What is the Future of Historical Reenacting in Public History?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago The Bitter Southerner published a nice essay on Civil War reenacting. The author asserts that reenacting is in a period of transition as some enthusiasts push for a more holistic understanding of Civil War history, one that strives for “deeper, truer purposes” by explaining why this war was fought in the first place. Moreover, the author argues that “Civil War reenactments are as popular now as they have ever been,” so therefore historical reenactors–and the entire public history field–can and should find ways to use reenacting to disseminate a better understanding of the Civil War to the public.

I don’t buy the argument that Civil War reenacting–or any sort of reenacting save for maybe World War II–is as popular as ever. While it’s my understanding that the Civil War Sesquicentennial did bring out a large number of reenactors to commemorate the 150th anniversary of various battles like Shiloh and Gettysburg and General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, what’s notable about the Sesquicentennial is how many reenactors who grew up during the Centennial years of the 1960s chose to wear their outfits for the last time with the end of the 150th this year. I highly doubt that the so-called “millennial” generation is going to maintain the popularity of Civil War or any historical reenacting in the future. Another article in the Peoria Journal Star seems to confirm my skepticism.

The Journal Star article focuses on Fort Crevecoeur in Illinois, which was first established in the late seventeenth century. The fort doesn’t have the popularity of a Civil War site, but during the 1980s the fort held reenactments based on events when the fort functioned as a trading post that drew crowds of more than 3,000 visitors. Today the number of reenactors still participating in events at the fort dwindles around 15 or 20. The site has expanded its offerings and now hosts a French and Indian War reenactment, but concerns remain about the future of these events and even the site itself.

Three reasons are offered in the Journal Star for explaining why historical reenactments aren’t popular with younger people today:

  1. Kids are more interested in technology “and air conditioning” than spending the day outside at a reenactment.
  2. Kids don’t have the money to invest in reenacting.
  3. Older reenactors don’t want to be around young people and look upon them “with disdain.”

I think explanation two–that kids [i.e. their parents] don’t have the money–is the most plausible. Time is an important factor as well, however. Organized sports, to take one example, play a much larger role in many children’s lives than they did in the 1960s or 70s. Kids also have more homework than ever before. And while older folks can definitely be grumpy sometimes, I think those sentiments are reflective of a basic fact of human nature: young people like hanging out with other young people during their free time. Ditto to older people. And both groups can unfortunately look at each other with too much skepticism.

The bit about kids being more interested in technology than being outside is a red herring that distracts us from questioning why this site’s current programming is not attracting visitors. Sure, kids are inside more often and some teens are spending as much as seven and a half hours a day consuming media, but who’s to blame for that? The kids are being raised by parents who attended those reeanctments as children in the 1980s and are choosing not to return. Adults are spending more time inside consuming media on computers, phones, and televisions too. Kids who spend all day online are doing so because their parents allow them to, and because parents often indulge in the same types of behavior.

Is the future of public history doomed because of digital technology, or is there an opportunity for public historians to thoughtfully incorporate at least some semblance of digital technology to enhance their programming? If you agree with me that the latter course is a better one, then you’ll see that throwing our hands up and doing nothing but moaning about kids and their phones will most certainly hasten this field’s demise. Let’s stop making excuses. Michael Twitty, a historical reenactor who often portrays himself as an enslaved cook at events and is quoted in the aforementioned Bitter Southerner piece, is right when he says that “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.”

Historical reenacting is suffering in part, I think, because the way we teach history to students in the classroom is changing, both in content and method. What I call the “dates, dead people, and dust” approach to history education is slowly going away and being replaced with teaching methods that embrace nuance and context and incorporate primary sources alongside select readings from academic historians. Memorizing a bunch of facts for a forty-question multiple choice test is not an effective way of teaching history, and it seems like more teachers are beginning to challenge their students to interpret the past using primary and secondary evidence and to then make compelling arguments in written and oral form. Moreover, the discussion topics in history classrooms, for better or worse, are moving away from heroic narratives of great white men, dramatic battles, and military tactics towards questions of politics, economics, social practices, group identities, and history as a process of connected events with implications for the present instead of a series of unconnected events on a timeline from a bygone, irrelevant era.

Given these changes in the classroom, we should be unsurprised when historical reenactments that privilege dry lectures, minute facts about obscure historical artifacts, and narratives that literally whitewash the past don’t attract the attention of young or diverse audiences.

Do I think historical reenacting is ineffective or a waste of time? Absolutely not! I’ve done historical reenacting myself (poorly). When I lived in Indiana I participated in Connor Prarie’s “Follow the North Star” program and was profoundly moved by the entire experience. But the reenacting alone wasn’t what impressed me. The program gave me a chance to actively participate in the event itself and contribute my own voice through a post-event facilitated dialogue run by a professional. The dialogue challenged all participants to reflect on their own experiences during the event and then comment on the role of history in shaping our society today. Plus they gave us resources to learn more about slavery, the underground railroad, and Indiana history at the very end. It was reenacting with emotion, passion, intelligence, active participation, and respect for the past. We need more of that in public history if we want reenacting to play an important educational role in the future.


17 thoughts on “What is the Future of Historical Reenacting in Public History?

  1. Re-enacting is expensive. Uniforms, accurate weaponry. Tents. Cooking gear. Many enactors have two sets of informs so they can be flexible and utilized as needed. Then there is Cavalry. And having time to travel. Entire weekends given up to this, then work. I did photography in costume for a few years in central Florida enactments. Had a great time. But then the pros showed up, turning out digital photos on the spot from computers in their tents. That was out of my league.

    1. Really ? I’ve been reenacting in the UK since 1989 (ECW, Napoleonic and ACW) and with the exception of WW2 the whole scene is dying on its ass.

  2. Very good article, just some observations (my two cents). Kids are kids, it doesn’t matter what generation. Kids want to PLAY, not “learn” for the sake of learning, they are already learning machines, they LEARN through PLAY. My son and his closest friends LOVE History and Reenactments, why… because they Play out the battles. Just like I did as a kid, I would watch some movie (cops/robbers, cowboys/Indians, war etc…) then go play what I saw. I see kids at parks, camps, scouts today playing at the playground, what are they playing? They are playing their favorite video games and shows, they play Mine-Craft (a popular video game) video game or Zombies or whatever… So what does my son play and his friends play? They play historical battles and discuss who is Francis Marion and who is Tarleton… my point? If you present Reenactments as mearing sit and teach a topic, they get quickly bored (even my son and his friends who beg to go to Reenactments and look forward to them like Christmas, get quickly bored at most of the displays and demos, they see them in kid time and learn, but they get bored and move on, they can walk through a large Reenactment event in an hour and be done… then what do they do? They play out the battle they watched (if there was one) for as many hours as you let them, if you don’t stop them, they will run around and play until they drop dead (I’ve just learned to hydrate them and feed them like marathon runners, they run by grab a drink and go back into the battle). We are fortunate enough to have the Virginia War Museum (and Endview Plantation) who sponsors WWII Camps and Civil War Camps that are basically just Battle Reenactment Play, but I am absolutely amazed at 1) they depth of knowledge the kids have on the Battles, my son embarrasses his history teacher and 2) how much fun they have, they look forward to the Camps all year and reference them as the “Best” times they can remember. My son wanted desperately to join the local group, the 7th Virginia Regiment, we went as far as filling out the paperwork and paying the dues, but then he found out he couldn’t participate in the actual Battle reenactment until he was 16 (he was 5-6 when we first started going to events, 10 now), so he just said he would wait until then. I guess he just got too impatient, because he decided to start his own group (Youth Virginia Regiment) to Reenact battles with cap guns etc… the thing is, he does his own research on the battles so he and his friends can play it out… he does this not because he is special into history or because I did anything to brainwash him, he does this because he discovered how fun it is to PLAY the battles.
    I do agree the Cost is huge, especially for kids who will quickly outgrow their clothing (although kids, when given “real” gear to play with appreciate it like no other), and cost is a factor to me personally, I do think if you want kids to be interested and go into future Reenactors, try incorporating more Battle play (I know the local groups do some “Drill” with kids at events, but it isn’t much, and the kids get bored with that as well… The point is, if you get them to Play, they will learn whether you want them to or not. The interest will be there when they associate it with play. The funny thing is, when we go to events, the kids that are actually there as Reenactors, almost always leave their “station” and start playing with my son and his friends playing out the Battle. I’m sure they enjoy the family time and camping and interaction… but faced with active Play, the Play wins just about ever time (except when pulled by Parents).
    I really don’t think Kids today are any different than any other generation, they just have access to different stuff, if you get them involved and they see how much fun it can be, you will have a Historian for life.


    1. Hi there,

      This is a really wonderful and thoughtful comment, and I appreciate you taking the time to compose it. I love the idea of learning through playing, and the concept of play should be integral to history learning in and out of the classroom. Once you provide that spark of interest to the students the sky’s limit in terms of how much history get into. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    2. As a reenactor, one thing I always try to do to engage the kids when putting on a display is to have wooden rifles (full-size and kid-sized) and teach them the manual of arms, loading methods, and then a little bayonet drill. They get to “play” while learning what the soldiers did. Parents love getting to take pictures of their kids learning this stuff and the kids get to have a bit of fun. Obviously with some of our gear, you can’t let kids touch it too much for safety, but kids are fairly tactile and like to hold things.

      When I interact with the public, I also note that I am a historian, who works professionally teaching college, etc., which seems to give an air of legitimacy to folks when I present (not saying that only professional historians can be good reenactors). Yes, we face a society that is much more hooked on technology, but by using such technology, we can potentially create some cool interactive teaching tools that are fun and can compliment a living history display.

  3. Scary thought – some history departments are being strongly encouraged to NOT teach history in chronological order because it either doesn’t matter or does not make sense.

    1. That sounds crazy to me. I’ve heard of teachers doing reverse chronology (from the present backwards), which I find intriguing, but this approach sounds random and disjointed.

  4. I am not having any sort of Problem with my Viking age Living history group here in Atlanta Georgia, I will admit its harder to get some into Rev war or Civil war now, but people have latched on to Dark ages like a crab to a dead squirrel. We seem to get many young men, part of the reason for this is I think its an outlet for men to be men, they can indulge there more primal urges in a socity where they try to demastulate them.

    1. Hi Seth,

      I’m glad to hear that your reenacting group is doing well. I’m a little more connected to things happening in the U.S. history reenacting scene, so I can’t speak specifically to what’s going on in the Viking history world, but it’s nice to hear that some groups are maintaining their numbers and even thriving. Somebody important must have shared this post because it is making the rounds and I’m happily receiving feedback from a number of new commenters from the living history community. Thanks and take care!

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