What is Accurate History? Historians vs. Reenactors

If you’ve ever visited a historic site or museum around the time of a major anniversary, you’ve probably encountered a historical reenactor. Maybe you were at Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, or Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, or at a D-Day commemoration on 6 June, or any number of hundreds of different re-enactments big and small that take place every year. These historical reenactors share a love of history with historians, though they have vastly different views of it.

Soldiers in front of the wood of Hougoumont during the reenactment of the battle of Waterloo (1815), June 2011, Waterloo, Belgium, via  Wikipedia .

Soldiers in front of the wood of Hougoumont during the reenactment of the battle of Waterloo (1815), June 2011, Waterloo, Belgium, via Wikipedia.

Recreating a historical event or period it not a recent phenomenon. Pre-twentieth century, these events tended to be large-scale, focused on specific national events (such as the Battle of Waterloo for Britain) and less common. Around the 1960s, the hundredth anniversary of the American Civil War spurred the creation of re-enactment groups which begun the “modern era” of historical re-enactment. Over the next fifty year, reenactment gradually grew in popularity. Today there are likely thousands of them around the world, though it is difficult to determine actual numbers. While many work at museums like Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the most hardcore are probably those who do it as a hobby.  Check out the Wikipedia page, and you will see there are various terms to describe different levels of authenticity.

Reenactment is a form of education or entertainment, but, from the historians’ perspective, it is a cultural product and part of our public memory. As either theatre or, in the case of many museums and other historic sites, public history, reenactment is a cultural activity that says as much about those participating as what they are remembering. What events and which people they choose to reenact and where they do it says much about an individuals’ selection of what history to remember. Or, at least, it can suggest these answers – after all, for many reenactors it is just a hobby that is about fun, not memory. An expensive hobby, but so is golf and who’s to judge?

Why is it so expensive? The committed reenactor strives for accuracy. This means they try to purchase period-accurate clothing, weapons, and other goods. It might mean seeking out goods that were even made “accurately” – that is, as they would have been made at the time, which generally means by hand.  For a civil war reenactor, a single uniform might cost them 50$ or a few hundred. Pistols and rifles might be hundreds or even a thousand dollars. The dedicated reenactor might also own a tent, pocket watches, utensils, canteens, hygiene items, and so on. They bring anything that a regular soldier or officer might have owned on the battlefield in the 1860s. These costs might vary depending on what “era” you are reproducing. Reproducing Second World War vehicles is likely more expensive that having to buy a canvas tent.

The historical reenactment of the Battle of Berlin (1945) at Modlin fortress, via  Wikipedia .

The historical reenactment of the Battle of Berlin (1945) at Modlin fortress, via Wikipedia.

This dedication to accuracy is one of the most interesting aspects of historical re-enactment. It is so important, that it even has its own Wikipedia page! While that is hardly a status symbol in this day and age, it at least points to the importance that reenactors themselves place on historical accuracy. They have self-consciously divided themselves based on how accurate they are in recreating the past. Do they have hand-woven cloth tunics? Do they stay in character? Do they eat seasonally appropriate food? Do they use historically accurate stitching? Do they camp outdoors during battles?

All this might seem a bit much, but it reveals how reenactors measure “accuracy,” which is largely related to material culture and “recreating the past,” which is very different from how historians generally evaluate accuracy. Both strive for historical accuracy, but within entirely different frameworks. Historians measure accuracy through corroboration with other sources. Does one source say June 26, 1511, was cold? Does someone else say it too? Do any disagree? Can these sources be trusted? It is an important distinction between these two groups of history-lovers (though not the only one).

These two frameworks can set the groups at odds. Serious reenactors might shake their finger at the wrong button, uniform, or other minute details, but have no qualms about having a group of white males play Tecumseh and his warriors at the battle of Detroit. They might even put on redface to better “recreate” these figures.  “Accuracy” does not include the voice of the author – or face of the actor in this case – and judging whether it has the authority to represent the past. All that matters is an accurate material reproduction of the past. Reenactment is about recreating historical content, not necessarily about the historical or commemorative meaning of that presentation.  Most historians, we think, would have serious questions about a British source purporting cultural knowledge about Indigenous people, just as they would wonder at how white men could “reenact” as Indigenous peoples.

The devotion of reenactors to their craft seems extreme to most historians. It is almost a fetishization of the past than a love of it. One of the implicit tenets of the historical profession is that history must and does change as our knowledge of the past changes. Unquestioning reverence for the past contradicts the historians’ craft, and we rightfully look at reenactors with no small amount of suspicion.

The annual War of 1812 reenactment in La Fontaine, IN near the battlefield of Mississinewa, the largest reenactment of its kind in the United States.

That being said, the large majority of reenactors (redface and other cultural transgressions aside) are earnest lovers of history who spend their free time doing something that they love. Better yet, they are educators and entertainers for audiences around the world and, hopefully, instill a love of history in historians-yet-to-be. While it’s worthwhile to identify differences between historian and reenactor, especially given how both are wedded to accuracy of a sort, there should be a certain camaraderie among history lovers. There are different audiences and different ways to use the past. Ultimately, we are disciples of the past, though we may pay our respects at different temples and in different coin.