Reenactors As Educators

Over at Civil War Power Tour Joshua Blair
recently commented on the "late unpleasantness" involving a reenactors
attempt at educating a group of students about the Civil War.  The
incident took place at historic Crossroads Village
in Mt. Morris, Michigan.  Apparently the reenactor handed out
enlistment papers to the students until he approached a black student
and commented that he would probably have been a slave.  I recall
commenting on this when the story broke.

I agree with Blair in his overall assessment of the situation:

They [reenactors] are not trained professionals or teachers. Therefore, the people that should be held responsible are the school’s
administrators. Did the administrators
not know that re-enactors are not professionals? If so, why did they believe a re-enactment
would be the most appropriate place for firsthand examination of American
history? There are many other places,
such as museums, that would have been more suitable for a field trip. The administrators should have evaluated the
sources of the presentation before deeming it appropriate for school children.

My only question is whether there is someone in the school
administration who would have been able to pick out any potential
problems with the presentation.  I am skeptical.  Reenactors can be a
useful source of information for a history class.  It is, however,
going to be difficult for the uninformed to be able to acknowledge who
the experts are in their craft and who simply has sufficient funds and
enough of an imagination to want to dress-up as a Civil War soldier.
I’ve run into many more of the latter, but I have to say that it is
quite impressive to watch and listen to someone who really does know
the history. 

When I say "know the history" I mean someone who is familiar with scholarly works
on the subject.  And there is no area more significant in this regard
than our understanding of the history of slavery.  To give you a sense
of how ill-informed this reenactor apparently was just think about the
fact that he could have given this student enlistment papers for a
U.S.C.T.  If he didn’t think this was appropriate, how about giving him
the role of a farmer.  Don’t most people know that there were free blacks in
the North before the war.  How about giving him the role of a fugitive
slave?  Even if there were relatively few in Michigan wouldn’t this have been more appropriate given the setting?  How many black students were in the group and would singling one student out have made for an unpleasant situation?  I don’t know. 

My guess is that this guy did not mean any harm and I agree that the outrage expressed after the incident was probably a bit over the top. 

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8 comments… add one
  • Joshua Blair Jan 3, 2007 @ 18:06


    I still believe that telling the student that he would have been a soldier in the U.S.C.T. probably would have went over better than telling him that he would have been a slave.


  • Johnny Jan 3, 2007 @ 13:01

    I think it’s being overlooked that telling a black kid now that he would be enlisted in the U.S.C.T. wouldn’t go over that well in today’s more politically correct society, given what the C stands for.

  • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2007 @ 6:59

    As I said before I think this comes down to poor planning. As a teacher my first concern is for the well-being of an innocent student. Whether the history is sanitized comes later. Even if the setting is Georgia during the war the reenactor could have come up with a more appropriate scenario that still does justice to the history.

  • Harry Jan 3, 2007 @ 5:22

    If the setting was indeed Georgia and the reenactor was portraying a Confederate, this sounds like a no-win situation for the reenactor. I can imagine him being criticized for NOT saying what he said, for “sanitizing” the war by failing to state the obvious, by not mentioning slavery. I mean, isn’t that the basis for recent, deserved criticism of the NPS?

  • Cash Jan 2, 2007 @ 20:54


    Apparently this was a confederate reenactor, so he wouldn’t be enlisting USCT troops. If we look at the statistics, a black person in the confederacy would most probably have been a slave. Maybe he could have used some kind language to say so, but then maybe they should have had a Union reenactor there as well to “enlist” some kids in the Union Army. It really sounds to me as if there wasn’t much thought put into the event, which could have been a good exercise.


  • Joshua Blair Jan 2, 2007 @ 3:14


    I completely agree with you. The re-enactor definitely should have chosen a more appropriate alternative.


  • Kevin Levin Jan 1, 2007 @ 11:05

    Thanks for the additional piece of info Josh. I am only thinking of the child in this case. The reenactor could still have issued the enlistment papers as a U.S.C.T given the presence of fugitive slaves in these units. I assume the lesson was about soldiering which suggests that he should have been concerned with making them all fit in.

  • Joshua Blair Jan 1, 2007 @ 10:57


    If I remember correctly, the setting was supposed to be in Georgia. If this is the case, the re-enactors statement would have been plausible. However, I agree with you that in such cases U.S.C.T. enlistment papers would have been more appropriate.


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