Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Battle of Chickamauga at 150 and Teaching with Civil War Reenactments

Lisa Clark Diller

I will admit to having been a re-enactment virgin until the weekend of September 21, 2013.  As readers of this blog are well aware, we are in the midst of all things Civil War in the United States. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is marking its own big battles all this fall. 
Specifically, the engagements at Chickamauga occurred 150 years ago, September 19-20.    As someone whose research reflects a great deal on another civil war (one in England in the 1640s), I have tended to smile blithely through local history enthusiasts’ explanations of the Confederacy, the Union, and the role played by East Tennessee in that conflict.

However, as a teacher of a first year seminar who is always looking for the required “bonding experience” for my students, this year it seemed appropriate to participate in some local history.  I don’t think this was one of the most effectively executed re-enactments (others with more experience have confirmed this opinion).  But the weather was lovely, the setting beautiful, and my students seemed to have a good time.

It made me start thinking about the role of such events as educational opportunities.  What is the purpose of re-enactments of battles for historical education? The re-enactments seem to me to be a bit different than the interpretations offered in museums and on walking tours. Those of you who study public history can perhaps straighten me out on this. I can guess why the people participating might be enjoying themselves. I can see why communities might want to watch them. But when it comes to serving the goals of education—what is going on here?  I am specifically thinking about the “so what?” of history.  I quizzed my students before and after the event regarding what they thought this experience revealed of the “so what?” of historical thinking and skill-building.  Here are some of their comments:

1. Reenactments remind people who live in the area—and even those who don’t attend and only see advertisements—that these events happened.  (The pessimism/reality check of my students regarding popular historical literacy was startling.)

2. The material culture of the past is the big thing these living history/re-enactments provide.  It was sobering to my students to think of the actual situation of people who lived/fought in the nineteenth century.  It made them more sympathetic to people whose ideas they encounter in texts.

3. Patriotism was re-enforced.  We had a conversation about what kind of patriotism reenacting battles might be emphasizing, but I’ll leave that conversation to the reader’s imagination.

4. War is ugly.  They didn’t seem to think that this would mean we would no longer fight wars, but they liked the reminder that this isn’t something glorious. (Still, during this particular reenactment, it didn’t seem that anyone felt the need to portray death—there was a striking lack of loss among the ranks as they advanced and retreated).

These are not the most nuanced observations, but my own experience is so thin that I’m sure I lost teaching moments over the course of the day.  Perhaps I can blame the poor quality of the event itself. 

Fellow HS blogger Eric Schultz’s experience at Gettysburg was much richer—and his description of all the learning opportunities available to people visiting the park reflect the best of what our National Park Service has to offer.  Since reenactments aren’t allowed in the park itself, and this event took place a good 45-minute drive away from Chickamauga battlefield, the observers here weren’t able to easily take advantage of all the resources the NPS offers.

I am interested in what readers of this blog think is useful about military reenactments in terms of pedagogy or historical thinking.  I realize work has been done on the culture of reenactment itself (see here and here), so I’m not thinking as much of the actual participants.  But how can we use the widespread and deep interest in this phenomenon to teach some of the skills of historical thinking?  How much preparation might our students need ahead of time?  Are there usually interpreters explaining what is happening in terms of military strategy, etc, as the visitors watch the efforts of the reenactors?  What experiences have the rest of you had?


Randall said...

What a great teaching opportunity. Seems like an excellent way to talk about how history is appropriated and lived by people outside the academy.

hcr said...

I learned a lot from Revolutionary War reenactors. For me, it wasn't the battles, it was the camps, and the material culture. Those men and women knew their stuff! I still teach about how petticoats were dangerous for women stooping over fires (Longfellow's wife died that way, I think) and we learned that, I believe, from reenactors. I know how to start a fire with flint thanks to them. And to fire a musket. And how smoky black powder is. A lot of it was play, yes, but they let me experience the material culture of the past in a way that made practical sense.

Craig said...

Viewing reenactment is important, but I think actually reenacting achieves more. The experience of doing brings the history itself into sharp focus, and the best form of it teaches students something about themselves. This year is the 40th anniversary of an 8-month, 3,300-mile reenactment by 16 high school boys who trained for two years to retrace authentically La Salle's voyage of discovery from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico. Their successful journey, chronicled in Hard Rivers, a book to be published Aug. 9, carried them through the coldest winter in the history of the Midwest. "Reliving the past to explore the future," they learned how to speak up and to communicate with different audiences and they learned lessons in teamwork, resilience, flexibility, and courage. Not every reenactment needs to be a saga, however. Every community offers opportunities for insight into how things were done in an earlier era. Seek them out.