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The Strange, Sustaining Power of Civil War Reenactments

With 200,000 people expected to flock to Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary of the battle, Civil War reenactments still appear to be going strong.
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Over the next 10 days, some 200,000 people are expected to flood Gettysburg to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the infamous Civil War battle. And what’s the best way to celebrate the anniversary of Gettysburg? With 15,000 Civil War reenactors.

Indicators suggest that, yes, those sticky days from your childhood filled with women in off-white dresses and men with bushy sideburns are still kind of popular. There’s a robust calendar of reenactments scheduled through the end of the year all across the country. And in late September, a scheduled reenactment of the Battle of Chickamauga is being billed as the largest American reenactment of the year with 15,000 participants ready to duplicate the clash.

What’s the best way to celebrate the anniversary of Gettysburg? With 15,000 Civil War reenactors.

While this fascination with history-by-mimicry extends beyond our borders and beyond the Civil War, that particular era stands apart with its commitment to accuracy. Civil War reenactors will try to simulate the bloating of the recently deceased. It is a world ruled by “threadcounters” and burdened by “farby”—reenactment lingo for anything not typical of the period and the “worst critique that a Civil War reenactor can receive.” It’s an arena where you work your way to the top in a $318 civilian frock coat, and passion is valued only second to authenticity. Also: They prefer “living historian” or “historical interpreter” to “reenactor.”

A reasonable question in response to all of this: Why?

Civil War reenactments began in the 1950s, but their continued popularity causes academics to consider the war’s role in modern-day psyche. In his 2011 paper, Mitchell Strauss argues that Civil War reenactments allow people who “lead lives of alienation” to respond to that level of dissatisfaction by “seeking an authentic experience based upon a carefully scripted emulation of the past.”

While some believe a portion of “living historians” take up the practice for the joy of “living” in a country still dominated by the South, Randal Allred argues that it’s a much deeper desire to understand what it means to be American that compels most. “It is the yearning,” he writes, “to understand our being American that compels many tens of thousands of Americans to be Civil War ‘buffs’ and try to understand a thing too profound and dire perhaps to be fully comprehended.” It helps that the Civil War is one of the earliest photographed moments in the nation’s history, allowing "strikingly modern” faces to pull us in and feel empathy with another time.

Although Allred’s argument was made during the Clinton-era of the '90s, his belief that a divided nation can spur the desire to learn about and recreate moments of the Civil War still seems relevant today. A recent poll sponsored by The Atlanticstates that 59 percent of the country believes the U.S. is “heading in the wrong direction,” with one in five doubting America will remain united as a nation. Gallup states that party approval ratings are significantly lower than their historical averages, with approval ratings for Democrats in Congress sitting at 34 percent and Republicans at 26 percent. Meanwhile, Lincolnwas both a commercial and critical success.

Whether the remaining popularity of reenactments is a reaction to unhappiness with the current state of the country, an attempt to regain some kind of identity, or something else, there’s some economic value, too. The tourism revenue Gettysburg expects to bring in over the 10-day anniversary period? $100 million.