Technically speaking, the U.S. Civil War ended almost 150 years ago when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Virginia’s Appomattox Court House.
For Civil War buffs, though, the war rages on at re-enactments held around the country. From small events hosted by local history groups, to large, Hollywood-style events at national parks like Gettysburg, Civil War re-enactments offer spectators the chance to see what fighting in America’s bloodiest and most costly war was really like.
Not All Re-Enactments Are Created Equal
By some accounts, there are more than 50,000 Civil War re-enactors in the United States. Re-enactments of key battles began a few years after the war ended, with Civil War veterans using the events to teach citizens about what happened on the battlefield. In fact, the Great Reunion of 1913, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, actually had participants who fought in the battle. None of the veterans from the Civil War are alive today to share their stories and experiences, but historians and hobbyists carry on the tradition at their events.
However, events vary in terms of authenticity and attention to detail. In the re-enactment world, there are three levels of authenticity: farbs, mainstream and progressive or authentic. Farbs, also known as polyester soldiers, are not overly concerned with attention to detail when it comes to their costumes or behavior. For example, they may use modern cigarettes instead of period-appropriate rolled tobacco or wear costumes with subtle differences in the details.
Mainstream re-enactors pay more attention to the public details of their appearance, but might use more modern tools or get “out of character” after hours. Their costumes are period appropriate and accurate, but they aren’t concerned with maintaining authenticity behind the scenes — at least not the way progressive re-enactors are. The most authentic re-enactors are devoted to their craft, and spend a great deal of time and money to maintain absolute authenticity down to their undergarments and behavior, even when spectators aren’t watching.
In most cases, the average spectator will not be able to discern the differences between different types of re-enactments — and will focus on the pageantry and battle realities such an event brings to life.
Not All Re-Enactments Are in the South
While major battlefields such as Manassas and Gettysburg have hosted re-enactments at various points over the past 150 or so years, you’ll find large events in places you might not expect.
For example, when you’re trying to find things to do in San Diego each March, you’ll encounter a re-enactment scheduled at the Antique Steam and Gas Engine Museum in Vista. Although California didn’t play a role in the Civil War, this event gives Californians a chance to experience the Civil War firsthand.
A few hours up the California coast, the town of Duncans Mills hosts the largest Civil War re-enactment west of the Mississippi every July. Thousands of re-enactors flock to this remote California town that transforms into the fields of Virginia in 1863.
Closer to the Civil War’s actual battlefields, Reynoldsburg, Ohio hosts the state’s largest re-enactment each July at the Reynoldsburg Encampment. This event also includes a Civil War-style military ball and surgery demonstrations. Near Naperville, Ill., for a few days each summer Naper Settlement is transformed into a Civil War encampment where visitors can meet and learn from re-enactors portraying key figures from the war.
In addition to major battlefields, nearly every town or city that was the site of a Civil War battle hosts some sort of re-enactment or commemoration each year.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the number of re-enactments will only increase — as is interest in participating in them. For those who want to join the cavalry, local history groups can point you in the direction of a re-enactment group. In some cases, large re-enactments place calls for “extras” or civilians to play roles in the battle scenes.
Civil War re-enactments bring U.S. history to life in a way a book or film simply cannot. For a firsthand glimpse of life on a 1800s battlefield, attend one of these fascinating events — but be prepared to choose a side.
About the Author: Beth Perry’s parents brought her to her first Civil War re-enactment as a child and sparked an interest in history in their daughter. Now a writer, Beth is working on a novel set in both the world of present-day Civil War re-enactors and 1862 Virginia.