The Civil War was the single most divisive period of American history, a period that forever changed America. Not only did it have an impact on all social and political developments since 1865, but it also forever changed how we perceive the 89 years that preceded the end of the war. After the Civil War, all the major political and social movements have often been viewed as one large arc of history leading towards the cataclysm that was the Civil War. This war, America’s most deadly and costly one, has become the single most definitive moment of the country’s history. We cannot understand the social and political challenges facing 21st Century America without first understanding the Civil War itself. Perhaps one of the useful, or at least most public, means of doing this is Civil War reenacting and living history
The United States of 2017 finds itself at a crossroads of history, much like the people of 1860 did. We are living in a time where we as a nation need to decide what direction we want the country to take. While I do not propose to offer a direction for the country (there are people on social media and in the news who seek to do so), I do think there is room for Civil War reenactors and living historians to contribute to this development. As amateur and professional custodians of the Civil War past, we have an obligation to ourselves, our colleagues, our audiences, and future generations to work together to help the nation understand our Civil War past.
When I think of Civil War reenacting and why I continue to do it after 17 years in the hobby, I am often reminded of Lincoln’s words, “we…highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” Perhaps there is not a more perfect summation of why remembering the Civil War and teaching it people is more important than this. More Americans died in the Civil War than any other American war, and, with the new statistics by Professor David Hacker, more than all of America’s other wars combined. The war not only killed upwards of 750,000 people (and wounded probably over a million more), it destroyed the South’s economy, changed our understanding of the United States as a nation, and forever ended the institution of chattel slavery in America (though it did not solve the issues surrounding equality and discrimination). The immediate and long-term effects are so vast that no one scholar can adequately do justice to the war’s legacy, though many have tried. Reenacting and living history is just one piece in the massive jigsaw puzzle that is the Civil War.
What is the importance of reenacting and living history then? Couldn’t a few museums and academic historians fill that need just as well as the thousands of amateur reenactors? Well, yes and no. While the cutting edge of research is still concentrated heavily in the academy and at museums, there are countless reenactors who have become experts in specific areas that may not have garnered much, if any, attention from professional historians. There are experts in Civil War stationary, weapons, wagons, accoutrements, and ammunition production. Having these resources, which are singly useful in a living history context, helps to fill in the gaps in the picture of the past. Having all of these individual components opens the door for the right researcher or student to pull in all these random pieces of data and create something new and intriguing. For example, understanding how ammunition was made and packaged, and what it was made from, can be used to better understand how soldiers and regiments fought in battle, as well as what considerations had to be made by commanders. Add in known data about weather conditions during a given battle, and one can start to understand why one side or the other may have had issues with their ammunition or combat effectiveness. Yes, all of these data are easily accessible now, but much of these disparate pieces were collected by living historians and arm chair generals rather than professionals.
Not only does reenacting allow amateur historians to become experts in small subfields, but it also provides a powerful visual representation of the American Civil War. I am not referring to battle reenactments specifically, though they do have some value in giving people a sense of the size and scope of a Civil War battle, but the more intimate experiences of living historians and walking around camps at reenactments. While museums can show what uniforms, equipment, and food looked like, they cannot let you smell the smells of Civil War life or talk to someone who has slept on the ground for days on end, marched through the rain, or sat in a trench under a sweltering July sun. It is the unique ability of reenacting to take the primary accounts left to us from the war, and then apply them in real-world settings to see what works and what doesn’t. Reenacting also always students of the war, both the living historians themselves and our visitors, to better understand individual stories from the war. Reenactors often become experts in individual regiments or groups of soldiers from a specific area. The stories of regiments that text books have largely ignored, or whose members never published popular histories or memoirs, can then be told by people who have a passion for that unit or community. Yes, there are more Irish, Iron, Texas, and Stonewall Brigades fans out there, but there are also supporters of units that few have ever heard of like the 145th PA, 101st Ohio, 37th New York, 47th Virginia, and 2nd Florida. While we may not all agree on the lessons to be learned from the war, we can all agree that each participant’s story deserves to be told. Reenacting, then can be a great tool in educating people on these minute, micro history stories that are often overlooked.
Thus far I have focused mostly on the military side of the war, but reenacting also holds boundless possibilities for those wishing to understand the experiences of civilians during the war. People often tend to focus on hospitals, aid societies, and loved ones left at home, but non-military people played far more vital and interesting roles than these. Reenacting allows its participants to recreate the lives of men, women, and children who were displaced from their homes by the movements of the armies, while also allowing African Americans to discuss the impact of the war on enslaved and free black men and women throughout the country. New research is being done every year on the roles played by women and black Americans during the war, and reenacting can be an excellent vessel to tell these stories to a public that is used to seeing the war only through military terms. Our visitors should learn not only about women nurses and aide societies, but also about militia groups like the Nancy Harts and women who dressed as men so they could fight. They should not only learn about slavery and the experience of being enslaved, but also about how black men and women sought to save themselves and their families from the institution. Our visitors should know about anti-slavery Confederates and pro-slavery Unionists. They should be confronted with the uncomfortable realities of combat in the Civil War, and with the brutalities of war crimes and guerilla warfare. Civilian men, women, and children, black and white, experienced far more during the Civil War than being nurses, patriotic sympathizers, or unwilling victims of centuries-old institution, and reenacting is almost uniquely able to deal with this complexity with the right people and tools.
“So that these dead shall not have died in vain,” is a great way to look at the reason for the continuation of reenacting and living history. It is also a great reason for us to work together to resolve differences within our hobby and within our society as a nation. We stand at a crossroads for the future. While I do not seek to make a recommendation for the nation as a whole, I will make one for our peculiar hobby. Whether we are professionals or amateurs, we are tasked with custodianship of Civil War memory. We have a responsibility to ourselves and our audience to grow as individuals and as a hobby, to engage with new research, to evolve with the times, and—most importantly—to heal divides within our hobby. Not only do we stand politically divided over current events and understanding of history, but also over the qualities of our uniforms and equipment. I have seen people with poorly made equipment and uniforms present truly excellent information and demonstrate a firm grasp of some of the current literature on the war, while at the same time someone with perfectly made gear recites only long-disproved myths or overstated factoids. I firmly believe that there is a place for most, though maybe not necessarily all, reenactors in our hobby. We have to overcome our own internal division and animosity if we want to see the hobby continue and rebuild in the wake of the 150th events. The Civil War is a complex and difficult topic to deal with, and it is incredibly politized today, but that does not mean we should fear teaching it or dealing with uncomfortable or unpopular realities of the war. Was the war brought on by the myriad of issues surrounding slavery? Yes, there is irrefutable proof of that (in the words of the Confederate governments and citizens themselves no less), but it is just as important to note that the individual motivations of Southern soldiers were not monochromatic, and represented a dizzying array of support for slavery, the government, and Southern culture. By the same token, we cannot broadly paint Union soldiers and leaders as abolitionists as there were many pro-slavery Union soldiers and officers, and even some who themselves owner slaves while fighting the Confederacy. As with their Southern foes, Northern soldiers’ individual motivation were all over the place in their support for abolitionism, the Union, Lincoln, and the North. It is important that we, as living historians, accept that there is a huge amount of complexity in the history of the Civil War if we are ever going to be able to work together to preserve history and our hobby for future generations to enjoy.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”