The Past in the Present

The Past in the Present

Five people, five very different life experiences, one goal: to bring the American Civil War to life. See how reenactors and living historians breathe life into history in this article from National Geographic Education.

Grades

5 - 12+

Subjects

Arts and Music, Civics, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History

Reenactors are people who recreate historical events. Reenactments are typically done for the public, to entertain and educate. Reenactments of battles and communities during the Civil War are among the most popular, especially as the United States marks the war's 150th anniversary in 2011-2015.

Reenacting is an American tradition. Before the Civil War, Americans reenacted scenes from the Revolutionary War. Back then, reenactments were called "sham fights" or "sham battles." One such event occurred in 1859, on the 82nd anniversary of the Battle of Hubbardton, when the keynote speaker was interrupted for half an hour by a sham fight.

After the Civil War, veterans from both the Union and the Confederacy recreated daily camp life in order to share their experience with friends and family. One of the last Civil War reenactments by Civil War veterans was the Great Reunion of 1913, on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The state of Pennsylvania hosted thousands of former Union and Confederate soldiers during the weeklong event. The youngest veteran was 61 and the oldest was 112. The highlight of the Great Reunion was the reenactment of Pickett's Charge, the last assault of the Battle of Gettysburg. When veterans from both sides of the war came together in 1913, it was not with muskets and cannons, but with speeches and handshakes.

In the early 20th century, military colleges often reenacted Civil War battles to demonstrate battle tactics. For instance, in 1935, cadets from the Virginia Military Institute collaborated with the U.S. Cavalry and the U.S. Marines to reenact the Battle of Chancellorsville on its 72nd anniversary.

Modern-day reenacting gained popularity during the centennial of the Civil War. In 1961, U.S. soldiers dressed in blue and gray uniforms and reenacted the First Battle of Bull Run (also called First Manassas) before a crowd of 50,000 spectators in Manassas, Virginia. While the tactics and fighting were accurate, the clothing and weaponry are considered "farbish" (not authentic) by today's reenactment standards.

The establishment of the North-South Skirmish Association in 1950 created a market for original and reproduction firearms and clothing that were more accurate to the time period. With the approach of the nation's bicentennial in 1976 and the resurgence in Revolutionary War reenacting, Civil War enthusiasts started to do more research on the mid-1800s to make their reenactments as accurate as possible.

Reenactors Today

Civil War reenactors pursue their passion for history in many different ways, for many different reasons.

Patricia Tyson
Patricia Tyson is the co-founder of the African-American reenactment group Female RE-Enactors of Distinction (FREED). The group aims to tell the story of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), especially the women who contributed to the war effort. "Civil War reenacting gave me a different perspective about America that I never saw in her before," Tyson says. "The problem is that American history hasn’t been completely told to the public. However, by studying more and more about our characters, we uncover all these facets of African-American life during the Civil War."

Tyson got serious about reenactments after she and her friends dressed in period costumes for the opening of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2004.

"It was a huge hit,” she says. “People were used to seeing white ladies in Scarlett O'Hara dresses, but never African Americans in period dress. People urged us to continue.

"I decided that if we were going to dress as women from the era, then we should pick out someone we would want to portray and do research on this person. What did they do, and why did they do what they did?"

Tyson portrays real-life community activist, author, and teacher Hallie Quinn Brown in her reenactments. "In school, the only ‘Civil War women’ taught to us were Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, so I had a lot of research to do because not a lot was written about her in the history books," she says. "It turns out Brown led a long, interesting life. She went to Wilberforce University and was active along with her mother and father on the Underground Railroad. Brown was also a representative with woman suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony at an international women's rights convention, was a nominating voice for Warren G. Harding at the Republican National Convention, taught ministers how to read and write more effective sermons, and even met Queen Victoria twice.


“Like many of my reenacting friends, I feel that I didn't choose the ‘character,’ but that the character chose me. I feel a connection to Hallie Quinn Brown because of my faith and my background working with children as a Sunday school teacher.”

Brown’s life experience allows Tyson to address different audiences. "I do different kinds of things depending on the group in order to get into character. Because Hallie Quinn Brown was an educator, when I'm talking to children I stress the importance of staying in school and that there's more to life more than just having a good time. When I'm with adults, I tell them how important it is to teach the next generation how to be outstanding leaders. With teachers, I talk about the necessity of taking command of a situation, how it's important to be a teacher, not a friend, to their students," Tyson said.

Tom Mitchell
Tom Mitchell portrays a Union soldier in the 19th U.S. Infantry, 1st Battalion, Company A. The company was formed in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln. (The company is still active and currently stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia.) During the Civil War, the 19th took part in the battles at Shiloh and Chickamauga before ending up in Atlanta, Georgia.

Reenacting is a family event for Mitchell. “My wife also reenacts as a member of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (sometimes called the Christian Commission). More Civil War soldiers were killed by dysentery and diarrhea than battle wounds. That’s because no one knew where to put the latrines and served rancid food, things like that. Women in the Sanitary Commission instructed troops on the proper placement of latrines and made sure packages got to the soldiers.”

Reece Sexton
Reece Sexton is the editor and publisher of the Civil War Courier, the Camp Chase Gazette, and The Citizen's Companion. These publications provide information on historical research as well as reenactments. Sexton is also on the board of directors of the General Longstreet Museum in Russellville, Tennessee. (Gen. James Longstreet was a top Confederate leader during the war.) "I recreate battles and attempt to live the history of events as they occurred during the war," Sexton says.

Sexton's connection to the Civil War is literally right outside his front door. "I first became involved in Civil War reenacting about 25 or 30 years ago, through genealogy. Tracing the branches of my family tree, I found that my grandfather was in the Civil War in Morristown, Tennessee. His unit fought where my house is located! Between October 28 and 29, 1864, it's entirely possible my grandfather fought in my own front yard."

Elizabeth Stewart Clark
Elizabeth Stewart Clark started The Sewing Academy, a business that researches and creates historically accurate clothing and other materials for reenactors. Clark works as a sutler, or vendor, at Civil War reenactments. "I research the mid-19th century and teach history enthusiasts interpretive tools to help them communicate historic events and concepts through a variety of methods, such as demonstrations, hands-on activities, discussions, and displays," says Clark. "These displays include accurate historic clothing. I teach people to make clothes that look, move, and feel just like the clothes in 1840-1865, and how to use those clothes to teach others about many aspects of the past."

Clark and many reenactors create “impressions” of characters from the Civil War. Impressions are fictional characters created by assembling details from many different people. The person may be fictional, but they think, act, and experience the world much as someone from the 1860s did. "I take up different impressions for almost every event,” Clark says, “depending on the scenario the event planners set out. That means I might play a struggling farmer's wife one event, and a well-off shopkeeper the next; a mother with children at one, or a widow on her own at another. All of my characters are based on real people, but more often, they are based on a lot of real people, rather than just one. Being able to read about a lot of different people from the past, and see what experiences and reactions they had in common, lets me create characters that feel real. We are more alike than we know; I want to help people today make strong connections with the people and experiences of the past."

Niccolò Ferrari
Not all Civil War reenactors live in the United States. Niccolò Ferrari reenacts as a first lieutenant with the 14th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, Company G, a group he started in Italy in 2005. "My interest in the Civil War and the Confederacy in particular certainly goes back to my childhood and was probably influenced by American cinema," says Ferrari. "Interest in the Civil War event in Italy is quite widespread, but there are few who take the critical step to become reenactors. We have three reenactments a year, in Wildflecken, Germany."


Ferrari creates an impression of an Italian immigrant fighting for the Confederacy. "Due to the scarcity of information on Italian immigrants who took part in the conflict, we do not reconstruct specific people who really existed, but rather formed a reenactment infantry unit . . . where we knew some Italians did enlist," says Ferrari. "My impression is that of a line officer of the Army of Northern Virginia. Our uniforms and equipment are reproductions of those supplied with this army."

"Period Rush"

Many reenactors report the sensation of “period rush,” the moment when all the research and attention to detail has paid off, and the reenactors actually feel like they are in the 1860s.

Clark says, “I love the ‘magic moments’ or ‘time travel moments’! That happens when I've put in the work to learn and recreate the past as fully as I can, so I can just lose myself in a moment. It can come at odd times—a particular scent on the breeze, for example, or the sounds of people visiting around fires.”

Sexton recalls one memorable reenactment of the final surrender of the Confederate army at Appomattox Court House. “Only 4,000 reenactors were invited to attend—2,000 Union and Confederate troops,” Sexton says. “We [Confederate reenactors] marched over the hill into Appomattox with 1,000 Union soldiers lined on each side of the road, and I imagined what it must've been like to lose the war. I was reenacting a soldier from the 63rd Tennessee Infantry. It was a unit that started the war with 1,000 men, and ended with just 28.

“As a Confederate reenactor, I stacked and surrendered my musket. The one I was using at the time was an original musket, not a reproduction (I got it back later). Next, we laid our flags on top of the musket. A reenactor portraying Robert E. Lee rode in on a white horse and gave us surrender papers. It was a very somber, reflective moment.”

Ferrari says the setting itself is enough to provide a rush. In 2009, his group reenacted the Battle of Cold Harbor. In 2010, they reenacted the surrender at Appomattox. “In Wildflecken, given the high number of participants, the location in a place devoid of modern structures, and the quality of the reenactment itself makes you feel like you are really in the Civil War period. And for a few days, you are immersed completely and forget the problems of modern life.”

Sometimes, a “period rush” will force reenactors to act out-of-character. “The first time we were in a parade of African-American reenactors in Gettysburg, the Confederate soldiers took their hats off to us,” Tyson says. “I didn't know what to make of that!”

Not lost in the immersive experience is the importance of reenactment. “I think of the words that are engraved into the National Archives in Washington, ‘What is Past is Prologue',” Tyson says. “Reenacting is important to us because it is a part of American history that is overlooked, forgotten, or just unknown. And if we don't understand the past, we're not going to see why it’s worth preserving.”

Clark adds, “Getting involved in living history takes some work, but anyone, at any age, can decide to learn more about people and places they find interesting. A trip to the library, or some dedicated searching online, can help you find historic recipes to make and eat, crafts to try, music or poetry to learn, maps and adventure stories to explore. It really never stops, if you keep looking. Anyone can look for connections between the big events of history, and the everyday lives of everyday people.”

Fast Fact

Civil War Anniversary
"The 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War (2011-2015) offers the current generation of Americans a most important opportunity to know, discuss, and commemorate this country's greatest national crisis, while at the same time exploring its enduring relevance in the 21st century."

The U.S. National Park Service has a great website listing Civil War reenactments and living history demonstrations in your area.

Fast Fact

Reenacting Drama
"Reenacting is as old as human society, religion, and drama. Most plays are, in a sense, simply reenactments of past lives and events."
R. Lee Hadden, author, Reliving the Civil War

Fast Fact

Music of Time
When it comes to Civil War reenactments, music plays as significant a role as rifles or clothing.

"FREED reenacts and recruits members all the time, and each time we do this, another piece of their life is revealed," reenactor Patricia Tyson says. "For example, Bobby, a receptionist at the African American Civil War Museum, portrays Hattie, enslaved during the war. After telling Hattie's story in at least 10 different reenactments, at this one she suddenly broke into song, singing 'We Shall Overcome.' None of us had ever heard her sing before, and she had such a beautiful singing voice! We learned through Bobby (and Hattie) that while 'We Shall Overcome' is associated with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, it was first sung during the Civil War."

Reenactor Tom Mitchell had a similar experience. "My wife and I traveled to the battlefield in Shiloh, Tennessee. We . . . were walking in front of the woods, looking at the cannons placed by the National Park Service. We heard a strange noise and realized it was someone playing "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes. It brought tears to my eyes. We walked over the hill and met the bagpipe player, an older gentleman who goes to mass graves and plays bagpipes to honor the dead."

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Writer
Mary Schons
Editors
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Producer
National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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