Tag Archives: reenactments

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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This year’s Battle Road reenactment is a casualty of federal budget cuts

If you were planning to watch some reenactors do their thing at Minute Man National Historical Park this year, you’re out of luck.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting

Fort Sanders sesquicentennial for Black Friday

In 1863 Nov. 29 fell on a Sunday instead of a Friday, but it was a pretty black day nonetheless, at least for the hapless Rebel soldiers who launched a disastrous assault against Fort Sanders at Knoxville.  Those twenty bloody minutes ended Longstreet’s effort to re-take the city for the Confederacy, following its occupation by Burnside that September.

The attack on Ft. Sanders was neither a particularly big battle as far as Civil War engagements went nor as consequential as what was going on down in Chattanooga.  But it’s a pretty big deal for history buffs here in my neck of the woods, so here’s another anniversary link-fest for you.

  • Knoxville’s own historical columnist Jack Neely on the assault
  • The Knoxville News-Sentinel‘s sesquicentennial coverage of the war in East Tennessee
  • If you haven’t seen the McClung Museum’s exhibit on Ft. Sanders, you should definitely check it out.  They have fossils, too!  (By the way, that new Edmontosaurus is now called “Monty.”)
  • The East Tennessee Historical Society has some nifty Civil War displays of their own, and they’re commemorating the Ft. Sanders anniversary with a free admission day.
  •  Need to read up on the contest for control of Knoxville?  I recommend The Knoxville Campaign by Earl Hess, Lincolnites and Rebels by Robert Tracy McKenzie, and Divided Loyalties by Digby Gordon Seymour.  For additional background, try Noel Fisher’s War at Every Door and W. Todd Groce’s Mountain Rebels.
  • Last year we paid a virtual visit to the site of the battle.  The fort is long gone, but there are still a few landmarks from the Knoxville Campaign around.  Click here to book a guided tour, or stop by Longstreet’s headquarters and the Mabry-Hazen House.
  • Watch the battle reenacted at a replicated Ft. Sanders, constructed for a documentary produced in conjunction with the McClung Museum’s exhibit.
  • And finally, here’s a depiction of the attack by Lloyd Branson, the same Tennessee artist who did the painting of the Sycamore Shoals muster at the top of this blog:

Wikimedia Commons

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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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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Reenacting