Tag Archives: reenacting

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She’s correct that I didn’t say very much about the historical content or educational utility of the exhibit itself.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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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Reenacting, Tennessee History

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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Filed under American Revolution, Reenacting

Good news for reenactors

…who are worried about getting their butternut trousers sued off.  The Living History Association is now offering a liability insurance program.

‘Cause even if you have insurance, you could always use a little more.  Am I right or am I right or am I right?  Right?  Right?  Right?

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Having a blast at the blockhouse

This past weekend I once again signed on as an artilleryman with the militia from Martin’s Station, this time for an event at Natural Tunnel State Park near Duffield, VA.  NTSP’s most famous attraction is its namesake geologic feature, but the main attraction at the reenactment area was a great reconstruction of an eighteenth-century fortification.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse represents the home of John Anderson, built in the 1770′s not far from the park.  It bruned about a century after its construction, but today a monument marks the original site.  During the Revolutionary era, it was a significant landmark for migrants starting out on the Wilderness Road.  Because Anderson’s house was a relatively secure structure near the road’s point of origin, it was a convenient gathering place for people waiting to join parties headed into Kentucky.  It was also a handy storehouse and defensive post for settlers during periods of Indian trouble.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse at Natural Tunnel State Park, from the NTSP Information site.

Unlike the familiar walled forts that stood at places like Boonesborough and near Sycamore Shoals, which were made up of a series of buildings linked by palisades, frontier blockhouses were solitary, individual buildings.  What they lacked in size, they made up in strength.  The second story was wider than the first, so that the walls of the upper floor jutted out beyond those of the one below; imagine a small cabin perched on top of a slightly smaller wooden box.  This made it extremely difficult for assailants to climb up onto the roof.  Furthermore, since the edges of the second floor stuck out over empty space, openings in the floorboards allowed defenders to shoot or pour boiling water downward, directly onto the heads of anyone approaching the building too closely.

Two additional features make the Wilderness Road blockhouse a tough nut to crack.  There’s no mud chinking to seal empty spaces on the outside walls.  The wood pieces themselves fit snugly together, making a solid and more impregnable structure.  And unlike most frontier cabins, which had external chimneys, this building’s chimney is built within the walls, so that an attacking party can’t tear through it to get inside.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse  has its own small visitor center, with an exhibit and gift shop.  It’s a great little interpretive area, with an extraordinarily effective use of limited space.  The exhibit explores the blockhouse itself, the Wilderness Road, and frontier life in general.  It’s a great spot, with a fantastic view of the surrounding hills.  Check it out the next time you’re in southwestern Virginia.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting

And the reports are filtering in

…from the 2010 Raid at Martin’s Station.

The fort’s website has posted a slew of fine images, including some photos of the artillery in action, with your humble blogger making an appearance.  Here we are maneuvering the grasshopper into position, and here we’re giving the Indians a dose of canister.  Note the fellow with the wide-brimmed hat, dark waistcoat, green breeches, and fingertips hardened from blogging.

I had a glorious time, gained a new perspective on Revolutionary-era warfare, and did not blow my own face off.  HUZZAH!

While browsing around the web in search of photos of the event, I also ran across a few items posted by participants with their own historical blogs, which I’ve added to my blogroll here.  Let me direct your attention to a series of posts (here, here, and here) by a physician who was on hand to tend to the wounded and instruct the young in the art of eighteenth-century medicine.

While I was standing inside the fort with the rest of the cannon crew before we went into action, I spotted an intrepid frontierswoman shouldering a firelock in order to head out and do battle with the menfolk.  It turns out she has a blog, too, and you can read her account of the raid here.

Finally, you’ll find a number of additional photos by browsing through recent threads at this discussion forum, which is well worth your time.

My thanks to the park staff and all the living historians who were present for making a first-time reenactor feel welcome.  When do we get to do it again?

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting

Here’s a little sample

…of how I spent my Saturday.

I didn’t take my camera, and couldn’t have used it if I had.  (It wouldn’t do to have a member of the cannon crew standing there taking pictures and video.)  Here, though, is some footage the 2009 Raid at Martin’s Station that’s available on YouTube.  If I can get my hands on any pics or videos from this year’s event, I’ll post them, too.  Enjoy!

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