Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Civil War Battle of a Different Kind

There's been a bit of a controversy a-brewing in the reenacting circles:
just what is the role of a Civilian/Citizen reenactor in the world of Living History?
By far and large, I have found the greater percentage of the reenacting military believe the civilians play a major role in living history/reenacting. But, to some, the role of the civilian is to do nothing but support the military. To be in the background. To be seen and not heard.
Of course, there are military men who can reenact on the weekends only if there wives and kids come along as well. So the spouses are placed in tents to cook dinner over a campfire. That is their sole purpose for being there.

And then there are a very few who feel that there is no place for civilian reenactors at all.
"This is about the Civil War," they say. "People don't come to look at civilians. Civilians had no role in the Civil War!"
Yes, I've heard and continue to hear comments such as this. Fortunately less and less frequently.

I suppose that's how it was in reenacting years past - like twenty years ago plus. But, since I have been attending reenactments - about 15 years years or so - and taking part in reenactments (this is my 6th year) - I have seen a decently large (and growing) civilian contingency. And, these civilians were not just sitting at camps cooking for their men, but they were taking it that extra step - showing other aspects of life once lived, showing a bit of everyday life on the homefront of the 1860's: Christian Aid Societies, laundresses, period crafts, even a midwife.

And the patrons were interested and asked questions.
Eventually, the amount of patrons that visited reenactments grew.
And so did the civilian contingency.
Through it all, something else began to (here I am!) began to join the civilian end of reenacting. They played roles on the homefront: politicians, farmers, tinsmiths, reporters, postmasters, etc.

And the patron's interest continued to grow.
What patrons now see when they visit a reenactment is a more well-rounded peek into the past. What they now see is a civilian contingency that, by showing everyday life of the 1860's, actually supports the military and the battles. What the patrons now experience is a sort of all-around time-travel.
As stated above, most in the military enjoy this active civilian addition to their 'hobby,' and use this full-circle time-travel experience in the way it was meant to be, and love the stepping-into-the-past experience it gives to both patrons and participants.

But, still, there are those ever-shrinking few that simply do not want civilians in their midst.
"They didn't have civilians living in tents near the battlefields or near the military camps."
Yup - they're right on this statement...can't argue this point. What I actually tell a visitor is that since we cannot build houses or use historical houses (depending on the location of the reenactment), they should think of our wall rents as frame houses, and that we have built a sort of community with roads, etc.
"OK," I've been told by nay-sayers, "A frame house? Ha! Now you are pretending!"
Yes. I guess we are. But, aren't we all??
I do, by the way, have a response (what? You think I could let such an insipid comment such as this go without a response?): When I look at the military at most reenactments, I see a median age of men - many pleasantly plump - being about 50 years old. (Hmmm...check this out...The Average Soldier was a white, native-born, single, protestant, male farmer between 18 and 39 years of age. He stood about 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed about 145 pounds. The average age of a Civil War soldier was 25. In the Union Army it is estimated that 100,000 soldiers were less than 15 years old. These soldiers had to lie about their age to get into the army as the minimum age was 18. )
Speaking of pretending, the military shoot blanks at each other! They're just pretending to get shot!
How about those who are "shot" that sit up on their elbows to watch the rest of the battle, speaking with other "wounded" or "killed" comrades?
You want to talk pretending??? Ha! When all is said and done, the civilians are probably more authentic and accurate than many in the military!

Now, hear me here - this is by no means a diatribe against the military end of reenacting. By far, the greater majority of the military reenactors do an excellent job at this 'hobby.' All that I am pointing out is the fact that this is all just pretending - military and civilian. We're all just playing a game - not unlike what we did as children when we played army or frontier people.
We do not actually time-travel - - - - (although many of us do are darnedest to get as close as possible, don't we?)
So to have one group point out the inaccuracies of the other is just plain redundant then, is it not?

Here in the 21st century, the civilian role at reenactments - not just Civil War, but Revolutionary War, WWI, and WWII - has grown dramatically, and adds to the over-all experience for not just the patron, but to the reenacting world as a whole. When I hear those few folks that want little or nothing to do with civilians, I have to wonder "why?" Reenacting is not a 'he-man woman hater's club' - especially now since so many men have joined the civilian ranks. In fact, I have found that, because so many in the civilian contingency now portray their impression in 1st person, the military members in the differing units have also taken their reenacting a bit more seriously. Instead of sitting on their rumps and talking about the latest movie they saw, the size the breasts of the woman walking by, or how much they hate their jobs or obama, they have taken to living the life of a military Civil War soldier. They have taken an active role to speak to the public about their Civil War military lives. And, they have even begun to create scenarios: disciplining a drunken soldier,

mail call, and learning 1st person period vernacular. We have doctors, nurses, watergirls, chaplains - all playing major roles in this wonderful 'hobby' (I hate that word for what we do, but until I can find another suitable term, it'll have to do).
Both sides compliment each other greatly. Both sides help each other. Both sides need each other to accurately show the visitor the whole history of the Civil War.
Let's work together to make this passion that we all have a more enjoyable one for all involved.


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