Donald Gilliland’s article about whether battlefield reenactments are appropriate is making the rounds. The author does a pretty good job of watering down Peter Carmichael’s thoughts in a way that reinforce some of the same tired and meaningless battle lines between academics and amateur historians/reenactors. Anyone familiar with Pete’s views on the subject can pinpoint what is problematic with Gilliland’s piece. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been misquoted or have spent a hour on the phone with a newspaper reporter only to find that he/she used a small snippet taken completely out of context.
Unfortunately, what Gilliland missed in his rush to frame this debate as part of our larger “culture wars” is that the National Park Service has been consistent in steering clear of endorsing battlefield reenactments from the beginning of the sesquicentennial and has made those reasons very clear. This stands in sharp contrast with its policy during the centennial commemorations during the early 1960s.
The NPS’s policy on reenactments that simulate actual fighting can be found in the following video.
If Gilliland wished to question the appropriateness of Civil War reenacting he should have engaged various folks about the NPS’s guidelines as outlined in the video. No one, including Peter, is denying the value of living historians. The point of controversy centers on the simulation of the horrors and chaos of a Civil War battlefield. Of course, this policy is meant to govern Park Service land, but it is not a stretch to apply the NPS’s ethical guidelines to any such event. It’s not simply that it is disrespectful to those who died in battle. In my view, it is also disrespectful to those who have survived combat. Consider the following point that Peter made in the comments section of the article:
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 see this very personal comment as falling squarely within the NPS’s ethical guidelines. How can simulating combat convey anything close to the experience of war beyond the carefully choreographed smells, sights, and sounds of a reenactment? The issue is not between those who reenact and those who do not. The question is whether large-scale battle reenactments are an appropriate form of commemoration and education.
I suspect that the National Park Service would answer in the negative even if the dangers of black powder and resource management were a non-issue.