Been There, Done That

Historical Reenactments

Published: September 5, 2012

Member of the Mid Atlantic Vintage Baseball League, playing by base ball’s 1860s-era rules (Hyattsville, MD)

Americans have a fascination with their past – not just discussing it, but actually reliving it. And we’re not just talking about your everyday Civil War reenactments. There are people across the country reenacting American sports, wars, and even lynchings.

On this episode of BackStory, we’re asking what drives people to reenact their past. Is it purely educational? Or is there something deeper, more personal at stake?

Tell us your story: Have you ever reenacted a time or event in American history? What drove you to lace up the boots or dust off the ten gallon hat? Is there a reenactment in your hometown, or in a place your family liked to visit? Let us know.

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Comments (12)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Charlie Schroeder

    I recently reenacted my way through history and wrote a book about it. “Man of War” came out on May 24th and is published by Hudson Street Press, an imprint of Penguin.

    A few of the more interesting reenactments were Rome’s invasion of Britannia (A.D. 43) at a 26,000 square foot replica fort in Arkansas, the Germans march on Stalingrad in 1942 outside Stalingrad (Karval, CO) and a Vietnam reenactment in the jungles of Virginia.

    Not all reenactments I participated in were mock battles however. I even helped a group of upstate New Yorkers row replica bateaux down the St. Lawrence River in what they deem “ambush history,” a sort of historical flash mob in which we educated unsuspecting campers and boaters along the U.S./Canadian border about the region’s history. I also accompanied a former rock star turned Polish Winged Hussar on a tour of a California Renaissance Faire.

    More information about my adventures can be found at my website, http://charlieschroeder.com/, and I’d love to talk to you further about the historical reenactment hobby and what compels people to want to relive the past.

    Best regards,
    Charlie Schroeder

  2. B. Williams

    I am a college student and a reenactor. I reenact raw Western Union troops during the Civil War. I do it as a kind of memoriam to my ancestors who fought on both sides (I’ll go Rebel eventually). This last year my unit and I went to several reenactments, including the 150th Shiloh in Tennessee. I’ll never forget it as long as I live, and the history almost literally came alive!

  3. Jeff Hyson

    Depending on how you’re defining “reenactments,” you might want to talk about the innovative teaching method, “Reacting to the Past,” which immerses students in month-long role-playing games set in moments of historical crisis. While all of the action takes place in classrooms and libraries on college campuses, students often become deeply, emotionally invested in their characters, working hard to learn more about the people and ideas of the past in order to achieve their assigned “victory objectives.” (And yes, sometimes they even wear costumes to class.)

  4. Natasha Barnes

    While I’ve never participated in a reenactment I’ve been watching the annual reenactment of the Moore’s Ford lynching in Monroe, GA which reminds the community of the 1947 lynching of 2 African American couples on the anniversary of the killing. Unlike Civil War reenactments, this is not a reenactment that’s about getting the outward details “right:” the fabric of the uniforms, the correct artillery and personal arms, or even the proper gait of the soldiers. The reenactors want to tap into the deeper emotional realm of the victims and perpetrators. It’s a beautiful, moving spectacle…like a Passion play. For those that are willing to watch it, this reenactment restores community when civic values were most under siege.

    Natasha Barnes

  5. Maryann Walsh

    While it’s not exactly a reinactment, the staff at Plimouth Plantation are all in character as pilgrims. They interact with visitors, but can only discuss what they would know from their time period.

  6. Lauren

    I am a historical artisan – I interpret many different time periods, so I see the variations in inventions, social progress, economic booms (or busts). For me personally, I am deeply moved about learning what shaped my own culture, in those ways of innovation, economy, agriculture, labor, social cues, even cleanness and science. But it’s important to note that there are living history “villages” and farms across the world that interpret time periods ranging from the Iron Age to the 20th century, often completely immersive for the visitor; visitors can travel around North America and the world experiencing their own pasts too. These locations include the aforesaid Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, The Farmer’s Museum, Conner Prairie, Heritage Park, Genesee Country Village, Claude Moore Colonial Farm, and hundreds and hundreds more. (You can learn more at the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums, http://www.alhfam.org). ‘Reenactments’ don’t just have to be about battles or military.

  7. Mea

    I started reenacting thanks to a guy I was dating, but I didn’t really appreciate it until after we had separated. Then I remembered a time when I had gone to Fort Frederick State Park with my family when I was 7, and my dad asked me how I would feel about sleeping in the bunks there. My eyes got wide and I was so excited at the prospect. On a rainy night in April, 20 years later, that dream became a reality, which is a great “so there I was, half naked” story for another time.

    My interests in the hobby are focused squarely in the 18th Century, and for the last 4 years have been almost completely aimed at the medical aspect- I portray a surgeon. Yes, I know, women weren’t surgeons, but as it turns out, I have a distant family connection to the father of Modern Surgery- John Hunter (who thrived during the 18th Century.) I find myself fascinated with how our thinking evolved during this period in history about our bodies, from cleanliness, the theory of humours, the medication and efficacy therein, and then the stories of surgeries, autopsies- the dark underbelly that is how we got to where we are today in medicine and health.

    I find that the hobby of reenacting itself is its own reward. Too often we rush from one thing or another, we microwave our lunches and dinners, we are perpetually attached to a cell phone or a computer, or some other form of technology. When I go to an event, I leave all of that behind. I sit around a fire and sing, or tell stories. We all rejoice in each other’s love of history, and we learn and grow at each event from each other’s research and discoveries. Its a unique rush when you can do that, and you come back feeling more refreshed and more inspired, in my opinion, than any spa or resort can give you.

    Additionally, there are things in history that we’ve lost as a culture. For example, the art of seduction. Today we use online dating, or bars to socialize, hook up, and move on to dating and our modern ideals of courtship. In the 18th and 19th century, that wasn’t the way. Being at a 19th Century ball (such as those at Gadsbys), you hearken back to that era- when eye contact actually meant so much, and a gentleman could make a lady blush by holding her hand, spinning her at a distance across a row of dancers, and in that brief second, make her feel like she is the only person on the planet. Its an art we lost, and one that I whole heartedly enjoy when I have the opportunity to participate.

    So there are many, many reasons why we can/should/do reenact these periods somewhat long forgotten. These are just a few of mine. :)

  8. will spires

    Devil’s advocate advisory! I’m an historian with an uncomfortable relation with these events, although I used to be associated with them. People visiting sites should have an option, a
    time to go when they can simply be there and reflect and observe. I’ve always wanted to see Plimoth, under such circumstances. The thing about historic reenactments is that they are performance art, and the thing about art is that you have a choice.

  9. Folo Watkins

    For the past nine years, I have concentrated on Anglo-Scandinavian Early Medieval reenacting with Regia Anglorum. Regia, I am happy to say, is one of the finest and most accurate historical reenactment organizations in the world (see regia.org). We try to present everyday life during the era–never call it the Dark Ages to my face!–from textiles, moneying, medicine and other gentle arts to archery and military reenactments. Education is a primary concern, since so much of the public is so ignorant of the time, but there is a camaraderie among members, and everyone is hopefully having a great time!

    Our branch–in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin of the United States–is Micel Folcland (Old English for Land of the Great People, a meaning of “Illinois”). You can see photos and much more at micelfolcland.org

  10. Victoria Lawhon

    I have been involved in Civil War reenacting since 1988. I did not even know that there was such a thing until a friend told me about a posted note on the bulletin board at work about such a group. Long story short, I went to my first ball in January, and first even in March of that year. I would say that my lifelong love of “Gone With the Wind” played a large role in all of this. I wound up loving the hobby, and researching the proper clothing and accessories of the era, as I found many of the sutlers were selling incorrect items. I have been a featured speaker at several events, talking about period hairstyles,. children’s clothing, and ladies’ accessories. I love to talk with anyone interested in history.

  11. Geoffrey Domowicz

    I am a living history professional portraying several persona’s from the 1753 and 1863 and have been doing so since 1987. I have lectured at many different sites, conferences, organizations, and schools. As such, I agree with an earlier comment that many “reenactments” can be viewed as performance art, and as such the participants can be very good or just awful, and every where in between. Ask 1000 re-enactors why they do what they do and you will probably get 1000 different responses. It means many different things to many different people. I do it to educate people of traditions, customs and the social etiquette of the past. I feel is it very important to remember were we come from, our connection to the past keeps us grounded.