I really did some soul searching before I started writing this post. Every plunk on my keyboard makes me a bit more sad, a little angry too. Reenacting has been a wonderful hobby for me for nearly a decade, and I hate that this is where it went. But here we are.
I wasn't sure if I should write this post. Maybe as an organizer I've begun to see the flip side of the coin. I noticed this when I became a teacher. Education certainly looks different on the other side of the desk. Perhaps people genuinely don't know these things. And if they don't care, perhaps that "looming death" is much closer than we think.
So read this post as you will. If you disagree, that's your right. But none of this should be news to you...
1. Civil War reenactors are aging out
While this is not true everywhere, take a look at most units present at events. Many of the men are much older than the average man would have been. In civilian camp, there's fewer children or teens. At conferences, I am often the youngest person there. Reenactors are older, and may be experiencing health problems or dedicating their time and efforts to family. Which is totally a thing, and should be done. These people deserve their time.
(And older reenactors are still cool.You guys are mentors and contribute awesomely.)
2. ...but some won't let go
How many groups suffer from having the SAME person in charge for too long? I'm not talking about an effective leader who deserves to be there. It's the one person who has kind of given up, but has taken on the role because no one else will or they genuinely like the power of it. It's hard to give something up when you've had the reins for years, but because a younger person hasn't been trained in the job, it will be harder when you finally step done, either by choice or for health or other reasons.
3. People don't have tons of extra spending cash
Here in the Midwest it has taken much longer for us to shake off the economic downturns of the past decade. And this year especially, I'm hearing many people complain that they are getting zero back in tax returns (I know, I know, people should plan better. It doesn't change my point). So when a conference pops up, many genuinely can't afford to go, or won't budget for it in the long run.
Even though events are supposedly "free" for many to attend, those of us who actually go know otherwise. Factor in food, gas, and any incidentals along the way, and that inexpensive weekend event turns into a money pit if you're not careful.
4. ...but will spend that money on more kit, rather than supporting events
Here is where it gets a little sticky. I don't want to be that person to tell others how to spend their money. Really, that's a rabbit hole I don't want to travel down. But think about this. I've watched people put together their umpteenth ball gown for that little dance in camp every year (or even just to walk around the event...ugh). So much money in fabric and trims. Then I watch them complain that events are dying or ceasing to exist. (If you're supporting AND still making dresses...power to you. Continue beast mode). Sure, I understand the need for new clothes, and yes, I know that updates for research are essential. But...
PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS.
You want events? Spend that $50 on registration to a conference. Save the money and donate to a group saving historic sites. Your new dress will not save the hobby. Supporting a struggling event and encouraging others to do the same just might.
5. People often support the same events
I never want to discourage anyone from attending an event. And I'm guilty of this too, though I try really hard to attend the ones that I can or help a new one when possible. People who are experiencing health or family issues, this does not apply to you. That woman who just had a baby needs a break, let her have it. Your health is more important than anything else. I'm talking about us able-bodied people who could give up a Saturday here and there to help.
Think to yourself...do you support new events? Even in the tiniest of ways? Attending is the best way to support, but you could also be awesome by sending a donation or messaging the person in charge with a simple "how can I help?"
Organizers, think of how cool your events could be if just 10 people volunteered or donated money. There's enough of us to do this. Why don't we?
6. ...and believe that simply being there is enough
At one time that was enough. We could all just show up en masse, hang out in camp, present a little here and there, watch a battle, and that's it. Now the public wants more. We should want more. Many events have been the same for decades. Remember that person that refuses to give up the reins of leadership in their group? This is where that person can be lethal.
We need your presence to have a purpose. We can't just sit around in a huddle circle and expect the public to walk up to us for an amazing education (I'm not minimizing non-speaking reenactors-you guys work hard, and you're contributing when you designate a speaker/writing). These little towns we create need to be bustling with presentations and research. Show people what we do and why it's important to know about it.
7. We need to welcome people of color/other histories
I am Latina, but I have benefited from white privilege, as I pass as white and my last name is not Mexican. When I go to events, I am typically the only Latina around. Why is that? And with the exception of a few really awesome presenters and groups, participants are typically white.
People of color have AMAZING stories to tell. They are a vital part of telling our history. My grandma has said this in the past: "Look around the room. Do you see any Mexicans? Why don't you see any? And should you be there?"
That's a really simple way of saying it (and she was referring to people of color as a whole), but just think. There are so many people of color in our country. But few of them are involved in this hobby (those of you who are...you're amazing). Don't say a racist thing right now by claiming that minorities hate history. Not true! I am proof (and others) that we want to be here.
But really, why aren't they participating?
8. ...but I can understand why many don't participate
Over the years I have heard MANY racist comments. Not one or two, whispered under breath. But openly, in public or online (not that it's better to be quietly racist. Just illustrating how blatant it is). And since I've started writing this post, I've already witnessed hateful comments. Before I even had the chance to press "publish"!
And just because you think a comment is not racist...does not mean you're right. Everyone could use a lesson in this, even me (microaggressions are a thing too). I cannot blame someone for wishing to avoid a community like that. There is trauma in enduring the pain of past generations. No matter how important it is to preserve history, I would just stay away.
Now for events that are trying to include these histories...we need to support them! Give your money if you can. Attend. Jump on Patreon (a place to support artists/interpreters) right now and sign up. Because these people swim upstream through a lot of crap to do something often unpaid.
9. We complain about young people not participating
I have heard this more times than I can count, and not just in the reenacting community. "Young people only want to be on their phones all day!" someone will say. Or "Kids just don't understand history." And my personal favorite; "Schools suck." As a teacher and a (still kind of?) younger reenactor, it's very frustrating. I have many teenagers who would love to jump in the hobby. They are willing to do unpaid work, and see the value of preserving history. I was once a person in my early twenties doing my best to help.
And no offense, but I'm standing right here. I'm enough evidence that young people like Civil War reenacting. If I had a nickel for every time young people were pitted as the "other" in reenacting, I'd be rich. I'm not lazy and entitled. I work three jobs, do volunteer work with a therapy dog I trained, and do my best to support my family in any way I can. Complaining about young people is a burr in my side every time I hear it. Possibly because whilst removing the burr, I am working one of my jobs.
Would you attend events if people complained about you before knowing you?
Do we discount someone's research because they haven't "put in the years?"
How do we take into account economic and social factors when appealing to young people?
10. ...and do little to change this
So you know we need young people to keep events going. What do you do to make that happen? A simple "they can join anytime" is not enough. Do you contact schools for interest? Find family members who might want to join? Allow mentors/leadership roles for those that do? Create scenarios that specifically involve them? Have an extra kit or program in your group for payment plans?
These are not one size fits all suggestions. Your group might need something else. But if what you're doing is not working, you have to think why. Why don't we have young people? What can we do to make this better? If you're a part of group doing these things, keep going. We need you.
*I've noticed too that many young people are moving to reenact in other eras. Why do you think that is? What about them is more appealing? Questions, questions...
Attendance at some events is doing well. But in my personal experience, talking to many organizers, there is anxiety. As if a giant clock is looming above, ticking. And we don't foresee a huge upswing in volunteers and participants any time soon. Recently I've spoken to a person involved in a local history organization. Apparently in that area, three organizations have closed in the past few years.
There are pockets of hope in the living history community. Groups that are striving above and beyond, individuals that donate time and money to making things better. I salute you. Keep up the good work and send me a message if you need some help. Perhaps I can't but maybe I can find someone who can.
Please note too that I titled this post "The Looming Death of Civil War Reenacting As We Know It." Pay special attention to "As we know it." Because regardless of what I've posted here or how many people participate, reenacting will change. It is inevitable. I am hoping this death will result in a renewal, new ways for us to represent history.
I understand that many will view this post with irritation, or even anger. I tried to carefully put my thoughts to words, but it can be difficult to fully explain the scope of this issue. As someone who actively organizes a conferences, it might seem like I'm complaining about people who won't attend my own conference. In reality, my conference will run just fine. That said, I've gained some insights over the past three years and thought I'd share them here. Most people who participate in living history do not plan events.
All of these are observations that I've heard others make as well. Take it as warning that change is coming, if it hasn't already.
If ANYTHING comes from this post, I hope it's more participation. More donations. More...everything. Because in many places we're being held together by duct tape and thread.