Tag Archives: reenacting

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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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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Auditions for a crossing

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.

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Various items worthy of note

  • I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN.  The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain.  It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
  • While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself.  Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more.  Memberships start at just $25.
  • Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season.  If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia.  On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle.  They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
  • Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs.  What.  Were.  They.  Thinking?
  • Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
  • Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
  • A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
  • Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites, Teaching History, Tennessee History

You know your living history demonstration has to be good

…when a spectator actually passes out.

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Your guide to a proper reenacting death

…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.

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Women in the ranks, Thor on the battlefield, and a tour guide in the palm of your hand

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.

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The limits of recovered experiences

A reader left a comment to my last post about Conner Prairie’s new Civil War exhibit, but she posted it on the “About the Blog” page.  It’s a good comment that deserves a serious response, so I’m going to re-post it here.

She says: “Your review takes very strong positions of the Civil War at Conner PRairie [sic] and completely withholds any observations about the validity of the history, the educational merits or the quality of the visitor experience. Have you visited conner prairie, Michael?”

I haven’t been to Conner Prairie, but I hope to someday.  It’s one of the more important public history sites in the country and pioneered the use of living history for educational purposes.  My criticism is not aimed at Conner Prairie in general, but rather at some specific techniques used in the new Morgan’s Raid exhibit.

First of all, let me address my (admittedly quite snarky) remarks about the children’s play area.  I think it’s a misfire.  I don’t see any educational benefit in letting kids shoot water cannons, splash around in a pool, or climb around on a structure that bears a passing resemblance to a riverboat.  Kids learn by doing, it’s true—but not all “doing” entails learning.

She’s correct that I didn’t say very much about the historical content or educational utility of the exhibit itself.  The reason I didn’t is because Conner Prairie’s publicity material didn’t really emphasize the content.  Instead, the emphasis is on the visceral experience visitors are meant to have.  The press release I quoted in my post promises that guests “will feel they have lived through a piece of the war and that they had to make the same choices about what to support and who to believe that Hoosiers had to make 150 years ago.”

Historic sites and museums seem to be hitting us in the heart and in the gut these days.  Exhibit planners and site administrators want us to experience what Civil War combat was like, or understand the difficult decisions runaway slaves faced, or sympathize with Abraham Lincoln, or whatever.  Increasingly, public historians are trying to put visitors in historical figures’ shoes.  I think they’re not as successful at this as they’re telling themselves and their audience.

Sure, we can experience some of the outward aspects of life in the past.  That’s one of the things that places like Conner Prairie can do that you can’t do with any other educational medium.  We can get a taste of some common household chore or feel the heft of a knapsack.  We can even sample the sights and sounds of a battle, and see how formations of soldiers moved and fought.

But no matter how much money we spend, no matter how effective our sound systems or how advanced our special effects, we simply can’t recreate the inner experiences of long-dead people.  Being an Indiana civilian caught in the middle of an attack by Confederate raiders involved much more than sounds, smoke, and costumes. There was terror, pain, and uncertainty—all the emotions that one would have if armed men tore into one’s community dealing death and destruction.  That’s a check that no public historian can cash.

Even if we could find a way to make visitors fear for their lives (and wouldn’t that be a hoot?), they’d still process those emotions and thoughts as citizens of the twenty-first century.  One of my historical maxims is that people of the past didn’t just do things differently; they were different.  Their worldviews were the products of accumulated experiences and beliefs that were fundamentally different from ours.  Here’s an example from two very different books.  One of my college professors, Dr. Earl Hess, wrote a very fine study about Union soldiers in combat.  He noted that many of these troops compared fighting to hard, arduous work.  This made sense, because a lot of them shared some background in agricultural labor.  It was a way to get their heads around the experience of battle and explain it to others.  In Black Hawk Down, by contrast, Mark Bowden notes that American soldiers who found themselves caught up in a deadly firefight in Somalia in 1993 compared their experience of combat to modern war films.  While dodging bullets, they thought to themselves something along the lines of, “I’m in a movie!”  Both groups processed the singular experience of combat in ways that mirrored their lifestyles and worldviews, but those lifestyles and worldviews were grounded in different eras.

This is not to say that I think teaching about the emotions and experiences of the past has no place in public history.  It most certainly does.  But both the public historian and the visitor must remember that while we can and should learn about those experiences, we can’t have them.  And we probably wouldn’t want to.

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My mom found a vintage Civil War recruiting poster in her attic

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.

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On the occasionally hirsute Revolutionary soldier

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.

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