by Christina Carlson-
Sitting in a tent with the wind whipping around the edges of its white canvas, I watch a man in an immaculate 19th century wool uniform carefully tie up paper gun cartridges with twine. As he works, the man explains the way the cartridges are made and why he believes it is important to make them that way. Suddenly, a cheery jingle fills the tent and the man reaches in his pocket, pulling out a cellular phone. “I invented that last night,” he says jokingly, then turns off the phone and continues working on the cartridges. Thus begins my first experience with Civil War reenactors.
Our class has covered the topic of reenactments and their relationship to public history before, but I wanted to convey my own personal experience observing and interacting with Civil War reenactors this weekend on the campus of SIUE. Although I was not working directly with the reenactors at the sesquicentennial events, I did find time to wander around their bivouac site. Aside from the slightly humorous incident with the ringing cell phone, I encountered several other parts of the encampment that seemed slightly contradictory. As Jeremy talked about in his recent post, many reenactors, perhaps particularly Civil War reenactors, tend to focus on the details of their uniform, weapon, and aspects of camp life. Yet, even as a “captain” in the sesquicentennial group talked about how accurately the cannon they fired was to the original, the group did not fire actual cannon balls; the noise and smoke were caused by gun powder wrapped in aluminum foil. In another instance, a “nurse” had bandages that she noted were very close to what civil war-era surgeons would have used, but a plastic bottled labeled “fake blood” was in plain view beside the bandages.
Inconsistencies such as this are quite revealing when it comes to reenactment as a whole. As has been noted before, although reenactors strive for accuracy in many aspects they can never truly reach back into another time or situation. After all, they do not shoot real cannons, or bleed real blood. In general, reenactment does not attempt to address larger historical questions, even as it attempts to convey a sense of authority about a certain historical time and situation.
Despite the shortcomings of reenactment as a form of public history, does it hold some value for public historians? I saw many people at the sesquicentennial events become excited about history and its possibilities. Both children and adults were enthralled with the working of an “actual” Civil War encampment in a way that is not always present in a more formal historical setting. Although I have often shied away from reenacting–as I see it as a form of history which generally does not address the larger themes of historical discourse–I now wonder if it cannot have some place in public history. Perhaps if we as public historians attempt to connect the finite details of camp life, military drills, and bandages to larger themes, reenactments could serve as an important link between the public and important historical questions. In this environment, discrepancies such as ringing cell phones could serve us and the public we address quite well. We could make the point that, although they did not have our modern technology, people in a certain time period were much like ourselves. It is this attempt to understand the humanity behind history that makes it worthwhile as a study at all.