Monday, September 22, 2008

Civil War Reenactors: Living the Low-Tech Life

One year ago, a gray-bearded reenactor approached me at an Civil War encampment and told me that I needed to take up reenacting because it "is the most fun you can have with your clothes on." I'm not entirely sure if that is true, but I think I understand where he is coming from. In a very admirable way, reenactors set aside the high-tech world of today and embrace--for a weekend at a time--the low-tech world of the 1860s.  True, what they do is eerily like what my daughters do when they play "dress-up"--substituting rifles and muskets for princess wands, of course--but they do it with zeal and sincerity.  No shame in that.

This past weekend I went to the annual Civil War encampment at Caesar Creek State Park in Warren County, Ohio. Encampments like this one bring together all types of people: curious suburbanites, country folks, history buffs, and even pseudo-medievalists (or those who go by names like "Beorynth" and believe Middle-Earth is a real place). And, in many ways, not much happens. Visitors tend to mill around the campsites, gawk at reenactors, snap photographs, and ask questions. Some reenactors talk your ear off, while others seem content to sit by the campfire and ignore you. This year, a younger reenactor approached me and wanted to talk modern baseball. He also wanted to smoke an 1860s style cigar and blow smoke in my face. We didn't talk very long. 

The trip had two highlights. The first one occurred when I was getting my photograph taken with a Robert E. Lee interpreter, and nearly got trampled by his horse. Alas, I didn't get seriously injured. I mean, it would have been cool to have been injured by both Robert E. Lee's horse and Stonewall Jackson's grave site in the same year. But, unfortunately, Traveller left no hoof-print on my back. 

The second highlight, of course, was the staged battle. Apparently, at this encampment, the reenactors take turns winning. This time around, the Rebels won the day. Had they been firing real ammunition, the results might have been different. The heavy-set fellow leading the Confederate charge, for example, likely would have been hit long before the skinny guy next to him. There also might have been a little more blood. Details. Details. Details. 

Throughout the day, I heard several reenactors talk about the importance of preserving history through reenactment. For them, performances of the past act as alternatives to the textbook. I'm not entirely convinced of the merits of this method, though. Unfortunately, many of them are caught up in the mythos of the Civil War. After the battle, for example, one Confederate reenactor approached the audience and gave an impromptu speech about the war in which he claimed that "no side was right, no side was wrong." He even went so far as to claim that no one won the war, which seemed fairly debatable to me. From my perspective, any fight that involves a side that seeks to destroy a nation and preserve a system of bondage has a wrong side. But that's just me. 

Despite their tendency to mythologize irresponsibly, I do admire Civil War reenactors and their desire to preserve the past in a participatory and low-tech way. As my 9/11 post argues, the past is full of lessons that we need to learn. Some of the most important lessons we have from our nation's past come from the Civil War era, and we need people who are willing to remind us of those lessons. Some reenactors, of course, are not the best teachers, but what they do has the potential to inspire others to look into the past and learn. For this reason, I hope Civil War reenactors keep up their weekend games of "dress-up." I mean, it is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.  


  1. I'm kind of sad you didn't get a photo of the 12 year old kid who was taking his job way too seriously (the one who was standing by us during the battle and was even killed, though I'm not sure he was really part of the reenactment).

  2. Yes, the poor waif with the Wal-mart toy rifle and blue jeans. I remember him. I didn't realize he was killed during the fight.

    How funny.

  3. I enjoyed the day - much better than the last reenactment we saw! I agree with you on the guy who made a little speech after the battle. I think there was a right and a wrong but I guess that is just me. Anyway - I enjoyed the day.

  4. My favorite part is when the cannon on one end of the field went off and knocked all of the leaves off the tree in front of it. I still laugh about the poor tree.