Warning: Long reenactor-heavy content ahead.
My friend wrote on Tuesday about battle reenactments, and whether or not they’re appropriate or even, well, decent, in a way; she has been thinking about the Battle Road event, Patriots Day, and the Battle at Lexington Green in light of the explosions at the Boston Marathon.
She helped me remember the reading and thinking I had done this past fall when people at work asked if reenactments (and even museum exhibitions) glorified war, and when I started to wonder why, exactly, I was in this hobby. I read Vanessa Agnew on “History’s Affective Turn: Historical Reenactment and its Work in the Present” in Rethinking History 11:3, 299-312 (2007) and “Mobile Monuments: A view of historical reenactment from inside the costume cupboard of history” by Stephen Gapps, also in Rethinking History 13:3, 395-409 (2009). I’m still working my way through “Mimic Toil: Eighteenth-Century Preconditions for the Modern Historical Reenactment” by Simon During, again from Rethinking History, 11:3, 313-333 (2007). There’s a good bibliography at the University of York, but getting at these takes JSTOR or ProjectMUSE access; check with your local public or university library. For list of books about commemoration, History, Memory, and Monuments: An Overview of the Scholarly Literature on Commemoration by Kirk Savage is an excellent starting place. To find out more about why reenactments differ on different sites, and to discover more about the sometimes-fraught relationship between the NPS and reenactors, you can read this on the role of reenactors at National Parks.
The article that resonated most was Gapps. He wrote about a variety of reenactment types, but what made sense to me as a member of two military reenactment groups, both part of the Brigade of the American Revolution, was his writing about the military reenactments. Gapps focuses on Civil War reenacting, and that is an area in which I’m not interested, but his central tenet rang true to me:
…the performance of history has been largely dismissed by cultural critics as a form of nostalgia, but … it actually has a significant role to offer – particularly as a form of public commemoration of shared remembrance of historical events.
Public commemoration is a large part of the reenactments I’m involved with, but they work differently for participants and spectators, and for different kinds of participants. For a recent example, Mr S and I spent Monday morning in Concord at the North Bridge ceremony, and had two very different experiences.
He came back from the bridge and said, “I was really scared. For a moment there, crossing the bridge and seeing all the British forces, I had a sense of what it must have been like.”
While he had been on the bridge, I was in the gardens with the public thinking, Those poor British soldiers, while I listened to the crackle of candy wrappers and people giggling about their dogs. The crowd spread out on the hill that leads to the Concord River, festival-style, and I was appalled that they came for entertainment to what I thought of as a truly ceremonial and commemorative event. The NPS rules about engagements and casualties suddenly made a lot of sense.
My friend wrote specifically about how reenactments can never portray the reality of fear and horror that is war. She is right. NPS agrees: Even the best-researched and most well-intentioned representations of combat cannot replicate the tragic complexity of real warfare. The activity and logistical support for modern battle reenactments is inconsistent with providing a memorial atmosphere. There is something about reenactments that I cannot fully embrace even as I love them. I have a difficult relationship with “patriotism,” as I have a difficult relationship with America, and much as I have a difficult relationship with my family and friends, whom I also love dearly, though rarely demonstratively.
I have been grappling with the concept of America and history and the meaning of American symbols—semiotics—since I started making art. I came of age in the punk years in Chicago, stapling photocopied collages to telephone poles. Reagan was president, nuclear war seemed imminent. I made sculpture and installations about American architecture and literature, as a way to explore American history. I remain skeptical about the political process, even as I engage in it.
So why am I a reenactor? It isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, personally—intellectually—it can be difficult to fully embrace sometimes. Recently, with online discussions of gun control and the relationship between rifle/black powder clubs, the NRA, and reenactors, it has been difficult to grapple with all of the different points of view and to be true to one’s beliefs. Most of the time people don’t air their opposing views. Some of us do, as one writer noted, hold our noses and pay our dues. I knew this going in.
But reenacting, in a way, is an art form for me, a very personal one, one that this blog is part of.
Another friend avoids the military reenactments and sticks to living history through museum work. Mr S enjoys the farm work as much as the battles, because he likes working hard. He likes the physical experience of both; he likes the people, too, and whether he’s chopping wood with the hat maker or crossing the bridge with the adjutant, the shared experiences mean a lot to him. For me, the most profound experiences of women’s history have come at the farm, probably because that is the truest means of reaching the past for a woman I have yet to discover. Can I find that moment in military reenacting? Perhaps, by working hard at recreating the army follower experience.
Unlike monuments, reenactments have the potential to create more open ended and contextual historical commemorations. (Gapps, abstract)
One thing I do not like about the battles is the public. I stand on the public side of the rope line, and think, “Those are my people out there, on the field.” The public—the predatory photographers, the hooting guys, the texting teens, the snacking people—seem so out of place to me. I know it’s entertaining, but it’s somewhere between real and not real, and I can’t forget that it is often about something that was real.
Mr S hears spectators yell, Get those British bastards! but that doesn’t mean he likes to hear it. It’s not just because we have friends among those enemies, but because they represent men who, just like the Americans, were scared and wounded, hungry and dying. They were here doing their jobs in a place claimed by the British Crown. Does that yell miss the point of the reenactment as commemoration? Is it simple boorishness? Does the comment show the relationship between reenactment and spectator to be too close to blood sport?
Or is the problem that some of the military reenactments fail to adequately contextualize the ‘battle’ as a commemoration or demonstration? Does narration help? We discussed this in the car on the way home from Battle Road: amplified narration and role-playing can deepen the experience for visitors and reenactors alike. What are the better ways to present history for the public? (We’re not suggesting narration for Battle Road: we were comparing notes on different events, and the different perspectives we have from two sides of the rope line.)
I think it’s encouraging when reenactors, even some who might be stereotyped from a distance as old guys who’ll never change, ask themselves questions about what they do, and how, and why. Questions are where we start, and conversations. I’m glad my friend started a conversation. We won’t all like or agree with every statement, but we have to keep talking.