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Sunday, 6 March 2011

A Word From Colonial Williamsburg.

Reflections on Reenacting

Seeking an Authentic Past in a Specious Present
by D.A. Saguto
There is an element of escapism involved in dressing up like dead people, and playing make-believe, escapism in which J. R. R. Tolkien, he of Lord of the Rings, saw “an attempt to figure a different reality” and found emancipation. Perhaps that’s part of why people spend spare hours outfitting themselves in the garb and gear of this or that historical era and pass spare weekends fighting old battles, reveling in renaissance fairs, or just hanging out with pals who share their affinity for a past. The most serious of them have as well an abiding interest in the fine points of history, a dedication to authenticity, and a determination to come as close to living in yesteryears as they can contrive. We call those folks reenactors.


Understand at the outset that there is a distinction between reenactors—like the blue and gray clad skirmishers mock battling Gettysburg—and professional interpreters and tradespeople employed at such historical museums as Old Sturbridge Village and Colonial Williamsburg to work in costume, to preserve knowledge of the past, and to share it with guests. Museum people do it for a living. The best of the reenactors take their avocation—The Hobby, they call it—as seriously as their work, but, to be candid, others are out there for fun. That said, know that there are interpreters in the ranks of reenactors. Even craftsmen skilled in antique trades, and among them once was me. That was back in the day, and I was one of the serious ones.


Now, I’m Colonial Williamsburg’s master boot and shoemaker, hired a career ago to present an eighteenth-century tradesman, train apprentices up to journeymen, and to practice and to demonstrate the art and mystery of turning leather into footwear. In the 1980s, you might have found me passing weekends outfitted as a seventeenth-century musketeer or uniformed as an eighteenth-century highland soldier or cast in the khaki of a World War II lieutenant or wearing the pleated-pants suit of a 1930s clothes horse.


It’s not always as much fun as it sounds. You’ve lived the definition of discomfort when you’ve stood under a Virginia summer sun in armor, a leather jerkin underneath, and a steel helmet on your head. Or when you and the rest of the Saint Maries’ Citty Militia, in full kit, sweating and sun-reddened, board a ship like the replica seventeenth-century Dove to slip down Maryland’s Saint Maries River and bear away for the Potomac.


That was a sultry June weekend in the 1980s. The ship’s company herded us below like unwanted cargo, and scampered into the rigging to set sail. We had come up for air and sat on a hatch grating to take a meal, when out of the west came a storm wall of turbid grey as high as heaven to drive us back below. The tempest washed waves and foam over the deck, tossed us about, and drenched us to the skin. I clambered back out of the hold around midnight, blanket-wrapped against the damp, chill, and mosquitoes, stinking of wet woolen breeches, doublet, and sodden shoes. It was a total immersion experience. I sat in the stern taking some tobacco, reflecting on the adventure. Reenactors live for this stuff—time-travel days.


The Dove moored at the Washington police docks behind a chain link security fence, lighted all night by halogen floods. We gave tours of the ship and weapons demonstrations to school groups during the day, and ventured onto the streets of the nation’s capital to pub-crawl, still wearing our fetid 1600s ensembles, swords, cutlasses, and all. Those were different days in the District of Columbia.


Around the world, most of us have seen reenactors—as extras in such motion pictures as Gettysburg, Glory, and The Patriot, and in television miniseries like The American Revolution, if not in person.


These days there are Woodstock-scale set-piece reenactments such as commemorative battles organized and sponsored by buffs, preservationists, and promoters, which can draw more combatants than the original engagement. The American Civil War has the largest reenactor following, with more than 40,000 adherents in the United States, and more overseas. More state fair–scale remembrances occur annually from coast to coast, such as the World War II Weekend each June at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania.


There are participants-only immersion events, like private forays into the wilderness, for a handful of enthusiasts carrying thousands of dollars’ worth of museum-quality reproduction gear, weapons, authentic foodstuffs, and hand-stitched clothing. There is nothing modern that would be out of place in the past, and outsiders never witness the bivouacs.


Time-line events present multiple eras at once, such as Military through the Ages convened every March at Jamestown Settlement. They are not reenactments per se, but gatherings of reenactors time-tripping on wars ranging from remote antiquity up through today’s.


The common denominator is the concept of “living history.” Coined by historian Carl Becker in 1931, the term has been adopted, and adapted, by museums, historic sites, and event planners, and especially by individuals—buffs in autonomous groups of a handful to 100 or more, trying to create an authentic representation of the past to share as comrades. Becker said:


The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present. For history to be of value, it must reach the people and move them both emotionally and intellectually.


Reenactors live history as experiential, individualistic, sensory, and immersive moments—why just read about the past when you can dress, eat, sleep, and smell like it? Above all is the desire is to personally connect with an authentic past and roll around in it.


Highbrow reenactors prefer to call it experimental archaeology or living history, putting old things and old life skills to a function test, or verifying their readings of the record. To one demographic of Americans it’s about blood ties, too, retracing their forebears’ footprints, experiencing things, places, and events belonging to their families. For other demographics, it’s little more than history-themed role-playing and escapist fantasy.


When did it start? Why do they do what they do? Who are these folks? Let’s see.


Gladiators dressed as heroes of ages past, and staged grand battles in Roman amphitheaters. There were tournaments with ancient Roman themes in the Middle Ages. Victorians re-created medieval jousts, and battle re-creations have long been part of military training.


In 1822, veterans of the American War for Independence reenacted the 1775 Battle of Lexington. In 1902, Crow Indians and militiamen reenacted Custer’s Last Stand near Sheridan, Wyoming. But none of these commemorative pantomimes was quite as moving on the scale emotionally and intellectually, as Becker said, as what emerged in the United States after World War II and spread round the globe.


Mainstream military reenacting is an artifact of the twentieth century. Since the 1930s, perhaps earlier, there was competitive target shooting among antique long-rifle aficionados. At first, they fired antique weapons; then exactingly crafted replicas. This, the black powder, muzzle-loading rifle movement, was momentarily interrupted by World War II. After VJ Day, it bounced back, grew rapidly, and spread from coast to coast.


In 1949 and 1950, a group of enthusiasts in the Washington, DC, area, led by Ernest W. Peterkin and John Rawls, established the North South Skirmish Association, which organization has conducted shooting matches at its home range in Winchester, Virginia, ever since.


Soon military drill was added for realism—loading and firing weapons in teams as soldiers did in battle, according to Civil War era drill manuals. This was followed by attempts at loosely simulating uniforms—blue for the Yankee teams and grey for the Confederate platoons was close enough. Muskets and canon were fired with live ammunition pointed at targets, not loaded with blanks, or pointed at each other.


Observance of the centennial of the American Civil War from 1961 to 1965 was really the first ragged volley fired in the reenactment hobby. The black powder shooting fraternity wanted in, of course, but their focus had been on target shooting, less so on wearing authentic uniforms or trying to experience firsthand the hardscrabble life of Civil War soldiers. Enter the next generation of buffs—the Baby Boomers coming of age. What emerged was a melding, leveling experience that characterizes the first generation of the hobby.


In 1966 a group of University of California at Berkeley students of medieval history and science-fiction and fantasy fans got together and formed the Society for Creative Anachronisms, “as a protest against the twentieth century,” their website says. Today, medievalist reenactors of the SCA, as they are known, claim 60,000 participants worldwide, focusing their time-tripping on the eras before gunpowder.


The next national good excuse to reenact—the Bicentennial of the American War for Independence—ran from 1975 to 1983. It provided fresh opportunity and brought together in one shared and transforming experience two antagonist generations, the youthful and long-haired don’t-trust-anyone-over-thirty gang and their fathers’ clean-cut crowd, during a polarized era in American history.

Middle-aged executives and veteran military officers fell in under the command of twenty-something art school dropouts and assorted history hippies on alternative career paths. Escapees liberated from their twentieth-century status, politics, ranks, and roles, they tried to create a shared patriotic experience. In his 1984 book Time Machines: The World of Living History, anthropologist J. Anderson called it a “secular mystical experience.”


But that was then. The first generation of reenactors has largely retired or died. A new generation has succumbed to the allure of the past, and the Internet and social networking websites have replaced the typewritten, photocopied regimental newsletters of the twentieth-century reenactor organizations.


Cyberspace has created keyboard commandos who, with Internet courage, take to the field online more than they assemble, drill, shoot, or make the uniforms and equipment, or venture into the great outdoors together. Rather than forming a local group to re-create a particular regiment from a particular war in particular detail, today’s reenactors tend to be geographically scattered. Meeting occasionally, if ever, they jump from one uniform to another, one war to the next, sometimes wearing a uniform once before it’s added to the collection in their closet. They still are drawn by history, however.


British novelist L. P. Hartley wrote that “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” and who wouldn’t like to go exploring foreign countries?

Tens of thousands of hobbyists to the contrary, we hear gloomy reports of how little Americans know of their history, how poorly they score on tests, how desperate the situation is, and how irrelevant most feel history is.


Something’s amiss.


The number one pastimes of Americans include genealogy, authentically restoring and furnishing old houses, collecting antiques, history-themed war-gaming, and tuning into the steady stream of history programming on cable television. To say Americans dislike history seems overstated.
Living-history pursuits are “very Presbyterian,” according to anthropologist Anderson; they lie “outside the boundary of established academic and public history” and thrive “on independence.” He writes, “Each . . . unit makes its own covenant with historical truth and determines the way it will carry on its dialogue with the past.”

So, if the present is seen as specious, and sometimes history seems to be strangled until it confesses something, the reenactor looks for emancipation in escape to a fully faithful, if re-created, reality of living history.
Historian Howard Zinn wrote, “If you don’t have any history, it is as though you were born yesterday. If you were born yesterday, you will believe anything,” motivation enough it seems to drive armies of these independent weekend warriors and armchair historians deeper and deeper into their own dialogues with their past, and thank goodness.


D. A. Saguto is Colonial Williamsburg’s master boot and shoemaker, is editor and translator of The Art of the Shoemaker, and has a commission in the 71st Regiment (Fraser’s) Highlanders Veterans’ Company.









6 comments:

Hutch said...

That was fantastic. I have always loved history, from when I was a little boy. I've watched "Last of the Mohicans", "Dances with Wolves", "Son of the Morning Star", and many others more times than I can realistically count.

I have always bordered on the native side of things, not because I am part Indian (barely), but because growing up, that is what I could afford. Meaning, the Indian presented me with a way I could be outside being a boy, taking things from nature, and making them. I didn't, and largely still don't, possess the funds to buy much more- even the things I've made recently (canvas snapsack and tent, sheaths, and some leather pouches) are from canvas and leather that I've had for a decade. The steel striker I bought last week was, to me, a major purchase.

And perhaps that's the beauty. In the days of old, the labor cost much less, and the materials were damn expensive. Purchases were rarer and prudently thought out; then those purchases were used until they simply couldn't be anymore. Not so any more, as material is cheap, and an increasingly globalized economy makes finding the labor cheap as well. Even then, I find uses for things.

The canvas I had was from a bedroll when I owned a house, and horses. I have already spent many nights sleeping in it under the stars. The leather I've had since before I could drive a car (legally), so I've had one side of a cow for more than 12 years. I originally was going to make leggings; I've made a quiver and now some pouches.

All in all, I don't think there's anything that will ever keep me from being an 'armchair' historian; I love it. And I don't see it stopping, even if I am not, at all times, 100% accurate- it would have been conceivable and possible when I am done.

Bob Mc said...

Don't have an e-mail address for you Keith, so I'll do it this way. This is later than the time period you are interested in, but thought you might like to look at these. Photos from the late 1800's.

http://blogs.denverpost.com/captured/2011/02/23/from-the-archive-frontier-life-in-the-west/2713/

Diane-Sage Whiteowl said...

There is a "strong" part of me that if I could pull it off I would wear and live the way my ancestors did. Even today I am kind of a knock off of being a person of the past but enjoys the SOME modern conveniences...though I know that I could live "off grid" if needed.

Le Loup said...

Good to hear Hutch. An Indian persona is very viable, even if you did not have Indian blood, there were white Indians. I started off just like you, into the Indian persona as a kid.

Bob, thank you!!! Great images!

Diane, good to know you can do it in this day and age. You never know when the clock might get turned back technology wise. A lot of people are prepping right now in readyness.

Hutch said...

It helps me that I have 3 different Indian tribes in me; Sioux, Choctaw, and Bridgeport. But I've always liked that I can simply walk down a path, see a straight stick, and it becomes an arrow. The cost, total, of making it? About $3.95.

I've been toying around with this for a bit now, and here's how I'm figurin'. In the sites I've listed, there's always much scrutiny in not only IF something was period authentic...but diving into sub-topics of then: region authentic, persona authentic, etc. So I got to thinking a bit.

I keep a journal, albeit rather loosely. I don't tend to write down things of every day occurrence. For instance, I don't mention the times that I see hogs in the Texas bush; I always see hogs in the bush. I write down the oddity of NOT seeing those hogs. Would that not have been somewhat of the same thing with older journals? Meaning- if a particular gun was being used, would it be much more common to note the gun that was uncommon, rather than common? In other words, if it was a gun you saw every day, I'd think it was unlikely you care to mention. The exception that I can think of would be for military duty. I'm not disagreeing, by any means, but it's a theory I have that from personal experience is at least a valid one.

My second thought was one of travel. Because of my growing up love of LOM, I've always thought of being a loner; a wanderer. Personally, I've been in many different states walking on the Appalachian Trail...in the late 90's. Surely, someone who walked all the time covered MUCH more ground than I. Theoretically, that person could've trapped in the Carolina's and traded, before making a trip back to northern New York, presenting one with an interesting mix of cultural influences. Rare? Maybe, probably. Possible? I see no reason in a man with two legs why it wouldn't be.

In conclusion, I think I'm noticing that in the search, I think people maybe searching for what was written down that was down. Which is great. But what about what COULD have been done? After all, is that not why most love it so much? Isn't that what we love about our ancestors, their adaptability? So, the conclusion I've come to is this: If they had it back then- I'll use it, because anything available could have theoretically been attained via trade.

So, my further question is- is that a reasonable line of thought, or have I strayed way off path with that?

Le Loup said...

Hutch. Understanding why certain people did things or did not do things in the 18th century was not easy for me, but then I concluded that really they were not much different than people today. Some are smarter than others and pick up on things quicker.
Why experienced people made so many mistakes I cannot fathom, such as Gist & Washington only carrying one blunt hatchet between them, trappers not looking after their guns, scared people not putting doors on their cabins!
As far as the equipment you use in conserned, yes I think you are right. If it existed, & if there is a strong possibilty that you could have acquired that item, then you can have it. If it is something that would not normally be owned by the "middling sort", then perhaps it was taken from a defeated foe, such as a French/English officer. Or as you say construct a scenario where you were able to trade for such an item.
Regards.