Sunday, March 04, 2007

What I think makes a great reenactment

Joshua Blair from Civil War Power Tour threw a very good question at me after I wrote the review of the Carolinas Campaign event:

Please enlighten us non re-enacting folks. What is the ideal re-enactment?

OK, fair's fair. It's one thing to chirp about an event on a blog, but it's quite another to define the ideal reenactment to non-reenactors. So, my mind has been thinking on this one for the past few days. Here's what I've come up with.

Let me provide a few caveats before I launch into this post:
  1. We're only talking about events with spectators watching,
  2. The event as a whole doesn't have to be scripted, and
  3. Of course it's my opinion based on my personal experiences.

One thing I've come to grips with in recent times is that both reenactors and the general public know more of the Civil War now than they did 20 years ago. This is not to say that knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds, but people are certainly more aware. The reenactor side has grown in knowledge several-fold. Everything I wished for as a reenactor 20 years ago has pretty much transpired. Better uniforms, gear, and printed material are available and more affordable. And with that, the people who come out to watch our events have become more knowledgable - hopefully partly as a product of reenactors making history available to the public.

With this is in mind, sooner or later, someone is bound to say this:

“I know the result,” Townsend said. “I just want to see if they portray it accurately.”

This out of a high school student who went to see the Carolina Campaign event. His reaction afterwards? The Fayetteville Observer further quotes:

If Christie was overwhelmed by the realism, teen history buff John Townsend had spotted some flaws. Although the Confederates were all clad in the distinctive gray uniforms, Townsend said that by the end of the war — when this battle took place — they were low on supplies, including uniforms.

“They’d have been wearing jeans or whatever they could find,” he said.

He's right - and a type of observation that was probably not missed by some other spectators. This leads me to...

Point #1: An ideal reenactment has to demand material accuracy of the participants. Give Mr. Townsend a couple more years and I can imagine he could be pointing out the over- abundance of Richmond Depot II shell jackets at a western theatre event. I think it's essential that the event sponsor define the impressions. Although reenactors can bone-up on the events portrayed, the sponsor should have some special insights and develop guidelines for what they feel appropriate for the event. The McDowell event sponsors did a great job of defining the desired impression on their site. Failure to do so might find some sharp-eyed teen's observations displayed in the local newspaper.

Point #2: An ideal reenactment must have a realistic scenario that's pertinent to the historical event reenacted. OK, here's the reenactor translation - don't do a generic fairground meat-slapping contest and pass it off for a recreation of an actual event. At the time of the Carolinas Campaign was fought, the nature of combat had changed, not least of which were how small unit actions were carried out. But yet, both forces were packing two-ranked battlelines, rather than the reinforced skirimish lines found late in the war. Attack and Die is a great book that explains these changes - and event designers should read it and take note. The Carolinas Campaign not only suffered from sameness and a generic treatment of the events, but the battle tactics weren't representative of that point in the war.

Point #3: An ideal reenactment has a reasonable balance of forces. You can't have the yanks outnumbered 2 or 3 to 1, outgunned, with cavalry breathing down their necks, trot them on the field and then expect a realistic event to blossom. Ain't going to happen. I'm actually a big fan of capping numbers to certain forces. Down in the south, it's access to the Confederates and their artillery. Capping has the effect of promoting a bit of competition for the limited spots, and allows the other necessary forces not to be overwhelmed, if not allow them to grow from the ranks of the reenactors who have a dual impression. I'm also a big proponent of using incentives to attract the necessary manpower - a couple of packs of free ammo and a supply hardtack would go a long way to attract needed Federals.

Point #4: An ideal reenactment uses innovation or a twist to add its own 'flavor' to the event. One of the things that a reenactor who was on the cusp of burn-out told me was that "most events have become the same, and that's why I'm thinking of quitting." Unfortunately, that's not an uncommon refrain these days. Most events have become a little too much the same. The only difference is where they are fought.

I think most event designers are too focused on how a battle unfolds in a scripted fight to pay mind to the things that really attract good reenactors, and make a believable reenactment for spectators. One battle that sticks in my mind is an event that was once held at Carnifex Ferry, WV. I wrote about this event before, along with my thoughts on event design. Innovation is the key that keeps reenactors in the hobby, and is also the past subject of a post. Rich Mountain seems to be another event that had a twist - so there's plenty of ideas out there to make an event an experience rather than a chore.

Hopefully I've addressed Josh's question to satisfaction - I feel like I've got out a thing or two that's been brewing for a while. In my opinion, the better mechanics of a reenactment, of course the better the reenactors enjoy it, which in turn makes it a great event for someone spectating it. Something can be said for energy and a sense catharsis.


Spiff said...

All good points. Great post.

Joshua blair said...


Thanks for the clarification. Excellent post.


Blue Bellied Yank said...

Superbly written post, very informative... and now I know your name is Eric.

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