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The Future of Living History - Is it a Thing of the Past?

What hath God wrought? I could be referring to the King James Bible from the Book of Numbers, or referring to the first telegraph message ever sent. In either case the question posed is this: What has God done? Or more succinctly- what have we done?

I pose this question today because as I stand here surveying the wreckage of the year 2020 while glancing pensively at the uncertain future of 2021, my mind wonders where a heretofore important American institution fits into all of it. Bluntly put- are we as people still interested in experiencing living history? Are we still interested to see our oftentimes uncomfortable past brought back to life and turned into a weekend spectacle? Are we even still willing to face our past? To even acknowledge the history of this nation?

I have been a United States Civil War reenactor for roughly a decade, portraying both a Confederate cavalry skirmisher and a civilian country gentleman. Hailing from the Midwest I never felt that it was a conflict of interest to portray the Confederate side of our war because I wasn’t doing so with any ulterior motives. Simply put, as the saying goes “it takes two to tango” and so my representation of the Confederacy to me was purely just part of the narrative. I first became interested in the hobby for the same reasons that many reenactors do: because of my love of history and my passion for talking about it and for educating those who are likewise interested. Reenacting to me was and has always been a wonderful opportunity to submerge myself in the Antebellum period and interact with an eager public in ways that I otherwise would not have the ability to. The period camping, clothing, cooking, weaponry, and of course battle scenarios have always been a wonderful and entertaining way to both educate and thrill the general public. I have participated in many events all across this nation, from the Deep South up through New England and just about everywhere in between and amassed an incredible stock of memories and irreplaceable experiences along the way.

Yet, something else altogether new and disturbing began to happen along the way. In more recent years, we began to encounter folks who were enthusiastic about the portrayal of our Civil War in a more unhealthy manner of fashion. Folks who were interested in seeing the portrayal of battlefield violence for reasons that were anything but academic. Folks who, shockingly enough, were interested in the display of the Confederate Flag and of Confederate military regalia for reasons that had little or nothing to do with our collective history or the history of the conflict we were focusing on. This of course ran counter to everything that I was interested in trying to accomplish as a reenactor, but given that this is a free country and that I have no right or ability to control others or their motives it was something that I was learning to accept.

But then came 2020

The global pandemic effectively ended all plans for public gatherings of all stripes, and living history was no exception. All of our plans for the year were shelved with the understanding that we would just revisit them when the world was a safer place and large group gatherings were once again a possibility. But then something else unexpected happened. Something that had been simmering under the surface for far longer than the coronavirus had been. What came next was a wave of both peaceful protests and civil unrest that followed in the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake among others which completely rejuvenated the public outcry for civil rights and police reform that had lay more or less dormant in the public’s eye for years, if not decades. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter and The Proud Boys who had both existed prior to 2020’s season of unrest found themselves suddenly front and center in America’s livingrooms as protests and counter-protests splashed across our screens and violence erupted in our streets. Suddenly we found ourselves as a nation collectively confronted with a social issue that had formerly only plagued the more marginalized segments of our population. Suddenly we found our streets turned into battlegrounds as opposing groups with agendas far beyond civil rights and police reform alternately confronted the police, one another, or both. Suddenly, we saw the Confederate Battle Flag carried in the streets and displayed at rallies with the intent to intimidate, and to rekindle the memories of the Jim Crow era and of our Civil War.

Then this past January we saw the Confederate Battle Flag be carried into the United States Capitol Building during the 2021 Storming of the United States Capitol event.

And so I beg the question: Now what? As a people, what do we do with this mess? How can we separate a treasonous riot and the misappropriation of symbols and imagery from an important event in our nation’s history? How can we have a conversation about our Civil War, about its causes and outcomes, without conjuring up the evil that has been done while inappropriately incorporating the historical imagery from that conflict?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, which is why I’m asking you, the reader, for your opinion.

Can we again enjoy living history after the events of 2020? Can we still reenact our Civil War for the sake of education and entertainment? What can we do about the Confederate flag? You by rights cannot discuss our Civil War without including that flag and all the imagery it conjures up. Will we ever be able to separate the past from the present in regards to that flag?

Before answering, you the reader should know that the study of our Civil War is more important now that it has been in the last 50 years. Maybe even a hundred. The causes, realities, and outcomes that have shaped both the trajectory of our nation and race relations since 1865 are frankly staring us in the face, and are asking us, among other questions- “What the hell is happening in the world today? Why isn’t there a better understanding of this seminal event in our nation’s past? And why are all of you so willing to still think and to act in a manner of fashion that brought about this event is the first place”?

We cannot deny our past. We need to learn from our past, which is something that we as a people seem to be hell-bent on not doing. Civil War reenacting gives us an opportunity to publicly discuss and recreate our history, yet in doing so it is necessary to bring into the open realities that make many of us uncomfortable. In order to continue to enjoy this American tradition, we would need to first eliminate any vestiges of glorification that can be associated with it, and would also need to confine the display of Confederate imagery to a strictly historical context. But will that be enough? Will American families be willing to stomach a public display of our shameful and difficult past, including mock battle scenarios with real weaponry depicting the violent realities of combat? Given the violent realities of our present, will we be able to stomach the violent realities of our past?

Please, if you have taken the time to read this, I would love to know your thoughts about it. Feel free to leave a response in the comments here, or to reach out to me on the socials through my Instagram handle at ryanwestonwrites.

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” – Winston Churchill

R. E. Weston

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I have many thoughts swirling about in my mind as a result of reading this very profound piece. The first of which is to thank you for writing it. It would seem an easy road to travel to inject politics, class warfare, selective memory, or even the defense mechanism of just ignoring unpleasant memories until you've convinced yourself that they really didn't happen. Or although the result may have been bad, the cause can somehow be justified, and so that inevitably makes it right. But instead, I'd like to offer a perspective that perhaps is more encompassing than even all of the above combined. There are three poisons that are prevalent in our human nature. They are GREED: which includes…

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Unknown member
16. März 2021
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Thank you for your insightful and thought provoking response to my post! I agree that emotions have certainly gotten the better of us in regards to discussing our past. It remains to be seen whether we can overcome this and create a dialogue that addresses the controversies in a way that can be educating, rather than inflammatory.

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