THINGS I'LL NEVER UNDERSTAND ABOUT CIVIL WAR REENACTING
(Reflections of a Retiree)
By Jeff Hendershott
Not long ago, before I officially absconded from the ranks of active reenacting, a fellow reenactor accused me of "dwelling in the past" and suggested I look to the future. Hummmmmm..... Dwelling on the past. As Camp Chase Publisher Bill Holschuh once said, if I may paraphrase, "Isn't looking back what reenactors and history buffs do best?" Well, that was my retort to this reenactor, and I never got an answer.
Knowing for sure that now I am "officially" retired and will remain so, I've been thinking about some things I have observed in my years of reenacting that made no sense to me then and now. For the most part, I enjoyed my years in "the hobby" anyway. Take a look at this and see if these issues, events, anomolies, what have you, make any sense to you. Answers are most welcome!
THE HARDCORE "MYTH" - Why do I call it "The Hardcore Myth?" Simply because my years reenacting have taken me to seven different states - my native Ohio included - and I have never seen a "hardcore." Sure, I ran into reenactors who CALLED themselves hardcore (and one very notable "hardcore" who used to write for the Camp Chase Gazette). Yet, aside from their general arrogance, "gangsta-rap" countenance, and camping in the "hardcore area," I saw no difference in what they wore or did that was different from "mainstream" reenactors. Thus, being "hardcore" must be a myth! And while we are on the subject of myths, how about....
THE 24 HOUR FIRST-PERSON MYTH - Here again, I, at least, have NEVER seen anyone remain in "first-person" for an entire event (including the self-proclaimed "hardcores" I've met). I am not looking down on anyone for it. After all, what would a reenactor do if an emergency call came from home? "Sorry ya' all, but what is a telephone?" The point is that in a hobby that does a lot of TALKING about doing first-person, you see very little of it, and again, I have never seen anyone stay "in character" for very long at all. I think my pity would go out to anyone who DOES, by the way.
THE SATURDAY NIGHT BALL - Okay, I tried to get into these when I was a green recruit, and I love period music. However, I quickly realized one immutable truth (and I'm talking about the dances at events, not "dance-only" events): What woman in her right mind would want to dance with me? Spending my first four years of the hobby as a single father, sure, I admit that it would have been great to meet a woman who liked to reenact. However, having spent the weekend marching, drilling, sweating and fighting, I looked and smelled more fit for a hose-down than a hoe-down. I think I did the women of the hobby a great service by keeping at a safe distance from them.
MEGA EVENTS - Especially when you are new to the hobby, I suppose it is natural to want to see the "sea of tents" and "endless rows of soldiers in formation." At least it was that way for me. And once I saw it, I swore I'd never again WANT to see it. Oh, indeed, I was impressed. But was it worth the weekend of pushing cars out of mud in the "parking lot?" No. Worth not even being able to FIND your car? No. Worth having to walk Hell's Half-Acre just to get wood, water and other necessities. No. Worth waiting in a line longer than a line waiting to get into a Who concert just to use the porta-pot? No. Worth PAYING FOR to have the privilege of this weekend of misery? Answer obvious. The person who can figure out how pull off a "successful" mega event should be given a $2,000.00 gift certificate to his or her favorite sutler. However, as the numbers seem to grow larger every year, I wouldn't get too excited if you are a mega-event organizer. Civil War "Woodstocks" just don't work.
As a side-note, I was always humored by my pards when they would return from one of these magic events. I would get phone calls from them saying "Oh my God, you should have been there, it was great." Yet their narration was almost always broken with coughing and gagging from the colds they caught. And eventually I'd get the REAL story of the "fun" they had of car trouble, sitting in the parking lot for four hours, you know the story.
WOMEN SOLDIERS - When I first got into reenacting, I thought "what the hell, we are all basically farbs under this wool anyway, so what's the big deal if a woman wants to do it?" I even met a couple and didn't think much of it. My reasoning at the time was "How could I tell one of my daughters 'no' if they really wanted to learn what it was like to be in the Civil War?" I guess I really have not reconciled this issue fully. After all, if a recent immigrant from a Middle Eastern country or from India, for example, wanted to reenact, what would you, as your unit's recruitment officer, say to them? This is indeed a question for minds better than mine.
REB MANIA - I'm not anti-Reb - I'm not even anti-South! Yet, what I do not understand then and even now is not only the reenactor's fascination with "doing Reb," but the public and press' fascination with all things Rebel I wish that someone (who would certainly need to have too much time on their hands) would do a ratio study, you know, Reb and Yank reenactors. I do not care to guess at the ratio, but I'm sure the figure is overwhelmingly in favor of the Confederacy. This is even more astounding when one witnesses the number of Rebel units NORTH of the Mason-Dixon Line. I did much reading on the birth of the Lost Cause in graduate school and on my own. I am fully aware of its power to influence even today. But I just don't get it, to put it in simple terms. (But to you Yankees, there IS an upside! After reenacting a battle at an event and you just want to relax, cool off and be left alone, the spectators and the press will usually flock to the "Reb camp" for interviews, photo ops, and stupid questions.)
PERIOD MUSIC - As stated earlier, I love Civil War period music, mostly of the banjo, guitar and fiddle variety. What I found interesting is that when a couple guys at an event, for instance, would sort of drift from campfire to campfire to play a few selections, sometimes they were told to LEAVE! I've even heard reenactors yell across an encampment to tell a group of singers or musicians to "stop it!" My studies show that music was a prized commodity in Civil War camps, North and South. Just one more thing I'll never understand. (Could be the "company cut-up" didn't want anyone taking "his" stage?).
POLITICS - You KNEW this was coming! This is something that (it seems to me anyway) will never be solved in all aspects of life, much less a hobby which seems to draw many people with massive egos. I commend those leaders who know how to manage people within an organization on the unit level or in the larger, brigade-type situation. However, they seem to be few and far between. For whatever reason, it seems to be less of a problem for those of us in the western theater. But believe me, it's here, too. This is too big of a can of worms to really open up in the scope of this article. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention it.
SLEEP - Yeah, sleep! I've always been reasonably fit and have a pretty good energy level. However, I'll never understand the "iron men" of the hobby who can do a whole weekend event with little or no sleep. My hat is particularly off to those who can arrive home after an out-of-state event at 3:00 AM and be back at work that same morning. For me, Stonehenge is easier to understand than this!
Don't get me wrong. Civil War reenacting is a great hobby, but as Jonah Begone has said in so many words, it sure has its share of weirdness. If anyone has any clues to my unsolved mysteries, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org