Debating Reenacting

Over the past several weeks there’s been a lively debate going on about reenacting in the blogosphere sparked by a commentary offered by Glenn LaFantaise, who is no stranger to stirring up controversy.  As one might guess, it was not long before various folks here and there responded to this provocative (and provoking) essay.  Among the more thoughtful responses is that presented by Dr. Timothy Orr, a history professor at Old Dominion University (in turn the comments section makes for equally good reading).  As Orr has also reenacted, he has a somewhat different perspective on the activity.

It’s always a little disappointing when these discussions fall back on the creations of various stereotypes, bearing in this instance the label of “academic historian” and “reenactor.”  The comments that come from constructing such strawmen tend to embitter the conversation.

I’ve never reenacted, and I don’t have any interest in doing so.  I know of some academic historians who have reenacted, and I’ve seen a diversity of reenactors whose attitudes on issues that tend to be hot button ones with academic historians vary, so it would be hard to generalize about the activity.  Personally, I’m always a little leery of those “living historian” labels, as there is wide variation in the quality of the information imparted by reenactors to the general public (as reenactors themselves admit).  Then again, the same is true among some of my colleagues.  Maybe this is another one of those stone soup discussions.

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9 thoughts on “Debating Reenacting

  1. Well first off Mr LaFantasie is a bit of a curmudgeon and a snob, but yes re-enactors are as a rule too old and well fed and they are grown-ups playing soldier.

    I’ve always drawn a distinction between re-enactors and living history actors. The first are hobbyists who are having fun and if people can learn from them all the better , the later being people who do it as a full time job, like those one find at Plimouth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg or along Boston’s Freedom Trail who are there to teach/demonstrate the period of the place they work.

    Re-enactors seem to like an audience but one gets the impression they’d do it if no one ever came to watch.
    Living history actors are there to enhance the visit Well done like at Williamsburg it can greatly enhance the visi,t over done like at Plimouth Plantation and it can get a bit obtuse and confusing as they maintain character with such discipline that communication can be frustrating.

    I actually planned a trip to Va around a re-enactment at Brandy Station, it was billed as the largest ever with an advertised 12,000 participants, a number they easily made and probably exceeded, also they had two regiments of cavalry and two dozen guns. the numbers were pretty equal between Yanks and Rebs and there was the obligatory R.E.Lee and U.S.Grant riding around. the Men did unit drill demonstrations and the horse went through their drills it was very interesting as they were quite good.

    the main event was a mass battle purported to be Laurel Hill. and it was good, what I got to see was two division sized units with a dozen guns each march and shoot. It was the sound I was most interested in and it was noisy and the guns made very satisfying booms. and while loud it didn’t approach the volume of The Who in 1970 nor anywhere near the deafening thunder of the infield at Dover Downs when NA$CAR is running{I can’t imagine louder}

    All in all I found it quite satisfying and the absence of gore and maimed people did not ruin it for me.

    Mr LaFantasie might approve of the Patriots Day festivities as they do the events at the historically correct time, starting at 6am at Lexington Green and on from there to Concord.

    I also get the impression he feels mildly threatened by them when he should embrace them because they buy his and your books{if he has written any} and people ask them about what I good books, so bad mouthing them is not a good sales practice. Buffs in general are a good sales conduit, never mind the masses of books I’ve personally bought I get asked by work collegues and friends to recommend a good book about the ACW or a good book for a kid to use for a history report Phoebe Yates Pember’s ‘A Southern Woman’s Story’ gets good feedback when used as a basis for a report and it gets girls interested which is always a plus. {and yes I even recommend your works}.

    Re-enactors are okay, living history actors are okay and professional historians are okay and all add to the knowledge pool, so can’t everybody just get along.
    Mr LaFantasie doesn’t seem to get that it’s not about him but about me and my ilk, the hoi polloi, the paying public.

  2. I read Prof. Lafantasie’s piece as much less about re-enactors and much more about historical understanding of what Memorial Day stands for, and what it “should” commemorate, and that the holiday was not created as the kick-off for summer.

    Given that I agree with him on this point, I do not question his criticisms of re-enactors and their motivations; my supposition is his intent was to use the obvious criticism of re-enactors to get to a larger point, the absoulutely appalling lack of knowledge and thought about our nation’s history that is displayed constantly in what passes for informed debate in the media and politics.

    Given that I agree with him on that, I realy don’t question his use of the strawmen inherent in the re-enactor hobby; I wager it was intended as a provocation to engender discussion, which it certainly has…

    From a social science perspective, I wonder if anyone has done a sociological study of the re-enactor hobby; especially in contrast to the decline of service organizations and team recreation explored in “Bowling Alone” and similar works.

    Anyone aware of a social science work on re-ectors?

    Best to all on this Memorial Day – re-reading Logan’s order is a worthwhile, I think.

    • Judging from the op ed title “The foolishness of re-enactors” I’d say his intent is clearly to attack re-enactors and he does so with an off-putting vehemence that ends up with him implying they are near racists. His last two paragraphs are really such an accusation.

      But his real complaint is they don’t, in his opinion, hold the War in what he feels is the proper reverence and horror. Yet he has no idea what lies in re-enactors hearts. Their reasons are for doing so are as varied as the reasons men enlisted to fight in the actual war.

      The worst thing we can do to history is to start treating it with a religious like reverence.

  3. Having read the article, I agree somewhat with both Ray and TF. I am working on my Ph.D., but also engage in reenacting. I take issue with his generalizations, as I see reenacting as a teaching tool. Sure, there are those in the hobby that think they have all this knowledge because they have read this one book, or seen this one movie (you’d be amazed how many Confederate reenactors like Gods and Generals or Ride With the Devil, then again, maybe not), but I have written a thesis on soldiers and have studied a bit on material culture. While reenactors are not wearing original objects, at least I hope not, they are using objects to help understand the past.

    While battles are interesting for me, I get more joy out of having a display and just being able to talk to people about the war, while being dressed, which has a way of drawing people, especially kids, who we need to reach. I am sick of the divisions, we all need to come together for the common goal of educating the people on our past.

  4. Ray, with all due respect, I think your reaction is exactly what Prof. L was expecting and, I’d guess, anticipating. I think he is being intentionally provocative toward a group of hobbyists because their pasttime, however sincerely pursued, illustrates his point – we find ourselves in an age of shoddy, yet again.

    I’ve attended a couple of re-enactments as an audience member, primarily through involvement with youth groups; the impact they have in terms of the senses can certainly be thought-provoking when it comes to history, but the question of what motivates the participants is more fascinating to me from a social and political perspective.

    I heard someone describe military re-enactment as “rennaissance faires” for Republicans; harsh?

    • This statement, I think, gets to the crux of Glenn LaFantaise (even if not his own words), “I heard someone describe military re-enactment as “rennaissance faires” for Republicans; harsh?”

      Yes, it’s something he thinks those damn Republican rubes do in their free time (maybe true) and therefore it is simply an abomination (totally subjective).

      What he is trying to say isn’t very deep; it’s just deeply partisan. Modern politics taint every article he writes it seems.

      What’s even more interesting is a number of universities fund and operate living history departments. So they not only have their academic historians, but those historians who reenact history as well (sometimes these people are one in the same even). Oh the horror!

      Check out LSU’s Rural Life Museum for an example.

      http://appl027.lsu.edu/rlm/rurallifeweb.nsf/$Content/What+to+Expect?OpenDocument

  5. TF,
    His bitterness towards re-enactors and the attack on “living historians” seems oddly defensive to me and not meant to generate thoughful discussion.

    Why grown men and women do it is varied, some probably do do it to teach but many do it to experience the era in at least a little way. Others might just like the comradery of hanging out with the boys and for others its just dressing up and playing war. As an activity it is probably not much different than being in a marching band with the added bonus you need no musical talent.

    Here in Massachusetts most re-enactors are Minutemen something I’ve been recruited to do and have declined the offer. and there are some Red Coat units that are rather spiffy and at the Peoples Bi-Centennial in Conrcord one was even reviewed by the Queen herself when she came to lay a wreath at the grave site of the unknown Red Coats in Concord who were the first to die in the Revolution. for these groups battle re-enactments are rare, mostly just the Patriots Day one and a yearly encampment at Rodger’s Rock State Pk near Lake George , otherwise they just march in local parades. The Revolution being much less controversial the Minutemen and Red Coat units and events don’t generate the same comment CW ones do.

    the re-enactors I wonder about are the WWII German and Japanese groups. Take that Republican politician the Liberal talk shows had fun roasting last election, The 5th SS Panzer? they couldn’t have found a unit with a worse record of atrocity if that was what their goal was. and Caucasian re-enacting as Imperial Japanese troops gets a HUH?

    They all obviously have some interest in their chosen era but still, its grown ups who’ve found a way to play war and not get seriously laughed out of town.

  6. Thank you for including my response to Dr. LaFantaise’s article. I am so happy to see that others share my opinion on reenacting as a teaching tool! I am also flattered to have been considered a suitable example for your post. I enjoy reading what you have to say about “living history”! Thanks, again!

  7. I realize this is an old post, but as a former Civil War re-enactor, I figured I’d comment here. I can tell you that there are all kinds of people in the hobby from every job and profession you can think of–one can’t really pigeonhole re-enactors into a single group. They range from serious scholars to more casual Civil War students to…I’ll be honest…rednecks. Many of them fall somewhere in between these categories.

    Basically the scholars tend to be interested in things like uniform and equipment specifics (sometimes to the point of being obsessive!), historical details of soldiers and units, and the history of the War itself. Their uniforms and gear are often made-to-order and near-museum quality. These guys are usually more interested in “living history” weekend events where they depict daily soldier life. Forming up on the field with the mainstream re-enactors to burn powder in mock battles holds less interest for them. Let’s face it; once you’ve re-enacted two or three battles, you’ve seen them all.

    Then you have the “mainstream” re-enactors for whom the mock battles are usually a bigger attraction. They generally have the basic off-the-shelf uniforms and accoutrements from the large-volume vendors, which are authentic enough, but not accurate to the last detail. Some are serious students of the War; some aren’t—and, unlike some of the re-enactors I mentioned above, these folks have the good sense not to spend $600 on a top-of-the-line hand-stitched frock coat when their wives have been nagging them about that A/C unit that’s been blowing hot air all week!

    Finally, you have your rednecks. These are the guys who can sometimes be seen wearing modern sunglasses, cowboy hats, and biker boots as part of their standard Civil War equipment. Often they’ll pull right up to the tents in a truck festooned with—I know I’ll be accused of stereotyping here–Confederate flag bumper stickers, and unload their Igloo coolers full of beer, which they’ll do their best to deplete before the weekend is over. Trust me, I’ve seen it; it’s NOT a stereotype! A few of them seem to think they’re Jackson or Forrest on the battlefield; a lot of them are Lost Causers who are into modern-day politics regarding secession, display of the CS flag, etc. These would be the closest thing in the hobby to the “Republican rubes” that TF and Lyle Smith alluded to above. They don’t dominate re-enacting of course, but they’re there.

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