Should Civil War re-enactments be abandoned?
By Donald Gilliland
July 06 2013, http://blog.pennlive.com
Civil War commemorations and re-enactors are practically synonymous, but as the Gettysburg hoopla began last week, the Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College said very publicly the commemoration would be better without all the men in blue and gray pretending to be soldiers.
On June 29, the Wall Street Journal ran a story that said, "Peter Carmichael, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, calls re-enactments an 'unfortunate distraction' from a deeper understanding of the Civil War, including the motivations of those who fought and its legacy."
Later that same night, Carmichael quoted himself to me at the media reception in Gettysburg sponsored by the college: "unfortunate distraction."
Across town, in a field of canvas dog tents next to the Pennsylvania Monument, Tom Downes told me, "A lot of guys in this camp have probably done more research than a lot of academics - they just haven't written a book: they wanted to know what kind of cartridge box was used in 1862 in Virginia."
Downes, 63, has been re-enacting for 33 years. He's the founder of the 8th Ohio re-enactment group and leader of the National Regiment, one of the two re-enactment organizations the National Park Service asked to do Living History demonstrations on the battlefield during the July 1-3 commemoration.
There's a mutual simmering resentment between historians and re-enactors. It's not a war or a battle - the hackneyed terms used for any controversy in Gettysburg - but it is a tension over who should tell the story of the war and how.
Call it the eggheads versus the interlopers.
Like any good American feud, it includes perceived differences in class, propriety, work ethic and honor.
The professional historians are clearly the establishment, and the re-enactors the literally unwashed masses.
But it's not a black and white, blue and gray kind of spat. It gets complicated.
When I spoke with Carmichael, he was particularly interested, it seemed, after I mentioned that I was embedded with re-enactors camped on the battlefield and had participated in re-enactments during the preceding year in preparation for Gettysburg.
Carmichael told me he had once been a re-enactor himself.
I didn't ask if he grew out of it or followed a 12-step program; his question to me - didn't I find most of the re-enactors to be blue collar? - suggested other factors were at play.
I told him in my year of re-enacting the thing that has struck me most was the variety of people involved in the hobby: I have met architects, insurance adjusters, congressional staffers, delivery men, computer specialists, members of the military (both active and retired), professional artists, college librarians, retired coal miners, law clerks, engineers, high school teachers, a state government cabinet secretary and the Policy Director for NASA.
I asked Downes. He told me that in the 8th Ohio, he has had "two multi-millionaires as members of the unit and five military officers in various branches. One today is a retired judge, and was an active judge when he joined. I've got truck drivers and loading dock supervisors. A rarity are teachers: I've got one. There are three PhDs in my company."
Two of the PhDs were there doing Living History: an economist and an historian.
The historian was Bradley Keefer, a tenured professor at Kent State, who said, "re-enactors are generally looked down on and not taken seriously" - except when it comes to battlefield preservation.
But Carmichael's condemnation was not universal: he told both the Wall Street Journal reporter and me that living history encampments, like the one Downes was leading on the battlefield, were preferable to re-enactments. "They do a good job," he said.
But better yet, the best thing people can do - "All you need to do," he said - is spend the day on the battlefield with a certified guide.
That's the hierarchy of respectability outside the lecture hall.
But the National Park Service invites re-enactors to the battlefield regularly to present Living History demonstrations; it's something of a badge of honor among re-enactment groups that they are "good enough" to be invited.
Re-enactors clearly have value of some sort. A Park Ranger told members of the National Regiment the 150th commemoration couldn't have been done without them.
After I participated in the National Regiment's appearance at the commemoration of Pickett's charge on Tuesday and as I was walking to my truck in full uniform with my musket, a gray-haired man came up to me and said "Thank You" in the earnest tone I've heard people use with active duty servicemen. It unsettled and embarrassed me because there's not even a remote equivalence. Perhaps - I hope - he didn't intend one. But the earnestness of that "Thank You" was more than the proof I needed that visitors to the battlefield like to see re-enactors.
And that's really the rub.
The spectator stands for the battle re-enactment that continues today and tomorrow came to Gettysburg straight from the U.S. Open. They're massive. They have to be. Roughly 40,000 people are expected to visit the re-enactment over its four-day schedule. That's as many people as visited the battlefield for the official commemoration of Pickett's charge on Tuesday.
From Carmichael's perspective, big battle re-enactments like this weekend's attract people who would be better served, he thinks, learning real history on the battlefield itself, spending the money they'd otherwise drop at the re-enactment on a licensed battlefield guide to be properly instructed in history.
I'm not sure the two are exclusive, but the historians sense there's a competition for people's time and minds.
If there were no re-enactments, people would have to go to the battlefield and do it the right way.
But even Downes is uneasy with at least one aspect of re-enactments: the media coverage which creates the image of re-enactors.
"The media always focuses on the yahoos and goons - the ones with crossed bandoleros and feathers in their hat," he said.
Or the many Robert E. Lees.
One doesn't join a re-enactment group and decide he's going to be a general. Those people - the impersonators - tend to operate alone, or soon find themselves alone.
Most serious re-enactors start as simple common soldiers, and many never do anything but.
Downes described his "meteoric 25 year rise" to the rank of colonel. "Our philosophy has always been: Are you a good private? That's what we judge you by."
It's not about glory and attention, but something much different.
Carmichael questions the propriety - when the country is in the midst of war - of turning war into "a spectator sport."
War as entertainment may be distasteful to many, but given the fact the "Call of Duty" video game - just one of many featuring explicit and realistic World War II shooting scenarios - sold 6 million units in one month after its release in 2009, Civil War re-enactment is a small drop in that bucket.
While battle re-enactments may be of limited value to the spectators, they are important to re-enactors and sustain the Living History demonstrations valued by the Park Service and its visitors.
Generally, those who are good enough to do Living History for the National Park Service got that way by going to lots of battle re-enactments.
One of the reasons Downes group was invited to do Living History is they are very good at Civil War military drill - how the groups of soldiers moved from point A to point B.
Downes likes drill; he learned it not only from books but from doing it with older re-enactors who had become really good at it.
They practiced at re-enactments.
Downes said the experience of re-enacting colors and enlivens his reading of history and vice-versa. He has read letters and accounts written by men who served and sometimes could immediately relate to what they were describing, and at other times, he'd be on a re-enactment field and see something happen and realize that's what he'd read about.
Re-enactors generally have a deep interest in the history of the Civil War, read extensively about it, often do original research and enjoy re-enacting because it helps them better understand the reality of the common soldier.
Re-enactors don't pretend to be professional historians, and don't try to compete with them, but they do bridle at the condescension they sometimes receive from the Ivory Tower. Some of the professional historians, they suspect, wouldn't know Left Wheel from Shoulder-Arms.
In my experience, most enjoy sharing what they know with others, and they don't hesitate to acknowledge when they don't know.
And part of their appeal to the public, I think, is the fact they aren't professors and are both more accessible and approachable.
Downes said he believes there are three dimensions to popular history: reading a book, going to battlefields and museums; and re-enacting.
"What brings history into third dimension is re-enacting," he said: "wear the clothes, eat the food, experience the conditions."
I've experienced the conditions, and they are anything but comfortable. I've nearly frozen at Antietam in mid-September, laying on the cold, hard ground under the stars in nothing but my uniform and a wool blanket. I've marched in uncomfortable shoes until my feet were numb. I've mucked about through mud the color and consistency of pig excrement at Shiloh. I've drank bad coffee, eaten hardtack and gone hungry.
As I lay in my tent on the battlefield at Gettysburg earlier this week, damp and back aching, I wondered why these men do it. Really.
I watched several of them crawl from their tents at Chancellorsville, gripping their backs and groaning in pain. I saw a guy whack his hand with an axe, and come back from the hospital and continue re-enacting with a bandaged hand. I saw a man who has to sleep with an air pump and mask for his sleep apnea bring it to camp camouflaged in a period-appropriate wooden ammunition crate.
And they aren't crazy, most of them.
Ask them why they do it, and most say it's for the fun.
Even Downes says, "I take the hobby seriously, but not too seriously."
There is a campfire camaraderie among men - and women - who share a deep interest in history, a sometimes silly hobby and an agreement not to discuss politics or religion. They share war stories - both real and re-enacted.
And yet they suffer doing it.
And that suffering was perhaps the key, I thought, as I lay there in the tent.
It reminded me of the hermit saints of the middle ages who deprived themselves to step closer to and honor God.
In some odd, unspoken way, it seemed like the re-enactors' suffering - though not religious - was an homage to the men who fought and died in the Civil War.
So I asked Downes if there was something to that or if I was just a nutter.
There's something to it, he agreed.
"It's the old boys we do this for, and it's the old boys who were here."
That kind of participatory history simply can't be found with a licensed guide on the battlefield.