Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The 'Time Nexus' of Anniversary Reenactment Cycles is Almost Over

Three Northern civil war reenactors watch the cavalry engagement of Buford's Last Stand
from a hilltop over a mile away at the BGA 150th Gettysburg in 2013.

This decade so far has seen an explosion in the popularity of reenacting famous historical events and battles, both in the U.S. and in Europe, because the anniversary dates of these history-changing conflicts have all overlapped in a way that most of us will not witness again in our lifetimes.

It really began in April 2011 with the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  This time period in reenacting had reached a peak as a hobby in the late 1980's-early 1990's, when two hugely popular movies about the Civil War (Glory in 1989 and Gettysburg in 1993) called for a cast of thousands of real reenactors to be used as extras during the production of these motion pictures.  This was one of the best ideas any movie director ever had for a few very important reasons:

1. Reenactors already have their own uniforms, equipment and weapons. This fact alone saved the film crews millions in production costs, and made it possible to have enormous numbers of extras on screen to recreate battles in a way that would otherwise be financially unfeasible. The level of authenticity in these movies also was much enhanced, since the majority of reenactors spend a great deal of money and time on researching their 'impressions' to look as accurate as possible.

2. They are already well-trained in firearm safety and tactics. Responsible reenactors always put safety first, and they already are familiar with the 'choreography' of how these famous battles unfolded. The director can (for the most part) let the reenactors do what they do best and assure that it will look accurate on screen as a backdrop for the main actors. Plus, it lets them have fun with a chance for ordinary people to appear on the big screen--however briefly-- in a feature film.

As the 1990's made their way into the New Millennium, the hobby started to decline. Many older reenactors retired and left, and units and spectator crowds dwindled in size as public interest faded. Then at the start of a new decade, the 150th cycle of the Civil War exploded on to the scene. Television documentaries, movies and books catapulted this turbulent time in America's past back into popular culture, bringing history to life in color...and in high definition, no less.

You don't get views like this in history textbooks.

New Millennium advances in technology like digital video, the GoPro and camera phones, YouTube and social media have enabled something else never captured before: the first-person view of a battle reenactment, brought directly into millions of people's homes. The Gettysburg Anniversary Commission's 150th anniversary in 2013 was the first reenactment ever to be broadcasted live, via streaming video on the internet, for paying subscribers. Even if you weren't there, you can still feel like you were. (The entire 3 hour webcast has been archived for those who missed it)  There were even 35 retired reenactors attending who were at the Centennial and were presented with a special commemorative medallion.

The epic 150th Anniversary of the Civil War ended in April 2015 with the surrender at Appomattox, bringing this new peak of reenacting to a close. Going forward, we can only expect attendance at future events to decline.  For example, the GAC 150th Gettysburg in 2013 drew an estimated record-shattering 300,000 spectators and over 10,000 registered participants, with some coming from as far away as England.

The Mifflin Guard at Gettysburg 2013

By contrast, the 2014 GAC Gettysburg reenactment participants only numbered in the hundreds. Seasoned veterans who have been in the hobby for 20-30 years have been saying that this anniversary cycle was the 'last hurrah' and it was time to finally get that rifle mounted over the fireplace.

This is why we younger reenactors must stay together and keep this spectacle alive, because once all the elders leave there will be a shortage of officers and experience. They have 'passed the torch' to us.  It is up to the next generation to continue America's oldest pastime and preserve this legacy of educating the public through living history.

For some of us we may feel like the epic adventure of the past four years is over, now that the Big 150th is itself, history.  But next year the 155th cycle begins, and the whole thing starts over again.

150th Battle of Cedar Creek, October 2014. Will we ever see this many Union at another event?

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the media explosion that followed it has also brought attention to reenacting other less popular eras, like the First World War and Viet Nam, and now as a result what could be called a 'Time Nexus' has formed out of overlapping anniversaries. Reenacting is now more popular than it has ever been.

By some cosmic alignment of the planets, The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has also coincided with: the 70th Anniversary cycle of World War II in the USA (2011-2015), the Centennial of World War I (2014-2018), The Bicentennial of the War of 1812 (2012), The Bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo (2015) and the 250th anniversary of the French & Indian war (2008-2013).

Needless to say, most of us will not be around the next time something like this happens again.  (The author of this article will be 79 years old when the Civil war bicentennial occurs, and if he attends World War II Weekend for the centennial he will be 57)

Do you think you will be around for Gettysburg 200 in 2063?  If so, I hope to see you there...
I am the guy with the red scarf, the sixth one from the left at this photo taken at the 150th Cedar Creek in October 2014. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Things I Like About Being A Reenactor

1. I can still "play army" with my friends on weekends.

2. The chance to be around young ladies who aren't badly dressed and can carry out an intelligent conversation without rudely texting somebody else on their cell phones.

3. Wearing clothes 150 years out of style and nobody looks at me funny.

4.  That exotic fragrance of gunpowder residue, campfire smoke and cigars that never completely washes out of our clothing.

5. We don't have to do anything or be anywhere unless ordered to. Nobody needs a schedule or a watch.

6. An excuse to walk around sweaty and dirty for three days because everyone else is sweaty and dirty. (It's a man thing)

7. Gunpowder explosions in a controlled environment.

8. The pride of wearing the same uniform as your ancestors.

9. If you drop your tin cup in the grass, the 5 second rule is more of a guideline.

10. What happens in camp after dark stays in camp.

11. The ability to pick up a conversation where it left off a year ago.

12. There is no need for an alarm clock (birds, roosters, horses, bugles and the sun work just fine)

13. Nobody cares what time it is, only how long until the next battle.

14. Permission to camp, make fires, dig trenches, build fortifications, carry firearms and do other things no one else is ever allowed to do in public, on private land and on a few historic battlefields.

15. Over 10,000 people gathered in the same place who all have something in common. No matter who you talk to, everyone you meet has the same passion. In our case, they love watching history come alive. A live concert is the only other place on Earth where this can happen.

16. Cool stories to tell at family reunions.

17. Being someone else for a few days; escaping from life in general.

18. Marching into the fight and knowing I'm surrounded by trained emergency personnel. Firemen, paramedics, police and real military veterans, all people you know you can trust with your life. The safest place to be is on the battlefield.

19. Being so immersed in another century that going home gives me culture shock.

20.  To look at old pictures in a book and share an organic connection to the long-deceased people in those photographs, in a way that others will never understand unless they have a similar experience.  To know what that rough wool uniform feels like in the summer heat, how heavy that musket is, how hard those shoes are and what those cannons sound like.

And don't forget the little things only we get to witness that help make it an unforgettable experience:

1. That warm, flickery glow of the campfire through the fabric of my tent.

2. Fog in the morning. Muffled drumbeats. Unseen bugles echo in the forest.

3. Watching a summer thunderstorm coming from miles away. How it sounds in my mind like a distant battle.

4. A heightened awareness of everything around me. Morning dew on the grass, flags rippling and snapping in the wind. Metal gleaming in the sun. Steam from the horses' breath in the cold morning air.

5. An escape from reality, our jobs and all the insanity of modern life.

6. Feeling a deep connection to the earth that our world of chain link fences, concrete and steel has hidden from us. Nothing but green grass beneath my feet, blue sky and wide open land to gaze upon for three glorious days.