Saturday, April 13, 2013

Living History Goal: Becoming a Snapshot of History

Why do Civil War Living History?  Is it worth the effort?
    When you reenact, you do it for -- fun, or to honor those who really lived the history, or to explore what it must have been like, or to step outside of what you know -- the reasons vary from person to person.  That's what makes our hobby so interesting and enjoyable.  (Just pray with me that the politicians don't start regulating it!)
    We started reenacting because of my interest in history.  Because I couldn't see how we could afford to buy a rifle at that time, and because of my background, I felt I could do a chaplain impression.  Because Vicki & I wanted to make it a family hobby, that also channeled our interests.  As we learned about the US Christian Commission, together our living history presentation developed.
    But when you reenact, especially with a living history emphasis, you always wonder how you actually come across to visitors who stop by your tent.  Over the years, in various ways, the Lord has sent along encouragements that kept us going -- from the surprised "thank you, it's really free?!?" of a first time soldier-guest enjoying the food at our tent to the firm hand shake of a veteran reenactor we've known for years.
    While going through some old magazines recently, I ran across one that was tagged "Keep".  The old issue of the Camp Chase Gazette reminded me of a visit in 2004 by a woman reenactor who stopped by and started asking us a lot of questions.  As she talked with us, she shared she was reviewing the Marengo event for the magazine.  We answered her questions, shared lemonade and food with her, and told her come again anytime as she went on her way. I didn't give it a thought after that until later that year while reading the event review I saw our USCC presentation was mentioned in it;  only one paragraph, but her summary was a written encouragement that we were accomplishing our goals:

"Do you know what the Christian Commission really was and what they did?  I will admit that I had heard of them, read some basic information on them, but had no real idea of the impact they had on the soldier during the Civil War.  As their 19th century impression, Glenn & Vicki Rowe of Addition, IL do a superb job of teaching the public, and reenactors, what the Christian Commission was.  Hand squeezed lemonade is either poured into a soldiers cup or provided to those who were cupless in a tin can covered with a period label.  Stationary, stamps, pencils, religious information and other small luxuries are available to soldiers at no cost, just as it was done during the Civil War.  Glenn and his family walked the event handing out cookies and cakes of all sorts, not to mention a wonderful sponge cake with cherry topping.  On a large tarp next to their tent was an enormous pile of breads of all shapes and sizes, there for the taking.  Their tent fly is a warm and welcome place for reenactors to sit and socialize, learn about the Christian Commission, or chat with reenactors and spectators alike.  A small donation bucket sits on the ground next to a straw bale, but it was very obvious that financial gain is not what prompts them to do this amazing impression." 
[Camp Chase Gazette  Vol.XXXI No.9  Aug 2004 p.39  
"Marengo, ILL -- A Diamond in the Rough" by Connie Sims]
    Introducing people to the history of the USCC is one of our primary goals.  That Connie learned from her visit with us is a prized complement.  Another major goal has always been to let the reenactors experience on a small scale the encouragement that the Civil War soldiers experienced when they came under the USCC tent during the war.  So Connie's enjoyment of our hospitality is also prized.  (Confession: if you have perused our recipe page, you know that we don't hand squeeze the lemons.  That Connie thought we did is a credit to Vicki's talent for hospitality.)   
    So if you are doing a living history presentation, keep focused on what you see as "your mission", especially if your goal is to educate others.  Probably most of the time you won't really hear how you are doing.  When the "thank you" or "I never knew that" comments come, take those encouragements as affirmations that you are communicating.   Once in our lives we got written up;  a sort of "official recognition" if you will.  That was a pleasant surprise.  But most of the time our audience -- and your's -- will only be reenactors and spectators who happen to stop by and learn something they didn't know before . . . and that will be a "good a day of reenacting" . . . a quietly personal reward for all the work of "doing" Living History.

Some suggestions about doing a Living History Presentation:
1)  Pick something you have a passion for.  Since it takes time and effort in research & in putting it together, choose an aspect of history that you enjoy.
2)  Set some mental goals of what you hope to accomplish.  These will likely change and develope as you develope your presentation, but goals will help you focus your energy and resources better.
3)  Search for things that will draw people in to "see" what you have to teach.  To set up a tent and sit out in front in a chair and hope people will "just stop by" is not the best approach.  At least have a banner or sign out front ("Journalist"/ "Soldier's Aid Society" etc) which identifies and invites people to stop and look.  Displays also are invitations.  When people stop and look, you can begin to engage them in conversation about what you are portraying.
4)  Say to yourself often "There is no such thing as stupid questions, only obnixous questioners".  As much as some questions may make you roll your eyes, realize that the person asking may not really understand much about history.  Treat them with hospitality and you will be able to lead them along.  Yes, there will be know-it-alls that will play games with you, but at least give every person the benefit of the doubt when you first meet them.  Especially children.

Postscript:  Sadly, a few years later the reenactment at Marengo was discontinued.  It was always one of our favorites, even though it was never one of the biggest.  To those who worked so hard to put it on over the years -- "God bless you for your efforts".