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Why Living History Part Two: Experiences

25 degrees before sun, 90 degreens after. Welcome to Georgia.

As I had mentioned in my previous post, I have been a U.S. Civil War reenactor and living historian for about a decade. During that time I have been all over this country of ours, from south-western Missouri to south-eastern Pennsylvania, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and the entire Midwest. I have participated in events with just a handful of reenactors and a few dozen spectators to events that had tens of thousands of reenactors and thousands upon thousands of spectators. I have participated in events held in city parks, on family farms, on public land, and even actual battlefields. I have participated in events that were in affluent neighborhoods, and I have participated in events in which I was surrounded by abject poverty. I have experienced a great deal of what this country of ours has to offer in the course of me being a reenactor, and I have had countless noteworthy experiences along the way.

Being a reenactor means that you; camp in extremis, willingly dress inappropriately for the weather, eschew bathing and hygiene while exposing oneself to levels of filth and grime not typically found in modern daily life, are familiar with the usage of antiquated forms of firearms and are willing to operate said firearms at the risk of harming oneself in order to portray the harming of others, and are willing to talk about all these things and more with complete strangers who don’t always approach the topic of history with the same level of understanding or open-mindedness as yourself. Or in other words, being a reenactor is crazy good fun, provided that you are crazy (and passionate) enough to endure all that it has to offer. But I digress, some experiences.

The Veteran at Gettysburg.

I had both the honor and the privilege of participating in the national sesquicentennial reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, held in Gettysburg Pennsylvania in July of 2013. My unit hailing from the Midwest, it was quite an undertaking to get all of us and our gear from here to there but it was absolutely worth it to be a part of something so monumental. Being July, it of course was oven-hot, which as the joke goes almost every Civil War battle was fought when it was oven-hot but anyway, it was almost dangerously so. Especially when one is attired head to toe in wool and is carrying 20-plus pounds of gear. My unit and I had just finished participating in the battle scenario for the day, and were now tasked with gathering ourselves up and marching back to camp. Which at an event of this size can sometimes mean miles. As we were marching (read staggering from the heat and dehydration) back to camp we all started to feel the effects and to get woozy. I myself was starting to feel faint, when I realized that we were marching right into a crowd of spectators who had excitedly lined up to take pictures while we marched by.

Well, this of course means that one must comport himself lest he give signs of the duress he is feeling to the eager public. As we began to pass through the crowd and tried our best to smile and look martial I noticed an older gentleman, leaning heavily on a walker, wearing a Korean War Vet baseball cap. He was trying his best to smile and wave at us but he was having trouble standing on the uneven ground and clearly looked unwell from the heat. Without a word we broke rank and walked over to him to say hello and to see if there was anything he needed. He straightened up when we got over to him, and then simply said “Thanks, you guys are great to do this out here in the heat. I’m really impressed, and have really enjoyed watching you today.” Wow. So here I am, pretending to be a soldier, with the most dangerous thing I’m facing being the heat, and a real warrior is standing before me thanking me for what I’m doing. That hit me like a ton of bricks and snapped me back into reality. We all of course thanked HIM for what HE had done, and while a few of us stayed with him and chatted two guys ran ahead and got an event member with a golf cart who then brought him out of the sun and over to the shade without having to walk back. We then marched back to camp in silence, enduring the heat quietly, and I reflected on what all of that just meant. What an incredible experience it was to meet that gentleman and to know that I had the honor of entertaining him that day. That’s what reenacting is all about.

The Shopper in Baldwyn

I was also lucky enough to participate with my unit in the national sesquicentennial event of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads, held in Baldwyn Mississippi in June of 2014. This was an even bigger undertaking to get to from the Midwest given the rural nature of the area we were headed to, and many incident and accidents happened along the way before we got there. And of course it was hot- really hot, but I suppose that goes without saying. Anyway. Upon arriving in Baldwyn we immediately understood that this was not a thriving community economically as signs of poverty and blight were rampant. Which is not an attempt by me to slight it in any way, this is just the reality. Having traveled so far we needed to head into town in order to stock up on food and ice and anything else we needed to live in the hot woods away from society for four days. We pitched camp as quickly as possible and then threw on our uniforms to head back into town.

Well, once in town and parked in front of the store, we all began to get a better understanding of the challenges this community was facing. Lots of shuttered businesses and empty streets among other things. As we were shopping in the store and walking around in our uniforms (undoubtedly providing a ridiculous spectacle) an older woman and I met cart-to-cart as we both came around a blind corner. After exchanging pleasantries she stopped and touched my arm, and said “Oh I am just so glad that you all are here to do this. We haven’t had anything like this happen here in a long time, and it’s just so wonderful to have all these people around. I’m putting together a picnic to come out with my family and see you all tomorrow”. And with that she and I parted. Here was another “ton of bricks” moment. It wasn’t a negative or unfortunate thing to have traveled all that way to stay in that community for a few days. Quite the opposite. It was a wonderful opportunity to share something together with a community that was hurting for a means to do so, even if it was to reenact a painful period in our nation’s history. Everyone we met that weekend was happy that we were there, which there were thousands of us, which in turn made me happy to be a small part of it all. That’s what reenacting is all about.

R. E. Weston

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