Last weekend, I attended the 14th Annual Marilla Civil War Days in western New York. I haven’t been to a Civil War reenactment since I briefly participated at the Gettysburg reenactment in 2009 (aw yea, check it out ladies—->).
The event website promised a unique experience (“The Civil War Days event is nowhere close to your typical reenactment. We have been known for barn burnings, ground charges, falling trees & buildings and much more!”). Suffice to say, only one of those things happened while I was there. I left disappointed, but not only because nothing caught on fire.
I thought the purpose of reenacting was not just to have fun and dress up for the day but to educate the public and commemorate the American soldiers who fought on both sides.
Before I continue, a disclaimer: Nothing I’m about to say is meant to disparage the men and women who have a passion for history, the Civil War, and historical reenacting. I love all those things, and am happy to find people who share those interests. I wish more would become involved in these events.
However, there were a number of things that left me shaking my head.
- Where were the horses? Horses were the primary means of transportation for wagons, cannon, officers, and mounted troops during the Civil War. Not. One. Single. Horse.
- The Confederates used what I was told was a 30-pound cannon. The 4.2-inch (30-pounder) Parrott rifle was a siege cannon that wasn’t used in the field. Historically, Confederates used two at the Battle of Fredericksburg in defensive positions but their barrels burst.
- I saw women reenactors dressed up as soldiers and fighting in infantry units.
- I saw African American reenactors (one with a huge Afro) fighting with white troops in a Union regiment.
- I saw some reenactors wearing obviously modern clothing (including sneakers).
Some of these observations are more controversial than others, obviously, and yes I’m aware some women did disguise themselves as men to fight during the Civil War (estimates range from over 100 to 240 out of 2.75 million soldiers). I’m also aware that black servants sometimes fought alongside whites in Confederate units. Estimates range between 3,000 and 6,000. Far more fought for the North, but the Union Army was explicitly segregated.
Today, we cringe at the thought of excluding someone based on their race or gender. Everyone is supposed to be treated as equals, and we have laws prohibiting discrimination on those grounds. However, those laws didn’t exist in the 1860s, and less-than-progressive attitudes regarding race and gender were the norm. Can we still accurately portray the past if we superimpose our contemporary social norms onto it? How can “living history” or historical reenacting educate the public about the past if hardly any effort is made to replicate it?
In an effort to be inclusive and not offend anyone, or provide a good show at the expense of historical accuracy, we undermine the entire purpose of historical reenacting. How can parents take their kids to such an event and honestly say, “this is our country’s history”? Children and adults unfamiliar with history are likely to come away with a false or distorted view of how this war was fought and the people who fought in it.
I’m not advocating everyone become a “stitch counter,” as hard-core reenactors are sometimes called, but at least try to get the basics right.