Campfire Ramblings - Why reenact?, 1987

by Jonah Begone

One of our own asked a question I would like to answer: what are you looking for in a reenactment -- why do you do reenactments?

First of all, let me go on record as saying that dressing up in a soldier uniform and running about in the wilds (or in society) has its childish aspects. I never feel quite at ease in nineteenth-century clothes, especially during the inevitable occasions when I find myself uniformed in a McDonald's, or crossing a street or parking lot. Part of this stems from the fact that I don't particularly like being stared at: one of the great tasks in my life has been managing to be low-profile and 6'3" at the same time. It isn't easy.

Also, I'm always somewhat embarrassed to admit in polite conversation that I'm a reenactor. When it comes out, people often react in such a way that makes me think they think I'm some sort of gun-toting crazy or superannuated five-year-old. How many times have you heard: "Oh, so you're one of those people that dress up and go to those battlefields?" (This is one in a series that includes: "Is that a real gun?", "Isn't it hot in that wool?" and the unforgettable "Is that a real fire?") Can you sense the implied amazement in that question about "dressing up", or am I just being paranoid?

Lastly, I have a hard time with doing a "first-person impression" and trying to think like a nineteenth-century soldier (I also had a hard time pretending I was a twentieth-century Marine!) I can't "do" somebody else in a time 125 years removed from mine because I can't really understand that person's motivations and feelings. I suppose everyone that ever lived would have more or less the same emotions when under fire in a combat situation, but subtleties like "Mister, here's your mule" and the Army of the Potomac's love for George McClellan leaves me completely in the dark! What I'm saying is that ultimately I can only "reenact" myself. Anything else is unacceptably false. Sincere, perhaps, but false.

Okay, I know some of you are getting annoyed with what you think is an attack upon something you see as being more than a mere hobby. Obviously the problems I mentioned above aren't enough to keep me from doing reenactments. There must be something I like about spending my weekends slogging through mud and sleeping with insects.

There is! I like to be out in the fields, moving down roads in column, not knowing what's beyond the next bend, being a part of a long blue machine on the march. Trying to get a realization of "what it was like." (This is why my favorite event of all time was Rouzerville '85: it was an ideal combination of long marches and skirmishing). I like the camaraderie around the camps at night, and I like being a part of a big, noisy, smoky battle scene. I like the sense of being part of something grand and significant. Well, I like to pretend it's significant, anyway. What I just can't do, and it's the main reason why reenactments can never be like the real thing, is pretend there's a sense of danger present. This keeps me from being fully involved in the event. If I know I'm safe, I have this mental detachment from actually feeling like the nineteenth-century soldier I'm "playing" at.

So, is this artificiality doing justice to the memory of our forebears that we try to commemorate in reenactments and living history events? I think it is. I've often wondered how those Civil War veterans would view our efforts, watching us from some celestial encampment. I think on the whole, they might be honored and flattered. Perhaps even a bit confused. I would hope that with all of the weekend leisure choices the twentieth century offers us, the veterans would be pleased that we choose to involve ourselves in historical reenactments. Then again, they may be thinking things like: "look at those sissies with the Igloos in their A-tents...", or "why aren't these people bowling?"

Well, most of us are in the hobby for the purpose of commemoration. That's one of my reasons anyway, and it's generally the most quoted defense for reenacting. Nary a TV special or videocassette presentation goes by without my hearing those sentiments uttered by somebody sitting by a campfire, speaking into a microphone. Of course I feel it's a valid reason, and it's one of mine, but there are other "justifications." I find reenacting also conveniently provides me with the opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of what I regard as being a very scenic and evocative region of this country. I can't walk through some of the many wooded areas we have here -- they don't exist in L.A. -- without wondering what Indians crept from tree to tree while hunting, or what sort of ancient battles took place there. "Food for Thought," as they say.

I specifically enjoy reenacting the part of the Federal soldier, rather than the Confederate. It may be that my personality adapts itself better to what most people (and myself) regard as being "Southern," but I definitely prefer the current Union reenactment scene to its Rebel alternative. Without seriously insulting our Southern brethren -- after all, I know many proud, noble Rebels -- I think I can honestly state that there is more of a sense of dedication and less of hooliganism on our part. I also think there's more validity in being a Yank. After all, every one of us is primarily a product of the United States of America, and secondly one of its regions. We grew up with the providential benefits of a strong united government, not with the fruits of a disunited sectionalism. The federal government that was threatened in 1861 is also my federal government: had I lived in 1861 I would have supported it. I remember having a conversation with a Confederate reenactor friend of mine on this very subject. I told him I just couldn't understand why on earth it was so popular to be a Rebel. What was the attraction about representing what was, in effect, a nation of traitors? He answered my question with the simple statement: "You just don't understand what it is to be a Southerner ." He's right.

Reenactment-wise I can perceive a sense of martyrdom in "doing Yankee." Most of the time, in direct contradiction to history, we're outnumbered. Generally speaking, we sleep in shelter-halves while the folks in the Southern camps sleep in A-tents and wall tents. Sometimes we're resented, and yes, even booed at events. (Last year at New Market some people actually jeered at the American flag during the pass in review for the public!) The Rebs also get the publicity -- remember the Newsweek feature on the 1st Bull Run reenactment last summer? Being the gracious and compassionate victor, the Yankee nation has become the disregarded, somehow not as interesting as the adherents to "the lost cause." All of this allows us to get a sense of somehow being the underdog in the scheme of things, just as the valiant Army of the Potomac shrugged off failure after failure, having to first rise above its generally poor commanders, to eventually prevail (with a half-a-dozen trips and a half-a-dozen slips and the very latest bursting of the bubble, to quote the song). Am I being ridiculous in stating that there is "soul" in being a Yankee reenactor?