For those not interested in the Civil War, it can be difficult to understand why groups of people would get together, put on uniforms, and reenact battles just for fun. After all, the conflict was a bloody affair whose impact is still felt to this day.
The truth is, the reenactment subculture is complicated and steeped in a particular tradition. Those who participate often have ambiguous and complex views on the conflict itself, but still enjoy the camaraderie and festive atmosphere of the staged facsimile. Reenactments are often followed by barbecues and parties, and some are even covered by local papers.
It's hard to narrow the appeal of the reenactments down to one factor: the atmosphere, the camaraderie, or maybe just the free barbecue. However, many reenactors enjoy getting to feel, even if just for an afternoon, like they're a part of one of the most consequential conflicts in our nation's history. Office workers and school teachers can experience the thrill and the danger of the battlefield (even if that danger comes in the form of a rubber bayonet).
However, as any reenactor will tell you, even a fake fight can get surprisingly real. People get hurt both in "combat" and through sheer mishap. Tensions can rise and things can get out of control. The world of reenactment may not be one-tenth as dangerous as the Civil War itself, but it's not necessarily a walk in the park.
The Civil War claimed an estimated 600,000 American lives. While reenactments are not quite as dangerous, accidents still happen and people do still get hurt. Some mishaps are to be expected: skinned knees, cuts, scrapes, and the occasional broken arm. However, some are more extreme, and come as the result of carelessness or negligence. When asked about this aspect, Redditor u/civilwarman said:
Yes, I almost broke my arm tripping over a tent pole. But believe it or not, I saw a guy get stabbed in the neck with a flag pole ornament accidentally. And of course you get people that get heat stroke, and fall off horses and that type of stuff... Also I have burned myself in the campfire, and from flames shooting from people's rifles... I skinned my knee pretty badly, I have lost part of my hearing, and I contracted Plantar fasciitis marching about 2 and a half miles. But I will tell you this, reenacting is worth every teeny tiny bit of pain in my body.
It sounds like a nightmare scenario come to life; however, according to Redditor u/ElusiveBiscuit, sometimes there really is live ammo on the field. Most of the time this is accidental, but apparently, it's occasionally intended:
I have been at events where people have been shot with real bullets, rocks, weapons, tools, etc. Some come from guys not checking their weapons properly, and I have also been shot at by crazy *ssholes intentionally. My main regiment were Zouaves at the time, and wore a specialized uniform that included a lot of red and gold trims and such, so we stood out. When guys went on... they [fired] at us a lot.
While these incidents are few and far between, it is exactly the sort of thing that might make a reenactor wake up in a cold sweat in their tent.
There are some experiences that modern Americans simply cannot have anymore: seeing enormous flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the sky, watching bison stampede across the Great Plains, or stumbling upon an undiscovered, unspoiled treasure like Yosemite. Something we can be glad we won't experience is the fury and severity of an old-fashioned armed conflict. No reenactor in their right mind actually wants to fight in an event like that for its own sake, but many feel they can learn a bit more about history and make it more immediate. Redditor u/NittanyLionHeart explains what makes the hobby worth it:
There's no real way to describe what it's like to hear hundreds of men in gray screaming the rebel yell as they charge up a hill at you as the sun falls below the hills, or to see the morning sun blotted out by gunsmoke amidst the thunder of cannon... In a way for me, it's just about gaining an appreciation for our forebears and understanding how ridiculously tough these guys were.
America's continuing conversation about race and politics has not left the reenactment community untouched. As people with more and more diverse views of American history get involved, there has been disagreement over what exactly to include in the reenactments. Some argue that reenactments are not the right place for a discussion about slavery - that they're family events and celebrations of a vanished way of life.
Others argue that not including enslavement perpetuates damaging myths about the conflict and harms the African American community. Michael Twitty, a food historian and culinary critic, started a controversy when he began reenacting the life of a slave in Louisiana. He sees this as a reclamation of history in a space that has been dominated by Confederate-sympathetic white men:
He who controls the interpretation of the history controls the narrative completely and what people walk away with. I’m going against this narrative. My job is to bring to life what the life of an enslaved person looked like so that you can take a picture of it with your iPhone and share this knowledge... This is not the American Downton Abbey.