History Beyond the Academy: Reenactors

Last night in our capstone course, Senior Seminar, students considered how Americans other than academic historians (i.e., those who work in colleges and universities, schools, museums, and archives) engage in the production of history. (We talked about the difference between “the past” — what happened — and “history” — how we explain, or make meaning or use of, the past.) Each student reflected on one particular example of “history beyond the academy” that they find noteworthy — for better or worse. We’ll start with History/English Literature major Parker Foss (’13) and History/Social Studies Education major Annie Berglund (’13), who chose to write about historical reenactors.

True and devoted reenactors attempt to portray life from a historical period. Some groups are more obsessed with being as accurate as possible. Civil War reenactors, particularly the 1st Minnesota, are some of the most accurate reenactment groups in the nation. For them uniforms are hand made using period fabrics, etc… They even refrain from using verbiage and modern slang. They try to get into the mindset of historical figures and periods to learn what life may have been like. It’s hard to say that reenactment is accurate because the people who do it did not experience [that historical period/event] themselves but use primary and secondary research to influence how they act, what to wear, what to eat, and what to think. A good reenactor will fully accept an alternate life for a time.

Reenactors introduce people to history in a way that is fun and interactive. In that way they are valuable. They can peak one’s interest in learning more about a particular time.

– Parker Foss

Civil War reenactors
Civil War reenactors at a 2008 parade in Red Wing, MN – Creative Commons (Jonathunder)

One way in which people practice history from a non-academic standpoint is through reenactments. While I have never taken part in one, I have seen photos and videos from acquaintances who love to participate in Civil War reenactments. I think this form of history can have many benefits for explaining events of the past. For a girl from suburban Minnesota, the Civil War is something I encounter through reading and watching documentaries. However, if I traveled to a historic battlefield and observed costumed men (and women) fighting in formations, making strategic advancements, falling back, and if I heard the sounds of gunfire, I would experience the war in a realistic and unique way. It would reveal to me the lasting effects of the Civil War in the memories of people whose family members died over it. Even more powerful, it would remind me of the terrible loss of every human life. Though not traditionally “academic,” like archival research of museum exhibits, reenactments contain facts, concepts, and meaning of events in the actions and emotions of those dedicated to the events’ histories.

– Annie Berglund
(Annie has been perhaps the most prolific student contributor to AC 2nd: you can read about her internship at the American Swedish Institute, her research into German film after World War II, her experience studying World War I in Europe, and her views on history as a form of storytelling, the challenge of historians avoiding ideological bias, and the experience of studying the history of ethnic minorities in the United States)

Read the next post in this series>>

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