I participated with my military unit (as a civilian, of course) in a "Mourning Lincoln" presentation at the Plymouth Historical Museum in Plymouth, Michigan this past weekend.
Numerous events took place throughout the day, including a lecture on mourning practices of Lincoln's era in which the speaker, Elizabeth Kirstens, gave a fine and very interesting speech on that subject. Michigan's own Senator Jacob Howard (portrayed by living historian Dave Tennies) gave a speech that the actual Senator Howard originally gave back on April 25, 1865 - the same month and day as our event - although he cut it down dramatically from its original hour length (orators were very popular during this time and were highly sought after).
And, near the end of the day, another speaker (who's name escapes me) spoke of the death of Lincoln and of the events which immediately followed. There was an exact replica Lincoln coffin on display as well, of which our men in blue guarded throughout the day, taking turns at half hour intervals.
It was a day well spent in the past. It was a day where one could learn beyond what the school history books teach.
It was a day where history, once again, came to life.
Unfortunately, there are reenactors who do not like these types of living history presentations and refuse to participate. They prefer to be on the battlefield or (if civilian) only at a large reenactment.
To them I ask, "Why?" Events such as Mourning Lincoln are perfect for us to teach the public about our 19th century lives in an intimate setting. And it is ideal for us as living historians and reenactors to learn through the lecturers more about life as lived during the time we are representing.
Presentations such as Mourning Lincoln would almost never take place at a large reenactment, and that means the opportunity to present a very important scene in our nation's history is almost never shown.
Unfortunately, some feel it's just playing "dress up" when we do this sort of event.
To that I say "Hogwash!" (Sorry, Ladies, I hope I did not offend you with such language!)
Certainly we enjoy dressing up in period clothing. If we didn't, we'd be plain old ordinary modern day folk talking about the past - - - just like most history teachers in the public school system, in other words.
Dressing up in our 1860's (or whatever era you are recreating) clothing first of all gives the patron the (hopefully correct) idea that we are specialists in our field, that we have studied the era in which we are portraying. Dressing in accurate period clothing gives us an air of credibility.
Second, seeing folks in period clothing should also give the patron the feeling that they just may have stepped into the past, or at least has given them the chance to peer in on an in between past and present level. "Are these people really from the past? Are they ghosts?" Yes, we hear questions like this once in a while from the youngsters. Pretty cool, in a morbid sort of way.
Third, it gives many who may never attend a bonafide reenactment the opportunity to have a small glance at what one is like. It can help increase interest in our history passion, and that's a good thing.
And fourth, it gives us, as living historians and reenactors, the chance to teach history in a much more realistic way while giving us the opportunity to show history as lived and to teach the small nuances that history books in school never touch upon.
Whether we are at a major reenactment or at a small living history gathering, we are history come to life for the visitors. They are our captive audience. Remember - they have, more than likely, come to see us out of choice, not because they have to.
When you have a chance to participate in a living history presentation - especially one that may be the kind that could not take place at a regular reenactment (such as our Mourning Lincoln) - I hope you will consider doing it. You'll be in period clothing, you'll be with your friends and other like-minded people, and you just might teach someone a wonderful history lesson while learning one yourself!
Have a great reenacting/living history season!!