Keep Civil War reenacting coming
An opinion by Allen C. Guelzo
From pennlive.com (Mar 18, 2019)
Last July, the New York Times ran a feature story on Civil War reenactors, based on Bryan Stole’s attendance at the annual Gettysburg re-enactment, just a few weeks before. It was not an admiring essay. Stole dolefully described Civil War re-enacting as “a hobby with dwindling ranks.” Looking around him, he could count only 6,000 re-enactors attending last summer’s Gettysburg event, as opposed to 30,000 who had participated in 1998. Not only are re-enactment ranks shrinking, they are aging. “Soldiers in their 50s and 60s filled much of the camp at Gettysburg,” Stole wrote. “Longtime hobbyists are aging out and retiring,” and are being replaced by fewer and fewer young people -- and therefore, re-enacting is probably dying out.
It is hard not to believe that this was a conclusion the author saw as inevitable, and a certain aroma of hostility to what were described as “middle-aged schlubs” or “nut-cases running around playing cowboys and Indians” leaked through every line of the article. At their best, re-enactors are slightly delusional; at their worst, re-enactors are probably probably racist bigots, especially among the Confederate re-enactors who argued “that slavery had little to do with Southern secession, an assertion that is at odds with historical scholarship.” So, maybe we’re supposed to be better off without re-enacting.
It’s tempting to wonder whether this is simply a microcosm of how the New York Times regards most of fly-over America. But in real terms, the article failed to reckon with the way Civil War re-enacting has ebbed and flowed over the years. After all, the first serious Civil War re-enactments only occurred in the 1960s, and they were small and amateurish affairs.
Civil War re-enacting only took off in earnest in the 1990s because of the unlikely conjunction of a book (James McPherson’s best-seller Battle Cry of Freedom in 1988), a PBS documentary (Ken Burns’ The Civil War in 1990), and two movies (Glory in 1989 and Gettysburg in 1993). Using 1998 – the 135th anniversary of the Gettysburg battle – as the benchmark to measure the current health of re-enacting is like measuring the girth of the python just after it’s ingested the pig.
But re-enacting has also suffered more recently from a different quarter – not aging, but threats of violence. The Dylann Roof shooting in Charleston in 2015 and the Charlottesville riot in 2017 generated their own equal-but-opposite reactions from the unhinged among us, and in the case of Civil War re-enacting, it took the form of bomb threats to the Cedar Creek reenactment in 2017, and even Gettysburg’s own Remembrance Day parade. If we want to look at what’s depressing numbers at re-enactments, we should look longer at those threats.
The New York Times article also missed the real draw of re-enacting, something Ted Scheineman described in The Chronicle of Higher Education when he began re-enacting Mr. D’Arcy at meetings of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Scheineman was warned that this would do nothing to help his academic reputation as a graduate student.
But he found that dressing in the manner of another century did something unusual and beneficial for him. For one thing, it made him a better person. He became “quieter and somewhat gentler in my manners” – as we might expect from the 18th-century English country gentleman.
But the really “thrilling and disarming (and slightly anarchic) secret” of Janeite re-enacting was its egalitarianism. “The snobbery of the high academy toward hobbyists, emulators, and people so prosaic as to look for a moral in a story — these go briefly on sabbatical,” Scheineman wrote. In the snob-free democracy of re-enacting, it’s hard to be stuck-up when you’re all wearing the same outdated clothes.
What Scheineman found was that re-enacting broke you out of your own little present-time capsule, something I think we badly need in these times, as we grow more and more socially isolated from each other.
Moreover, Civil War re-enacting in particular has some added dimensions. Re-enacting Mr. D’Arcy only gives you the sense of being in a fictional place. The Civil War re-enacting puts you in the midst of a real event which was the greatest trial of our nation. From my own admittedly limited stints in re-enacting, I’ve discovered that you learn practical things: the feel of the uniform, the difficulty of the drill, the physical demands of campaign life – even, to a limited degree, the stress and face of battle (or at least its 19th-century sounds and smells).
But even more, you are reminded of larger concepts. You cannot avoid asking yourself, “What if the war had gone another way?” Would you have volunteered to keep that from happening?
If these are questions you find yourself pondering at odd moments, then you‘ve taken the step nearest to becoming a re-enactor yourself. And for those questions alone, I say, “Keep it coming.”
Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College