Notes From The Frontier
Reenactors: The Passion of Re-living History
Many of us love history. But there are those who take that passion further. They actually live history. They fall in love with an era, usually a war because wars are the most dynamic, dramatic, heroic. They study the era voraciously. They wear the clothes of the era. They eat the food of the era. They shoot the firearms of the era. They may even adopt historical personas of the era. They are obsessed with historical accuracy, searching for the raw reality of the era, the essence of what it was like to live then. And they participate in re-living the history of that era--an event showcasing a specific battle or event--with like-minded folks who love that era as much as they do. They are reenactors.
Modern reenacting first started in preparation for the Civil War Centennial in 1961-1965. Then the hobby exploded in the 1980s and 1990s—in large part due to the 125th anniversary of specific Civil War battles, especially Manassas (Bull Run), that was attended by 6,000 reenactors. Ken Burns’ award-winning “Civil War” documentary series also kindled huge interest in that era, garnering 140 million viewers.
Although Civil War reenactors are perhaps the most well-known, there are now reenactment groups for many eras, including the Revolutionary War, Vietnam, both World Wars, the Oregon Trail, Frontiersmen, Western Settlers, the Indian Wars, the War of 1812, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, even the Spanish-American War.
Reenacting has also come to have a side benefit: working as an extra in historical films. Reenactors have been heavily utilized in numerous historical films including many blockbusters such as Dances with Wolves, Glory, Far and Away, The Revenant, Cold Mountain, Unforgiven, to name just a few. Reenactors bring a higher degree of authenticity to a film, bring their own costumes, equipment and firearms, and often work as historical content experts and consultants.
By some estimates, there were about 50,000 reenactors in the United States in 2000. That number has decreased as reenactors, who tend to be older, aged out of the hobby. Today there are probably about 30,000.
But, there are some areas of growth like living history museums and in niche areas, such as the Buffalo Soldiers and also female soldiers, especially in the Civil War era. Traditionally women who participated in reenactments played civilian roles. But as new research has revealed there were not insignificant numbers of women who fought in the Civil War, some reenacting women have chosen to participate as combatants instead.
Taylor Middleton, author of "Hearts of Fire: Soldier Women of the American Civil War" has documented hundreds of such female soldiers. DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, authors of "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War" document 240 soldiers in this work. DeAnne Blanton, a Senior Military Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. is currently updating her book and believes the number may be closer to seven hundred women. Other scholarly estimates put the number at nearly 1,000. Almost all of the women fought disguised as men. (See a future post on this topic.)
Curiously, reenacting of American wars and eras has become popular in countries all over the world. There is a strong American Civil War and western frontier reenactment subculture in the United Kingdom, as well as reenacting groups in Canada, Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, Belgium, and Ireland.
It’s not so surprising that history lovers all over the world are enamored of the romance of the American Civil War and the American frontier. Both were cataclysmic struggles, one the struggle to preserve the American union as Southerners fought to preserve their way of life, in the balance the lives of millions of slaves who hoped to be free. The American frontier was equally dynamic, a vast stage in which millions of immigrants sought their dreams in the ancestral lands of Native Americans who fought to preserve their way of life. Both were unendurably tragic.
When one considers that many Civil War and Indian War soldiers were immigrants from those countries—many of them recruited right off the boat—both eras were quintessential immigrant stories as well.
Below is a video about Virginia Civil War reenactors that gives you an inside view:
A fascinating off-shoot of reenactment is the phenomenon of Oregon Trail and covered wagon adventures that civilians can participate in. The “adventures” employ reenactors to create an authentic frontier experience, as well as the requisite covered wagons, teams, and all the trappings and equipment that go with it. Adventure trips can range from three days to two weeks. (Simply Google “Wagon train adventures” and you’ll be amazed at the variety of offerings that show up!) Who knows? It may open up a new frontier of “living history” for you!
NOTE: We’d love to hear from reenactors out there! Please share your experiences.
For related posts, go to NotesfromtheFrontier.com
-The First WagonTrain
-Death on the Trail
-Revolutionary War Victory Day
-Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
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