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November 22, 2008

Re-Enacting: A Report from the Field

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of the many oddball American cultural activities I know nothing about is "re-enacting" -- the world of guys who dress up in period outfits and recreate Civil War battles. So when Bill S. - one of my oldest and best friends -- emailed me that he'd taken part in a re-enactment, I bugged him to let me reprint his note here on the blog. I'm pleased that he agreed.

Here's a link to some video of the event Bill took part in. Here's some more officially-endorsed re-enactment footage:



And here's Bill's account of his adventure:

A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited her brother and sister-in-law in Maryland. My wife’s brother has been a Civil War re-enactor for a while now, and he finally got me to join him for the battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Crazy stuff. 4,000 re-enactors on an actual battleground fighting it out.

We drove down to Cedar Creek while the girls treated themselves to a shop-a-thon. We arrived around nightfall. Seeing hundreds of tents and campfires in that beautiful valley, I felt like I had come unstuck in time (to quote Uncle Kurt Vonnegut).

I really had no idea what I was getting into but my brother-in-law has been doing this for 20 years so knew exactly what to expect.

We slept (barely) in 38 degree weather in an open-ended Civil War pup tent with two wool blankets each. I got about an hour of sleep fearing frostbite on my toes, but it certainly gets you into the experience. (And you and I thought some of those old Boy Scout winter campouts were rough!)

The next morning it was drills. Each division has a captain who calls, literally, the shots. Ours was from the PA regiment. He totally looked Civil War, complete with overgrown moustache. He trained us during the day. I learned how to march, stack weapons, shoot a muzzle-loading musket, and skirmish.

The captains train the troops to reenact the battles in a historically accurate manner. They may tell you, "we need to take some casualties," if that's what happened in the actual battle.

The battle started at 3:00 that afternoon -- historically accurate. It was off the hook. I felt like I was living the first 15 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.” You can't imagine the period rush you get when you see 2,000 Confederates coming at you over a hill with muskets blazing.

The Confederates are evidently still pissed about losing the Civil War, as three minutes into the battle they went off the historic script and kept coming at us. Quite the thrill to have two ranks/lines of Confederate soldiers blasting their muskets at you from 50 feet away.

The guns we re-enactors used are historic replications of Civil War muzzle-loaders. To fire, you tear off -- with your teeth if you're a mensch -- a gunpowder packet half the size of a cigarette and pour it directly down your barrel. You then half-cock the trigger and insert a cap that will spark the gunpowder upon shooting.

The blast of smoke and flame extends 12 to 15 feet. So when the troops get very close, squaring off against each other -- as we did -- they are instructed by their captains to shoot up to keep the show going for the spectators but not take anyone’s face off with the flash.

A real shooter once told me never to aim a gun at someone unless you want to kill him. And it does indeed feel nutty to be shooting right at people who are doing the same to you. I didn't wear my heart monitor but I'll bet I was off the charts with >140 bpms.

The battle itself took about 45 minutes. I took a dive near the end, playing dead for the last ten minutes. Our captain had told us that we needed to take some casualties, and -- as I was out of ammo by that time, having taken 30 shots -- I pitched in. It was actually fun watching the last 10 minutes from ground level.

The 24 guys in our division weren't at all as nerdy as I'd expected. They ranged from a 30 year old guy who works in a Pennsylvania pretzel factory to a 67 year old retired Vietnam helicopter pilot. The common denominator is they’re all history buffs. Evidently a lot of Army Reservists usually re-enact. But my brother-in-law told me that the numbers have been way down, what with Iraq and Pakistan.

As far as I could tell, most of the re-enactors got into it by first being spectators. They watch and think, “Hey, that looks like fun,” and then they get involved.

Once you take part in your first battle, you can be pretty well hooked. My brother-in-law does a half-dozen battles a year. Most of the re-enactors I talked with take part in between 6 and 12 battles a season. I was told that the Gettysburg re-enactment involves 12,000 re-enactors. That seems totally mad.

For me, the whole experience was a bit like skydiving. It was a rush and I'm glad I did it -- but I don't see it happening again. That said, it was a much cooler experience than I imagined it was going to be.

Many thanks to Bill S.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at November 22, 2008




Comments

I'd always understood that re-enactors are mostly a bunch of introverted loser nerds, the sort of men who can't score with women to save their pathetic lives, not unlike Star Trek fans in this regard. Apparently at least some of them are normal people. Very surprising.

Posted by: Peter on November 23, 2008 12:38 AM



In Europe, they re-enact battles from across 2,000 years of history - everything from Roman era to Napoleon. I've always wanted to suit up and play the role of a Roman centurion. Do we re-enact anything other than TWBTS over here? We need variety!

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 23, 2008 12:51 AM



You should be able to find plenty to do with Roman reenactment. (You can even become a citizen of the Roman Republic, "Nova Roma." See link.)

Plenty of info at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_reenactment

Two related fields, which I find fascinating, are "living history" and "experimental archeology."

All these intertwine and overlap with another to varying degrees.

I visited a theme mock medieval castle about a year ago. They had a fully functional smithy which produced various period items (swords, daggers, armor pieces, etc). I got into a conversation with the blacksmith and a couple of his friends who were hanging out there. They were incredibly knowledgeable and could talk in minute detail about a whole range of aspects of life at the time, including practical aspects of medieval combat (as a result of their extensive reenactment experience) that few of us with an interest in the age are likely to have given much if any thought about, not least because of our tendency to romanticize it.

These are the sorts of people you see on those TV shows trying to build Stonehenge or Egyptian pyramids using the techology of the day. Personally, I think there are both better and worse uses of one's time.

Posted by: silver on November 23, 2008 5:03 AM



There are reenactments of various Revolutionary War battles throughout NJ and NY - you can usually find a schedule for some activities at the Fort Ticonderoga website. And Plattsburgh, NY does a reenactment of a battle from the War of 1812.
The film Gettysburg uses reenactors for Pickett's charge - very impressive (Ted Turner is outfitted as a Confederate Major who gets shot early in the charge - guess when you provide the financial backing you get a part).

Posted by: Julie Brook on November 23, 2008 9:11 AM



That's a veritable Holodeck experience!

How much does it cost to get suited up for this?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on November 23, 2008 9:11 AM



There's one thing that keeps Civil War reenactments from being a "veritable Holodeck experience": Fat guys. A brief review of Civil War photographs will show you that those bo's had not a thimbleful of fat on their bodies. Another realism killer is the demographics of reenactors. They skew late middle age. The real Civil War (like most wars) was fought by boys. Yet another thing that's missing is fear. When real bullets are flying, men are wincing, mincing, ducking, covering, and edging (if not running) away. So it takes a real effort of the imagination to look down a battle line of fat old guys, and see all that wonderfully accurate clothing occupied by starving boys, scared out of their wits, surrounded by still heaps on the ground.

Posted by: Faze on November 23, 2008 9:53 AM



We were once having a cuppa in the cafe at Waterloo when half a regiment of Napoleon's Hussars strolled in. "Nous sommes trahis! Sauve qui peut!" is what I didn't shout to a bunch of blokes armed to the teeth.

The most famous of the British re-enacters is this mob:

http://www.thesealedknot.org.uk/index.asp

Posted by: dearieme on November 23, 2008 10:09 AM



"So it takes a real effort of the imagination to look down a battle line of fat old guys, and see all that wonderfully accurate clothing occupied by starving boys, scared out of their wits, surrounded by still heaps on the ground."

Fortunately, I've got a good imagination.

We're working out the kinks on the Holodeck. The whole purpose of the Holodeck is to experience the starvation, terror and blood running on the ground as if it were real... then to emerge from the box to go to dinner at Chez Paris.

What do you have against fat old guys? Inside every fat old guy, there's a skinny teenager itching for action.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on November 23, 2008 11:21 AM



I've only seen renactments in Boscobel, Wis, though I was amused at the disproportionate number of "casualties" who happened to "die" in the shade that hot August day.

Posted by: Bradamante on November 23, 2008 12:52 PM



There are Revolutionary War and World War II re-enactors, too. Even, IIRC, some Vietnam War re-enactors. In Europe, again IIRC, there are medieval, Napoleonic, and English Civil War re-enactors.

I suspect that a lot of recent "war protestors" were really Vietnam-war-protest re-enactors.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 23, 2008 3:22 PM



I put Civil War, etc. reenactments in the same category as Renaissance Fairs. I've been to a few of the latter and they're good fun. Mostly an excuse to ogle women in bar maid costumes and drink beer! But it's also fun to see how much some people get into it, really some clever stuff.

I'll stick to Burning Man, though. Which isn't that far removed from this other stuff.

Posted by: JV on November 23, 2008 5:54 PM



WWII re-enactors...oh yeah. You gotta wonder about the guys who play the Germans ;)

Maybe when I have a little more free time....sounds like fun...

Posted by: SFG on November 23, 2008 7:35 PM



http://www.lssah.com/normal_index.htm

And here's a bunch of guys pretending to be the 1st panzer division from WWII...they never explain what the 'AH' stands for... :)

Actually, if I ever go to Missouri I have to look these guys up. Mom would have a heart attack...

Posted by: SFG on November 23, 2008 7:43 PM



This sounds awesome and totally off the hook (except for the flaws noted by Faze -- great comment Faze). But how do you do a WWII reenactment? Those battles involved hundreds of thousands on a side. Millions on a side in the great Eastern Front battles.

Posted by: MQ on November 23, 2008 9:51 PM



As I'm deeply interested in history and a native Southerner I've always wanted to participate. Having chosen to live in the western part of the country I haven't had an opportunity. Guess I'll have to see if there are reenactments of the Battle of Glorieta Pass down in New Mexico.

A few years ago Tony Horwitz had a book titled "Confederates in the Attic" that has a large section about reenactors.

http://www.amazon.com/Confederates-Attic-Dispatches-Unfinished-Civil/dp/067975833X/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1227547322&sr=8-1

He spent a lot of time with "hardcore" reenactors who starve themselves to avoid the "fat middle-aged guy" look mentioned above. They refuse to wear uniforms made of modern cloth, only hand-spun woven material will do. They also study Matthew Brady battlefield photos so that when they become "casualties" they can imitate the appropriate bloated dead body look.

According to Horwitz, they refer to a well-done battle reenactment as a "wargasm."

Also back to Europe. It's my understanding that there are also thousands of people in Germany who spend lots of time camping out and pretending to be Indians (Native American type). They have themselves organized in tribes and live in tipis, etc. There was a popular German writer named Karl May in the early 20th century who wrote popular novels about Indians that got all this started. This also leads to the large number of German tourists that visit prehistoric ruins in the Southwest. Mesa Verde Nat'l Park is loaded with German tourists and the last time I was in the town nearby (Cortez, CO) there were billboards in German

Posted by: Reid Farmer on November 24, 2008 12:37 PM



As one of those "introverted loser nerds" who also happens to be Bill S.'s brother-in-law, I can only suggest that while derogatory comments are not atypical of the ignorant, there is more to this hobby -- and many other hobbies, of course -- than a condescending outsider is ever likely to discern.

I have not, in fact, been doing this for 20 years -- but I have been attending as a spectator for that long. And I have to say first, that I found watching such events quite interesting, and sometimes even compelling. But I never, ever, imagined I would be doing it myself, history buff though I am.

I was going to write a long essay about this hobby that is more than a hobby, but then I realized that there would be no real point in doing so. I will say, as an amateur historian and a prolific reader of history, that after taking part in one of our larger events, the next time you read an account of a Civil War battle, your own memories of what you saw, heard, and even smelled will come back to you, to add to your reading experience.

My own group does one or two "battles" a year. The rest of the time, we are on the battlefield -- real ones, I mean -- working with the National Park Service to do presentations for park visitors, at places like Gettysburg, Manassas, Cold Harbor, Fort McHenry, and Gaines Mill, to name a few.

It's one thing to tootle around Gettysburg and look at old monuments, silent cannon, and rusting plaques. It's another entirely to be having your lunch in the Wheatfield and see a battalion of 200 Federal soldiers march by. In addition to doing what are called living history demonstrations (in which we drill, fire our weapons, and talk about the life and times of a Civil War soldier), we also invite visitors back to our camps, where they can see how the soldiers lived, what they ate, and ask any questions they care to ask.

Doubtless spending a weekend or two a month camping out in a tiny tent on the hard ground, with just a rubber poncho for a mattress and a woolen blanket to keep warm, is not for everybody. But until TV programming gets an awful lot better, I think I will stick with reenacting for a bit longer.

I could think I was a bit nutso myself, but when I find myself standing on a field with thousands of other such "losers" (including many combat veterans of real wars, who know better than any of us what it is really like, yet come to our "army" because of their love of history and their country, and their desire for camaraderie), if nothing else I realize that there is more to this than first meets the eye.

Why do we do it? Everyone has their own reasons. In my reenacting unit, we do it for them -- those men who served, fought, and often died in the most traumatic and critical time in our nation's history. I know that love of country is passe in these progressive times, not to mention an interest in history, but there are some who still have both.

Posted by: B.C.M. on November 24, 2008 4:55 PM



Late to this party, as usual. War-and battle-reenacting is an international pastime. Others have mentioned the Sealed Knot Society in the U.K., which I think was probably the first organized group. In the U.S. there were a handful of reenactors around for the ACW/WBAAWTS
centennial, and it really picked up in the 1970s and '80s. There are Australian and European (especially German) ACW reenactors, one of whom figures in the Horwitz book mentioned earlier.

As to WWII reenactors, someone mentioned the 1st Panzer Division. If they have "AH" in the unit title, they're really playing SS (as opposed to Heer) soldiers. YMMV on the question of whether or not the distinction makes a difference.

To answer S. Thomas on costs, I think you can count on spending $500-1000 on the basic uniform kit and firearm, and sometimes much more. OTOH I believe that some units are happy to loan stuff to prospective recruits.

Some of my best friends are, or have been, reenactors but I'm too cheap and lazy to do that stuff myself. (A reenactor friend of mine claims that his unit's motto is 'Death Before Discomfort' which is a fine sentiment, but even the softies spend way too much time and energy doing what they do to appeal to me.)

As to pathetic loser nerds, most of my reenacting friends are successful in their jobs and married, and not a few of them are, as someone else said, combat veterans of more recent wars. I certainly have more respect for them than for the typical jock-sniffing sports fan. (And not that there isn't overlap even there.)

Finally, as a sidelight, there's quite a bit of overlap between reenactors and wargamers (us guys [and a few gals] who would rather stay indoors and push model or cardboard armies and navies around on a tabletop or gameboard than camp out, be dirty all weekend, and drive all Sunday night in order to be at work Monday morning). So much overlap that the large conventions of the latter have rules forbidding anyone from attending in a uniform from later than a certain date--usually 1900.

Narr

Posted by: Narr on November 24, 2008 6:10 PM



Narr --

One little P.S. to your excellent post. In addition to being interested in history, I, too, am not only a wargamer, but a designer of wargames and computer games, both for the commercial market and for the military and others. Another thing I have learned from reenacting -- and I won't post the details here, as they would bore other readers -- are that a lot of things taken for granted in many wargames (including movement rates and arcs of fire, for starters) are just plain impossible on the field.

I wonder why more game designers don't go out once to learn such things.

B.C. Milligan, redux

Posted by: B.C. Milligan on November 25, 2008 6:13 AM



It's a sad fact that any dedicated hobbyist is seen as odd or a "loser" by people who haven't got the interest themselves. This is especially true of hobbies that require a great deal of committment, and if re-enactment isn't one of those hobbies, then I'd like to know why not.

These "hobbies" (it's more like a passion or avocation than a hobby) are practiced by people who are, IMO, imaginative, intelligent, and yes, more than a little odd. But from dog shows to orchid competitions to sci-fi conventions to Highland Games caber tossing to obsessive film buff all-night frame-by-frame movie yakathons to wargames to professional Scrabble to, yes, Civil War re-enactments, there is an inner connection between the marvellously kooky, fascinating, offbeat, just plain interesting people who engage in all these activities with such passion, such committment and such knowledge.

They're not losers.

Their weight and age aren't the most salient things about them. To look at a Civil War re-enacter and think the most important thing to point out is that they're "fat" and "middle-aged" (as if such an expensive hobby wouldn't tend to track that way demographically) is to reveal only the philistinism and insecurities of the commenter.

These people are interesting. Why? Because they're interested.

It's too bad those who don't share the interest don't have the imagination to see that.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 26, 2008 9:38 AM



To B.C.M.--I couldn't agree more on the usefulness to a wargamer, wargame designer, or student, of getting out in the field and getting the grunt's-eye-view.

To PatrickH--well said; I often say the same thing about the relationship between being interested and being interesting.

Narr

Posted by: Narr on November 26, 2008 11:29 AM



The only problem with historical reenactment for me is that there are only a few areas with mass popularity (i.e. the Civil War, Medieval Europe, etc.)and most of it is fairly rough and tumble. If there was a re-enactment group based on late Victorian/early Edwardian salon life, I'd join in a heartbeat.
"Did you hear Lord Astley join the Golden Dawn?"
"What, the Masons were too staid for him?"
"Care to hear of my expedition to the Khyber Pass over a glass of Port, chum?"

Posted by: Spike Gomes on November 26, 2008 7:00 PM



Spike, there used to be a subculture of role-playing gamers who put on what was called Live Action Role Playing evenings or LARPs. Many of these games were based on a vampire mythos from a company called White Wolf. These were often highly theatrical events, with everyone from local theatre people to Death Bunny/Goth girls to nerded out wargame types dressing up and acting out.

There was always a tension between the wargamer types and the artsies, since the wargamers loved to "twink" or accumulate masses of vampiric supernatural powers (rather like experience points in dungeons and dragons) and engage in interminable preposterous "combats", with everything from (virtual) magic to (pretend) bazookas going off all night.

I actually ran one of Ottawa's more successful vampire LARPs in the mid nineties. I simultaneously played a butler named Watkins, who (conveniently) managed to be everywhere at once to keep things from getting too out of hand.

My favourite moment: a character gave Watkins money and told him to buy some explosives. Naturally, I couldn't let Watkins be used that way--it would have destroyed his usefulness.

When the character demanded to know if Watkins had bought the explosives, it gave me enormous pleasure to reply as follows, in a slow English drawl:

Watkins: There were no explosives in the market this morning, sir. I went down twice.
Character: No f*cking way!!
Watkins: No, sir. Not even for ready money.

No-one got it, of course. But I did, and that's what counts.

Anway, you'll probably have success getting your kind of re-enactment only in LARPs. If they still have any, or ever did, in the part of the world where you're hanging out.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 27, 2008 9:55 AM



Loser or whatever, if you are in the movie business, and you needed a whole bunch of people to ride on horses, you'll call the local re-enactors, or have them trucked in.

I'm aware of a half-dozen movies that relied heavily on re-eneactors and their horses for scenes, and - for reasons that remain unclear - don't give any clear credit.

Hey, M. Blowhard, as long as you are legally retired, maybe you could look into it. George Washington had a white arab, according to the books I read in third grade.

Posted by: j.c. on November 29, 2008 12:21 AM






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