Fewer People Participate In Civil War Reenactments

By National Public Radio, All Things Considered

July 4 2011

MICHELE NORRIS, host: Pick any weekend between now and the end of the year, and somewhere you'll find a Civil War re-enactment. People are putting on uniforms and rolling out the cannons to mark the war's 150th anniversary. But despite the uptick in interest, fewer people are dedicating themselves to this hobby, as we hear from Gigi Douban in Selma, Alabama.

GIGI DOUBAN: This is Civil War re-enactor boot camp.

Unidentified Man #1: Present arms.

DOUBAN: In a few hours, the Battle of Selma goes down, and because there are cannons and horses and muskets, people kind of have to know what they're doing. So this is like the dress rehearsal: Who charges whom? When do you retreat? And when you're shot, how do you play dead?

Unidentified Man #2: You want to be about this distance from the man in front of you.

DOUBAN: All 16-year-old John Nettles knew was that he needed a gun. So he saved up.

Mr. JOHN NETTLES: I bought the gun, the bayonet came with the gun, the canteen and the cartridge box and some ammo.

DOUBAN: On this day, it's 85 degrees. John is sweating in a borrowed wool Union coat. He's brand new at this, and he looks a little overwhelmed.

Mr. NETTLES: I'm trying to remember all the commands, who I'm shooting at, what I'm supposed to do, when and where, I guess.

DOUBAN: John first got into this like a lot of people do, through word of mouth. There are also re-enactor want ads in the back of Civil War magazines. But just about any diehard history buff will tell you there aren't nearly enough people getting into what they call the hobby; and that worries people like Bill Wood, who's been staging mock battles for almost 30 years. He says it's about time for him to hang up his musket for good.

Mr. BILL WOOD: Yes, I'm two years younger than Lee was when he died. That's a little old, even for an officer to be on the field.

DOUBAN: Wood says it's not just that he's getting older. He can't afford to take time off of work like he used to.

Mr. WOOD: Job pressures has been such that it's almost impossible for me to get away for the time period that I have to.

DOUBAN: Then there's the cost of travel, the cost of gear. That runs into the thousands. And it's economic pressures like these that have some shying away from re-enacting. And the ones that are doing it are doing less of it. An estimated 30,000 people nationwide re-enact the Civil War, but recently those numbers have dropped. Dana Shoaf edits Civil War Times magazine. He says part of that's because these days, kids just don't get jazzed about history.

Mr. DANA SHOAF (Editor, Civil War Times): There just aren't as many kids that are, you know, finding re-enacting as an enjoyable hobby. That's one of the things that concerns a lot of us.

DOUBAN: Also, there are so many more entertainment options now. Playing a historical computer game can give someone a battle fix from an easy chair. Now, even vendors are doing their part to lure people off their sofas. They usually set up shop at re-enactments, selling everything from suspenders to bayonets.

Unidentified Man #3: Eight, 10, and 10 is 20. Thank you, now.

Unidentified Man #4: You have a good one.

Unidentified Man #3: You, too, you have a good one.

DOUBAN: At the Crescent City Sutler booth, owner Mary Lou Capps offers a rookie re-enactor special.

Ms. MARY LOU CAPPS: Now for $200, can be outfitted, can go out on the field and find out if they like to do this or not. So it's kind of a stimulus type thing to make it affordable.

DOUBAN: As for John Nettles, he already has plans for the next bit of cash he saves up: to trade his borrowed clothes for some of his very own.

Unidentified Man #5: One, one, one, two, one...

DOUBAN: For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban.