Civil War Reenactors and the Postmodern Sense of History

By Hall, Dennis | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Civil War Reenactors and the Postmodern Sense of History


Hall, Dennis, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


"Remarkably, Din of Civil War Is Growing Louder," declared an April 1990 New York Times headline to a short piece on the popular American passion for the Civil War. James McPherson is quoted as having been "astonished" by its persistence and growth. What is truly astonishing, however, is that anyone found this popular phenomenon in any way remarkable, even before the enormous success of Ken Burns' series on PBS and in video rental. For more than a decade now any gathering of three or more Americans--well, outside the confines of New York City and Princeton--includes at least one Civil War buff.

Accounts of his passion commonly focus on the contention that the Civil War was the most important event in American history. Shelby Foote, who has achieved the authority of stardom in this realm, suggests that "It resonates with so many things, and it is really no wonder, because that's what defines us...the Civil War is what made us the nation we are" ("Remarkably"). Ministers of civil religion of every stripe routinely play variations on this same theme.

This passion is mediated in a variety of ways within American popular culture. Perhaps most notable is the consumption of such popular periodicals as Civil War Times Illustrated and The Civil War News; of the host of civil war books, reputedly now published at the rate of one and a half per day Remarkably"); and of an increasing number of movies and television series. Thousands of Americans also participate in Civil War Round Tables, and courses on the Civil War are among the most popular offerings at colleges and universities. Tens of thousands annually visit Civil War battlefields like Shilo, Perryville, Gettysburg, Cedar Mountain, Bentonville and Fredericksburg. The collection of war-related artifacts of all kinds and of period documents, especially personal letters, is intense and extensive. The collection of period objects and reproductions of every description associated with the Civil War flourishes. In sum, the Civil War industry(1) is indisputably a significant element in the American popular culture.

Civil War reenactors are a major subset of this cultural enterprise. Reenacting began in the 1950s (Turner 123), and while it is difficult to assess the current extent of this enthusiasm, one published estimate suggests that some 30,000 people regularly take part in recreating Civil War battles ("Remarkably") and other events, often called "encampments" and "skirmishes" which, while not attempting to replicate specific occurrences, see to recreate Civil War camp life and military action. The notices of these events n the Camp Chase Gazette The Voice of Civil War Reenacting") and the Blue and Gray Magazine ("For Those Who Still Hear the Guns") reveal that a reenactment of one kind or another takes place on virtually every weekend of the year. Their scale ranges from a simple demonstration involving as few as a dozen "riflemen" for a city's fall festival to the large-scale recreation of a specific battle, like the annual Perryville Reenactment which takes place on the October weekend closest to the anniversary, on the same ground as did the 1862 event and includes an elaborate encampment and employs over a thousand "effectives," serving as infantry, cavalry and artillery, with people playing the roles of the several commanders and occasionally of particular "common soldiers."

Thirty thousand is likely a conservative estimate, as suggested by the increasing number and size of events and the boom in the trade in the paraphernalia required to create the atmosphere of authenticity. Attention to details of dress, arms and equipment, to forms of address, posture and movement, and sometimes even to speech are more often than not prized and painstakingly researched by the typical reenactor. Reenactors served as extras and made a large part of the popular audience for Glory, and they generally approved of the film's attention to detail, its "authenticity."

While a satisfactory demographic analysis has yet to be done, reenacting appears to be a remarkably democratic enterprise with respect to social class, If not race and gender. …

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