My View on Historical Reenactments

I’ll just admit it up front: I’m not a big fan of historical reenactments. I always tend to look at them the way this Monty Python sketch portrays them. That being said, reenactments are not innately bad, just very hard to do well. In a pure sense, reenactments are another attempt at understanding the world of the past, just as academic scholarship should attempt to do. The problem seems to be in execution. Bad reenactments can innocently allow specific details, like clothing, to overtake the importance of understanding the meanings of the event being reenacted or, more sinisterly, whitewash history with patently wrong interpretations of history. With an admittedly pessimistic view towards reenactments, I breakdown three main categories (in my experience) of the types of reenactments:

Reenacting the plainness of the everyday

Certainly, these demonstrations sanitize history by rarely showing the ugly side of the everyday, but I am still call this category, on average, the least harmful reenactments, though also the least useful. In this category, I am primarily thinking of the places that have “living histories” of the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries. Grade school kids often go and see a man working at a blacksmith shop and a woman making clothes and have a sack lunch outside. That has been largely, my experience with these types of reenactments.

However, even everyday activities can horribly mangle the historical record. The Golden Era Society A group that celebrates the “dress, music, manners and lifestyles” of the 1920-1950s “Golden Era,” at best ignores (at worst cherishes) the rampant racial, class, and sex discrimination, not to mention places the Great Depression, within the “Golden Era.” This sort of ahistoricism, even when restricted to a small group of people obsessed with very small slices of the past, endangers the historical memory–keep in mind that while it may seem silly to call the 1920-1950s a “Golden Era,” many people do not object to calling much of the same time period home to the “Greatest Generation.”

Reenacting the ugliness of the everyday

While attempting to tackle the ugliness of the past is a tricky assignment, these reenactments hold the potential for the most benefit. Tanya Roth has a great piece about a recent reenactment of a slave auction in St. Louis. Understanding the impossibility of truly reenacting a slave auction, the event opened with a historical framing and ended with an open forum, which likely helped guide those in attendance to a useful educational experience. In her piece, Tanya raises the important point that while Civil War reenactments are frequent (see the next category), reenactments of the ugly side of the Civil War Era (i.e. slavery) are few and far between.

The slave auction last week was imperfect in its execution, but I think it drew important attention to an issue that seems to be getting buried in the politics of popular culture. We’re about to embark on a four-year commemoration of one of the most popular events in American history: sometimes it seems that everyone’s a Civil War armchair historian.

As we spend these four years remembering our past, where will slavery fit in to the narrative – and what will the placement of slavery in that narrative tell us about modern America?

Another somewhat recent event that I would place in this category was the sixth grade class in South Carolina that “simulated” the discrimination of Jews in 1930s Germany. Though reportedly, it was conducted well, I am still have my reservations. I am sure reading “No Jews and Dogs Allowed” is eye opening for a middle-school student and I am sure these students understand discrimination better after the exercise. However, the dehumanization and persecution that Jews experienced was nothing near what you could (humanely) simulate. Good teaching should try and cover this gap between reality and experience, like the slave auction’s introduction and forum. I just worry that the gap is not being covered in every classroom that may try a similar exercise.

Most revealing, however, is that the South Carolina school simulated 1930s Germany when teaching the Jim Crow South would have been a more powerful lesson. Removing the problem of discrimination to another place (and frankly another time) obscures the United States’ large history of dehumanization, discrimination, and infliction of terror. To be fair, I am sure there are valid reasons in choosing 1930s Germany, among them the fact that I doubt parents would be alright with the activity if it had been Jim Crow South that was being “simulated,” even though the activity would have proceeded in essentially the same way.

Reenacting war

I am sure there are plenty of good groups of upstanding citizens reenacting battles for good and educational reasons, but reenactments of war are the most common example of reenactments and provide the richest example of bad reenactments.

The details battle reenactors often cherish (uniforms, guns, supplies) are better suited in reenacting the everyday, not an extraordinary circumstance that is primarily about killing, maiming, and other not-so-nice intentions. Too many of these groups are not educational, but only concerned with guns and clothing, as if that wearing the same clothes and carry the same items some how replicates the experience of war (I’ve never been in war, but I would imagine some sort of fearing for your life is included in the experience). Instead of accurately representing much of anything, too many of these groups obscure large issues behind war (like imprisoning or killing people based on race), which only disservices society (and its history).

My rant being somewhat complete, commemorating war is still a very common phenomenon in countries across the globe, but how some of these groups commemorate war only butchers history. I will point you towards this group of Italian reenactors of a Louisiana infantry division, partly just because I found it so strange–The group’s homepage asks you if you want the Italian version of the site (with an Italian flag) or the English (with a Confederate flag)

Like I said in the beginning, historical reenactments are not innately bad, but when the “HISTORY OF THE REAL 14th LOUISIANA INFANTRY” only lists the battles in which the group participated, it is fair to call the reenactments bad history and a negative educational experience (sorry, history is much more than names, dates, and numbers). An even more appalling example was the Congressman who served as a Nazi reenactor. At best he completely misses the historical reality of the SS (which raises the question of whether this man is intelligent enough to help lead the country) and at worst  tries to use “history” to cover up bigotry (which prompts the same question).

A final disclaimer and conclusion

I will repeat it once more as a disclaimer, though I may have already lost any pro-reenactments readers, historical reenactments are not innately bad. Reenactments are another way people try to replicate the historical experiences. Just as the words of historians attempt to understand and convey the historical experience, so do these reenactments. The problem of reenactments comes when the present day experience of reenacting becomes more important than the message being sent to the audience. Reenactments need to understand and acknowledge they are not perfect and seek only to convey the important aspects of the history they are representing. The meanings of the Civil War are important, not the guns used or clothing worn.

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8 responses to “My View on Historical Reenactments”

  1. […] viewing blog posts to engaging in conversations with fellow reenactors, it is interesting to learn the differences […]


  2. Chris Ketcherside Avatar
    Chris Ketcherside

    My name is Chris Ketcherside, and I am a WWII reenactor. I have been doing some research about reenacting and came across your blog post regarding such, posted February of last year. I don’t want to seem confrontational or argumentative, but I felt compelled to reply. Mostly because I consider myself a historian (without getting into the discussion about that in your more recent post) and I feel like I have to constantly defend the hobby against academic historians, such as yourself, Dr. Robert Slayton, Dr. Jenny Thompson, and Dr. Robert Citino.
    In full disclosure, I am one of the reenactors who reenacts war, the third type of reenacting you describe. I do respect your opinion and do not seek to change your mind, but you have expressed a similar misconception about reenactors many academics have, that being what we are primarily interested in. It is not the guns and equipment. These comprise our “kit” but not our “impression.” The guns, uniforms, and equipment are fun, interesting, and a requirement in order to simulate the appearance of the period. But, to truly reenact a WWII soldier, one must know his attitude, try to see the world as he or she did in that period, sing the songs, know the pop culture trivia, truly try to immerse yourself in that time. War reenacting, when done correctly, comprises all 3 types of reenacting as you describe (although I would have described them differently, being part of that little world).
    Granted, the reason you and so many others, smart, educated people, get this image of our hobby is because, like many things, the lowest common denominator is often the loudest. Too many times have I reenactors who can talk for hours about their guns, but can’t speak a work of the language of the soldier they portray (German, Russian, or US slang). Also, given that most of our exposure is at what we call “public” events, such as airshows, generally guns/gear/uniforms is what we discuss because that is what the general crowd wants to know about. While any reenactor who is a quality one can talk at length about why he portrays who he portrays, the attitudes, motivations, and history of that impression, and can discuss the deeper issues of say, how and why women were employed, is it possible to have been a good person in service of Hitler’s Reich, what kept a Russian motivated, did the US win simply through material might, most often the public simply asks, “What kind of machine gun is that?” and the discussion ends there. At any public event, one will find maybe one or two genuinely interested people involved in a long discussion. As often as not, they end up in the hobby. And while we may not discuss the above topics with the public, we do amongst ourselves ’round the campfire.
    Thanks for listening to my rant, and being the latest victim of my continual battle to vindicate reenacting as a legitimate form of histiography. Dr. Martin van Creveld spoke very highly of reenactors in “The Culture of War” so I hold out hope!

    Thanks for your time.



    1. Hi Chris,
      I do think reenactment can be a very valuable form of historical education, which may have been lost in my attempt at playing the provocateur. I do hope in your attempts to recreate the “attitude” include the attitudes that may make people uncomfortable, such as the racism of the Union soldier (in addition to the Confederate) or the antisemitism of the American WWII soldier (in addition to the German soldier). I find that exploring these complexities are vital to making reenactments valuable places for historical education.


      1. Chris Ketcherside Avatar
        Chris Ketcherside

        Thanks for your reply. In fact, yes, those types of issues are often discussed. Such events as the Wereth 11, blacks often commented that Germans soldiers were treated better as prisoners then they were as the US soldiers who captured them. These types of things are the reason we see ourselves as educational; not every German was a jackbooted Nazi thug, not every US soldier was Capt America or Sgt Rock. The very complexity you mentioned is what we are trying to teach, and learn about ourselves.
        Unfortunately, at public displays, our public face, we rarely get to discuss this, most people only want to about machine guns and helmets, which, while fascinating in their own right, do not lend to deeper discussion.
        Thanks for your reply!


  3. Chris Ketcherside Avatar
    Chris Ketcherside

    PS – I also find that Monty Python sketch hilarious, as well as the sketches done about reenactors on the sketch show Mr Show with Bob and David. I mean, it’s only a hobby, if you can’t laugh at it occasionally, you’re taking it far too seriously!


  4. Here is an interesting article
    Ultimately, the problem I see in reenacting is the fact that so much is up to the individual and there are no established rules or norms. The quality or historic correctness of an impression, group, or reenactment is solely based on the standards of those individuals involved. I have seen some reenactors that are fare more knowledgable on subjects than even many academic types and are capable of sharing this information with the public. Others, should not even be allowed to be seen or speak in public as they are an abomination to history. It all depends and there is no standard. I should add that this applies to both historical sites as well as public reenactment.


    1. Chris Ketcherside Avatar
      Chris Ketcherside

      You are absolutely correct on all these points. Most reenactors would agree with you on these.


  5. Helo Brian,
    Your points are well taken. Your thoughts are fine, and pertinent as far as they go.

    However, we have to realise that every individual that does “reenacting” does it for different reasons. Further, each has different strengths, weakness, and skills, in addition to educational and/or economical opportunities/limitations. Heck even Federal, state, local Provincial (and even antiquities laws) can easily affect FULL BORE living history sometimes (ie. long arm/pistol laws, wood transport, imports, restricted animal parts, ethical appropriateness, open fire codes, etc…) So, in an extreme, unrealistic case, if I want an ivory hilted pistol with double bladed lock bayonet with attached eagle feather and wooden poles and a BARK sheets for a leanto …One might well not be able to posess or transport such things. I have encountered all of these issues. Even ACCESS to the ‘latest’ current research or the availability for hard to get (accurate) materials can severely limit the ‘depth’ of a particular portrayal.

    Then, for the part of academic historical (or social/political) ‘critics’, who are exclusively ‘paper researchers’ or simply outspoken social activists, how many actually study historical material culture (ie. antiques)? In reality, the study of historical material culture and that of ‘paper history is one and the same’, As the best researchers know, one uses ALL INFORMATION available to truly understand anything. Ideally, this includes hands on skills as well as the study of the objects themselves. The forms of material objests (tools, architecture, fashion, weapons, customs etc…), and their evolution or change, is well worth considering in a greater depth than mere OCCASIONAL pictures, because these things can ultimately reflect the society, culture, politics, technology,economic/ life situation of the objects owner, user,
    and group (ie. Regiment, tribe, community, Nation, era etc…), as well as give insights to our own modern life. Is not “law”, “technology”, “medicine” and “science” and “criminal investigation” all based on history, experience and careful observation?

    For example, like an Antique Road Show appraisal, wear patterns on an object could reflect left or right handedness of it’s previous owner, extensive hard use (perhaps indicating poverty, hardship or inventiveness? etc…), which an “academic” might never see or understand.
    How can someone get a Ph.D. in “blacksmithing’ if they never worked in a black smith shop?? This lack of “hands on” MATERIAL experience frequently affects published academic works whereby an author’s writings after they keep using the word “rifle” for every smoothbore musket, because the use of a RIFLE before the mid 18th cent. was rare indeed and would have affected world history if used in the quantities GLOSSED over in this kind of statement (ie. slow to load, expensive to produce and outfit an army, unfit for a bayonet, extensive range, and, socially speaking, unethical to take “deadly aim” in early christian European warfare…).

    What I’m saying is that the quality of living history interpreters is as varried as their numbers, and that one needs to not take it so personally, but still demand (as we al should) higher standards for living history participation. After all, should we go as far as say WHO can or cannot participate in living history? It IS the next level after safety and accuracy. How about accepting a Jewish dentist from Pittsburgh cannot be a Britsh soldier from 1777??? How about a red headed woman accountant? How about an Asian lawyer? How about a federally recognized NATIVE AMERICAN with lighter features? How about any of the above in a wheel chair?? How about you? How about me? How about our children or wives? Who is to say who can participate…. or more-so, who “should” or “should not”? As long as their clothing is VISUALLY (photogenically) accurate, and they act in a safe manner (both common sense and legally) they don’t have to be the “camp spokesperson” for the public, so just let them be and ignore the ‘idiots’? The rest, well…..we SHOULD be held to ALL OUR highest expectations.

    Ken Hamilton


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