Friday, February 1, 2008

On Reenactors & Reenacting. . .

March 2008 Issue ACW
Even though it arrived in the mail last week, I finally had the opportunity today to sit down and read through the current issue of America's Civil War. The issue contains a rather interesting feature on "Why reenactors are important," followed by a short essay written by Robert Lee Hodge, a well-known Confederate reenactor who appeared a decade ago on the cover of Tony Horwitz's wildly popular, and wildly successful, book Confederates in the Attic. An important question was asked: With the Civil War Sesquicentennial just three years away, and with the Lincoln Bicentennial, new museum openings, and battlefield restorations (especially Gettysburg) already underway, how can we reach out to our younger generations in helping to explain why it is so important that we study and remember the Civil War? Mr. Hodge maintains--and I agree, to an extent--that one of the ways is through reenactors and reenactments. "I know people putting on clothes from 150 years ago and reenacting a battle is going to make some academics frown or laugh," said Hodge. "But I feel that, even if it is a far from perfect resource, reenacting can help history benefit in competing for the memory of the youth." (pg. 25).
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When I was a kid, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to see Civil War reenactors. "Wow," I thought to myself, "that's what Civil War soldiers looked like!" Of course, I wanted in-- so it was not long before I started piecing together a "uniform," which I would frequently don to recreate imaginary battles in the fields and woods behind my Orwigsburg home. . .
Me. . .in "light marching order"
And whenever my family took me to Gettysburg or Antietam (see below), I would wear my Union blues. . .

As I got older, of course, I began to realize that perhaps Civil War reenactors--a large number of them, at least--did not resemble the real soldiers of the war. Many were old, quite old, with rather large bellies, which betrayed their representation of Civil War soldiers subsisting off meager rations and tramping many miles a day. Anyway. . .I went off to college then to grad school and earned my credentials as an academic. Still, however, I was not one who, as Hodge put it, would "frown" or "laugh." I knew reenactors can play a big role in helping kids become interested in the study of the war, and, to this end, I would willingly go into schools, or libraries, or YMCA's, or whatever, all decked out in my costume to present living history programs on the life of a Civil War soldier. While I was in high school, college, and even grad school, I delivered dozens such presentations, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. . .especially when the kids asked me if I was killed at Gettysburg or other amusing questions. I also delivered a good number of "living history" portrayals at local history-day events and such, but it has been a number of years since I did this, at least on a regular basis. (My roomate from college is now a fifth grade teacher in Philly, and every year since graduation, I go in to his classroom and do a presentation). And, technically speaking, since I never got into the battles or camp outs, I was never a true reenactor. . .just a "living historian."
Below are two shots of me in my garb taken way back in 2002. . .six years ago already. As you can see, I advanced myself to the rank of corporal.



I do feel that reenactors, or living historians, can have a positive impact on helping to gain the interest of our younger generations. It picqued my interest when I was a kid. However, there are some things about reenactors and reenacting that leave me shaking my head. And please understand me when I say that this is certainly not true of all, only a few that I've come across, especially as a ranger at Antietam. . .
Some insist on being addressed by their so-called "rank". . .I don't understand this. Anyone can get a major general's costume, or become a "lieutenant, "major," or "sergeant," just by sewing on some collar or shoulder boards, or chevrons. I even advanced from private to corporal! Others tell me where they--or their unit--were during a battle. "We were at the Wheatfield at Gettysburg," or "I charged Bloody Lane." No, you weren't, and no, you didn't. I'm also oftentimes amused at just how seriously some take their role. A few years ago, I asked a "major" how the reenactment went at Cedar Creek, and, boy, if I didn't know better, I could have sworn I was asking Phil Sheridan himself. "It looked for a moment that we would break. . .the boys were beginning to waver. I galloped over, waved my sword and told them to stand firm! Seeing me made the boys rally, and we soon drove them from the field." Sorry I asked. And I don't understand the policies among some units to exclude women. . .reenacting is a hobby, and should be shared by all interested and willing. Perhaps this might even inspire more girls to learn more about the war. I know the argument. . ."We strive for accuracy." Then how do you explain the large number of overweight "soldiers" in the ranks of too many reenacting units?
Now, with all of that being said, again let me state that reenactors and living historians can go far in helping bring the war to life to kids who might otherwise not get interested by simply reading books or watching documentaries. And as the article in ACW concludes, that is why reenactors are important.

3 comments:

Kevin M. Levin said...

Hi John, -- Thanks so much for this post. I am going to save it for my class on Civil War memory next year. It's perfect.

Kevin at Civil War Memory

John David Hoptak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John David Hoptak said...

Thanks, Kevin. I'm glad you'll be able to use it. . .

John