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Something I saw on TV recently caused me to think about historical re-enactors. It seems that, among the people who engage in this peculiar activity, there are some genuine "purists". Once such a one dons the 'costume' of the historical period or event, he/she "goes into character" and will not break character til the re-enactor removes the costume at the conclusion of the re-enactment. Wow! I suppose such people have to learn to speak as people did during the time of the historical period or event, although I'm pretty sure they aren't "scripted" (?) Anyhow, I find it curious to think about . . . .
And it led me to another bit of musing........about reading historical fiction works. I strongly suspect the reason (or a good part of it, at least) that students HATE the assigned reading in high school and college English courses is that they simply cannot set aside their 21st Century sensibility when they read a work set in an earlier Time. Or they won't do it (?) Or maybe kids no longer have the imagination that helps one enjoy reading when one has to picture the people and place and actions going on in the story? Is it because we now live in the era of pictures-----movies, television, YouTube and Facebook, etc.? Is that old Chinese proverb about ONE picture being worth 10,000 words accurate?
I read about Ivanhoe and Robin Hood and so many others long before I ever saw the film versions, and was thoroughly enchanted by the stories for which I envisioned the characters "in my head". That's what we octogenarians (and nonagenarians) used to do while reading. But I will admit that nowadays, if Ivanhoe is mentioned I visualize Robert Taylor as the "Black Knight", and if someone speaks of Robin Hood, I get a mental "flash" of Errol Flynn in that suit and cap of Lincoln green!
Last Edited on: 2/10/12 6:40 PM ET - Total times edited: 4
It is very true. I tend to picture actors portraying a character. For example, I read the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books after watching the first films in each series. So when I read LOR, I pictured Viggo Mortenson, Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood, etc in their corresponding roles. Same with HP. I couldn't imagine someone else playing the roles because the visualization of those actors I then related to the books. If I had read the books first, I might have been disappointed with who played which character, like I was with Pride and Prejudice (Love Kiera Knightly as Elizabeth, and while I liked the guy playing Darcy, he wasn't exactly what I had pictured.) BTW, I picture Kevin Costner as Robin Hood, lol.
My kids have fought me over the years about reading "classics" because they want to read more modern books. Classics are "moms" books. So I relate it to my not wanting to read Agatha Christie as a teenager cause they were my moms. So uncool, lol. Now, I love Agatha Christie. IF I would have given in and read them back then, I am sure I would have loved them as well. The classics, I have succeeded in getting them to read, they have enjoyed.
As for the reenactors, part of the fun is staying in character. IF you got to historical sites, such as Mt. Vernon or Williamsburg, VA, most of the time the reenactors are hired actors. As for the hobbyists, I am not sure if they always stay in character, but I have met quite a few who do.
As a Civil War reenactor and living historian since 1993, I can tell you that portraying a character (called 'doing First Person') is a lot harder than just talking about the people you represent (called 'doing Third Person').
For example, if I am pretending to be a Civil War soldier (First Person) in Florida at the Battle of Olustee on 20 February 1864, I can't discuss the battle of the Wilderness or the death of Abraham Lincoln, as they have not happened yet. And when you do this, you have to watch out for those people trying to catch you at it.
Although I am a registered Republican (who votes a mixed ticket) I hated it when Clinton was not longer president. At a fort where I used to do living history (First Person) we told the children who came with their parents that Lincoln was the president. The kids would correct us by saying that Bill Clinton was president. We would laugh and say that Clinton was a British general during the American Revolution. When they would insist it was Clinton, we would caution their parents to get them out of the sun. Some kids got really indignent about it, but that's what happens when you do First Person. A friend and I used to do school visits as two soldiers on their way home after the war (one Union, one Confederate) who met over a campfire in NW Georgia and were walking home to St. Augustine. This way we could discuss any aspect of the war and could show up without weapons.
When you do Third Person, it is easy to discuss any aspect of the war. That means that at the Battle of Olustee I can discuss the entire war and anything related to it afterwards.
Caution: Most reenactors (especially Civil War) do not do 'living history,' or, if they do, do it poorly. Most have a very limited knowledge of the war based on TV shows and movies, or tales they have heard around the campfires. We call these tales "reenactorisms." Some reenactors proably know less than you do about the war, but are considered experts simply because they standing in front of you wearing wool clothing on a hot day. These people are valuable, as we need the bodies, but I sometimes shudder when I hear what they tell spectators.
Speaking of clothing, a good living historian will not comment on the spectators' clothing. For example, when asked if I am hot in my wool uniform, I reply, "Compared to what?" We never poke fun of the women, men and kids in shorts - clothing that would have been disgraceful to wear in the 1860s.
I was once filmed by a student from Florida State who asked me about the war. I was off guard duty at the time and could talk to her. When on guard duty, a person doing First Person can't carry on a conversation with visitors, but must reply quickly to their questions and direct them to the Sgt of the Guard. If they don't, then a Sgt of the Guard (doing First Person) will yell at the sentry and threaten extra duty. When the student (from a foreign country) finished asking about the Civil War, she then asked me what I thought of the Viet Nam war. I asked her where that was? When told it was in SE Asia, I laughed and told her I could care less what they did there as I was more concerned about the "rebs 'cross the river." I don't think she ever understood that I was doing First Person.
Very few people can do First Person properly. You really have to keep your wits about you. Also, some people who just do Third Person as 'living historians' do it very poorly.
For example, I showed up to do living history at Fort Clinch in NE Florida. Another guy showed up that Friday night also. We went out to dinner. He had never been there before and I was a regular. I asked him if he liked to do First Person and living history, as this was a living history event and not a reenactment. He said that he loved to do living history. I was disappointed the next day as he spent most of his time discussing the recent Florida-Georgia game with visitors to the fort.
Famous question asked of Civil War reenactors:
Are you hot in those clothes?
Where did you really sleep last night?
Are you really going to eat that food?
And, as Dave Barry would say, "I am not making this up."
Why were so many Civil War battles fought on national park property?
Why are there no bullet holes in the monuments?
Do you use real bullets in the battles?
Sometimes i think the real reason we go to reenactments and living histories is because we get such a kick out the spectators!
Taken from a 3-part PBS series on Florida State Parks.
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Thomas: Thank you for the interesting post. I can only suppose the reason there are re-enactors of the Civil War (War Between the States) is partly because it was fought right here in this country, and made such a profound difference in the national history. I can't imagine re-enactments of the other wars in which the USA has been involved . . . . . . . Nam re-enactors sounds unimaginable, somehow . I have never heard of re-enactments of the Mexican-American War. I wonder if there are any? or down in Texas, of the siege and massacre at the Alamo?
An ancestor of mine donated some of his farmland (just west of Somerset, KY) for a cemetery for those killed in the Battle of Mill Springs. It's now a modest facility national historical site near Nancy, KY, and some re-enactors from a Civil War Union regiment from Minnesota have visited it, since the original regiment took part in that battle. fought when some Confederate troops tried to cross the Cumberland River. After it, my ancestor and some of his neighbors buried the dead, both Union and Confederate.
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A number of Civil War reenactors also do WW II - even portraying Germans and Russians. I have a friend who does Gestapo, and he is always on the lookout for his wife, who does a French Resistance fighter.
A lot of guys down here (Florida) also do Seminole War. There is a reenactment of The Dade Massacre every Christmas week.
I have a friend, who is now retired from reenacting, who also did the English Civil War. After a Wilderness reenactment in VA, we dropped him off in extreme SW VA where he was to meet others. They had an authentic English Civil War fort built there.
We get lots of folks (especially Germans) who come over from Europe to participate in the American Civil War reenactment. I had a German professor I corresponded with for years who did this. I almost met him at a Shiloh event in Tennessee, but we never crossed paths. However, I did run into his wife. She was helping out the same authentic food vendor I was eating at one day. There were many German-American regiments in the Union Army during the war. I remember waking up one morning at an Antietam event, where I was lying on the ground on my blankets under the open sky, when I heard some guys who had come in during the night, and were laid out next to me, speaking German. They had come over for the event and they knew the German guy I knew. But they fought as Confederates that day.
One time at the Selma reenactment, I spent an evening swapping stories with a guy from New Zealand.
The guys you have to watch out for are the "campaigners." These are the guys who sleep on the ground in the cold and rain, often do not wear shoes and eat only hardtack, raw bacon and coffee that weekend. They look down on everyone else. We have a joke about them. 'At evey event there are usually 24 campaigners, but only one is truely authentic---and that is the one who is talking to you." They are constantly on the lookout for people with cameras, making sure they position themselves where they can be seen, but when you try to take their photograph, they ignore you with disdain.
I try to be as authentic as I can be, but I draw the line at eating the food the original soldiers ate. I have no idea why they didn't die from just their food. Or maybe that is why for every man killed as a result of a battle, two died from disease. Anywhere from 40,000-100,000 soldiers died from dysentery. This might have been a good thing for historians as that is how we know about a lot of women who hid their sex and fought as soldiers.
I'd sleep under the stars, but in the cold I'd hide in a sleeping bag under my 'authentic' blankets. If it rained, I'd sleep under someone's tent fly, if I couldn't get into the tent itself.
However, once I reached 55 I gave up sleeping out, as I started having health problems. I never regretted doing what I did, but I also do not regret sleeping in comfort now.
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Nam re-enactors sounds unimaginable, somehow . I have never heard of re-enactments of the Mexican-American War. I wonder if there are any? or down in Texas, of the siege and massacre at the Alamo?
I would imagine there are reenactors in Mexico where the war is considered the American INvasion. Mexican children are raised knowing every detail of that war. The siege of the Alamo happened ten years earlier than the M.A.W. and I believe they do have living history people at the Alamo, though I have never been.
In Europe they do reenactments for the WWI and WWII. There are also places like the Wright-Patterson Airforce Base, which does reenactments of Dog Fights. And this year, there are going to be Naval reenactments of the War of 1812 at several ports like Boston, NYC, Baltimore, and in Canada to celebrate the 200th anniversary.
Wow! The War of 1812, REDUX? With sailing ships? And naval cannons? And . . . . .? Do you know any more details? That would be a re-enactment worth traveling a long way to see . . .
OK, I've been thinking further about this topic, aided by the information posted in this thread, for which Thank You both, Thomas and polbio. It occurs to me that whether there are re-enactments of past wars seems to hinge on whether one's "side" experienced a "victory" or a "defeat".
And yet, like little boys playing Cowboys and Indians, some of one's playmates have to take on the role of the "losers", for the game to take place? Or maybe the re-enactors who take on the roles of the "villains" get a real satisfaction out of being the "nasties" for a brief while? Nothing more curious than "human nature", is there?
A number of Civil War reenactors belong to units that do both sides. Many of these peope have the bare minumum to do the side they don't like much. For example, a lot of Confederate reenactors only do Union when the disparity in numbers is too great to make it seem realistic. Some still talk about a small event in Virginia where only a handful of Union reenactors showed up, but a couple of hundred Confederates appeared. It was a Union victory and the spectators had a wild time watching hundreds of Confederates being chased through town by less than 10 Union reenactors. I bet those Union guys had a ball that day.
However, the units I belonged to (two separate units in my active reenacting period), did both Union and Confederate and camped that way as well. Many Rebs camp Confederate but will do one day as Union.
We often actually picked the side we portrayed because that side lost the battle. This meant that we usually had more fun. Just as an example, as the Battle of Olustee was a Confederate victory, the Confederate reenactors outnumber the Union boys by many hundreds. Some of these Confederates only show up on Sunday, as that is the day the real battle is reenacted and they get to chase the Union off the field.
But so many show up that some of them don't even get to fire their muskets. Elbow to elbow they crowd onto the field in the end as the Union retreats.
Meanwhile, on the Union side, there was at least three major committments of brigades. Some Union units get to go in first, be pushed back, go in again, get pushed back again and then go in for a third time. Guys who take hits (killed or wounded) are dragged or carried off the field by their pards and, once in the treeline, come back to life and get to go into battle again.
I once spent a week as an extra on a documentary of the Battle of Antietam, doing both sides. We lived in tents, and worked from dawn to dusk, often changing uniforms twice during a day. I had so much fun that it wasn't until the last day on the ride back to the camp, that I remembered that I had a job I had to go back to the next week.
A one hour version of this documentary was shown at the Antietam National Park center for a long time (maybe it still is), where much of it was filmed. If you only buy one Civil War documentary video in your life, buy Antietam: A Documentary Film by Historical Films Group. James Earl Jones narrates the video.
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In Maine, I went to a reenactment where no Confederates showed up, lol. Only the 20th Maine. It still was a great demonstration of camp life. We had a blast.
Here is a link to some of the events for the War of 1812 bicentenial. http://www.ourflagwasstillthere.org/events.html
Last Edited on: 2/13/12 5:48 PM ET - Total times edited: 1