This is a serial that I've been brewing for awhile - since Joshua Blair asked about what I considered as the ideal reenactment, and explain it to non-reenactor types, and a newspaper interview where I had to break things down to an understandable level. Since then, I've been thinking how a spectator can get the most out of a good Civil War reenactment. A layman's guide to reenacting. So here's my attempt at explaining the hobby to non-hobby people.
Part 1 - Civil War Reenacting in general
Like most people, you'll catch wind of a American Civil War reenactment through the popular local media outlet, usually the good 'ole newspaper. You go and take in the experience, and hopefully come out more informed about the details of the typical American Civil War soldier.
As a spectator, you only see the tip of the iceberg of the reenacting hobby. Underneath is a larger, more detailed world that you won't see, but is in its own way interesting and lends to a greater understanding of events you may attend.
The first interesting thing to know is that Civil War reenacting is only a part of reenacting as a whole. Almost every period of world conflict, from the Stone Age to ancient Greece to Vietnam is reenacted all over the world, so this isn't just a US thing. As long as there is an interest, chances are that some group is recreating it. And another thing, there is more than one Civil War - the English and Russians also have claim to a "Civil War". For simplicity's sake, Civil War in this serial means the American Civil War.
Reenactors typically refer to reenacting as "the hobby", since that's what it is. Unlike many hobbies, reenacting is one that requires you to "live it" for a weekend most of the time. Most of the time, pre-WW2 reenacting means camping out. This where the details come into play. To understand Civil War reenacting, you got to understand reenactors. Even something as passive as camping out has its various flavors.
The concept of Authenticity
Much of reenacting revolves around the degree of authenticity a reenactor can achieve. Authenticity means many things to reenactors, but mostly, it's either a Holy Grail or a hobgoblin. As a Holy Grail, authenticity is a goal that many reenactors aspire to, short of getting shot or contracting a disease. As a hobgoblin, authenticity is an obstacle to attending events.
Depending on the way you look at the hobby, either as a serious endeavor or a neat form of a get-together, places you in a certain "click". You're either serious or almost fanatical (hardcore or campaigner), striving for better (progressive), average Joe (mainstream), or a total party horse and/or historical clownshoe (farb).
In short, authenticity translates into credibility for most reenactors. Some care deeply about it, some can take it or leave it, and some abhor it.
Types of events
Events typically enable or lead most levels of authenticitic expression.
The larger, grand-scale events that require great numbers of reenactors usually attracts the mainstream crowd, with some progressives and the farbs that can get in by hook or crook. These events have evolved into community cash-cows, and in most cases, in time, the reenactor quality slips with fewer progressives attending, and many more farbs walking through the gates to fill the ranks. In some instances though, authentically-minded groups have attempted to reform these events, but with mixed results. For spectators, these are events best seen far away, and if anything, they do convey in general terms how a battle could have looked.
Smaller, more local open events tend to be a mixed bag, most settling within the average authenticity scale. Some do have vision and turn out to be great events, and a few turn into "farbfests" where authenticity is completely thrown out the window. As a rule of thumb, a good event depends on the focus on the history and the reenactors. Again, many of these events are actually large fund-raisers, but instead of benefiting community business, they do donate money to the local battlefield or cause. Spectating these events can be a dicey affair, dependinf wholly on the effort, creativity, ambition and vision of the event hosts.
Living histories, the less-action packed sibling of the battle reenactment, tend to be more authentic affairs that usually empathsize close reenactor interaction with the spectators. Since the spectators are up close, then the reenactor can really show off the investment of money and time he or she has invested in their "impression" (a collective term for clothes and gear). Good reenactors will also be packing a "first-person impression" (or just "first-person"), where a reenactor assumes a historical persona and relates to spectators as such. This is close to "acting" that a reenactor will come to. Living Histories tend to attract the campaigners, progressives, and good mainstreamers. In terms of spectating, these are the events you tend to learn historical tid-bits from, and should be must-sees.
Another form of event that has been coming to its own in recent years, but still are uncommon, are "campaigner" events. These events are the realm of campaigners and chosen progressives. These events range from non-spectator "immersion" (total first-person) events, to tacticals or high-authenticity events that have spectator-friendly immersion areas, where all reenactors stay in first-person. These events are difficult to find for the casual spectator, but are the gems that other events should aspire to.
A couple related living history-style events are "vignettes" and "displays". Vignettes tend to be tailored for spectating, guiding people through a series of interconnected living history stations. Displays strip off any first-person interaction, and allow reenactors to talk with spectators in the present tense. Spectators see the gear, and the reenactors explain the use and function. Both of these type events are very information-packed, and can also be found within a proper battle event.
Next: Anatomy of an Event
Note 4/27: Holy parallel thinking Batman! Seems the Civil War Historian is writing the same thing, but in booklet form for groups to pass out at events. Great idea -- but I'll push on with my serial anyway.
Note 5/12: Changing the name of the series to "The Irreverent Guide to Civil War Reenacting" -- a nod to one of my favorite travel books.