Reenactors, Reenactments, and Living Historians

Over the last several days there’s been quite a bit of talk about a newspaper article concerning Civil War Institute director Peter Carmichael’s reported comments about reenactors. You can read the article and the controversy it stirred in the comments section here.

I think it best not to comment specifically on the article and the ensuing comments, because the entire enterprise has created far more heat than light, with several comments suggesting just how quickly discussion can degenerate. What I’m more interested in is trying to rescue several lines of argument that deserve serious thought. Basically, it boils down to what reenactors do and what are best practices when it comes to being “living historians,” as some of them style themselves.

Not all reenactors are alike, and many have different reasons for doing what they do. I think they serve a very useful function when it comes to demonstrations, showing people how weapons functioned, how units moved, camp life, and so on. I think they can perform a useful function as presenters interacting with the public, although this is not always the case. Here there are challenges and choices. Do the reenactors stay in character? Do they simply present the views and attitudes of the person they are portraying (real or fictional)? Do they go beyond that to present what they as people …. and not as the person they are portraying … think about things? For example, say someone’s portraying a private in the 55th North Carolina infantry. Say the soldier being portrayed did not own slaves. It seems to me that it would be just fine if the reenactor portraying the soldier said what the soldier being portrayed might say, but once he goes beyond that to hold forth on the causes of the war or discusses topics outside the realm of the experience of the character he represents, something else is going on altogether, and it’s no longer a reenactor speaking but someone sharing opinions who just happens to be dressed up in period costume. Their claims to expertise, information, and understanding are not always born out by what some reenactors say and do, and those folks embarrass the entire endeavor.

I have talked to people who portray historical figures, and they deplore the willingness of some people who engage in such activities to misuse their position to claim authority on subjects or to spread the party line of some modern organization. It is when such folks cross the line (or demonstrate that they’ve poorly researched their roles) that academic historians and others become irritated with these people. Yet I would hold others accountable as well. Recall that article on the man portraying a black reenactor? The reporter interviewed reenactors as authorities on a historical issue where it was not clear as to what was the foundation upon which they based their statements. In short, the reporter gave these people a credibility as informed experts that they did not necessarily deserve, and failed to go beyond those people to research the story. The same goes for those people who interact with reenactors. If they believe that a chat with a reenactor on the causes of the war is sufficient to gain an informed and complete understanding of that topic, that speaks volumes about their own quality of mind and the nature of their interest.

Peter Carmichael’s basic point was it is worth considering whether reenactments of combat are a good idea. He says no. He openly deplores the portrayal of war as some sort of sporting event, and suggests that battle reenactments trivialize the carnage of war. That’s a point worth considering, and it’s one that has been nearly lost in the ensuing discussion. As for the remainder of the discussion in the article and the comments, frankly, I’m not interested in going down that road.

The floor is open.

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84 thoughts on “Reenactors, Reenactments, and Living Historians

  1. In a way, I agree with what Carmichael said in his article. The thing is, there are good re-enactors and bad ones–I’ve seen both during my time in the hobby. Good re-enactors will generally impart accurate information to the public; bad ones won’t—at their worst, they may use the public’s attention to foist certain modern-day opinions of the war on them. Since not all re-enactors have the same level of knowledge or the same amount of experience in the hobby, it’s the luck of the draw whom you end up talking to as a spectator. For that matter, not all spectators have a great attitude, either. 90% of my re-enacting has been as a Federal soldier, which can be interesting here in the South. Some people go out of their way to jeer at us and tell us how wrong the Union cause was; oddly I’ve never really gotten the same reception portraying Confederates in the North.

    As for being “in character”, it depends on the situation. For example, if we’re portraying a coastal artillery crew in action for the public, say, at Fort Moultrie, we’ll be in character–giving and obeying orders and performing the tasks of operating the piece. In a one-on-one conversation with a curious spectator, we may or may not be in character; sometimes this can be an obstacle depending on the nature of the conversation. We may or may not be in character when the public is not around, again depending on the situation. If we’re trying to get into the full 1860s experience while digging rifle pits or posting pickets at 2AM, we’ll most likely be in character—re-enactors call it “first person” conversation. Some of the most realistic scenarios re-enactors engage in are never seen by spectators, especially at night.

    When CW re-enacting first began, it was out of a desire to experience just a little of what it may have been like to have been a soldier in the Civil War; the first re-enactors most likely never dreamed that what they were doing would eventually have thousands of spectators and a sometimes carnival-like atmosphere–unfortunately the big events like Gettysburg anniversaries are just that–carnivals. That’s why so many of us prefer the smaller events where that atmosphere isn’t there and it’s where it’s often easier to interact with the public.

  2. Sorry, but Carmichael is way out of line, and comes across as a snobbish elitist ["... didn't I find most of the re-enactors to be blue collar?]. That is patronizing and insulting and when taken with his basic comment that reenactments are “an unfortunate distraction from a deeper understanding” is simply proof that he is oblivious to what has been going on around him.

    Perhaps in his mind re-enacting is a sporting event, but not in the minds of the re-enactors, and I doubt it is such in the minds of the spectators. They are not re-enacting the “Thrilla in Manila,” or the Saints’ Super Bowl victory. They are re-enacting history. They did so this past week for the thousands of visitors who flocked to Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary commemoration. [It was not a birthday celebration!]

    Based on these and other comments Carmichael has made recently, it has become obvious that he has an agenda, that he wants to change the way the Battle is interpreted, and it is apparently politically motivated.

    Never mind that those “blue collar” schlubs that he mixed with in the past are performing immersion history, never mind that the Park Service finds them a good addition to their narrative interpretation, never mind that those on the Park are not engaging the enemy, yet their demonstrations are little different than the actions of the re-enactors who are recreating Battle scenes simply because they do not have an enemy in their front–and that’s not acceptable to Professor Carmichael?

    Those re-enactors do a great service. They have helped keep alive the great re-awakening that occurred with the movie Gettysburg in the 1990s, and in part due to their efforts, visitation has remained good despite a bad economy, they do so out of their own interests and out of theirown pocket.

    Professor Carmichael’s snarky elitism, his “I-know-more-than-you-do” attitude, his inference that his way of interpreting history will reach more people by simply describing the battle scenes, rather than demonstrating them, has demonstrated how far out of touch he is with his own discipline. If he want to teach, let him teach politics, but his license to teach history should be revoked.

    His words are unforgivable, and they have unmasked him.

    • One of the unfortunate aspects of the article that prevents having the conversation I believe is worth having is a tendency to focus on a dynamic of academic scholar (and here Carmichael’s positioned as representative of all scholars) and reenactors (who are represented by several voices) in a narrative that discusses a supposed conflict between two groups over authority (here we go again) instead of the more interesting questions about combat reenactment.

      Some reenactors I know are very critical of the presumptions of other reenactors when it comes to interaction with the public. They say that some reenactors use their position as a soapbox to preach their own politics as refracted through their views of the war, and that they are not terribly well informed (nor very concerned) about broader historical questions. Again, bad history is bad history, regardless of the source, and the criticism you direct against Carmichael could also be directed against these people. Some of the comments suggest that a very resentful and brash anti-intellectualism is at work in some areas, especially when the attacks on Carmichael become attacks on all academics and historians. That’s why the article becomes nearly useless and a disservice to a more constructive conversation … and, frankly, the attacks on Carmichael go way too far.

      • I would note that the author of the article, in the last 24 hours, has provided several comments, including directly to Prof. Carmichael’s comment so people may want to revisit the link.

      • While I agree with you generally, I think in this instance Professor Carmichael has crossed the line, and not by inches only. True, there is a mixed bag in the re-enacting community, there are farbs, there are casual re-enactors, and then there are the hard core folks who take it seriously, and strive for historical accuracy. But to insult them by classifying them all as “blue collar”, and calling them a distraction is way out of bounds.

        Further, one cannot reshape the Battle and the Battlefield to suit one’s political philosophy…you cannot inflict political correctness on the Battlefield or the Battle: it is what it is, and trying to make it something else is an insult to history, to the men who fought here, and to Lincoln who dedicated the ground here.

        What he has done here, and what I got from a most excellent source about what his symposium was like several months back is simply deplorable.

        Worst of all is the fact the the Professor is setting himself up as judge and jury and reserving solely to himself the right to call someone, or some thing [essentially] wrong, and not consistent with his interpretation of the Battle and the Battlefield.

        That is hubris to the nth degree.

        Gettysburg according to saint [small 's'] Peter has to go.

        Sorry, this is most disappointing for someone in his position.

      • Professor Carmichael needlessly insulted the reenacting community. Instead of using the re-enactment as a good teaching tool, he insults them, calls them a distraction. The re-enactors are NOT trying to teach the history of the Battle of Gettysburg, they are portraying symbolically how battle were fought, for God’s sake, that’s all.

        I remember many years ago a Saturday re-enactment of about 45 or so cavalry re-enactors camped in Pitzer’s Woods. They came across about where Wilcox and Perry did and disappeared down into the Plum Run defile. A bunch of us were sitting on a fence near the 1st Minnesota Monument. Suddenly, we heard a bugle calling “Charge”, and nearly 4 dozen cavalrymen on their mounts came charging up the slope at full gallop toward the group of us on the fence, sabers drawn, yelling, and with the hooves of those horses thundering so you could feel it.

        It was intimidating to the max. You really got the sense of what it was like on the receiving end of a cavalry charge. Size of unit didn’t matter, the lack of gunfire didn’t matter, you felt something that you never felt before. People were abandoning the fence, and a few actually screamed in fright.

        That was something you do not learn from an LBG, or from a Professor in a classroom, or conducting a tour on the Battlefield, or from a book. It was personal.

        There are things the re-enactors can teach, can impart to the visitor. If you ever got invited into their campfire area in an evening, if you sit quietly, they take you back. They talk like they were in 1863, and they talk about the things that soldiers talk about and have talked about for eons. You won’t get that kind of realism from an LBG or a History Professor.

        Reenctors have value in what they do. It fills a hole in the interpretation of the Battle and the Battlefield that no guide, book, or classroom lecture can fill.

        Having been a re-enactor, Professor Carmichael must realize this, which makes his comments all the more disturbing. The re-enactors are not a distraction. Nor are they trying to do his job, or that of an LBG.

        So, in essence, this brouhaha is of his own making. How very disappointing that he does not recognize the different roles re-enactors play from college Professors, License Battlefield Guides, and NPS Interpretive Rangers.

        Even worse, do you think he realizes where the Re-enactors got their knowledge about the Civil War and the battles?

        • Great story about that cavalry charge. And I think in general that is one of the major merits of battle reenactors: letting people experience the noise, the smoke, and a sense of the chaos of a battlefield which they would otherwise never see.

          How many people study military history that will never know what it’s like to point a gun at someone and pull the trigger? Or to have a gun pointed at you and fired? Military veterans have experienced an aspect of military history most of us will never be able to grok no matter how much we know. Reenactments aren’t the same thing, but short of enlisting are the closest thing most of us will experience.

  3. This is a combination of what I posted on Kevin’s site. I was somewhat surprised to find myself defending battle reenactments, but, quite frankly, Prof. Carmichael irritated me too (and I’m talking about his comment to the article. I quite understand that articles can distort what the person said beyond all recognition so I focused more on what Prof. Carmichael said without any distorting filter):

    I’m not a huge fan of reenactments although I thought the 135th Antietam was a remarkable experience. It was one of the rare ones that had enough reenactors that one really got a sense of what was required in moving such large numbers of soldiers in Civil War battles. Yes, I agree with Tony Horwitz, that they are too neat and too clean. But, while I have met my share of battle reenactors who are total jokes, I have also met many who took their responsibilities very seriously, more than did their homework, and didn’t regard it as a game.

    On the NPS program I can certainly see the safety and, particularly the resource, rationales. On the other hand, unless they are going to question people who participate in their living history and arms demonstrations to make sure no battle reenactors need apply, throwing terms like unethical and disrespectful to soldiers both KIA and who survived war, seems to me to be needlessly insulting to reenactors who provide the NPS with major additions to their program and bear the expense themselves.

    Perhaps my experience is skewed by knowing the late Brian Pohanka who, in addition to his work as a historian, was also a reenactor and, yes, a battle reenactor, working his way up from a private to the captain of the reenacting unit doing the Fifth NY Duryee Zouaves. He was passionate about the history of this unit and one of his last acts was writing a history of the unit and his widow and his friend and fellow reenactor Pat Schroeder prepared for publication (Pat’s publishing house published it). He also did battle reenactments and you and Peter are are wrong if you think that attending reenactments doesn’t stir an interest in the spectators. One of my best memories of Brian was at 135th Antietam. I had gone over to the 5th NY encampment. The cornfield reenactment had been very early in the day and Brian was exhausted but a group of tourists who had seen him on the History Channel’s Civil War programs and had a lot of questions about the Civil War and Brian kindly answered all of them.

    As for the distinction between living history (good, it seems) and battle reenacting (bad, it appears), I’m not sure I understand the reasoning. We can show the soldier in camp and drilling. We can show weapons being fired at nothing. But we leave out the part where the weapon is aimed at the soldier and the fact that war is not the equivalent of the Boy Scout Jamboree.

    I never thought I’d find myself defending battle reenactments. I have reservations about them. However, I think throwing terms around like unethical and disrespectful to the dead and reducing war to a spectator sport are not fair either.

    [Kevin had questioned what point I was making re: the NPS questioning “battle reenactors so I replied with this:] My point is that, if battle reenacting is so questionable on an ethical scale, why the NPS would want to risk involvement with them or should stick to people who only do living history presentations. They don’t appear to make that distinction in their actual dealings with reenactors.

    I haven’t been to a reenactment since 1998 (I was working a fundraising tent on Sutler’s Row for the Longstreet Society. I still have nightmares about the gridlock leaving the grounds and hordes of hungry diners converging on the only place open that late at night, the Lincoln Diner). I understand many of the criticisms of them and share more than a few. But I’m troubled by throwing around words like unethical, etc. which, IMHO, paints battle reenactments with too broad a brush.

    • “He also did battle reenactments and you and Peter are are wrong if you think that attending reenactments doesn’t stir an interest in the spectators.”

      Kindly identify the “you” in this comment. Thank you.

      • I said that I was reprinting a response to Kevin, so I thought it was clear that the reference was to Kevin. Since I was wrong on that, I wish to make it clear, the reference was to Kevin, not to you, Brooks. I regret the ambiguity on my part.

  4. My understanding is that the original article was not entirely faithful to what Carmichael actually said.

    • Jim-That is Prof. Carmichael’s position. Here are the reporter’s (Donald Gilliland)’s to (1) one of the comments that rather stridently attacked academics and (2) Prof. Carmichael’s comment to the article in Pennlive.com:

      1. [in response to an attack on academics] >>I have to respectfully disagree with your blanket characterization of academics; while some can indeed be a bit superior, it’s certainly not all of them. What’s more, the degree usually does represent the fact the person has not only done the research but also has had to defend it in the face of rigorous questioning from skeptical experts. I appreciate your defense of re-enactors, but I also think we dismiss academics and higher learning at our own cost. The people of the 1860s generally held education in very high esteem, which accounts in part for the high rate of literacy at the time.<>Prof. Carmichael is a well-respected academic, and though I admit I have not read his work, I’m sure it is carefully researched and written with nuance.

      I also recognize that public discourse is often more rough-and-tumble than that which takes place inside the academy and navigating between the two is never easy.

      I agree with Prof. Carmichael that this is not a culture “war.”

      The story explicitly rejects the hackneyed phrases of Gettysburg controversy – war, battle lines, etc. – and characterizes the tension between academics and re-enactors as a complicated “feud” or “spat.”

      That may be a sloppy way of phrasing it, but the tension does exist.

      Bringing it into the open – along with Prof. Carmichael’s blue collar/working class comment – may make him resentful and uncomfortable, but he also knows there are portions of our conversation that I did not print – because he explicitly asked me not to. I respected those requests.

      What’s more, Prof. Carmichael’s claim that “we discussed the socio-economic background of Civil War re-enactors in attempt to understand the many reasons why people are drawn to this hobby,” is a bit disingenuous. The discussion was a short one because when I disagreed with him about re-enactors being predominantly working class, he changed the subject.

      More significantly, and as the story elucidates, Prof. Carmichael’s objection to battle re-enactments in preference for Living History ignores the fact the re-enactors who are “good enough” to do Living History usually got that way by doing lots of battle re-enactments.

      I agree with Prof. Carmichael that there is a conversation to be had over the “mystification” of war and treating it as entertainment, and that conversation goes well beyond the Civil War, as I note in the story.

      What’s more, it is a conversation that has been going on at least as long as the Civil War itself. 150 years ago, yesterday, this newspaper bemoaned just such a trend in the battle reporting of the day. The Harrisburg Patriot & Union of July 7, 1863, wrote:

      “God knows the realities of war are bad enough. Fields covered with ghastly corpses that should only be showing the growing maize and wheat ripe for the sickle, sicken the senses and lead to serious reflections on the folly and the madness of man. But we shudder intensely when the bleached bones and quivering flesh of decaying humanity are represented to us in glowing colors by sensation writers who make a romance of slaughter and wring glory dripping from the blood, the sacred blood that our sons and brethren are pouring so copiously upon the soil from which we draw our sustenance. We have no heart for such rehearsals. We feel that we are all mad, and in our madness are committing terrible excesses. We are butchering each other and giving up to the ravages of war a glorious country which Christianity, statesmanship, philosophy and the arts of peace, might convert into the granary and Eden of the world.”

      The current tension – as the article notes – comes down to who controls the narrative.

      Prof. Carmichael enjoyed a largely unchallenged platform in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. In this story for the Patriot-News/PennLive I gave the re-enactors a voice as well.

      Prof. Carmichael has written elsewhere that “journalists are an intellectually deprived clan.” That is another conversation. He is, of course, entitled to that opinion, and I respectfully disagree. <<

          • I tend to think that this is how the reporter wanted to portray it, even as he denies the usefulness of the term to describe what the article addresses. I think the discussion about who re-enacts is not what Carmichael was really interested in discussing, but in what they do.

            • So why was it necessary to denigrate them and what they do? The interviewer did not make up Carmichael’s words.

              • Where did Carmichael denigrate re-enactors? Show me. Use his words, not the reporter’s comments. People have made much of the blue collar comment, but did he denigrate blue collar workers or did he simply make an assumption that he quickly abandoned in changing the subject?

                What he questioned … and you seem to overlook this … is combat reenactments. That’s all.

                • “…didn’t I find most of the re-enactors to be blue collar?

                  …reenactments are “an unfortunate distraction from a deeper understanding…

                  • Let’s try this again. Carmichael’s addressing combat re-enactments, not all aspects of re-enacting. Only white-collar people would find being called blue collar degrading, and that really would say something about them, no? Much depends on whether you attach something more to that term, but I read it as descriptive (if incorrect), and not pejorative (although others may well differ). Carmichael’s own roots are blue collar, and, frankly, some people are making way too much of this comment.

                    As the reporter admits: 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.

                    So it’s not who they are, but one aspect of what they do. To say otherwise is simply unfair to Carmichael and shows a rather amusing trust in the reporter’s objectivity, although it’s obvious that he came at this story from a certain perspective.

              • Different issue. I am much more in sympathy with the notion that during the March conference lines were drawn that should not have been drawn, and I said so at the time, as anyone who looks at the tape of the conference’s final session will see. But in this case, I think there’s been some confusion as to what Carmichael said. My own personal knowledge suggests that Peter does not hold the views concerning re-enactors that some people have attributed to him. His reservations concern a specific type of re-enactment activity.

                • As Professor Allen Guelzo said in the opening of his Gettysburg, The Last Invasion:

                  “…the lure of the Civil War remains strong, but dealing with its battles has acquired among my academic peers a reputation close to pornography. This despite the nagging reality that aggression is an instinctive form of human self-preservation; despite the curiosity, for those of a Marxist bent, that no more efficient repudiation of liberal individualism (and other ideology now on-the-town) exists than the collectivity of war and combat; and despite Susan Sontag’s ironic reminder that “war was and still is the most irresistible–and picturesque–news.” However, a generation of professional historians whose youth was dominated by the Vietnam War has not been eager to embrace any war after that experience, except perhaps for the purpose of demonstrating the atrocious malevolence with which American soldiers are habitually supposed to wage it or the pitiful pall of death which it spreads across the land.

                  “This book will not offer much comfort to those persuasions if only because we cannot talk about the American nineteenth century without talking about the Civil War and we cannot talk about the Civil War without acknowledging, even grudgingly, that the Civil War era’s singular event was a war, and that all other issues hung ineluctably on the results achieved by large numbers of organized citizens attempting to kill one another.”

                  Professor Carmichael does not like battle re-enactments. I think Professor Guelzo has explained why.

                • Brooks- You said “My own personal knowledge suggests that Peter does not hold the views concerning re-enactors that some people have attributed to him. His reservations concern a specific type of re-enactment activity.” But a lot of reenactors participate in that type of reenactment activity, including many who also appear in the type of living history events that meet Peter’s standards. I know all the horror stories; I’ve met some of them. However a lot of reenactors who do battle reenactments take it very seriously. I don’t believe “Gettysburg” could have been made without them (yes, we could have done without “Sgt. Santa”). I heard Brian Pohanka talk about the making of “Glory”. There were very few Black reenactors then for a variety of reasons, many of them not at all pretty. However, there were several battle scenes involving the 54th Mass, which was all black except for its officers, in “Glory” and you don’t just put a bunch of untrained extras in them and expect them to have a clue as to what to do as Civil War infantrymen. So they recruited a lot of Black people locally, Brian and some others got the use of one of the Civil War forts in the Washington area and drilled the “recruits” until they could credibly appear in the movie. Civil War drill is very demanding but they did it. Brian said he loved it because it gave him insight as to what faced officers and non-coms from the Regular Army at the beginning of the Civil War in trying to turn massive numbers of civilians into soldiers. I believe that it was among those extras who portrayed the 54th Mass. in the movie that the reenacting 54th Mass originated. I know there were several members of that reenacting unit at Brian’s memorial service, held at Manassas National Battlefield Park. The final battle scene in “Glory” has been described as one of the most realistic in the movies, up there with the beginning of Saving Private Ryan portraying D-Day.

                  I don’t think it’s realistic to expect many reenactors not to take personally Peter’s criticism of the activity in which they’ve chosen to participate.

  5. At this time I don’t agree with Dr. Carmichael’s general thrust that re-enacting portrays war as some sort of sporting event and that re-enacting trivializes the carnage of war. It feels a bit to puritan to me.

    I’m fine with people re-enacting. Lots of people seem to enjoy doing it. It’s there way of memorializing past events. Some go about it seriously and some others don’t. It in no way suggests reenactors are necessarily ignorant of the carnage of war. And although war is war, on some levels it is akin to sport.

    The Civil War is also past and it isn’t like people are re-enacting Fallujah. Are people who re-enact Roman soldiering in say France or Germany really trivializing the carnage of war too? I don’t think so.

    • I agree with you. The re-enacting unit I belonged to had several members who were veterans of actual combat–one of them was still on active duty. People like them who’ve experienced war and carnage for real have no interest at all in trivializing it. The prerequisite for most participants is a genuine interest and love for the historical time period. Same goes for those who portray ancient Romans.

  6. When I first read the Carmichael article, I tended to disagree, based on my almost two decades as a living historian. However, \soon after that I was looking at some online photos from the recent GAC Gettysburg 150 event. If spectators sitting in seats think that the civil war consisted of guys on horses saber-dancing with others in a different colored suit, no blood effused, no bodies maimed, and soldiers that are too fat and too old to represent the period, I think that he may have a point. Yes, some of us are the right age, the correct body mass, have great kits and do credible first-person history. Most of us don’t.

  7. (1) Brooks makes a valid point about the “academics vs. re-enactors” red herring. (2) In all honesty i think I agree with the point that there is a difference between re-enactors doing living history/encampments and battle re-enactments. The latter are necessarily fake and short on “teaching” while the former can be excellent platforms for learning from qualified re-enactors (and there are many who fit that description). There is no earthly way, for example, that one can re-enact the first day of Shiloh by pitting 40,000 Rebels against 40,000 Yanks. What you get instead are etremely small groups on each side pointing their weapons as if they’re an anti aircraft battalion. What are you going to realy learn about the actual tactical maneuvers, why the fight went as it did, etc. from that? It’s entertainment far more than it’s “re-enacting” or providing learning. On the other hand, tactical and firing demonstrations and one-on-one interactions with re-enactors about uniforms, gear, camp life, being on the march, etc. at encampments do impart knowlege. I recall the 2000 Lexington/Concord encampment. The demonstrations and the opportunities to meet and talk with re-enactors from American and British units were terrific. The battle re-enactment was fun (for a few minutes), but that was about it. By the way, I think that the objection that re-enactments trivilaize war is another red herring. That’s not my complaint about battle re-enactments. I just think that they’re fairlyy useless as a learning tool.

    • Battle re-enactments usually are short on education, and from a re-enactor’s standpoint, they’re all more or less the same. If you’ve participated in one battle event, whether large or small, you’ve pretty much seen them all. It’s interesting when one is new to the hobby, but for myself, the appeal of it was short-lived.

      That’s why I prefer doing living history encampments and demonstrations, myself, where the focus is on soldier life–there’s far more education and interaction with the public to be had, just as you said. Personally, I’ve always gotten more enjoyment from the living history side of the hobby–we’ve gotten more than a few new recruits from the public at these events, as well.

  8. As SF Walker says well, most of us on the most authentic end of the hobby believe first in the twin goals of education (ourselves and the public) and battlefield preservation. One is directly related to the other. The more we can educate the public on what really happened, the more awareness, donation and preservation. That is often best accomplished at the smaller event lever if “the soldier’s life” is the main point of the lesson.

    While battle reenactments might not be our fist choice of events, we have a stake in making those as realistic as possible as well (the education part). We aren’t talking about making the carnage of war palatable or trivial. Its about trying to flesh out the history books by attempting to at least demonstrate the tactics and maneuvers of the armies.

    Battle reenactments do two main things:

    1. Allows us to put into practice the formations and tactics we study in an opposed format – i.e., the maneuvers of your unit will depend to a certain degree on what the other side is doing and all must fit within the actual historic scenario. A small living history event cannot simulate battalion and brigade maneuvers. It is the ultimate test of leadership in living history – recreate what really happened in the actual battle and perform the maneuvers correctly from brigade down to the platoon level.

    2. The battle reenactments often generate large crowds that then sparks interest in more study. Many visitors to national and state battlefield parks I have spoken to over the years cite being a spectator at a large event as their first encounter with Civil War living history.

    If a spectator comes away from a battle reenactment wanting to know more, or get involved themselves (recruiting) then its a success. We understand there are different motivations for some in the ranks but don’t condemn the entire lot because the standard of education might be low or “re-fighting the war” might be important for this or that unit.

    • I hope that my point was clear. I’m not condemning battle re-enactments and certainly not condemning battle re-enactors. And i appreciate the purposes battle re-enactments serve – although I think yours about a better platform for demonstrating battalion and brigade maneuvers is a bit overstated since you really don’t have “brigades” (and can’t, given the numbers). I’ve seen living history demos with a sizable enough group of re-enactors which do a great job of showing tactics, etc. without staging a faux battle. The Lexington encampment I mentioned actually served the purposes you identify, especially generating public interest. The “battle re-enactment” was the British retreat from Concord, so it was in stages and at points where the public viewing was more what you would see for a parade. The “centralized” event was the encampment and a lot of public education took place there. The same thing goes for the demonstrations the NPS arranges with re-enactment groups over at the Minuteman NHP.

      • For the purposes of demonstrating maneuvers, it doesn’t really make a big difference whether you’re talking about a company, a regiment, or a brigade. For example, when a regiment composed of five 50-man companies in line of battle performs a coordinated left wheel to face an enemy formation, it’s exactly the same maneuver that would be carried out by an entire brigade of 5 regiments–and by an entire division from there on. The only real difference (for us and the spectators) is the length of the line in question. If the officers and file-closers know their jobs, it goes off without a hitch. If they don’t…well, the companies get tangled up and you’ve just gotten a glimpse of what First Bull Run looked like.

        • I agree and understand that. My point is that given the fact that most of the time you won’t have the appropriate-sized units, it can actually get a bit silly as part of a “battle” re-enactment and a watcher can get just as much (if not more) out of it as a tactical learning exercise if done as living history/demonstration – partly also because you can explain the what, how, and why as it’s happening. It also reduces the impression one tends to get from battle re-enactments of the “I didn’t know they were that old/I thought they didn’t get four squares a day” genre.. I know one accomplished ACW re-enactor who shares this view and refers to “1/25 battle re-enactments”. His perspective is that the battle re-enactments too often lean to the circus/entertainment side. As he put it to me, “I feel like an idiot pretending to be in a combat where I’m apparently shooting at flushed birds.” Once you’re purporting to stage a re-enactment, the comparison with reality starts to take over – numbers, age, use of blanks, aiming skyward, nobody bleeding, etc. Ultimately, I’m just stating my preference. As I said previously, my view has nothing to do with the notion that re-enactments trivialize combat. If I thought that way, I could never find Band of Brothers, Private Ryan, or Pacfic worthwhile, which i most certainly do. In fact one of my many complaints about those movies which Maxwell and Turner put out is that they were nothing but filmed re-enactments with the same problem. Toobad that those projects weren’t worth getting Spielberg or the Romanian Army involved.

          • I feel the same way as the re-enactor you know; we have the same issues with battle re-enactments. I think nearly all of us realize and accept the fact that we can’t duplicate the size or the real atmosphere of a major battle like Gettysburg, even if there were enough of us in the hobby to provide the numbers. We also can’t experience the real fear they felt in combat; there would be VERY few battle re-enactments if that were otherwise. Plus, as you said, most of us are not real soldiers–we’re certainly not all 22-year-olds who weigh 145 pounds (though I did most of my re-enacting when I was around that age and size)! But as long as battle re-enactments remain a part of the hobby, as Gornde put it so well, we do have an obligation to the public and ourselves to try our best to make them as accurate as we can.

            Like you, my preference is for living history; demonstrating the different aspects of soldier life–as well as learning more about it myself. In battles, I feel there’s often a disconnect between the public and the re-enactor; in this situation, it’s impossible for us to interact and discuss what’s going on. The nature of living history allows this luxury for both the spectator and for us.

            I’ve often imagined what movies like Gettysburg and Gods and Generals could have been like with the production skills of Spielberg and Hanks applied to them. I’m sure lots of us are wishing for a Civil War equivalent of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers.

            • Brian Pohanka was an adviser on Cold Mountain in which soldiers from the Romanian army acted as extras playing the soldiers in the battle scenes. He said that it made it look more realistic because the soldiers were much closer to the age and build of Civil War soldiers.

  9. I agree with Pete’s reservations regarding battle reenactments. I find them to be highly problematic. Bruce Catton, in 1962, said that battle reenactments (not living history) “require us to reproduce, for the enjoyment of attendant spectators, a thin shadow-picture of something which involved death and agony for the original participants.” The National Park Service prohibits battle reenactments in battlefield parks for the primary reason it is disrespectful to the men who fought, suffered, and died on those fields to have someone pretending to go what they went through and turning it into entertainment. I haven’t been to a battle reenactment in over 20 years, but I do occasionally take a look at some living history presentations. Sorry, but I don’t look on war as a spectator sport where the mock soldiers play out scenes of death for a crowd of people in shorts and sandals munching on hot dogs. We often poo-poo the upper class folks of Washington who went out in their carriages to watch the First Battle of Bull Run with their picnic lunches. Isn’t this pretty much the same thing?

    • However, Al, the National Park Service allowed the filming of the movie “Gettysburg” on the actual battlefield there, which used thousands of re-enactors to recreate the battle scenes. In them, the re-enactors did the same thing they do at battle re-enactments all over the country every year. It appears that the NPS policy on its battlefields is not set in stone–at least when it comes to major motion pictures (entertainment); either that or they feel that re-enactors can serve a useful function after all–they employ us in their living history programs all the time–many NPS personnel are re-enactors themselves. As I believe Margaret mentioned earlier, most of us in the hobby do both living history and battle events.

      Having said all that, I fully respect your reservations about battle re-enactments; believe it or not, I can sympathize with you on that score. As I said before, I’m definitely not a fan of the circus-like atmosphere that often prevails at the really large ones. What really irked me about the 1997 Gettysburg re-enactment was the fact that the fees collected from both participants and spectators went entirely to the commercial sponsors–with not one cent going to battlefield preservation–I learned this after the fact. I’m used to seeing the proceeds go at least partly, if not fully, to historic preservation.

        • Thanks for the correction, Brooks. I was under the impression that this had been the NPS’s policy prior to the movie’s production. What was the nature of the problem during filming? Did it have to do with safety and/or litter issues–or were there other problems?

      • I think making a movie is a different beast, and I don’t know that battle scenes were filmed on the park. Perhaps they were, but I was under the impression the battle scenes were filmed off NPS territory. I could be very wrong about that.

      • Like Pete, I fully support the educational value of living history programs. I will often stop by one of them and watch, be it a live fire demonstration or just an encampment. I’m not saying, and I don’t think Pete is saying, reenactors don’t serve a useful function. My reservations are only and specifically about battle reenactments.

    • NPS prohibits Battle Reenactments on the Parks because of the control of weapons. Those living history displays by one or two units on warm weather weekends are very tightly controlled, with the powder in the hands of the NPS personnel until it becomes time to use it in a demonstration.

      • Additionally, they would simply be too large to control, and where would the spectators be?

        So there are practical and very good reasons not to have a reenactment on the Battlefields…but disrespect is not one of them.

      • According to the NPS, “even more than safety and resource protection concerns” it’s a question of ethics and respect for the suffering done by the real soldiers on the battlefield. That’s why I said it was the primary reason and didn’t say it was the only reason. I think the NPS would know.

  10. I didn’t find his remarks offensive, but I do disagree. I think Jeff’s example of that cavalry charge is a good one. An example I can share: the first time I saw artillery reenactors about to fire a piece, was expecting it to be loud, and still nearly jumped out of my skin when it fired. Although I understand the point about trivializing the carnage, I can say I had the opposite reaction to that experience. I made even more real to me the power of a piece loaded with canister.

    It also generated a bunch of questions that I researched when I got home. Did ACW artillery soldiers suffer greater hearing loss? Found a study suggesting they did. Did they use anything to plug their ears? Some suggest they may have used pieces of corn cob or cloth. Or did they just cover their ears with their hands? Maybe. I ended up learning quite a bit (or trying to) because of that one bit of combat reenactment.

    I understand the living history comment. One of the more engaging ACW experiences I recall was with a couple of reenactors a few years ago at Antietam who were just camped out behind the church.

    • I think artillery demonstrations are useful in several ways,but that’s not the same thing as a battle re-enactment. The former happened at the GNMP this July, while the latter were held off grounds to mixed reviews. Indeed, Fox had inquired about my availability as a talking head during the reenactments, and I had no idea what that meant. Was I to give the play-by-play, offer color commentary, or what? Sideline reporter? The historian counterpart to Richard Castle?

      • That made me smile – the thought of you saying in your best Howard Cosell voice, “Oh, look at him go down in round three! Lee is a shadow of his former self.”

        • Me, too, Bert. And in commenting on a friendly-fire incident “…their artillery just hit their own troops…well, the field is sure full of penalty flags on that one, Red!”

    • I’ve read accounts of soldiers sticking cotton in their ears on the few occasions when it was available to them, but that does nothing to protect hearing–neither does cloth. I’m sure that hearing loss wasn’t uncommon among CW veterans, no matter which branch they served in. I’ve noticed that the noise from an artillery piece is worse if you’re standing away from the gun than it is when you’re part of the crew.

      • With artillery in partucular, it’s a danged (but obviously understandable) shame that they can’t fire a live round and a full charge. The sound is definitely different – and I want that 2-3 foot recoil and the boys resighting the sucker using a p.h. “Incoming” would be optional. :)

        • I’ve seen (and heard) live artillery firing at the North-South Skirmish Associations Ft. Shenandoah facility at Winchester, VA. It’s where the sound track for the artillery barrage in the movie “Gettysburg” was recorded since their artillery advisor, Charlie Smithgall, who, for many years, was in charge of artillery for the N-SSA, advised them that the sound of live artillery firing was very different from blanks. Even at Ft. Shenandoah, they use only a fraction of the military charge because of the depth of the range. Even taking that into account, the recoil is impressive.

        • That’s one thing I’ve missed out on during the occasions where we’ve fired artillery at park demonstrations–I’ve never gotten the opportunity to learn to use a pendulum hausse. There are a few videos on YouTube showing NSSA artillerymen firing real canister at wooden targets in a field, however; it’s worth a look :-)

          • It’s worth the trip to Ft. Shenandoah for Nationals. I went quite regularly for a while. Now, it’s a bit too demanding for me physically between the drive and the amount of walking, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, especially the time they had a nighttime artillery demonstration and you really get to see the flames coming out of the muzzles that daylight.

            However, being at Ft. Shenandoah, convinced me that if they did an absolutely accurate Civil War movie, the issue would not be the brutality of combat but the fact that you couldn’t see or hear a thing once the battle had been going for a while. They’re not kidding about the continuous roar of musketry and, especially on humid days, smoke from the weapons really starts to hang in the air. I have photos from Ft. Shenandoah that look like the photos that I took on the morning of the 135th Antietam anniversary reenactment in heavy fog. I also still have my favorite pair of earplugs from Ft. Shenandoah that were connected by a cord so that I could drape them around my neck when there wasn’t firing.

            • Yes, the noise and the issue of heavy smoke from black powder would be a real problem in making a Spielberg/Hanks-quality Civil War movie. We’ve experienced this a few times–notably during an early morning infantry tactical during a Gettysburg event. We were in a wooded area on a hot morning with no wind, firing at Confederate infantry less than 50 yards away. After exchanging no more than three volleys, neither we nor the rebs could see each other at all. In fact, the grey smoke was ALL we could see; it was just like being in fog. We ended up firing for a while longer at where we thought the Confederates still were, but we were simply shooting blindly into smoke, adding even more to it. The forest also had the effect of greatly amplifying the noise of our musket volleys. It was chaotic.

              I’ve never been to an N-SSA event before; I would like to make the trip to Ft. Shenandoah to see the Nationals.

    • A live fire demonstration, though, is part of living history. I’m sure a reenactment didn’t show an actual firing of canister. A cavalry charge can be demonstrated without there being a battle reenactment. I agree they can be highly educational and can spark more study and interest.

  11. Personally I don’t know Dr. Carmichael to make any assumption about his character. So all I am left with is this article, which does not shed a positive light on him, Dr. Carmichael’s response, and the subsequent response of the journalist.

    I don’t accept Carmichael’s premise of why he thinks battle reenactments are folly. In fact, I think he is missing the point of the reenactment. It is not a scholarly paper proposing a new theory. They are reenactments of battles. They are not a “why did soldier’s fight” lecture, or a round table on slaves in the Confederate Army. Those types of things might take place at a reenactment on the side (which they can do with or without the battle reenactment) but they are not the main show.

    I am also in disagreement with Kevin over Dr. Carmichael’s motivations. I think there is more at play than some opinionated argument over ethics, so on and so forth. Ultimately I’d agree that it is somewhat elitist to make the suggestions that Carmichael is making.

    • I think the argument about motivations and especially Peter’s supposed elitism is way overblown and serves as a distraction to responding to his main argument. But let’s stipulate that both are true: that Peter’s a scarf-wearing snob who sips his soda with his pinkie extended. Now, let’s get back to the argument: are combat reenactments a good idea?

      • Certainly they are. They feed the public’s thirst for a taste of realism, and without the blood. And I’d bet the Reenactors like it because it puts together so much of what they learned and comes close to actually living the role, which most of them do [immersion] while reenacting.

        Far from being “…an unfortunate distraction from a deeper understanding…” Battle reenactments to deepen the understanding of what the battles were like —as far as they go.

        It really is that simple. Its a shame so many miss that point.

        One final note…the ones that benefit the most from the reenactments are the reenactors. They come away with a closer understanding than anyone of what it was like to be a soldier in battle.

        I suppose Professor Carmichael feels the same about the annual reenactment at Waterloo? And Mr. Mackey would be surprised to know that at Waterloo it IS done on the Battlefield.

        • Mr. Mackey doesn’t care what the Europeans do with European battlefields. If they wanted to pave them all and make parking lots that’s up to them. Mr. Mackey cares about what happens on US battlefields.

      • I don’t think combat re-enactments are a bad idea. Are they the best or most effective way to teach history, probably not. There are better ways, but some history can be taught through mass entertainment. No doubt oral history was passed down not only through serious and solemn discussion, but also in the atmosphere of carnival or sporting entertainment.

        If some want to be puritanical about it not being called history or see it as trivializing war that’s their right. Personally, I’m inclined to get out the peoples’ way.

  12. Just to add a little bit of trivia: I once read an 1865 article describing what could be called the first Civil War reenactment. This mock-battle was held on the Fourth of July 1865 in Boonton, Morris County, New Jersey, While the locals were honoring their returning veterans with a parade, picnic, and speeches, etc., suddenly a rebel skirmish line, with battle flag waving, emerged from the distant tree line; the rebel yell was sounded, and some ladies in the crowd shook with fear. The New Jersey veterans quickly assembled in formation and bravely faced the foe. Blank cartridges were used and the Boys in Blue drove off the attacking Confederates. I believe there were also similar events at a reunion on General Kilpatrick’s Sussex County farm some years later. So, it seems that battle reenacting was good enough for the actual participants.

      • Ouch.
        There are also numerous newspaper accounts of the December 26, 1876 “Mock Battle of Trenton” where several hundred Jerseymen reenacted Washington’s Crossing and the defeat of the Hessians at Trenton.

        The Trenton Times, Dec. 26, 1876: “They will first cross the Delaware by night, but if an electric light could be suddenly thrown upon them it would reveal warm gloves, heavy overcoats and good shoes, for any of which the patriots who made the original crossing would cheerfully come out of their graves and take hold of the oars.”

        Although there may have been some warm farbisms, no one was calling the event a silly distraction.

        • Two questions: First, have sensibilities changed? After all, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show used to reenact battles (including Custer’s Last Stand); I wonder how battle art covering recent wars has sold compared to battle art portraying Civil War conflict. Second, are we singling out the Civil War for special attention due to various reasons, including the continuing shrill debate in some quarters concerning what the war was all about?

          • I think one, but not the only factor is, once you get into 20th century wars, the logistical difficulties of even loosely approximating battles become much more difficult. Owning and maintaining something living, like a horse, or an inanimate like a Parrott rifle (cannon) replica is expensive enough but I can’t even imagine what it would be like to maintain even a replica of a B-17, B-25, or B-29 or a Sherman tank

  13. I haven’t personally experienced a battlefield reenactment, but I have encountered some reenactors and living historians at Olustee, Fort Clinch, and Fort McAllister. As far as opinions of the character and opinions of the reenactor: I am fine with both, so long as they are clear at any given point which one of them is speaking. I would expect most reenactors are amateur Civil War historians and have opinions on the war beyond the scope of their character.

  14. Maybe instead of discussing whether “re-enacting” should be abandoned we should discuss whether “professors” at public universities serve any purpose. In this age of budget cut backs and sky high tuition, do we really need dim-witted politically driven “professors” to tell us something we can all read in books ourselves. Do we really need Prof. C. for example? What purpose does he serve in understanding Gettysburg?

    Just askin’

    • Gettysburg College is a private college. As for public universities, most are really public-assisted as opposed to truly public universities. To use one’s disagreement with a single professor to wage war against all higher education appears to me to be one reason why we need public education … so that folks understand how absurd some of the criticisms levied against it truly are. But many Americans seem reluctant to invest in education, so they can’t complain about the result. The Founders would be appalled.

  15. Up at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome near Albany, NY the highlight of the living history program is a dogfight between World War I fighter planes. The scenario ends with a fiery crash. No handwringing over ethics there.

  16. Personally, I am proud to say that I have friends and colleagues in numerous fields of Civil War Study–they may be Professors, Reenactors, Relic Hunters, Collectors, Artists, Writers, Musicians, Preservationists–they all have their special area of expertise. Some of these folks do look upon each other with utter distain, but I cannot; no single person can ever know everything about the Civil War.

  17. As a reenactor and someone who’s studied in a graduate level history program, I can say that there is a big disconnect between academic historians and reenactors. However, there is also a big disconnect between the academic and the popular historians: one set writes for historical journals, the other for the mass market publishing trade. In military history, there are people that cross over for all three sets (or are part of communities such as militaria collecting). It doesn’t really serve the interest of public history for one group to catagorically diss the others.

  18. While I can certainly agree that there are good reenactors and bad reenactors, and that the bad ones cause more damage than the good ones can fix, I disagree that the battle reenactment is a “distraction”. Having been a participant in a number of events, some of which included reenactments, and some of which didn’t, I can say that just explaining what a battle would have been like does not have the same effect. These are not “sporting events”, they show the reenactors and the public the sights and sounds of an actual battle. And with reenactors who are willing to “play dead”, they show the seriousness of the number of casualties from any and all of these wars.

    On a less serious but still important side note: there would be a lot fewer people coming to these events to learn the history, if all that was being offered was a verbal explanation of the battle. The sights and sounds of the battle reenactments draw people in, making them want to come and learn the history.

    Just my two cents.

  19. Pingback: Getting Back In Rhythm | The Historic Struggle

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