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Reading that Changed my View of History: Why re-enact?

Posted by Caitlin Tracey-...
12 January 2015 - 7:03pm

I enjoyed a number of history related books this year, but one of my favorites was one that did not explore history as it happened in previous decades and centuries. It focused instead on how we experience history today through re-enactments, festivals, and living history events. Approaching the topic with humor, enthusiasm and thoughtfulness, Charlie Schroeder’s 2012 book Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Re-enactment (Hudson Street Press), shares the story of Schroeder's year of re-enactment experiences across the United States.

As Schroeder struggles and laughs through 2000 years of history, he meets re-enactment enthusiasts with a range of interests and motives. Some wish to better understand family members or ancestors. Some enjoy the opportunity to act out heroic roles. Some wish to escape their modern lives. Some hope to better understand the topics they study. Some want to be a part of a community. Some just want to be outdoors.

If you re-enact, why do you do it?

In the summer after 5th grade, my family visited several Civil War sites in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. I had become fascinated with the 1860s after completing a research project and shoebox diorama on General Ulysses S. Grant, and I wanted to learn everything I could about the time period. I was particularly interested in the stories of women, and wondered what my life might have been like if I had lived in those years. I read historical fiction, and thought a great deal about corsets and hoop skirts, writing letters and waiting for communication, and battlefield surgeries without anesthetic.

At one site, I was invited to try on a wool coat and handle several of the items that would have been carried by soldiers. I was impressed by how heavy it all was, and wondered what it would have been like to fight in the battles I  had studied in class. This experience brought history closer, and made it feel a bit more real than it had before.

Perhaps it is the desire to know what life was like that makes historical re-enactment so appealing to so many. For those who spend time learning about a period, there might be a thrill in acting it out, in imagining their own heroic roles--in stepping outside of the classroom, or the library, or the museum.

I believe there are also some risks in embracing these kind of experiences. I think it can be easy to romanticize the past or to  begin to see battles as video games or epic fantasy, rather than events that claimed real lives. I think it might become easy to feel that your understanding is complete, when there may be gaps or misunderstandings.

Charlie Shroeder asks a lot of questions of the people he befriends, and his thoughtful and humorous journey is an engaging read. I recommend it highly, and hope it might encourage all of us to think about how we live history and why we do it.


Photo credit: US Navy (public domain).