Many historic venues offer historically-costumed interpreters as part of the draw to visit their location. They tend to be informative and usually do well to enhance the visitor experience, despite the guy who makes it his mission to trip them up. There is another group of folks who inexplicably choose to pay good money for the privilege of spending their weekends wearing wool in 90 degree weather and pretending its 150 years ago. Historical reenactors tend to be an odd bunch as you might imagine, and they are as varied as the time periods they opt to portray. Full disclosure: I am one of these lunatics. I have been portraying an American Civil War soldier for about a year and a half now, and I thought I might share some of the lunacy with the good folks who read the THS blog.
Historical reenactors come in a variety of shapes, sizes, temperaments, and styles. Like all hobbies there is a spectrum of involvement, from the casual participant who is just looking for a good time and something to do on the weekends, to the ultra-hardcore guy or gal who is so into the hobby that it makes others slightly uncomfortable. It could be argued that we are all a bit mad, since we all choose to spend our weekends dressed in wool and pretending that its 150 years ago, but some of us are closer to hatters than others. Some folks show up each morning wearing passably correct costuming (except the modern footwear and transition glasses), bring a sandwich, hang around talking to the public then go home around 5:00. Some, hike into the event, wearing 100% period correct costuming, stay in character all day, eat period correct rations cooked on a tin plate over the fire and sleep under the stars with nothing for protection against the elements save a period correct wool blanket made by heirloom weavers, and a gum blanket with correct construction techniques and grommets. We call those guys “campaigners”. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, of course. I am trending closer to the crazy-no-tent-hand-sews-his-own-uniform- and-eats-hardtack- end of the spectrum than I like to admit to my loved ones.
The events themselves vary as much as the reenactors. Many local reenactments are hosted by a historical society or the city, and often pair with other activities. These tend to be quite small and while they may have a battle or skirmish, the number of reenactors tends to be small enough that it might be better named a “dust-up” or perhaps a fracas. This kind of event usually comes with a side of living history, giving the public the chance to interact with the reenactors and ask silly questions such as “do you really sleep in those tents?(yes)” and “do you shoot real bullets?(no…)” and a personal favorite “is that a real fire?(is that a real question?)”. As with most things, the pendulum swings both ways. The other end of the arc is what we in the hobby call a “national event”. These are often huge events, with thousands of reenactors, both military and civilian. Many times, these events take place on or very near the actual battlefield, or place of the historical event(at least as far as the Civil War goes, this gets a good deal harder for WWII reenacting for example), and the battle usually reenacts a specific element of the original battle, such as The Wheatfield at Gettysburg. An upcoming example of this would be next weekend; we will be reenacting the battle of Perryville (1862), on the actual battlefield in Perryville, Kentucky; specifically The Cornfield. Yes, there are a lot of “- fields” in Civil War battles. Registration for the event shows over 3,000 people participating. Not only am I going extreme camping, with few amenities, terrible food, and 3000 people wearing silly clothes- I am going to drive seven hours to do it. Happily.
Why is it that we subject ourselves to extreme temperatures, scratchy clothes, uncomfortable shoes, and strange looks from our friends and family? Oh, and rain, don’t forget rain. For some of us it’s an excuse to get out of the house and not mow the lawn. Many of us do it for the camaraderie of our fellow reenactors. But most of us do it because it’s a way for us to experience, remember, and honor those who came before us. History remembers glorious battles, and great generals, and the events that they affected. But every glorious battle and great general are remembered because thousands of regular people, whose names will never make it into a history book, made it happen. History is not just about dates and the big important characters we all had to memorize back in school. History is about the everyday experiences of the common man or woman who lived through those dates we all memorized. When I put on my uniform, and sleep rolled up in a wool blanket, shivering, next to the fire with nothing over my head but the heavens, and nothing in my stomach but some hardtack and some rice cooked in a tin cup, I think about two things: 1) how this is somewhere between awesome and awful, and 2) that as uncomfortable I am, 150 years ago 3 million people fought and lived like this for years, and some 620,000 never came home to tell their story. They deserve more than four pages in the history textbooks. When I reenact, I get to tell that story, and I remember them and the misery they lived through so that we could all live free, and united.