Why you should care
Because “living history” should be about more than reliving death.
It’s a hard time to be a Civil War re-enactor, and not just because trudging through the summer heat in a wool jacket is tough. Thousands of Americans participate in such re-enactments each year, and although these hobbyists claim to be participating in “living history,” they can’t help but feel the increased tension surrounding the activity after recent events in Charlottesville and the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments.
Still, even before such developments, staging mass violence and make-believe carnage was a strange and somewhat disturbing hobby. It’s time that the authors of our “living history” move on to a new chapter in our collective past, one not so mired in violence and controversy. It’s time we started re-enacting the great battles and history-making moments in … sports.
Civil War re-enactments began before the war had even ended, and the first re-enactors were actual soldiers, performing bloodless battle re-creations to help recruit new soldiers and educate audiences. The performance of such “sham battles” by veterans continued until the centennial commemorations of the 1960s when the ranks of the civilian re-enactors expanded and took over the fight. Time magazine estimated that by 1986, there were around 50,000 Civil War re-enactors. Today, it is believed that there are about half that number. “There’s a feeling that the re-enactor community is ‘aging out,’” says Melvin Ely, a historian and professor at the College of William & Mary, and “that the events are attracting fewer and fewer young people.” Part of the decline may be due to cost. Paying for travel, uniforms and gear makes re-enacting an expensive hobby.
Leave the wars to the dead and the games to the living.
There is still a lot to be said for such re-enactments, and the community involved is more diverse than you might imagine, including many groups of African-American re-enactors. But the notion that restaging battles — like Confederate memorials — is somehow needed to preserve and remember the past is one that is coming under increased scrutiny. Re-enactments are a useful tool for teaching people about history, says Jason Phillips, a professor of Civil War studies at West Virginia University, but they “sanitize the real war by expunging its gore, squalor and hatred.” And while re-enactors are well-intentioned, says Glenn LaFantasie, a professor of Civil War history at Western Kentucky University, their playacting inevitably “romanticizes the Civil War because they cannot convey the true experience.” Phillips adds that playing soldier can be insensitive for another reason: the frequency and severity of PTSD among real veterans.
So what if we could rechannel this “living history” enthusiasm into something less problematic? There are lots of more palatable re-enactment possibilities from history. What about re-creating the debates of the Constitutional Convention? Phillips suggests staging period concerts and theatrical productions and converting Mississippi riverboat tours into immersive experiences. Still, if you really want to get the most bang for your costume buck and attract a new generation of enthusiasts, why not start re-creating another type of historical contest: sports?
Football fans, imagine participating in the epic 1967 “Ice Bowl” showdown between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. One could also re-create famous team moments like the U.S. hockey team’s “miracle on ice” Olympic victory over the Soviet Union, or individual triumphs like Don Larsen’s perfect World Series game or Brandi Chastain’s winning goal at the 1999 World Cup (and reaction to it). And no reason to stop the fun at the U.S. border: Imagine a portly 47-year-old Argentine accountant slicing his way through English defenders in tribute to Diego Maradona’s performance in the 1986 World Cup. Such performative events would appeal to many sports fans, especially those who already attend fantasy camps and re-create their favorite historical matchups in video games.
Sporting re-enactments would mean cheaper uniforms and equipment, and they could also be better-choreographed thanks to filmed accounts of the events. Sure, the re-enactors may not have the skill and grace of the real athletes they are playing, but when did agility and virtuosity ever really stand in the way of a Civil War re-enactment? It would also be exhilarating. Many re-enactors often report the sensation known as “period rush” — that “time travel moment” when you really feel like you have traveled back in time and become another person. Well, with sporting re-enactments you would get that — plus a dose of adrenaline from playing before arenas of cheering spectators.
Many re-enactors lament that their hobby is turning into a heavily commercialized spectator sport. So let’s just put the walking wounded out of their misery and make it a real sport. Leave the wars to the dead and the games to the living.