Monday, February 23, 2015

A Different Reality: Civil War vs Colonial / RevWar - Living the Past

The civilian men are growing in numbers
As a living historian, I have been sharply focused on the Civil War era for well over a decade, studying intently the great as well as the minute details of everyday activities of middle class family life of the northern states, particularly Michigan.
I find the period from roughly the 1840s through the 1860s a very fascinating time in our nation's history, from home life through the battles of the War. When I began in this reenacting hobby all those years ago, male civilians were *almost* unheard of. We were an oddity. We were an invasion in the female realm of the hobby.
In many circles, we still are.
Which is silly, when one thinks about it. Most men - especially my age - were not off fighting. They were at home, caring for their family and attempting to keep normalcy in their uncertain lives.
Understanding this, along with the study of home life, and, most important, attempting to look at history through the eyes of those who were there, has helped me to grow in my historical presentations. I went from the initial camp-sitter during my first year when I was still learning, to post master to stage coach stop owner to farmer, and I include all aspects of these occupations (except camp-sitting!) in my current incarnation. This gives me much more to talk about to visitors, enabling me to teach them about their lives had they lived "back then." It also prevents boredom from creeping in that can occur from doing the same old thing year after year.

And now,I also travel back to the 1770s.
Gotta love the cool colonial clothing!
This is a whole new ball of wax for me.
It's an entirely new/old world of history to discover - or in my case, rediscover - for in my youth I used to focus my attention on the colonial period of American history pretty heavily, especially during the Bicentennial of 1976.
I must admit, I like men's clothing of the 1770s better than men's Civil War era clothing, for at Civil War reenactments I wear a shirt, pants, vest/waistcoat, and jacket - it's really not vastly different from what I wear when I dress for church or a wedding in our modern day. The style is pretty close.
But there is a distinct and very noticeable difference in what a man wore in the 1770s in comparison, from the hat to the shoes.
Very cool.
However, because I've been turning some of my attention to this RevWar period and writing colonial-oriented postings here on Passion for the Past, many have asked, and some have even assumed, that I was going to leave the Civil War era by the wayside (get it---the wayside? The Wayside Inn? The well-known tavern from the Colonial era?? Longfellow? Okay, I'll stop...).
Nothing can be further from the truth.
Colonial/RevWar just gives me another opportunity to visit the past; to explore and recreate the living conditions of another period in time, for, as British novelist L. P. Hartley put it, “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”
Oh! The people you’ll meet:
Here I am with my friend,
Dr. Benjamin Franklin
And I'm finding it exciting, for the times of our Founding Fathers really is a fascinating world. To me, the folks that lived through this era - not just politicians or men in the military, but regular people at their home or place of occupation - are genuine heroes to me, for they all played a part in the founding of our nation, and they put their lives on the line just by choosing to be a Patriot or a Loyalist. There are stories from both Patriots and Loyalists harassing each other, sometimes to the point of mob rule and even murder.
To replicate these times for history's sake is very exciting to me. As I delve further into the 1770s I continue my manner and mindset as a living historian and take it, as I do in Civil War, to the extreme: I want to be there - to feel, as close as possible, what it was like to live in the good old colony days, to practice living history by attempting to experience the past as I have been able to do for the Civil War era. To have "experiential, individualistic, and sensory moments"—why just read about the past when you can dress, eat, sleep, and smell like it?
Immerse myself in it
So why should I do all of this to such the extent that I do? 
Why do I submerse myself in this world of the past rather than just be happy visiting museums or reading about it?
Well, you see, as I read in a post by D.A. Saguto on the Colonial Williamsburg site, "there is an element of escapism involved in dressing up like dead people and playing make-believe, escapism in which J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote Lord of the Rings, saw as “an attempt to figure a different reality” and found the freedom through his writing to do so. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why people spend hours outfitting themselves in the garb of any particular historical era and pass their weekends recreating everyday life of times long past (or not so long past), fighting old battles, reveling in renaissance fairs, or just hanging out with friends who share their affinity for the past." 
There are some who are among the most serious in the reenacting world - the living historians - who not only have a true abiding interest in the clothing and fine points of history as well as a dedication to authenticity, but also a determination to come as close to living in yesteryear as can be attempted. 
The definition of Living History just about explains it all: any of various activities involving the re-enactment of historical events or the recreation of living conditions of the past.
Experiencing history: That's me, plowing behind a team of horses.
In other words, living historians live history by way of experiential, individualistic, and sensory moments—why just read about the past when you can dress, eat, sleep, and smell like it? Above all is the desire is to personally connect with an authentic past and immerse yourself in it.
Experience it.

My wife and I:
Spending time at a tavern built in 1831.
The word "re-enact," as you may know, is not my favorite term for what I do. It seems 'reenacting' has a negative appeal to "serious" historians, more than likely due to some of the inaccuracies associated with it. Recently I spoke with a period dressed docent at Greenfield Village, who also happens to participate in living history, and she mentioned that an 'accredited' history major she knows made a general negative comment about those of us who re-enact. She did not elaborate on what he said, only that he alluded to the opinion that we were not to be taken seriously; we are not true historians. In response she gave him a double-fisted knock upside the head and let him know that, although there are those who are just 'hobbyists,' there are many more of us who take this "calling" to bring the past back to life quite seriously; we do research on a daily basis and keenly study the differing aspects of daily life in the past - in many cases much more than the 'accredited historians' do, who tend to be more interested in ancient politics or battle tactics - and that there are many more of us in this vein than he might realize. She added that those of us who reenact, though we didn't go into debt for the knowledge we've gained over our decades of study, have still earned and deserve respect as historians nonetheless, for we are every bit the historian as those who have a college degree in history.
(Tell me that someone who has spent four or six years in college to get a history degree deserves the title more than anyone who has been studying history for 30 or 40+ years and I'll show you someone who looks at education as something you can only get by paying for it. Not putting anyone down for their degree, for it is an admirable accomplishment, just the ones who place themselves above those who are every bit as knowledgeable but do not have that piece of very expensive paper that tells them they're smart).

And so I've been experiencing the 1770s for a few years now, and I have thrown myself in head first as I do in Civil War and immerse myself into this world, even if some may rather not do it this way themselves.
And, just like in Civil War reenacting, I wouldn't expect them to. Only those who choose that style of living history.
As for me, I can't help it - it's the way I am. I couldn't do it any other way.
Which is why I began my own colonial reenacting group (click HERE).

And I am so excited about it!
Yes, it has me kind of on fire for the experience - and that's where I'm at...just expanding my historical opportunities and experiences.
So if the present is seen as superficial and lacking of merit, we, the living historian, can look for the freedom to escape to a fully faithful, if re-created, reality of the past.



Stephanie Ann said...

After getting a history degree, I understand completely why historians don't take reenactors and a large majority of hobbyist research seriously.

While many reenactors spend an lot of time researching, much of their research is what most historians would see as preliminary research and much of it show a lack of understanding of historical methodologies.

I found in reenacting it's a lot of "he said, she said" and "Well X is the "authority" so it must be true." Plus bickering. :)

I am extremely happy to say that there ARE a lot of very valuable but nontraditional historians out there who do great work, research in a serious manner and are more concerned with learning, synthesizing and teaching than being "right." I'm also happy that there are more reenacting groups and organizations dedicated to more traditional study of history.

But, I wouldn't knock the degree completely. I thought I knew what I was doing before it and probably would have gotten there eventually, but it did teach me a lot about the methods (and schools of thought) of studying history that had not been obvious to me.

The gap between amateur and professional is narrowing and will continue to do so. Luckily there are some great guides out there for people who want to learn historiography:

Alena said...

I think it is great that there are more people concentrating on non-military impressions. Have you found that the things you are learning about life in 1770 is affecting the way you think about the 1860s? Knowing what the grand parents of your 1860 persona went through may have an influence.

Historical Ken said...

Stephanie Ann -
I appreciate your comment and I took it in the spirit with which you wrote it.
Thank you.
I hope you don't think I am knocking degrees - I am knocking those with degrees who's noses are in the air and who will not give living historians the credit they deserve.
As I wrote in the post: "Not putting anyone down for their degree, for it is an admirable accomplishment, just the ones who place themselves above those who are every bit as knowledgeable but do not have that piece of very expensive paper that tells them they're smart."
I agree with you about the "he said she said" and bickering that goes on between reenactors, and calling people "authority," etc.
But you must admit, accredited historians do much the same.

I've seen so-called 'historians' being quoted on the History Channel documentaries (and elsewhere) and it makes me sick for the amount of information they got wrong. Or the half-truths they give.
But, again on the plus side, I agree with you also that the gap is narrowing and will continue.

And you, my dear blogger friend, are a historian who does not have her nose in the air and does give credit where credit is due, and that is appreciated.
Thanks again.

Historical Ken said...

Alena -
What an interesting question!
I am actually finding that, just like what I have learned (so far) in colonial reenacting has affected my Civil War reenacting (in a positive and knowledgeable way), but it has - just like Civil War - become a part of my life here in 2015.
I am acknowledging the era much more in my thoughts and conversations. It's made me more aware politically as well as made me even more patriotic.
Not to sound corny or anything, but it's made me even more proud to be an American.
Okay, so it does sound corny, but it's the honest truth.

Heather said...

Really love this thoughtful post, and am excited to see your colonial era posts (Im in your colonial history group on facebook, who also happens to enjoy a colonial dressed Adam Ant, haha)
I completely agree with the sentiment that you dont have to have a degree in something to be an expert on a subject. Passion is what makes expertise, I feel, because it becomes seared in your brain, not just memorized as cold facts. i feel like I've learned so much more about history just from basic passion and interest as opposed to what I learned in school.
I didnt learn that my very high school was built on the grounds of an indian mission school until I was an adult-- no one ever mentioned this to us while we were AT school. I find that so bizarre. And what a wasted opportunity to make a real connection to history!
I look forward to your coming posts--- I tend to like the 'pre-industrial' eras of US history. As a folk artist, I guess I'm drawn to when people were making more of their things and the colonial era was definitely full of drama and interest!

Historical Ken said...

Ha! Thanks Heather!
Yup - Adam Ant fans unite!
Thank you so much for your kind comments - I really appreciate it.
Degrees are awesome, but one cannot be discounted for their historical knowledge because they didn't go to college.
Re: your school - has anything been done to note its history since? What an important piece for people to know - so interesting!

Stephanie Ann said...

I find rev war and civil war go good together and think you will have fun with both. After all, the Civil War was the conflict everyone was waiting for when the US created a democracy. It does mentally set the backdrop for the time period.

The BUTT'RY and BOOK'RY said...

Ken!! I think that you should be a freelance history magazine writer!! (or are you already)?? Well if you are not you need to be!! :-)
Many Blessings, Linnie

Historical Ken said...

I agree Stephanie Ann - both go hand in hand.

Linnie - Awww! Thank you so much. I've written a bit here and there: Citizens Companion and the Michigan Chronicle. I enjoy writing and wouldn't mind freelancing a bit more.