unit” to maintain not just military order, but necessities.  Despite feeling like we were “roughing” it compared to other reenactments, we still had nearby port-o-johns, pre-cut woodpiles, and ample rations to keep our bellies full. 
The next morning, with little in terms of breakfast and no morning roll call, we began a march up the mountain.  What started as authentic fun became a real workout.  As we climbed, we slowed.  The fatigue of the weekend set in.  Some of the older and larger gentlemen stopped on the sides.  We all panted like overworked draft animals.  It took a while, but we made it to the top of the mountain, where our pickets (the soldiers out front, watching for the enemy) began firing.  We heard the rebel yell and followed our orders in skirmish line along the mountainside.  We fought a short, but hot battle with the Johnnies, who defeated us just as they did 150 years ago.
As we slowly trod back down the mountain, many of us thought about May 1862.  Back then the soldiers did not have time to stop for water breaks or to rest their feet.  Several of them had marched for many miles in the days before the battle.  It gave us a sincere appreciation for the service of those fighting men.  It reminded many of us of our relative lack of fitness.  It also made us think long and hard about the hearty men of the Civil War and what motivated them to fight on in the midst of such trials.
Sometimes people ask reenactors why we do what we do.  For many of us it comes down to the dual purposes of commemorating the event and having a chance to “feel” a small measure of what they felt.  When I removed my brogans (shoes) and put on my modern athletic shoes, I was a welcome change.  As we live in our relatively pampered worlds of the 21st century, it does us a great service to remember that hundreds of thousands of people sacrificed in far greater ways to give us the freedom to play soldier.

Historiann on Reeancting

In yesterday’s “Sunday Night Odds and Ends,” I linked to an interesting article on French and Indian War reenacting written by Nick Kowalczyk and published at Salon.  Kowalczyk takes a Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic) approach to writing about reenacting.  He “embeds” himself in a group reenacting the Seige of Fort Niagara and offers a journalistic take on what transpires.

This article also caught the attention of Historiann, who has offered some very interesting insights into the whole practice of historical reenacting.  Here is a taste:

In Kowalczk’s telling, reenactors really are different from you and me, but does that explain the popularity of reenacting?  Some enthusiasts might make it their whole lives, but it strikes me that the desire to live in the past (if only on weekends and special occasions) is a wish more widespread among white men in particular than among others.  Something that I and others have observed before is that only some Americans romanticize the past, because the rest of us recognize how much more awful our lives would have been (holding race and gender constant). 

A Soldier’s Correspondence From the Civil War: Ball’s Bluff

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

Correspondence from the Civil War 150th

By Lewis Norman

Aside from a few skirmishes, no major action took place in the Civil War between Bull Run in the summer of 1861 and Ball’s Bluff, a battle along the Potomac, in the fall of 1861. During that time, the real armies spent time reorganizing, and, in many cases, still frantically enlisting new soldiers.  The reenactor armies spent that time going to school, work, and otherwise living the lives of twenty-first century Americans.

There was a collective excitement about this “event,” the phrase we use for a weekend that usually involves living like a soldier from food, to drill, to battle. We were excited because Ball’s Bluff is a regional park (not a national park), so we were allowed on the actual ground where the real battle took place.  One of the phrases that gets thrown around often in historical circles is “hallowed ground,” in the case of Ball’s Bluff, we felt it.

My pard and I arrived Friday and took a quick glimpse of the ground.  We guessed where we’d be the next day, and examined the bluff itself.  A bluff, for those who may not know, is essentially a  cliff.  At the bottom of Ball’s Bluff was a part of the Potomac River.  Harrison’s Island there separates the Potomac, but it is still imposing.  The height of the bluff varies along the battlefield, but suffice it to say it is ominous to climb down, let alone doing so at a hurried retreat as the Union soldiers had to in 1861.

Friday nights at reenactments are a bit of a mind meld.  Worlds collide.  Trucks drive tents and supplies in, driven by men usually wearing an amalgam of 19th and 21st century clothing; a t-shirt here, a kepi there, and smart soldiers keep their tennis shoes on until the very bitter end. Eventually, by midnight or so, most of the camp is effectively back in time.  Some comrades drinking concoctions that make them jovial, some singing “authentic” music, and most catching up on “real life” as a transition back in time.

One of the most exciting parts of the event was waking up Saturday morning to a foggy and cold morning.  We fell into ranks  surrounded by fog, Civil War tents, and every man in uniform.  It was time travel at its finest.  As we practiced maneuvers in morning drill, we collectively loosed ourselves of the rust of a few months away from soldiering.  The real soldiers had, at very least,  several weeks in the ranks, practicing the basics daily.  We bumbled around the field, impressed with ourselves in getting into soldiering shape, at least enough to look respectable in front of the “sold out”  crowd for the public battle later.

This code shifting, from modern to historic, remained at the heart of the event all weekend.  When we formed up for the march to the battlefield, we did not realize what a “moment”  awaited us.  We crossed the highway and marched up a winding Virginia road.  It was part asphalt, then turned into dirt.  Somewhere between the camp and the “hallowed” Ball’s Bluff field, we found ourselves devoid of modern intrusions.  Just a few hundred soldiers, fully equipped in authentic gear, marching at the route step (so not on the beat, but certainly all together), headed off to recreate a historic moment.  It was, for many of us, the high point.

As we arrived on the battlefield and rested at the bluff, we discussed the positions of the soldiers.  I stood where the 20th Massachusetts, the famed “Harvard Regiment,” and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. had fought 150 years and one day earlier.  It was surreal for many of us.  It was not “like the real thing.” We were ON the real ground.

As the battle began, we stood in reserve and watched some of the fighting.  When we took our steps out across that field, I felt something deeply moving.  Some might call it spiritual.  I felt a
connection.  It wasn’t something from one of the paranormal shows on television.  It was a communion, in a way, with history.  I felt a deep emotional pull that began triggering something like tears.  But, of course, I was a soldier, and I couldn’t blubber my way across the field.  I was there to depict young men whose purpose was to kill.  I tried to do that honorably, yet with the same fear in my eyes that they had.

Despite that deep, powerful moment, the scenario was a bit ahistoric.  There were a few hundred spectators with Nikon lenses and brightly colored clothes on our front.  There was a cemetery, commemorating the dead of the battle, on our left. Things were not exactly how they had been.  As we fought and some fell, the reality was that our friends got back up again.  Near the end of the scenario we were all taken prisoner, but during the real battle, hundreds fell down the bluff, some crossed the Potomac, and others drown in their efforts to escape.  We, it seemed, were the lucky ones.

Moving forward with the commemoration, the 150th anniversary events are going to get more frequent in the next three years.  We have already begun discussions about Shiloh, an event that will involve an all day drive just to arrive at the location next March.  Is it worth it?  We think so.  Hopefully the crowds at these events and the people who show interest in the 150th do so out of a genuine sense of connecting with the past.  Hopefully we strike a balance of memory and honor that does not forget the sacrifices of those who served.  

A Soldier’s Correspondence from the Civil War: Bull Run

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, has agreed to write some columns about re-enacting and the experience of war.  

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

Soldier Correspondence from the Civil War 150th:  Bull Run, Virginia.

By Lewis Norman

I packed my gear in my 21st century car and drove to pick up my “pard” in Pennsylvania.  We drove the four and a  half hours to Virginia in eager anticipation, modern clothes, and the last bit of air conditioning we enjoyed for the weekend. We hypothesized what it would be like to “see the elephant.” We knew, no matter how it panned out, the event would be exciting, if at times miserable.

Knowing a little about the event, we were eager to fall in with our friends as the 69th New York.  We had red battle shirts (of cotton flannel), sky blue wool trousers, authentic undershirts and socks.  Canteens full, cartridge box full of ammo, and a haversack full of 19th century-acceptable food. We feared the heat, but had no idea just how bad it would get.

The previous Thursday the National Weather Service released a heat advisory, but we were convinced we would be fine. We had been hot before.  It is always hot at a reenactment.  But this was different.

We parked the car, carried in our gear, and had our tent set up before nightfall.  Life was good.  We sat around with the other soldiers, swapping stories about our expectations for the weekend, discussing mutual friends, and alternating between 21st and 19th centuries with great ease.  We had no idea what the next day held for us.

On Saturday morning, we arose to an all-too-early reveille. By the time our bodies actually fell asleep the night before, a fatal concoction of uncomfortable sleeping on a ground cloth, heat, and Christmas Eve-like emotions, we were far from ready for the still-dark conditions of the morning.  We fell in for morning report, huzzahed at the news that there would be no morning drill, and prepared ourselves (mostly by hydrating) for the day’s battle.

After first call, we fell in for combat.  We marched to the edge of the battlefield in huge formation.  After poking through the woods, on our front were a handful of rebels shooting in our direction… and about 200 spectators.  This was not part of the plan.  We, the rank and file, did not know the plan, but were wondering what to do.  We waited in the shade, our temperatures already rising.

When we marched up to the battlefield, we were in the wrong place.  We were surrounded by firing, smoke, and officers yelling orders.  The pandemonium was realistic, if hair-raising.  We made our way to the middle of the battlefield, where we were supposed to be, and were given the order to rest.  It seemed strange, but we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  We eventually advanced on the enemy, fired some rounds, then fled the field.  After a lackluster fight and overwhelmingly hot few hours, we reformed and fought a bit more.  Everyone in blue and gray was exhausted. 

It was 108 in the shade that day.  Even with the “ice angels” (volunteers in 19th century clothing putting ice on our hands, hats, and canteens), we were dehydrated and exhausted. Most of us slept, or more accurately laid motionless, for the rest of the day.  When the sun went down, we emerged like the Phoenix to swap stories of our battle exploits.  We speculated what it might have been like to do that “for real.” Few of us considered the real “Great Skedaddle” and how the men of 1861 were forced marching, or perhaps running, back to Washington while we were lying in our tents.

Over night, thousands left the event, another option not available to the men of 1861.  Some of us stayed.  The next morning we were glad we did because we awoke to a nice gray cloud cover.  It was noticeably cooler.  We had a spring in our step.  We knew the scenario and were prepared to duke it out with the rebels again.  The second day’s battle was great.  We fought proudly, representing the 69th NY as we fought against men from Alabama, South Carolina, and undoubtedly many other southern states. 

The most harrowing experience was not the heat or the skedaddle.  It was, in fact, hearing the “boos” of the Virginia crowd when the Union cannons blasted a battery fire (all six guns firing at once).  I looked, quizzically, at the crow as if to solve their riddle.  I understood that their ancestors probably were on the other side.  But it felt, oddly, more like an  athletic contest.  They “rooted” for those men rather than us. I had trouble deconstructing it in the moment, but it struck  me as a bizarre notion.  Who cheers or boos a war?  Though we were acting, the event we represented had over one thousand casualties merely miles from the place in which we recreated it.  The “reality” of warfare seemed quite far from that Virginia field.

That experience ultimately made me reflect on the purpose of this Civil War Sesquicentennial and the role I would play in future reenactments.  What are we really doing?  Is it a celebration?  Is it a remembrance?  What is the difference between education, entertainment, reflection, and celebration?  How has romanticism changed the way in which we view the war?

As we sat on the road and spectators walked off the property, they “thanked” us.  They said things like “good job,” as if it was a performance.  I asked myself if that’s what it was. Those people paid good money to watch us.  Should I have been surprised?  What was our purpose?

I reflected on these issues, from the oppressive heat to the cheering Virginians, most of the way home.  I enjoyed a 21st century cheeseburger and an even more appealing 21st century shower.  As I returned to my daily grind, I couldn’t shake the reality of that reenactment.  I had seen the elephant.  In fact, I had seen an estimated eight thousand reenactors the first day (five thousand the second) wearing various shades of blue and gray.  What had we accomplished?  We kept the memory of the war alive for the spectators who were there and thousands more who read about it, but what memory did we preserve?

One of the most interesting and telling points about the weekend came in the parking lot.  As we sat in bumper to bumper traffic, those bumpers declared the allegiance of many of the soldiers.  From southern apologists to “CW Reenactor,” the stickers on the tail end of the vehicles expressed a variety of attitudes about the Civil War.  This was not just a “hobby” for many of these folks.  It was their “thing.”  In their offices, businesses, churches, and communities they are known by friends and neighbors as “the crazy Civil War person.”  It was a gathering of like-minded Civil War buffs.

As we move forward with this celebration, I encourage us to be critical of the way we talk and think about the war.  Let’s not forget that when reenactors fall in the meadow, they eventually resurrect.  Yet many of those who fell in 1861 never rose again.  Some hobbled to the rear missing appendages.  An incalculable number were shell-shocked before there was a term to describe it and found themselves completely incapable of explaining what happened to them. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. described it as the “incommunicable experience of war.” Hopefully we can depict some of that war, but rather than romanticizing it, perhaps we can use the tangible manifestations of war, with tents, guns, and uniformed soldiers, to help us realize the sacrifices that were made for contrasting visions of American nationalism.