Civil war reenactors' passion for history play out on old battlefield
By Stephanie Decker (American Demographics; June 2004)
Talk about deep-seated resentment! This Fourth of July, the 14th Brooklyn will be fighting to preserve the union of the United States at a little town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. As they line up in battle formation facing the thunderous volley of Confederate shelling, they will quietly hum the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
A scene from another time? No, the 14th Brooklyn is a group of individuals who are part of the phenomena known as Civil War Reenactors. From March until the middle of November, the 14th Brooklyn and fellow compatriots will drill, train and camp just as their namesake regiments did in the past. They may reenact as often as every weekend. From sundown on Friday until dusk on Sunday they will be in "character," dressed and speaking in the language of the 19th century soldier. They will drive hours to recreate such battles as Second Manassas, Gettysburg and Antietam. Wearing wool uniforms and carrying haversacks and rifles that can weigh up to 30 pounds, they will march for miles under an oftentimes blazing summer sun.
How many reenactors are there? Bill Christen editor and publisher of the quarterly The WatchDog (himself a reenactor), says the numbers range from 20,000 to 30,000, skewing white males age 35 to 54. Christen predicts this year's 140th reenactment of the Battle of Franklin, Tenn., will draw 5,000 reenactors, with up to 15,000 spectators in attendance.
While the numbers skew heavily toward white males, an intriguing facet of this subculture is its socioeconomic diversity. The stereotypical Hollywood-driven image of a reenactor being uneducated and impoverished could not be further from the actual reality. For instance, Thomas Clemens, professor of history at Hagerstown Community College and the president of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, is a leading expert on the American Civil War. Clemens participates as both Union and Confederate artillery. He reenacts both for the academic experience that provides insight into the period, and from a social perspective maintaining that many of his closest friendships have been formed during the encounters.
Joseph Tafuri, senior vice president of ad sales at Sony Pictures Television in New York, marches with the 14th Brooklyn to pay tribute to those who were willing to give their lives to preserve the Union.
Lobbyists, doctors and businessmen mingle with truck drivers, plumbers and contractors. They belong to the same regiments and share strong friendships. The reenactors from the 14th Brooklyn have said that they felt the regiment was like a second family, and view reenacting as a bonding experience.
Their passion for historical accuracy extends to their purchasing habits. A newcomer to the hobby who starts out as a private in the infantry spends $1,500-$2,000 to be outfitted and this is just the bare minimum. Every soldier needs a gun -- a reproduction of the 1861 Springfield: market price, $460. The gun then needs a bayonet and scabbard, which costs $38.50; a cartridge box for $39.50 and a shoulder strap at $14.95. Reproduction rifles can cost as much as $850.
As a reenactor advances from private to corporal to officer class (assuming he is competent), he acquires new additions to his personal effects and a knowledge of military protocol and tactics to reflect this change in status. Just as it is with today's military, Civil War officers were better paid, therefore their tents were more lavishly furnished. Some reenactors have Persian rugs, crystal decanters and fine period furniture. Hardee's Tactics, a training manual used during the Civil War, is just one of the required reading materials for the officer class.
Within this subculture is a split between the campaigners or hard-core types versus the more mainstream garrison group. To the uninformed eye, the differences are indistinguishable. Both groups can be considered amateur experimental anthropologists in their attempt to recreate the impression of a former lifestyle to achieve a realistic assessment of the era.
Campaigners are more aligned with this immersion experience. They march barefoot for 10 miles carrying a canteen of warm water, stale biscuits and a rifle. They will sleep on the ground with nothing but a blanket in order to fully appreciate what those soldiers endured long ago.
They travel light to authenticate their portrayal as soldiers on the move, or as is known in military parlance, on a campaign. Civilian reenactors, many of whom are family members, are not permitted.
Garrisons suggest a more entrenched military encampment, using tents rather than blankets. They are a more relaxed group and will allow civilian reenactors to participate. Oftentimes an entire family will join in. The garrison group makes up the majority of the two groups.
Founded in 1975, C&D Jarnigan, based in Corinth, Miss., is an industry leader in supplying goods to the Civil War Reenacting community. According to Carolyn Jarnigan, a cofounder, quality and customer service are placed at a premium because the hobby is expensive. The work that is required to ensure authenticity is time-consuming and labor intensive. However, the end results are loyal customers. Jarnigan, says they have customers who have been with them over 15 years. The company has experienced solid growth as its reputation for quality has spread and she remains bullish on the prospects of continued expansion.
In addition to The WatchDog other publications target this audience. The two largest are the Camp Chase Gazette and the Civil War News. Ironically, the main media outlet for this 19th century hobby is the decidedly 21st century Internet. Enter the words Civil War reenactors on Google and over 25,000 results will appear. Most reenacting units have created their own Web pages to disseminate information on their troop and on upcoming events as well as recommended vendors.
At first glance this is a fragmented market, comprised of small retailers and media outlets. Additionally it is difficult to get accurate economic data on the marketplace. In Gettysburg, the Convention and Visitors Center has not assembled any information on the reenacting community or on other groups of Civil War enthusiasts. Still, they estimate $225 million a year in revenue!
Through their passion for the hobby they are aiding in the preservation of Civil War battlefields. Reenactments serve to raise funds and generate awareness of the precarious state of Civil War battlefields today. As urban sprawl continues and zoning laws are not established, more battlefields are lost each year. The Civil War Preservation Trust estimates that nearly 20 percent of Civil War battlefields have been destroyed and only 15 percent are protected by the federal government.
Recently, a proposed development by the Dogwood Development Company on part of the Chancellorsville battlefield was halted, due in part to the reenacting community who rallied in opposition.
Ted Alexander, chief historian of the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., views reenactors as a valuable asset and credits them with raising awareness of the plight of Civil War battlefields. He says they unselfishly give up their time to help in the preservation endeavor, and inject a good sense of patriotism in our society and he respects that.
This group of impassioned individuals could be viewed as historical preservationists. Through their monetary investment in their hobby, they draw attention to endangered historical sites. They are acolytes of the adage, "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."