Nick Kowalczk offers us a detailed look at historical re-enacting in “Embedded with the Reenactors,” in which he ponders the fascination that some Americans have with reliving the bloody, imperialistic wars of the past. I thought this article was noteworthy too because 1) they’re not Civil War reenactors, they’re reenactors of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), and 2) the Seven Years’ War guys (and yes, they’re mostly middle-aged guys, according to Kowalczk’s reporting and my own observations of all kinds of reenactors over the years) have been enjoying their 250th anniversary moment in the spotlight for the past few years.
I found Kowalczk’s article fascinating, although it’s written in a more “new journalism” style that includes him as both participant and observer, and I kept wishing he would go deeper into some of the questions he raises about reenactors based on his participation in a battle of the Siege of Fort Niagara:
It’s not every 4th of July you get to be around nearly 3,000 people inhabiting an amalgam of time, and especially in a place as lovely as Fort Niagara State Park. The water in Lake Ontario actually was blue. And the fortification, now known as Old Fort Niagara, has been well-preserved even though it was built by the French in 1726 and took a 19-day pummeling in July 1759, when a few thousand British and Indians out-maneuvered 600 Frenchman sitting pretty in a big castle protected by cannons and stone walls.
But being on the battlefield exactly 250 years later, I couldn’t help but imagine the 348 people who died and the many others who were injured or suffered. When they trembled for their lives could they ever have imagined that a bloodless, G-rated recreation of their deaths eventually would become someone’s hobby?
Why bother with reenacting a 250-year old war, when Americans in 2009 can just go to Iraq or Afghanistan to see a bloody war for the empire up close? Kowalczk doesn’t explore these questions, although for me as a seventeenth and eighteenth-century historian, they’re paramount. It makes me wonder about the future of reenacting North American wars, when we have so many young vets with real-life experience in a war zone, many of whom are still coping with war-related injuries, disabilities, and trauma.
As it is in Kowalczk’s narrative, the reenactors seem a little strange, even almost “queer” for their love of reliving the past and their feelings of always being out of time in the present. Sometimes his language makes the connection of reenacting as queer explicit, like when he writes about the importance of dress in reenactor events: “Like drag shows, re-enactments hinge on sartorial panache.” At other times, he emphasizes the man-out-of-time aspect of a reenactor’s life. Here, he describes his main connection to the world of reenactors, a Kansas City man he calls “Old Hickory” because of his career as an Andrey Jackson reenactor and model:
He’s never been married or had children or pets. “I don’t think I’ve ever truly been in love either,” he said on the way to Niagara. These days he’s looking for an attractive, independent, middle-aged, single woman interested in history, who reenacts the 18th century and sews. One imagines he may be looking for a while.
. . . . .
“In real life I’m just a wallflower,” he once confessed to me, before adding, on a brighter note, “but when I found reenacting everything changed.”
In 1992, at age 44, he took up black powder shooting and visited a War of 1812 site in Kansas called Fort Osage. There he met some F&I reenactors (anachronistic, yes, but who really cares), and he barraged them with questions. He bought clothes, a musket, and slept in his car at events. Some considered him “a suit” and “a mooch,” given his white-collar job and healthy diet, his constant requests for help and lack of handyman skills, but he paid those criticisms little mind. At events he was approached by the public, asked questions, even photographed. For the first time in his life he felt appreciated, like he had something to offer the world.
“Now when I’m in my street clothes I don’t feel like that’s my identity,” he said when I once asked him, Who are you outside of this?
In that conversation I drew a circle in my notebook and asked him to fill in the elements of his life — family, hobbies, friends, the job he’d quit, whatever — and to shade in the categories that involved reenacting. The exercise perplexed Old Hickory; he pushed my notebook away. “I don’t need to do that,” he said. “Reenacting is the circle. That’s it. There isn’t anything else anymore.”
In Kowalczk’s telling, reenactors really are different from you and me, but does that explain the popularity of reenacting? Some enthusiasts might make it their whole lives, but it strikes me that the desire to live in the past (if only on weekends and special occasions) is a wish more widespread among white men in particular than among others. Something that I and others have observed before is that only some Americans romanticize the past, because the rest of us recognize how much more awful our lives would have been (holding race and gender constant). For example: Chauncy DeVega at We Are Respectable Negroes wrote recently about a story in which a white woman expressed a wish to live in the time period in which Gone with the Wind was set, saying to her African American friend, “Wouldn’t you have loved to be there?” Only after a few startled moments did the African American woman point out the obvious: “Cindy, I would have been a slave.” Romaticizing the past, like reenacting, is a White thing.
Perhaps this is what makes me uncomfortable about reenactors–their interest in reenacting violent events (warfare, principally) which from the first Anglo-Indian wars of the seventeenth century through our modern wars, were either explicitly racialized wars (most Anglo-Indian wars, the Mexican War, and the wars waged by the Frontier Army against Native Americans) or wars that mobilized ethnic difference and white racism in the war effort (as in World War II and the war with Japan, the Vietnam War, and Iraq and Afghanistan).
It’s not that reenactors have an uncomplicated view of the past–I’ve gone to several historical reenactments over the past 15 years, in every place I’ve lived, and for the most part I’ve been impressed with their research and knowledge about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I’ve been to a reenactment of the Boston Massacre at the old Customs House in Boston; a reenactor camp in Eaton (near Greenville) Ohio, with a focus on the frontier wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (including reenactors for both the U.S. troops and Shawnee families); King George’s imperial troops and their Indian allies and enemies at a reenactor camp in Brooklyn, Michigan; black powder gun enthusiast-reenactors of the fur trade days here in Colorado; and I photographed some Seven Years’ War reenactors at Fort Number Four in New Hampshire when I was there to take some pictures for my book. But while complex, their vision of history remains blinkered and segregated, not because they exclude reenactors of color now (they don’t) or because they themselves have explicitly racist motivations, but because of the stories they choose to tell, and the stories they’re leaving out.
Re-enactments of slavery times and of slave auctions have come in for both criticism and praise from all quarters–praise for their attempts to depict the history of slavery honestly, and criticism for being extremely (and some would say gratuitously) explicit. But there are plenty of heroic moments in women’s history, African American history, Latin@/Chican@ history, and Native American history that aren’t being reenacted. Might we see a future in which African Americans re-enact the major struggles and violent confrontations of the Civil Rights era? Are there women’s groups who regularly dress up in hundred-year old clothing styles and re-enact the violent climax of the suffrage movement? Personally, I would turn out as a spectator for these events–and I might even be persuaded to get into costume and participate myself–but who will play the thugs with the torches, guns, clubs, firehoses, chains, and gavage equipment? Will middle-aged white men be persuaded to cede the heroic roles to other reenactors?
If you have any interest in historical reenactors, go read Kowalczk’s article. For all of my quibbles, it’s a really thorough overview of historical reenacting, and a rare view of reenactors doing something other than the U.S. Civil War. He captures in many respects the regional flavors of reenacting that go beyond the Civl War-era. Furthermore, his interest in masculinity and gender evident in this article aren’t accidental–Kowalczk has written elsewhere on these themes as in this essay, “Manhood, Lorain-style,” about growing up in the Rust Belt and picking a fistfight to prove he wasn’t “gay.” This essay might also be of interest to readers of this blog, so print up a copy or zap it onto your e-reader.
Kowalczk concludes “Embedded with the Reenactors” with an explicit point about the gendered and even childish nature of the fantasies at work in reenacting. He writes:
Among them was an attractive young mother with two little boys. One of them sat in a stroller and the other ran around pretending to be a soldier. Despite being in uniform, so to speak, I explained to her what I was doing and asked why she brought her family to a battle reenactment given the kind of message it imparts. She answered, “It’s just something to do. And this is what boys do anyway. They’re conquerors — they think they’re born to be conquerors. I used to get tired of them playing war games, but then I got tired of trying to redirect their imagination.” And together we watched her son pretend to kill an imaginary enemy as we walked off the battlefield.
Later, and mildly depressed, I went to an ice cream shop inside the fort. As luck would have it, I sat beside two other mothers and their four little boys who were arguing. Naturally I eavesdropped.
They were civilians, and I assumed the mothers also had brought their children to foster an all-American, male fascination with fighting and war. But these boys didn’t care at all about the battles, the reenactors or the fort. Like the reenactors, but also unlike them, these children were somewhere outside of real life and real time.
“I’m Mario,” one of the boys yelled.
“No, I’m Mario,” another said.
“OK, can I be Luigi,” the third asked.
The whole thing went on for five minutes, until one of the exasperated mothers put down her fudge sundae and snapped. “Half a day! Just half a day,” she pleaded. “Can you guys please go one day without arguing who’s who in the video game world.”