If you were planning to watch some reenactors do their thing at Minute Man National Historical Park this year, you’re out of luck.
Category Archives: Reenacting
Every Christmas there’s a reenactment of the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River on the way to attack the Hessians at Trenton, and one lucky guy gets to portray George Washington. I’d always assumed the organizers got their Washington the same way other museums and historic sites find people who do first-person portrayals—just flip through the Rolodex and make a phone call. Back when I was in the Lincoln museum business, we had a couple of go-to guys we used for this sort of thing. (There is, in fact, an Association of Lincoln Presenters in case you need somebody to show up at an event and deliver the Gettysburg Address.)
But it turns out the organizers of the Delaware crossing reenactment pick their Washington through a formal audition process every few years. Think American Idol, except with middle-aged men in tricorn hats. It’s the subject of a short documentary produced by The Star-Ledger.
I recommend watching the film, not just because it’s a fascinating glimpse into the commemoration of the Revolution but also because it’s surprising to see how fierce the competition is and how passionately these guys want the role. There are Rev War reenactors for whom this is the holy grail of living history, but of course only one guy is chosen, and there are some bitter feelings when the winner is announced. Of the competitors featured in the documentary, I think the guy who bore the strongest resemblance to Washington was the winner, but the film doesn’t really show any of them in character except for a few brief speech excerpts.
Portraying Washington at an event seems like it would be pretty tough, at least if you were really trying to get it right. Doing first-person interpretation to a crowd requires you to be engaging, but Washington was famously reserved. He was also a rather bland public speaker, at least when using a prepared text. I’d imagine that playing somebody more personable, like Franklin or Lincoln, would be a lot more fun.
…when a spectator actually passes out.
Yesterday I finally took care of a nagging bit of unfinished business. Being an aficionado of the Rev War and the Tennessee frontier, I’ve always had a soft spot for Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, but I’d never visited Carter Mansion, the historic house museum just a few miles away operated by the park as a satellite site.
Built sometime around the Revolution, either by John Carter (one of the first settlers in what would become Tennessee and leader of the Watauga Association) or his son Landon (a veteran of the War for Independence and an important political figure on the frontier), the house is one of the oldest and most important structures in the region.
I’d wanted to see it for a long time, but it had been closed every time I’d visited the park, so when I found out about a living history event at the house this weekend, I jumped at the chance to make a special trip. I took my cousin along; he’s a fellow history enthusiast who accompanied me on my last visit to the park.
If this doesn’t fit your idea of a “mansion,” bear in mind that most houses of that time and place were simple cabins; painted siding and brick chimneys weren’t the sort of architectural features you saw every day.
Where the house really knocks your socks off, though, is its elaborate interior. The carved panels, crown molding, chair rails, and fluted columns of the first-floor walls put this home in a different class altogether from the rough dwellings typical of the eighteenth-century frontier. Incredibly, some of the walls still have the original stain, visible above this fireplace in the parlor.
I’ve seen more than my share of historic house museums from the late 1700′s and early 1800′s, and this is one of the most beautifully restored and furnished of the whole lot.
Some members of the Carter family are buried on the grounds…
…although I could’ve sworn I saw John Carter himself treating some of the local militia to a patriotic libation.
A gang of Tories broke up the party by showing up uninvited, more than a little irate that their property had been confiscated. The negotiations didn’t turn out well.
A good time was had by all—except for the Tories, I suppose—and I can finally scratch Carter Mansion off my bucket list. Totally worth the wait.
…courtesy of the Post. It ain’t as easy as it used to be: “‘The audience member today is sophisticated enough to know when a shot should have scored a casualty, and when no one falls, it can be met with laughter from the audience,’ Treco said. ‘Just as in Hollywood, the suspension of disbelief. . . is the overall goal.’”
By the way, you may notice that I’ve added a “Reenacting” category to the blog. I used to file items of this sort under “Civil War,” “American Revolution,” or my purposefully vague “History and Memory” category. With the Sesquicentennial underway, I figured we’d be seeing more living history material popping up in the news, so it seemed like a good time to adjust. I’m going to try to add all my earlier reenacting-related posts to this category, too, but of course I may miss a few.
The AP covers the trials and tribulations of the female Civil War reenactor in an interesting article:
A century and a half ago, women weren’t allowed into military service; masquerading as men was the only way in for those who weren’t satisfied with supporting the war effort from home or following their husbands’ military units around. As the country marks the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States, some female re-enactors still cling to secrecy — not just for historical accuracy but because uniformed women aren’t always welcome in the male-dominated hobby.
My personal opinion is that a few women in disguise aren’t a big deal when we’ve got hordes of hefty, middle-aged privates in the ranks.
In any case, a recent incident at Gettysburg suggests that living historians should stop worrying about gender roles and start worrying about divine wrath.
In other Civil War news, iPhone users will now be able to enjoy a handheld, GPS-enabled guided tour of the Manassas battlefield, complete with audio and video.
If you’re fond of the eighteenth-century frontier, Native Americans, the Revolution, palisaded forts, and living history, then this is going to be a good month for you. (And in truth, you should be fond of all these things.)
This weekend is the Raid at Martin’s Station, hosted by Wilderness Road State Park near Ewing, VA. It’s become one of the finest living history events in the region. The recreated fort onsite is one of the most authentic structures of its kind anywhere, the setting is gorgeous, and the interpretation is top-notch. Plus, they’re going to let me help shoot a cannon again.
Next weekend is yet another Indian assault on yet another recreated fort at yet another fine state park—the Siege of Ft. Watauga, hosted by Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethton, TN. Sycamore Shoals is a must-visit for anyone interested in early Tennessee history; I’ve only been to the site once, and I’m hoping to visit again this month for the event.
Let’s have a HUZZAH!
Okay, okay, it’s a vintage Civil War reenactment recruiting poster, but it’s still neat.
Mom’s been cleaning out some old stuff this week and found a box with this relic of dad’s living history days inside. He caught the Centennial reenacting wave and was pretty active in the hobby for a number of years.
The reference to LMU’s museum means this thing can’t be older than 1977, but Dad hung up his shell jacket and kepi not too long after I was born. That dates this poster in the late seventies or very early eighties. A nice bit of curatorial detective work on my part there.
In the same box was another item of some historical interest. It’s an envelope from the Kennedys to my mom. She sent the family a sympathy letter when Bobby died, and they sent back a printed card and a mourning photo bordered in black.
If my conservative father had known we had a thank-you card from the Kennedys in the house, he would’ve gone thermonuclear.
Also in that box was a 1984 clipping from the Knoxville News-Sentinel, covering the Olympic torch relay’s passage through town. This piece isn’t really significant, except that my family was in the crowd and the reporter ended up quoting us for his man-in-the-street sound bytes.
My aunt stated, “I don’t understand how Russia can miss all of this…This is a great thing.” This, you may recall, was the year the USSR boycotted the games.
Here’s the scenario I imagine. Somewhere in Moscow, a couple of Politburo officials read that and said, “You know what? That American woman from Tennessee is right. We missed the torch relay. This Marxist ideology stuff just isn’t worth it anymore.” And the Soviet Union’s downfall began that very day. Of course, I could be wrong about that.
When my turn came, I left the geopolitics out of it and tried to focus on the sunny side: “Michael Lynch, 4, of Tazewell, son of Sylvia Lynch, admitted he did not know what the Olympic Games are. He did say one thing about the rally: ‘I liked all of it.’”
I’ve never been a very keen follower of athletic events.
One of the interesting things about reenactors is that they have to devote extensive attention to questions that would never occur to the rest of us—even those of us who are fascinated with history. Questions involving facial hair, for example.
For the eighteenth century, the answer would seem to be simple, at least at first glance. In depictions of gentlemen from this era, facial hair is practically unheard of. Hence this admonition from a Rev War reenacting group:
18th century men did not wear beards, goatees, soul patches or long sideburns. (Yes, some German troops did sport waxed moustaches and Edward Teach, the infamous pirate wore a trademark black beard early in the century – but these are rare exceptions which had purpose in what they did.) Whatever you may have seen in movies – or even on reenactors – men simply didn’t wear beards during this era.
The German exception is an interesting one, and has always puzzled me. Some Hessian units did indeed sport mustaches, and facial hair was also de rigueur in certain European hussar and grenadier units. I’ve never understood why. Whenever I see a film clip or painting with Continentals going toe-to-toe against mercenaries with Super Mario Bros. mustaches, it always looks odd.
For most soldiers and civilians, however, going clean-shaven was the ideal. But in terms of what actually happened on campaign, of course, things were probably quite a bit more complicated. For one thing, the fact that officers were telling their men to shave regularly doesn’t mean the men were actually doing it. If you look at Rev War orderly books, you’ll notice that commands regarding the troops’ appearance were repeated over and over again with ever-increasing tones of irritation, indicating that soldiers weren’t too compliant about this sort of thing. Indeed, in his magnificent book on the Continental Army, Charles Royster states that “the most common of the soldiers’ signs of independence were hair and hats.” This refers chiefly to the length of the hair on top of the head, but given this kind of independent streak there were probably a few oddballs in camp who were letting their chins get stubbly just to be ornery.
More importantly, and probably more commonly, the exigencies of warfare meant that soldiers were periodically unable to keep up their usual routines. In December 1776, as retreating American troops crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, Charles Wilson Peale remembered one soldier who approached him “in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his face full of sores,” and it turned out to be his own brother. His appearance was so ragged that Peale didn’t recognize him at first—probably the most sobering testimony to the harsh conditions in Washington’s Army that I’ve ever read.
Of course, this sort of hairiness must have been unusual, or else Peale probably wouldn’t have noted it. It was neither condoned nor typical, so Rev War reenactors are doubtless correct in discouraging facial hair for new recruits.
Still, this raises larger issues for reenactors that go beyond specific matters like facial hair to suggest some of the difficulties of trying to depict history as it was lived. Do you try to portray the ideal soldier, or do you indicate some of the minor infractions and hardships that arose from time to time? Should each member of the unit try to be as “typical” as possible, or should you try to suggest some of the diversity that must have been present? And if you’re going to try for the latter, how much is too much?
Reenacting, when done properly, is therefore a difficult enterprise, fraught with unique and delicate challenges. I think serious reenactors deserve the respect of anyone who researches or teaches history.
By the way, just a few days ago I ordered a used copy of Franklin and Mary Wickwire’s book on General Lord Cornwallis. It still has a sticker from the “Cottonwood Senior High” library, wherever that is. By a remarkable coincidence, it arrived today, as I was typing this post, and apparently some student at Cottonwood High thought eighteenth-century armies needed a little more facial hair, because this is what the cover looked like when I opened it:
Doesn’t look half bad, actually.
Back in October I posted a review of Historic Brattonsville, a great site in York County, SC. Over at the National Trust for Historic Preservation blog, there’s an interesting item concerning Brattonsville written by living historian Joseph McGill, Jr. He’s found a way to combine reenacting with advocacy, drawing attention to one particular type of endangered structure—the slave cabin.
McGill travels throughout the Palmetto State, spending nights in original slave dwellings and using the ensuing publicity as an opportunity to explain why these buildings are important and need to be maintained. He’s been chronicling his experiences at the National Trust blog; you can find the first post in his series here, along with links to related news stories.