Sunday, October 28, 2007

Are Civil War reenactors changing history?

"Well, what exactly do you mean by that?", you may ask. Let me explain. No one knows exactly how many Civil War reenactors there are in this country. Some give estimates up to 100,000. Every year, these reenactors and living historians travel the country on the weekends to set up their encampments and fight their battles. Sometimes, on fields such as Cedar Creek (part of which is shown above) and New Market, the camps and battles are on the actual field where the real battles were fought.

Now, I won't weigh this posting down with issues of farbism or authenticity. I've previously expressed those views elsewhere. I will say that there is a growing group of reenactors who are trying to 'do it right', should I say? Better uniforms, more authentic gear, etc. They are portraying the war as they think it actually looked. Documentation to support their claims exists in photos, and in surving uniforms and equipment in museums and so forth.

But, how do we know what the uniforms looked like 145 years ago? What color is butternut? How did the soldiers wear their gear? We see posed pictures, but very few photos exist of the men in the field. Are reenactors showing history, or merely what we think history looks like? There is no way to know for sure. I don't think this is the major problem, though.

Where I do have issues is with reenactors using original gear and portraying units that weren't involved in the battles they are showing. The trend by many these days is to use original buttons, and it is just such trends that are possibly changing how history will be perceived in the future.

I recently met a person who portrays a member of a Kentucky unit. He had an awesomely made, very authentic looking shell jacket. It had original Kentucky buttons on it. I noticed he was missing a button and inquired about it.

"Yeah, I lost on the field at Cedar Creek a few weekends ago. I haven't been able to find a replacement yet. Sucks, too, 'cause they're expensive."

Anyone besides me see a problem here? What happens 10-15 years down the road when someone finds that button, weathered and worn by the elements on the field at Cedar Creek? We know that no Kentucky units were involved there, yet someone less educated could make a legitmate claim that there was someone in a Kentucky uniform engaged at Cedar Creek. They have his button to prove it.

Sadly, just such a thing happens more and more these days, and it is a trend that should not continue. No harm is meant, but history is potentially, and unintentionally, I might add, being steered in a different direction from how it may have exactly happened.
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