Before I became a living historian, I visited many reenactments and, I must be honest, looking back now they were pretty unimpressive to me. I mean, yeah, the battles were cool and all, but very few of the reenactors actually reached out to talk to me. Most seem to stick in their own little circles. Oh, they might've looked up as I walked by their tents, some even shouting a 'howdy' from the side of their tent as I stared at their set up, but that was about it. Then, once in a great while, one of the participants would actually walk up to me and greet me, making me feel welcome. They would tell me about their impression; if civilian they would speak of their 19th century lives, their clothing, or maybe how and what they were cooking over an open fire. The military was actually even less cordial while we walked past their camps. But, again, every-so-often a soldier in blue (and, believe it or not, especially in gray) would reach out to speak to us; show us their muskets, uniform, and tell us about the life of a typical Civil War soldier. Those are the people I remember most.
Many times you may find musicians performing period music that will ask patrons to sing along
And it wasn't just me. Hardly any patrons were made to feel welcome. Sometimes (I would hope unintentionally), some of the reenactors even made us feel like we were intruders!
One of our newest members that just this year joined our unit told me that she thought reenacting was an exclusive club.
Is this the impression a reenactor should give the patrons?
Now that I am a living historian/reenactor (in my 6th season), I try to be the type who does reach out to the patron, to entice them over to my campsite so I can hopefully answer any questions they might have. And to give them a sense that they are very important and that I'm mighty glad they came, especially the kids. Of course, I can't call everyone over, but I do try to speak so all can feel welcome. And I have found most visitors enjoy speaking with reenactors and even feel somewhat 'honored' when we speak to them.
To me that's backwards. It is I who feel honored when they come to my camp of their own free will. And I am even more honored when I am able hold them there through my presentation and my words.
As a living historian, I am always searching through my large (and growing larger) library of social history books for anything to improve my impression. I take great pleasure in studying the everyday lives of our ancestors, from mundane tasks to the more familiar chores and entertainment that were done around a typical Victorian home. I enjoy finding new information that to most people may mean nothing at all but to me is like gold. I like to use this information during reenactments. A good example of this is the Blue-Backed Speller vs the McGuffey Reader. If I were the age in 1863 that I am now, I would have been born in the year 1815. This means that chances are, when I went to school during the 1820's, I would have studied from Noah Webster's Speller, while my children, born in the 1840's and early 1850's (going by their current ages) more than likely would have learned from the McGuffey Reader.
I can use this bit of info when having a conversation with the patrons. They remember this sort of thing. I know this to be true because I've had customers tell me so at later reenactments!
And when speaking to the public, I bounce back and forth between 1st person and 3rd person, which allows me to be most effective in my delivery. Now, I must admit, I love doing 1st person, and I practice it as often as I can. But, I do not want to be anal about it either. By presenting myself in a 1st person/3rd person combination, it allows the visitor to be able to ask questions freely all the while still giving the impression that they have stepped into the past. I believe this creates a most memorable presentation for all involved.
But, I do like to have fun while in 1st person as well. A personal favorite tease I like to use is when a woman will come to my camp dressed in her very modern (21st century modern) clothing - shorts and tank top - and I will say to her, "Madam, is it your habit to present yourself in public wearing only your undergarments?"
These women literally turn beet red! Of course, they know I'm having fun with them, but I bet it makes them think twice about what they're wearing!
An example I'd like to give on giving the customer their 'money's worth' happened just last year, where a number of us learned about and took part in the social etiquette of 19th century mourning for both men and women.
This has been a great experience for me, personally and historically, and it truly made 2008 a very memorable reenacting season. (please see my blog on mourning
For this coming reenacting season I will be participating in a couple of presentations of home remedies of the 19th century with the same fine group of living historians as the mourning scenarios. We will be showing how to care for someone who was ill during the mid 19th century and will be learning about the types of medicines that most every household had and for what different types of sicknesses in which they were used.
Also, at a few of the upcoming events, as I have for the past three years, I will be the 'local' postmaster, presenting period replica stationary and having my helper write and read letters to any patron that cares to listen. Studying the occupation of a postmaster - something most (including myself) would figure to be a cure for insomnia - turned out to be a fascinating subject, so much so that my presentation has grown quite a bit, and this year I will expand my impression even more; military members of a number of different reenacting units (besides the one I am in) have asked if I would allow their groups to participate in the letter writing campaign. How could I say no?
Reading a letter from home
And that expansion is growing in ways I didn't think would ever happen: this coming Memorial Weekend it looks like I may even be allowed to perform my 'post master-ing' from an actual historic post office! If this does happen (and the prospect looks mighty good) it will be in this one right here - Phoenixville Post Office. To be able to do my 19th century postmaster impression from a real historic post office built around 1825 - how cool is that?
But, there is more to reenacting than presentations.
Last year, the president of our unit, Mike Gillett, spent time at the entrance gate during a reenactment at Greenfield Village. He was the first reenactor the folks saw upon walking through the gates, and so many of them stopped to speak with him and to have their photograph taken with him. That set a tone for many visitors and built on their excitement.
That same day, Mike, who is a chaplain as a reenactor as well as in real life, also "read" letters (delivered to the unit by yours truly) to the soldiers who 'could not read.' As for the few that could read, they sat right down and read their 'letters from home,' leaning against a tree, sitting on their camp stool, even crawling in their 'A' frame tent - wherever they could go to get some privacy to read the all-important news from home.
For the patron, this was a true scene out of the past.
A couple years earlier, at a reenactment up in Port Hope, Michigan (tip of the thumb!), our 1st Sgt. JEB, stopped to speak with a few kids after the battle. He posed for pictures with them and even let them hold his musket. Do not think those kids will ever forget that moment - they won't.
Let's go back a few more years, at a living history event in Wyandotte, Michigan. Our military members put on a scenario where they marched deserters around the park for all to see and thenlined them up, read them their last rites, and "shot" them for said crime of desertion.
The public loved it!
This is what Civil War reenacting is all about. Not just sitting on your behind being bored, waiting for the five o'clock hour so you can go home or change into your modern clothing, but to actively participate in portraying life as it was during the early 1860's. Whether you have a military or a civilian impression, to get the most out of this...ahem...hobby is to get up, move around, speak to the patrons, put on scenarios, and, like I try to do, show them life as once lived.
This is what makes history come to life.
This is what the public will remember.
This is what is needed more often in all aspects of reenacting.
This is what I hope that reenactors and living historians from all over can strive to make a part of each event they participate in.
And it's FUN!
It just doesn't get any better!