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.