Letter From America’s Civil War – March 2008

Why Reenactors Are Important

When Confederates in the Attic was published 10 years ago, its more vocal critics assailed it as a mere trav-elogue of author Tony Horwitz’s tour of the South with, in their minds, a band of rather ridiculous Rebel reenactors.

But those critics proved to be in the minority as the book hit The New York Times bestseller list and won rave reviews. “As good a rendering as I’ve seen of the mysterious pull at the heart of the American identity,” wrote Slate’s book critic. The Oregonian found it “one of the most important studies of the American South in recent memory.” “A profound investigation not just of the American past but also of the American present,” observed Preservation Magazine. The New York Times applauded its exploration of “divisiveness in America.”

Here, like Ken Burns’ Civil War series on PBS, was a “popular” work that put history back on the map. And it made history accessible.

We are now entering a period that will offer us many opportunities to capture the interest and imagination of the next generation: the Lincoln Bicentennial, now underway, museum openings, battlefield restorations, national touring exhibitions, all leading up to the Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration in 2011.

But how do we get the attention of young people raised on an intensely visual and ex-periential media diet? It’s likely they will be looking for more than new books, however brilliantly researched and written, to tell them why the war matters. Some may find the answer in a film, HBO special, interactive game or blog. Or, like many of you, there will be those who discover a passion for Civil War history the old-fashioned way—at a battlefield where a reenactment is underway or a National Park Service site where reenactors are demonstrating the use of signal flags or triage.

Robert Lee Hodge, who appeared on the cover of Confederates in the Attic and wrote our cover feature, says, “The common bond that all reenactors share is trying to bring to life the flavor of the Civil War era by our live demonstrations.

“I know,” he adds, that “people putting on clothes from 150 years ago and reenacting a battle is going to make some academics frown or laugh. But I feel that, even if it is a far from perfect resource, reenacting can help history benefit in competing for the memory of the youth.”

And that, we agree, is one very good reason why reenactors are important.

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