Sunday, July 7, 2013

Re-enactors vs. Academics: A Controversy That Won’t Go Away

On June 29, the Wall Street Journal ran a story that said, "Peter Carmichael, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, calls re-enactments an 'unfortunate distraction' from a deeper understanding of the Civil War, including the motivations of those who fought and its legacy."
Yesterday, The Patriot-News newspaper out of Harrisburg, PA ran a story on one of its blogs entitled “Should Civil War re-enactments be abandoned?” which contained the above-mentioned quote from Peter Carmichael.

The author of the piece, Donald Gilliland, surveys the rift that exists between academic historians and Civil War re-enactors. Gilliland says, “Like any good American feud, it includes perceived differences in class, propriety, work ethic and honor. The professional historians are clearly the establishment, and the re-enactors the literally unwashed masses.”

In order to prepare for his story, Gilliland apparently spent an entire year participating in Civil War re-enactments so that he could “embed” himself in the camps during the recent battle re-enactment in Gettysburg.

When he told Dr. Carmichael of this studious preparation, Gilliland alleges that “his question to me - didn't I find most of the re-enactors to be blue collar? - suggested other factors were at play.”

The reader is left with the feeling that Carmichael is another ivory tower schmuck, sneering down his nose at all of the stupid little people who could never hope to be as knowledgeable about the Civil War as he is.

The rest of the article attempts to paint a contrast with Carmichael by telling the story of a man who has been a re-enactor for over 30 years. After summarizing the re-enactor experience, Gilliland ends his article with the observation that “that kind of participatory history simply can't be found with a licensed guide on the battlefield.”

And there you have it: the cold and abstract observations of an aloof academic versus the folksy wisdom of a simple man who wants to honor Civil War soldiers. It’s a dead horse that gets dragged out and pummeled from time to time, and like most of these “controversies” there certainly is a germ of truth to it.

I’m sure that this is not the last we will see of it.

However, the tragic thing about this story is that it stokes discord and division and, according to Peter Carmichael himself, isn’t even an accurate reflection of what he said in the first place.

Here is his full comment regarding the article:
How Mr. Gillland framed this piece was intended to stir controversy and to set up battle lines between academic historians and those who do living history. I was naive and downright foolish to expect a fair and balanced assessment of this issue. First, we discussed the socio-economic background of Civil War re-enactors in attempt to understand the many reasons why people are drawn to this hobby. The idea that I am an elitist on this front is curious to me since my father was a ditch digger for Citizens Gas his entire life. I deeply resent how Mr. Gilland depicted that part of our discussion. Second, I made clear that I have great respect for living history demonstrations and find tremendous value in how they engage the public. This critical point destroys any allegation that I believe that only the educated elite own the past. Third, my issue is with mock battles and I believe it leads to the mystification of war for all involved. I don't think war should become a spectator sport. This is a reasonable objection that deserves consideration and civil conversation. It is far from an elitist perspective. Mr. Gilland with his crude generalizations and sloppy writing made sure that no such discussion would take place. Fourth, I stopped doing reenactments for many reasons that are deeply personal and involve my father who struggled with his combat experiences in Korea, but I still maintain close relationships with my reenactor friends from my youth. I just took the 4th Virginia Infantry from Indianapolis around the battlefield last week. As much as Mr. Gilland want to create a divide to sell papers and to stir artificial outrage, the hard fact is that I have and continue to believe in the value of living history. My objections to mock battles in no way creates a cultural war that Mr. Gilland has imagined.
As you can see, this is a very different perspective from what Gilliland offered his readers.

In my opinion, Gilliland had a simmering resentment about a perceived prejudice that academic historians harbored towards Civil War re-enactors.

He picked his target – in this case, Carmichael – looked for a quote to misconstrue, and cranked out his article.

If he was hoping to stir the pot and gather a few thousand hits for his blog, he has succeeded.

One just wishes he would be more careful when someone’s reputation is on the line…

1 comment:

  1. This is really interesting, Jimmy. I'm glad I read it. I've always wondered about this. I followed the click to your article about Glenn W. Lafantasie’s Sunday article -- whoa, Jimmy, tell us how you really feel.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post, and I'll share it with the readers of and WW1HA Facebook fans.