Friday, September 10, 2010

"you don’t really know as much as you think you do"

Wait – my third blog post in a row. Wow! After some reflection over the past couple of days, I’ve come up with this question: Should re-enactors write history books? I don’t really have a simple answer to this question, though I can speak from experience. However, the short answer is this: you may not know as much about the war as you think even if you look the part.

I grew up re-enacting. I went to my first event in 1982. I was ten years old. It took almost a year for me to go to my second event in October 1983. Re-enacting in those days was not really anything like it is today. However, my folks saw it as a way for my family to do something together. So, through the 1980s, we went to three or four events a year. The capstone of this time was the 125th Anniversary of Gettysburg in 1988. I got serious about re-enacting in the early 1990s. By the time I graduated high school in the 1991 and started college, I was attending 30 plus events a year. In 1989, I was a first sergeant and in 1991, captain of a company. Not long after getting married in 1995, I was promoted to colonel of a infantry battalion. By the late 1990s, burnout was setting in, and I had also discovered living histories. In 2000-2001, I was still doing more than 30 events a year, but the focus had shifted to more living histories. Today, I still “re-enact,” but they are primarily living history events, and very few re-enactments.

In my case, re-enacting taught me a great deal about the common life of a soldier, how to march, how to load and fire. However, in the early days, I did not confine myself into one role. In that first decade, I served as a musician, a medical steward, and an artilleryman. As I grew older and advanced in ranks, I learned more, and then started teaching other re-enactors, and then started to work with school groups. I knew the life of a common soldier inside out and backwards – The Life and Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank were my constant companions. Once I attained the rank of colonel, I had new things to learn, like how to move an infantry battalion of 250-450 men around a field – which at times can be quite challenging. But this also brought about an understanding of how the different officers in a regiment functioned. Once I started doing putting together regimental-size living histories, I discovered how the provost marshal’s department worked, what the paymaster did, and how to conduct regimental courts martial.

So, in some aspects, reenacting prepared me for some of the aspects of doing what I do.

In 1996, I started working on my first book – that history of the 37th North Carolina Troops. I thought I knew a lot about the war. Boy, was I wrong. Nothing I had done had prepared me to chronicle the lives of a regiment that was one of the largest out of the state of North Carolina, had fought in 35-plus battles and skirmishes, and had lost more men than any other regiment from the Tar Heel state. It took me six years to put this book together. All of the things I had learned to run my battalion and put on great living histories was just scratching the surface of the day-to-day lives of men who were in real regiments. After having written more than a dozen books, including two regimental histories, I can say this: I’m still learning.

So, can re-enactors write good regimental histories? Yes. Just remember that you don’t really know as much as you think you do.

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