In the post-What Cheer Day aftermath, when I was very tired and two houses were very messed up, I started thinking about why I bothered with living history. What exactly is this thing, and why I do it? Those questions made me think about the very best moments I have had in this business of re-creating the past in cloth and smoke and time.
In no particular order:
1. Going up to the field at Coggeshall Farm to call the boys down to dinner after spending all day in the kitchen. I was desperate to get out, and finally knew first hand how limited women’s lives could be in the 18th century, especially non-elite women.
2. Running upstairs at the John Brown House with Eliza, giggling over a joke to be played on Mr Mason. I don’t know what Mr C thought of it but I felt twelve years old, silly, carefree and light. John Brown’s housekeeper surely never felt that way, but a naughty maid might have, and for an instant I knew what it was to have no responsibilities.
3. Chasing the Young Mr, a wayward apprentice, across the street; mobbing Mr Howard’s house; and arguing with the Stamp Inspector, all during the Stamp Act Protest in Newport It was not until I looked at the photos that I realized we really had been in front of a theatre, and that there were actual cars! A friend confirms that he, too, forgot about the cars, to the point of nearly being hit whilst running to Mr Howard’s house.
4. Assembling with a group of friends to take tea with Mrs Silsbee in Salem, sorting ourselves into a group on the sidewalk and venturing out, only to meet Mrs Silsbee on the street. That is the most Jane Austen/Mrs Gaskell I have ever felt. The wretched cobblestones do not count, as they were from the 20th century, but walking out on the wharf, and meeting a friend who brought an umbrella as the rain began was also very Austen-esque.
None of these are military events, and the majority of them happened this year, in past three months. I think this may be because we have been to fewer military events, and I expect the concentration is due, in part, to finally getting better at this practice. They are also site-specific, and trending toward first-person interpretation.
For reasons explained better by the NPS and in the excellent study of NPS-Reenactor relationships, no battle reenactment can ever capture the truth of the war it attempts to recreate, and that is true even when the battle takes place on the same site, at the same time of year, and even when soldiers are dressed in as-close-as-possible replicas of the uniforms worn at that battle, on that field, on that date, 236 years earlier, and no one has brought a spinning wheel or tent chandelier to camp.
I respect the notions of moveable monuments and performances as commemoration. I like military history, I like war memorials: there is not a competition between civilian and military reenactments. But military events have not yet had the power to transcend experience for me.
My best guess as to why military events are not transformative for me is that, to this point, the business remains too much like camping in funny clothes. As I experiment more with 18th century methods of cooking appropriate rations, and as I strip away the gear we carry into the field, the military events are better (as at Bennington). But I already know how limited women’s perspectives could be (see item 1), and while Bennington was instructive in how ridiculously different the experiences of men and women could be, the military events remain more instructive experiences for the men.
Why? Because the specificity of site plays out at those events in the battle, and not in the camp. The point at Bennington and at Saratoga and at Stony Point was to use the site as it had been used. The men experienced the landscape in ways as close as possible to what soldiers and militia had actually seen. And women stayed in camp and got smoke in their eyes, cut up vegetables, or washed clothes, which is pretty much what happens at any outdoor event where we can have a fire and, with differences in technology, is pretty much what I do when I get home from work every day.
All that leaves me wondering what to make of military events, and what I want to do in the coming year. No matter how much of this is “for the public,” it still has to be rewarding for the practitioner.
I love your list! I might have to steal this idea for a ‘season ender’ post for my own blog 🙂
I think we all have elements we find more enjoyment in as living historians. I do think we could do a better job of having, for lack of a better word, civilian community at many events and outlets for those not on the field to participate in fun, non-drudgery sorts of ways. I have had friends who have lost interest, especially as they got older and had more responsibilities in life, because the things they were doing–washing, cooking, cleaning–just weren’t fun. For me, military events can be fun, but only when I have a group of civilian friends there to share the time with–lest the feeling of being “left back” with nothing to contribute starts to grow too much. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been doing this for so long and have formed such close friendships, but an event can be completely dull or awful or whatever, but if my friends are there, I’m happy. I always say, I’d rather be out in a field in the blistering heat or numbing cold with my closest friends than sitting at home 🙂
Rowenna, I would love to see your list!
And your point is valid: someone to share it with certainly helps. The problem is, in part, that the people I have the most fun sharing events with are out on the field with muskets. The part I like best *is* the military part– which means that camp life pales quickly. That said, I think that recreating the court martial of Bridget Connor would be interesting and have meaning for me, the Regiment, and the public. I sometimes think that if camps were arranged and run according to the actual military orders and requirements of 1777 or 1781 that civilian life would suddenly get *much* more interesting! It would certainly be educational, and likely to eliminate the spinning wheels and other “olde colonial lyfe” cliches that make me rabid. A bad day reenacting is still better than a good day at work…for the most part. 🙂
So understandable. Given the expressions on the faces of onlookers, they are enjoying what they see of What Cheer Day. Perhaps you might develop another situation to cover in first person — say the docking of an important incoming ship, or the arrest or death of someone important. Or something simpler: a flash mob style event involving a street seller and buyers, or the visit of a laundress, or spring cleaning.
Chances are, onlookers will gather…and you will be looked for…
We’re working on the other events, and I love your ideas! I have been thinking about a funeral (for John Brown, or John Francis), and a Dorr War Flash Mob based on period accounts of the parades in the 1840s. I’ve also been thinking about an 1820s militia, and an 1820s volunteer fire fighting company. I wouldn’t chase fires, but I think they would be interesting events to see. There will be more next year– and in the meantime, more sewing!
Thanks for reading and commenting; I always enjoy what you have to say.
Bryan Kennedy said:
Military covers a wide range of activities. I think hiking from Trenton to Princeton in the middle of the night, over the same route and on the same day as General Washington in 1776 will do it for me. Especially when we surprise the sold out early morning tour by appearing at just the right time and place for the guide. We will be as close as to a group of Philadelphia Associators as we can get. Trying to stay warm and moving is always fun. Don’t get me started about the Park Service.
The march sounds much more like the kind of thing I’m interested in doing, blisters and all, because it’s time and place specific. The more stylized events interest me less at this moment, though that doesn’t mean I’ll give them up. My landlord will not appreciate a camp kitchen in his backyard when he’s out there trying to impress the ladies. I just need to recognize, and be more thoughful, about what I’m doing, and where, and why.
The best events I’ve experienced are also non-military and are a first person recreation of middling class family life. I love being around the hearth with other women sharing an inside joke or learning how to make a new dish. You said it well, these are the transformative/transcendent experiences that the public should witness and experience for themselves.
From what I can tell, visitors do find these events and moments meaningful; at least, that’s what I hear. And I’m so glad that you have found meaningful moments, too. It helps to focus the work we do, and invest our time well.
Since I do mostly military events, some of the most authentic moments for me are in the wee small hours at my favorite site (it’s private and with few modern intrusions) before everyone is up and it’s a few of us quietly going about daily life.
The women of my unit are working on impressions that are more accurate (and more fun for us) and will be debuting next year.
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