November 2017

“Who Are the Good Guys?”: The Role of Reenactments in Conveying the Realities of Historical Warfare

Reenacting can do what no other form of education can do: it can engage both the body and mind.

by Clayton Willets

Fifteen years after the American Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman exclaimed at a soldiers’ reunion in Columbus, Ohio that “war is hell.”[1] This is certainly not a novel concept—Sherman by no means stands alone in his assessment of war. And yet, once collective memory has been washed of the stains of blood and battle, society finds something compelling and romantic about it. Perhaps for you it began with a set of caps and a plastic gun or maybe it was The Longest Day. Maybe, like me, you were drawn in at a reenactment.

I must have been around eight or nine years old when my family brought me to my first Civil War reenactment. Of course, I could barely distinguish the difference between a Confederate and a Doughboy, but that didn’t matter. All I cared about was the smoke and the fire. I was an easy customer. I looked on with heightened anticipation as the cannons made ready to fire, with excitement as the soldiers shot at each other, and thrill as some soldiers theatrically fell to the ground in a display of death. Of course, I meant no ill will to these actors. I knew they weren’t really dead, but what I didn’t know at the time was how strange this spectacle really was—I was excited to see war. But was it really war? Or was it just a stage? While I might have bought in to the idea that historical combat was glorious, I certainly didn’t understand the realities of war.

Reenacting—that is to say, portraying people from our past—has garnered media attention recently for varied reasons. On October 14, two bombs were discovered at a Civil War reenactment in Middletown, VA. After quickly intervening, law enforcement canceled the event. The media later reported that the week before, the reenactors had been warned that they would be harmed if they continued with the event. This was not the first time I had seen an event canceled as the result of a threat. It was usually as a way of protesting (like the cancellation of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec because Quebecois separatists disliked the idea of recreating the “Conquest of Canada” by Britain). But, this was the first time I have heard of a threat being followed through. In the Civil War context, some claim that portraying the Confederacy only perpetuates and glorifies the ideals that the historical Confederates fought for a century and a half ago. Similarly, with World War II reenactments, many, like Joshua Green—a writer and former senior editor for The Atlantic—decry the recreation of Nazi soldiers as insensitive, abhorrent and, considering recent events, suspicious.

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Reenactment of native man’s hanging. Courtesy of Indian Country Today.

Similarly, others—like Mary Annette Pember, a writer for Indian Country Today—denounced the recreated hanging of a Native American at a Pennsylvania frontier fort, despite the historical society’s insistence that it was not intended to be malicious. Recreating any instance of public execution is disgusting and pandering to the lowest and most perverted form of entertainment. Additionally, the recreated execution involved an individual from an historically-persecuted ethnicity. If the lesson from that event was to “depict the milieu of court sanctioned corporeal punishment of the day,” it did not need to involve a hanging; historical context could be taught with significantly more tact than showing an execution. As the president of the Delaware Nation, Kerry Holton stated in the article published by Indian Country Today “there doesn’t seem to be any educational value in depicting the hanging, the historical importance could have been shared in another way.” While these are only a few examples of how reenacting gets it wrong, I still believe that there is a place for reenacting today.

Reenacting can do what no other form of education can do: it can engage both the body and mind. Only a handful of years after watching my first reenactment, I joined up with a unit. In fact, in the decade and a half since then, I’ve joined numerous other units and created one, too. While I did become disillusioned by the glorification of war that reenacting peddled to me years ago, I emerged with a resolve to change public opinion of “the hobby.” Additionally, I see responsible reenacting as a means of conveying complex historical concepts by using all of one’s senses without trivializing the past or war.

Historical context could be taught with significantly more tact than showing an execution.

While many critics rightly blame battle reenactments for glorifying and trivializing war, I see reenacting as a means for responsibly educating. Some reenactors—myself included—have begun to promote the term “living historian” to better describe their participation in recreated battles, camps, or museums. The difference is that while reenacting is acting out an event that happened in the past, living history is recognizing the continuous patterns of history and retelling daily life in such a way as to make it more than just one dimensional (i.e. a cut-and-dry battle and hanging around camp after).

As a result of approaching reenactments via the living-historian method, we are compelled to relate the lives of those whom we portray within their historical context. A friend of mine recently described the concept in a pretty basic and yet brilliant way. Instead of answering the “and who are you supposed to be” question with “a noble Continental soldier fighting for freedom,” a living historian would attempt to humanize the soldier and make him believable. Perhaps he was a father or a brother, a tailor or a dock worker, a citizen of Massachusetts or an immigrant from Germany. Living history permits the public to see people, not heroes on a pedestal. Living history has the capacity to cut through the fog of romanticized warfare and bring historical figures into the realm of reality.

While it may be relatively easy as a living historian to explain to the public who you are portraying, as a human, the hardest part is how to convey the realities of war during a battle reenactment. Yes, the public might have paid the entrance fee because they’re interested in history, but they generally admit upon further questioning that they’re really there to see the battle. So how can reenactors impart the realities of war during a one-hour battle? Honestly, they can’t, and to some extent they shouldn’t. To quote General Sherman again, “war is hell.” I’ve seen everything from fake-scalpings to fake-blood injuries. I’ve also seen capture-scenarios at reenactments where Native warriors massacre the male members of a family and literally drag a shrieking and fighting woman into the woods. In that last scenario, I heard spectators soberly comment about how that “was a little too real.” If the battle doesn’t look real enough, the public will think of it purely as entertainment and won’t learn about the realities of historical warfare, but if the battle is too real, people will understandably find it horrifying.

In the 1980s, the cultural historian Robert Hewison offered a parallel to this tension in his book, The Heritage Industry. In it, he famously wrote about a sizeable museum complex that took over a 19th-century mining town, recreating life there, but without showing any of the hardships. The museum’s interpreters did wear lower-class clothing and one interpreter would explain that the coffin in her home contained the body of her father who perished in a mine-collapse, but it was all just a show. The famously soot-blackened town was scrubbed clean to offer tourists a theatrical presentation. By cleansing the town of its grime and grit, the museum failed to show the realities of the historical mining community.[2] No matter how hard you try—how good your costumes look or how compelling your story—authenticity is a goal that can never be attained.

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Reenactment of the Battle of Saratoga. Courtesy of Lee Winchester.

Every reenactor who has been in “the hobby” for at least a little while could probably tell you about that one experience when “it felt like the real thing.” Some reenactors who fought in the modern military have even told me that a certain scenario just became “too real” for them—that they froze in place. Reenactments can get pretty real at certain moments, but at the end of the day, it’s not real. It doesn’t matter how many scalpings, captivity-scenarios, or fake injuries a reenactment has; none of it is real. I’ve never had smallpox, lived all of my life without electricity, or been on a real battlefield before. I’m not actually fighting for anything, I’m just acting it out.

Something in our mind changes our perspective of recreated fights because we know no one will actually get hurt. For instance, in historical sword fighting, I occasionally make the mistake of attacking before I am fully confident that my opponent can’t hit me or parry and repost. I know I’m not going to get hurt if I do get hit, so I become less cautious. I have desensitized myself to the realities of historical combat. Honestly, knowing that the public will never fully understand the realities of historical warfare—despite perhaps conscious efforts to imagine what’s happening in front of them is the “real thing”—I am a bit relieved. It doesn’t need to get any realer than that. So then, if reenactments can never truly convey the horror of battle, what are they good for?

Living history permits the public to see people, not heroes on a pedestal. Living history has the capacity to cut through the fog of romanticized warfare and bring historical figures into the realm of reality.

The recreated battles, when properly narrated, can be useful educational tools to demonstrate the importance of tactics, firepower, and environment. At the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, visitors can stand in front of a visual of the Battle of Brandywine as a narrator explains the tactical decisions the officers made, complimented by the sounds of war. Both types of experience—a well-narrated battle reenactment and the museum exhibit—perfectly make use of audio and visual to teach the public. The key though is that the museum did not attempt to convey the gore or perceived-glory of battle (as a responsible reenactment shouldn’t either). Some historians may argue against this point on the grounds that battles are bloody, so if we want to understand the battle, we need to see the blood and grit—anything else is unrealistic. However, it’s already unrealistic by the very nature of it being acted; no amount of red cornstarch or crying out will help me understand the realities and complexities of warfare. The role of reenactments as I see them is not to convey the realities of warfare; instead they are tools to teach material culture, strategy and tactics, the daily lives of historical peoples, causality, and the continuity of ideas. A recreated battle can show spectators historical tactics and weaponry in action, however any attempts at gore or “the horrors of war” come across as gratuitous theatrics intended only for the shock-effect.

As a society, we are generally disturbed by images of bloody conflict. Vietnam opened the eyes of our nation as TV reporters began to show in detail what war is like. Since then, the media stopped showing the graphic images uncensored.[3] We don’t really want to see the blood and guts—and if we don’t see it, it’s not really happening. We are now able to speak of war as an abstract concept; for civilians who haven’t seen war, it’s all about glory and winning. Censored images and no personal experience with combat has fostered a culture that is okay with violence because for those of us who haven’t seen combat, violence is not about the blood, it’s about defeating the bad guy. The horrors of war won’t resonate with civilian spectators, but the threats of the bad guy (the fear of his presence behind the trees or smoke, for example) will. It’s this reason that draws people to see reenactments—to see a classic good guy versus bad guy scenario—not to see blood and guts. It is in this environment that living historians can exceed the limits of simply entertaining the paying public by teaching the larger ideas and human concepts.

The role of reenactments as I see them is not to convey the realities of warfare; instead they are tools to teach material culture, strategy and tactics, the daily lives of historical peoples, causality, and the continuity of ideas.

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USCT reenactors. Courtesy of Arkansas Tourism.

Reenactments have a place in society, but it’s not to demonstrate the realities of warfare. Many reenactors have tried to make battles seem real, but unless lives are at stake and real bullets are being used, they can never show real combat and the related horrors. That’s not their function anyway—they exist as a complement to the standard methods of learning history in the field of academia. Reenactments and living history offer a multi-sense experience for learning history and complex concepts. Performed responsibly, they have the ability to portray our past as just another segment of human existence—a continuity of human behaviors and ideas that connects us to a time that was less equipped than our own.

Willets Bio PicClayton Willets received a Bachelor’s Degree in History and a Master’s in Teaching from the University of Vermont. He teaches IB History at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, DC. He also is a reenactor and volunteers as a living historian at historic sites all along the East Coast, representing American history from Jamestown to the Revolution.

Notes

[1] According to eyewitness J. P. Francis, in the January 1915 issue of Sausalito News, General Sherman responded to the soldiers cheering for him with: “Boys, you may think war is great sport, but I say, war is hell.”

[2] Robert Hewison, The Heritage Industry (London: Methuen, 1987), 16 – 19.

[3] For further reading, see: Susan Carruthers, “’Casualty Aversion’: Media, Society, and Public Opinion” in Heroism and the Changing Character of War: Toward Post-Heroic Warfare? ed. Sibille Scheipers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 162 – 187.

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