Casualty-free reenactments

Here’s a little unintentional hilarity for you:

There are few things more ludicrous and worthy of scorn than a poorly-executed death scene.  That’s why, in the past few years, my thinking on battle reenactments has come around to a stance similar to what Kevin Levin recently expressed: “It becomes problematic when reenactors cross the line from representing how units drilled and maneuvered on battlefields to simulating death. There is just something incredibly distasteful about it in my mind.”

I have no objection to reenacting “casualties” in theory.  In practice, it’s another matter.   I can’t tell you how many living history events I’ve been to where the dead and wounded have drawn chuckles because the participants were either having a little too much fun or were terrible actors. All it takes is one corny “fatality” to turn an ostensibly educational enterprise into a travesty.

One of the best reenactments I ever saw had no casualties at all. It was at a national park. Since the NPS doesn’t allow casualty reenactments, the soldiers did everything but take hits. They advanced, retreated, yelled, and took cover, but nobody feigned an injury or death, while a ranger narrated the action.  It was both enlightening and entertaining, and the crowd seemed to enjoy it.

You might argue that a reenactment without casualties would give the public an artificially sanitized view of battle, one that trivializes the reality of warfare.  Personally, I don’t think it’s nearly as trivializing as the spectacle of some guy who couldn’t carry a background role in an Ed Wood movie rolling around on the grass, clutching his abdomen, and yelling that he’s a goner.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Reenacting

Sgt. York’s voice

I really should be grading finals right now, but for some reason I developed a sudden urge to find a recording of Alvin York’s voice.  Most of the historical figures that interest me came along well before the advent of sound recording, so I don’t get to indulge this sort of curiosity too often.  This newsreel includes a brief clip of York speaking.

As a bonus, here’s a video tour of his home, with some reflections from his son and daughter-in-law.

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Linclone

Check it out:

FLINT, MI — Dennis Lazar never thought a quick tweet would lead to anything big, but it resulted in one of the most famous U.S. presidents coming back to life — as an evil clone.

Lazar, a 27-year-old Flint native now living in Chicago, sent out a tweet as part of a Heineken-led contest in which people tweeted out their best ideas for movie plots. The winning idea would be chosen, handed over to a Hollywood crew, and turned into a 15-second movie that would be premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Here’s how this should play out: As Linclone’s reign of terror unfolds, the scientists realize that the only way to stop him is to genetically engineer an assassin using DNA from the John Wilkes Booth vertebrae at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Linclone then constructs a gigantic mecha from parts of the Enola Gay at the National Air and Space Museum. A climactic, CGI-heavy battle ensues on the National Mall.  Roll credits.

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Photograph your favorite Kentucky historic site and win a Bardstown getaway

The Kentucky Heritage Council is holding a pretty neat contest to celebrate National Historic Preservation Month.

In addition to the annual running of the Kentucky Derby, May is National Historic Preservation Month, and the goal is to highlight the many different kinds of historic places that Kentuckians feel at “home.”

“Historic places matter to Kentuckians. We want to invite people to share how and why they value Kentucky’s historic places, and build interest in the reuse and preservation of historic buildings,” said Craig Potts, KHC executive director and state historic preservation officer. “We want people to be able to tell their own story about how historic buildings and places make them feel.”

To enter, participants download the contest sign, found at http://www.heritage.ky.gov, or make their own; hold it in front of their favorite “Old Kentucky Home”; get a snapshot; then “like” the Heritage Council’s Facebook page at facebook/kyshpo and submit it to win – the only rule being, the site must be 50 years old or older. Participants will be asked to tell where the photo was taken, and why the place photographed is special.

Participants may submit one photo per Facebook account, but can vote once a day for their favorite photos. Posters are encouraged to share all their photos on social media using the hashtag #myoldkyhome and tweet their photos to @kyshpo.

The contest period began at noon (EDT) today and continues through midnight (EDT) Friday, May 23. The top five photos with the most “likes” will go into a random drawing to determine the winner, who will be announced during the last week of May. The grand-prize winner will receive an all-expense paid weekend in Bardstown, courtesy of the Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist & Convention Commission.

The prize package includes overnight accommodations at one of Bardstown’s historic bed and breakfast inns, a gift card for downtown dining or shopping, and admission for two adults to My Old Kentucky Home State Park/Federal Hill; The Stephen Foster Story (June 14-August 16, 2014); Civil War Museum of the Western Theater; a private tour of Wickland, the home of three governors, or a visit with the Spirits of Wickland; Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center; Barton 1792 Distillery; and Willett Distillery.

Federal Hill is a beautiful site, and if you haven’t been, this would be a good chance to win a free visit.

The historic place in Kentucky where I feel most at home is Cumberland Gap.  (Well, it’s in three different states, but Kentucky is one of them.)  I’m also partial to Lincoln’s birthplace, Fort Boonesborough, the Old Statehouse Historic District in Frankfort, the Midway Historic District, and Boone’s gravesite.

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The first reenactors of Little Bighorn

During my last stint in grad school I helped out with a conversational English program at a Knoxville church.  The students came from a variety of places, but East Asia was probably the most common point of origin.

During one class–I don’t remember how this happened–the topic of reenacting came up, and most of the students had no idea what we were talking about.  As I tried to explain what reenactors do, one guy from China was absolutely bumfuzzled by the whole concept.

“They shoot guns?” he asked.

“No bullets.  Just gunpowder.  They line up like they’re going to fight a battle and do what the soldiers would have done, but it’s just acting.”

“A game?”

“No, not a game.  They use it to teach people about history, but sometimes they just do it for fun.”

“And they wear old clothes?”

“They wear what people would’ve worn a long time ago.  The kinds of clothes their ancestors wore.”

He thought about all this for two or three seconds…and then he started laughing hysterically.

The notion that adults would put on historical clothing and pretend to shoot at each other for fun was absurd to him.  Most of the other students were just as perplexed.  They were looking at me like I’d just told them that some Americans liked to put on Mickey Mouse ears and fling salad dressing at each other.

Ever since that conversation, I’ve sort of assumed that reenacting was an essentially Western and white phenomenon, basically limited to the U.S. and Europe.  But a few days ago I ran across something in an unexpected source.

I’ve been reading a biography of Barnum Brown, one of the twentieth century’s most famous fossil hunters and a longtime collector for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  (He’s the guy who found the type specimen of T. rex.)  Brown was a product of the frontier, born in Kansas in 1873. In 1889, he set out with his dad on a wagon trip across the West to find a new home for the family. On July 4 they arrived at the Little Bighorn in time to see the Crow Indians engaged in what Brown’s biographers term a “reenactment” of Custer’s defeat.

Here’s how Brown described it years later, as quoted in the biography:

Although this tribe had always been friendly to the whites, the Commandant was taking no chance, so he had two companies of the garrison under arms, and two Gatling guns trained on the battleground.

I well remember the occasion: squaws with papooses on their backs or in their laps sat all around the edge of the battlefield….

That’s pretty much all the book has to say about this event, but it’s a fascinating passage.  I’d never heard of any Native American tribe recreating a battle.

I poked around a little and found a similar reference in another book.  In her examination of memory and Little Bighorn, Debra Buchholtz says the Crow “were the first to reenact the fight in the immediate battlefield vicinity” on July 4, 1891 with Indians playing Custer’s men as well as the Native Americans.  That would have been two years to the day after Brown claimed he saw an Independence Day reenactment; maybe Brown had his dates wrong, or maybe this was some kind of annual event.

The Crow weren’t the only people reenacting the battle around that time.  Buffalo Bill Cody was staging portrayals of Little Bighorn for his traveling show.  Buchholtz also refers to a 1902 reenactment in Wyoming between Indians and a National Guard unit and another with both whites and Native Americans at the Crow Fair in 1909.  But it’s the notion of the all-Indian reenactments at the battleground, held only a little more than a decade after the real thing, that fascinates me.

What was the impetus behind it, and how did the participants’ motives for staging it compare to the motivations of modern-day reenactors?  What role did this reenactment play in Native American culture, and how different would it be from the role of reenacting in modern American culture?

By Michael Barera (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Wyatt’s weapons

A few days ago, somebody paid $225,000 for a revolver carried by Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, perhaps the one he used in the O.K. Corral gunfight. The gun came from the estate of Glenn Boyer, a controversial Earp researcher and collector who died last year.

Was this the revolver Earp carried to the Old West’s most famous gunfight? Maybe, maybe not. The serial number’s been removed, but X-ray tests indicate that it matched a weapon Earp owned. That doesn’t mean he used it at the O.K. Corral, of course. Western researcher Bob Boze Bell writes, “Wyatt Earp owned over two dozen weapons while he was in Tombstone.” Still, any Earp-owned gun is an extremely cool thing to have.

Probably the only eyewitness description we have of Earp’s weaponry on the day of the gunfight comes from a Tombstone butcher named Bauer who witnessed some of the events leading to the shootout. At a hearing held a few weeks later, he claimed under oath that Earp was carrying “an old pistol, pretty large, 14 or 16 inches long, it seemed to me.”

Wyatt Earp in the 1880s. Wikimedia Commons

That’s pretty darned long for a revolver, and way too long for the standard single-action Colts that most people associate with frontier gunslingers. Maybe Bauer was mistaken. Or maybe his testimony reveals a kernel of truth at the core of some gunfighting folklore.

Stuart Lake, one of Wyatt’s early biographers, claimed that dime novelist Ned Buntline was so grateful to Earp and a few fellow Kansas lawmen for providing him with material that he gave each man a custom-made Colt revolver with an extra-long barrel. Put a ten or twelve-inch barrel on a Colt, and you’d end up with a gun long enough to fit Bauer’s description.

The problem is that Lake was to Wyatt Earp what Parson Weems was to George Washington–a biographer who wrote down as much legend as fact. There’s no solid evidence that the “Buntline Special” existed, let alone that Earp had one with him in Tombstone. Colt has no records of any such order.  Some folks have accused Lake of making the whole thing up, but he apparently believed the Buntline story, because he tried to track down the pistol’s whereabouts.

Interestingly, a Tombstone gunfighter named “Buckskin” Frank Leslie ordered a special long-barreled Colt in 1881, the same year as the Earps’ showdown near the O.K. Corral. Did he see Wyatt carrying an extra large pistol and decide he wanted one of his own? Some writers have raised the possibility.

Bauer also testified that Wyatt was wearing a short coat that day, and that he drew his pistol out of one of its pockets, which indicates that he had the gun tucked in his waistband and pulled it through a special pocket slit. But at least one O.K. Corral researcher has argued that Earp put on a specially modified overcoat before the gunfight, one which had deep, customized pockets lined with leather to make a less conspicuous holster for a longer pistol.  And some Earp scholars think he didn’t use any kind of Colt six-shooter at all during the Tombstone shootout, but a Smith & Wesson instead.  As you can tell, there’s quite an extensive secondary literature on the O.K. Corral gunfight, with incredibly minute analyses of who carried which type of gun, who was wearing what, who shot when, and who said what before the shooting started. I’ve seen reconstructions of the armaments and tactics in that tiny Arizona lot that are so painstaking and thorough they’d put any study of Antietam or Gettysburg to shame. It’s a fascinating little historiographical niche.

We’ll probably never know for sure whether Earp owned a souped-up Colt, or which of his guns he used at the O.K. Corral fight. But the uncertainty hasn’t stopped showbiz from customizing Wyatt’s sidearms on the big or small screen. ABC’s Wyatt Earp TV series featured the Buntline, and in the movie Tombstone Kurt Russell’s Earp goes to the shootout armed with a special long-barreled revolver.

Many years ago I got to hold the six-shooter Russell used in the movie, one of many singular experiences that resulted from having a mom who enjoys researching about gunslingers. Maybe someday I’ll blog more about all that. For now, I’ll just say that if you think the Civil War enthusiast community is colorful, you should spend some time in Earpdom.

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Belle Boyd visited Knoxville

It turns out the famous Confederate spy had relatives living at Blount Mansion during the war. Pretty neat!

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Tennessee History