Monday, August 16, 2010

News---The Lessons of Civil War Reenacting: Biases, Epiphanies, and Education

Remove Second-Guessing From American History, David Christy, News Editor, Enid (Oklahoma)News and Eagle, August 13, 2010.

I doubt it’s a recent phenomenon and it probably goes back to biblical times, but second-guessing and Monday-morning quarterbacking by people in every walk of life is as much an American pastime as watching fireworks on the Fourth of July or rooting for your favorite college football team. It’s as all-American as apple pie and drinking cold beer on a hot day after mowing the grass.

But for historians, second-guessing history is something of a pitfall — it should be avoided at all costs lest said historians’ bias and beliefs slip in and cloud the final picture. You see, it’s my contention we all should look at history and historical events from all sides, with as little bias as possible and with the most open mind we can muster.

Most who are familiar with me know I spent nearly 25 years as a Civil War living history re-enactor.

Re-enacting history, in my own view, is a way for an individual to go back in time on the odd weekend and attempt to live in the shoes and act the part of an individual from a bygone era. In this case I was able, within certain limitations and obvious boundaries, to try and re-create history in my own mind, and at the same time provide the public with a snapshot of how an individual soldier during the American Civil War would have lived, would have reacted, would have thought and would have interacted with others.

Re-enacting Civil War battles is not for everyone. It’s grueling, time-consuming, dirty, sometimes dangerous and most times a very mentally challenging hobby. Not only that, it’s a little on the expensive side to authentically outfit yourself both as a Confederate and Union soldier, constantly do research, travel around the country and find time to take a three- or four-day weekend to lose yourself in mid-19th century America with tens of thousands of other like-thinking re-enactors.

But ... it was an absolute epiphany.

So, when I see an author or historian who writes a book and questions how a particular Civil War general made his battlefield decisions, or a politician or president reacted to a situation, I always hope the author of the second-guessing has been there and done that, so to speak.

My first Civil War re-enactment occurred in the late-1980s at the Indian Territory Battle of Honey Springs, in all-encompassing 110-degree July heat, ticks, chiggers and powdered dust near a little creek and wooded area called Rentiesville, north of Checotah in McIntosh County. After two days of marching and fighting and putting on a show for thousands of appreciative spectators, I had lost 10 pounds and was hooked on re-enacting for life.

The next 24 years were full of building impressions of both a Confederate and a Union infantry soldier, studying and working to be as historically accurate as is possible for a 20th century individual, who didn’t have to live in those trying and history-altering times.

The first and most lasting thing I learned from travels to hundreds of places like Wilson’s Creek, Mo., Chickamauga, Ga., Franklin, Tenn., Vicksburg, Miss., and Mansfield, La., — my hat is off to the men and women who lived through those times, and helped us to get to where we are in history today.

Don’t believe me? Try wearing a heavy-wool uniform, long johns, lugging an 11 lb. musket and about 25 pounds of leather gear, water and food in heavy-leather, high-top Jefferson brogans about 15-20 miles during an average re-enactment, eat homemade hardtack and biscuits and wake up shivering in a thin canvas tent while sleeping on the hard ground when its 15 degrees.

It will open your eyes. More than a few historians over the years have questioned why the Confederates didn’t follow up their rout of the Union troops at the Battle of First Bull Run, capture Washington and end the war in 1861. Or, why Union generals George McClellan and George Meade didn’t pursue their battlefield successes at Antietam and Gettysburg and end the Civil War in 1862 and 1863, respectively.

If you’ve ever re-enacted a battle, you know why. Physical exhaustion, mental fatigue and sheer hunger and thirst are overwhelming. Any soldier in any real war will attest to that. And re-enactors aren’t being shot at in anger with real bullets and real artillery shells. There’s no dead or dying comrades. After the battle they aren’t forced to march mile after mile in freezing temperatures, over rivers of mud or in 100-degree heat, day after day after day.

History is made by the sacrifice of flesh and blood and intestinal fortitude. It is not made by historians — it’s only chronicled as best we can. It does dishonor to those who lived, fought and died to do otherwise. Keeping bias out of history is the ultimate goal. It allows us to see events and decisions and outcomes from different perspectives. It allows us to learn by mistakes made and keep the past from being tainted by our own individual mores — historically speaking.

Text Source: Enid News and Eagle
Image Source: Civil War Librarian, Bentonville, NC 2010.

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