All It Takes is a Hoop Skirt and Uniform

This weekend was my first opportunity to visit Gettysburg on the anniversary of the battle. My wife and I had an incredible weekend with much of it spent on the battlefield. I so enjoyed finally having the opportunity to share this battlefield with her. Both of us were struck by the number of reenactors and impersonators in town on the anniversary weekend. They were everywhere. I saw multiple U.S. Grants at Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge and our hotel.

Next year we decided to dress up in period attire and walk the battlefield and share our knowledge with whoever will listen. From the looks of things that’s all you need to be considered an expert by the vast number of visitors to the battlefield. The outfit is a license to say just about anything and I suspect that most people just lap it up without any concern. With that in mind I leave you with this editorial about the ramifications of a appeals court decision striking down licensing for D.C. tour guides for the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Enjoy.

25 comments… add one
  • Keith Jul 7, 2014 @ 12:40

    As a volunteer at two NPS sites, I can attest that people ALWAYS gravitate toward costumed living historians. (For the record, I don’t do the living history thing.) Part of it, I think, is that costumed individuals stand out.

    Also, though, people are fascinated by the material culture. It is not just the loud bang from the musket, though people like the loud bang. One living historian never fails to draw an attentive crowd when he opens his rucksack and explains the contents and their functions.

  • Buck Buchanan Jul 7, 2014 @ 8:59

    Regarding costumed personnel on battlefields….

    In my mind they fall into different categories. Some are seasonal hires who have a veneer of understanding the subject. Others are serious students of the subjects and can provide great insight. The best in this category I have ever seen was a young lady at Old Fort Erie, Ontario last September….superb.

    Others are members of reenactment groups and you get a wide range of knowledge and abilities. All a well meaning but I have found as rule they tend to know the history of the unit and/or soldier very well and can talk about Hardee’s 1855 Manual, the Maynard Priming System, 2 band versus 3 band Enfields, the virtue of McClellan saddles, etc. All of that is great for the casual visitor and often provides a fasciniting insight into the day to day livs of soldiers. And they do a GREAT job of that.

    But I have also found, as a rule, that uniformed interpreters are not who you want if you want get into broader discussions regarding the war and the execution of the battle and its context in campaigns, etc. Here you need a public historian (Ed Bearss, NPS Ranger, etc), current or former military personnel trained on conducting staff rides (that would be yours truly) and often academic historians as well (DR Simpson, Kevin, Pete Carmichael). oF course authors of books on a specific battle can be excellent guides, but not always.

    One of the issues surrounding much of the reenactment world is the issue of TWG….tubby white guys. There were very few 5’6″ 250 pound sergeants in the ANV.

    Finally, as Meg wrote so well, as a former Infantry officer I fell into the same arena as her husband…I don’t play at soldier I AM one. So I gave it a pass.

  • John Heiser Jul 7, 2014 @ 6:13

    Visitors to the park see someone standing there in a uniform and to them this person or persons must be a park employee, expert on the battle area or at least know enough to answer some questions. Otherwise, why would he or she be out there dressed like that? It’s like Disneyland with the characters in costume and why wouldn’t you want your photo taken on Little Round Top with Grant, Lee, Longstreet, Sickles, Lincoln or some other personality from the past? That’ll really be something to show the folks back home!
    I do not criticize those re-enactors who wear uniforms to visit the park and do so to get some personal satisfaction out of it, but I’ve also seen and heard too many of these folks who are only there to make an appearance and get the attention they so desperately crave, spouting off some sort of ineffective and often poorly based information about what occurred on the field, be it Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, the Bloody Angle or wherever. Those few are the ones we hear complaints about, not the volunteers who do living history programs for the NPS on weekends. Not everyone in a hoopskirt or wool cloth can answer visitor’s questions with validity but very few of them will admit so, not when they can get their fifteen minutes of fame. Perhaps that is what makes Gettysburg such a great place to visit, not only for the history but for the amusement as well?
    Effective costumed and uniformed interpretation is invaluable but only when it is sanctioned and supervised by the park administration. Otherwise, it’s a real disservice to park visitors.

  • Pat Young Jul 7, 2014 @ 4:08

    Kevin, you wrote:

    “Next year we decided to dress up in period attire and walk the battlefield and share our knowledge with whoever will listen.”

    This leads to a few questions:
    1. How many people came up to you at Gettysburg to seek your insights into history during your trip last week?
    2. If few did, how many more would come up to you if you were in period dress.

    I don’t reenact and I don’t lecture on history. However, I am involved in teaching at the Law School level to Juris Doctor candidates and in what Latinos call “popular education” to immigrants with very little formal schooling. In popular education we always try to find out how a particular immigrant community expects us to look to maximize the effect of the presentation.

    At Gettysburg, people in clothing that is unusual are seen as folks you can approach to ask questions about the battle.

    Think of an NPS ranger. Someone in that uniform showing up in my Central American neighborhood would be seen as a member of the military and a little frightening. On the whole it is odd that we put rangers in such uniforms that would normally be off-putting, but at Gettysburg tourists seen the uniform as a sort of “Open for Business” sign, inviting the tourist to come up and ask questions.

    It works the same way with reenactors. It is the rare reenactor at a historic site who will give you the brush-off if you speak to him or her. People know that, and rather than stumble lost at historic sites that are understaffed, they ask the guy dressed up like he marched there from Virginia in 1863. Some may also think that the reenactor is part of the staff of the park.

    The culture of the site is that popular education is offered by people in uniforms or period clothes. You should take that into account if you want to reach out to ordinary Americans who wouldn’t go to a CWI or Sacred Trust lecture during your next visit.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2014 @ 4:18

      Hi Pat,

      You make some good points regarding how reenactors and others in uniform are perceived by visitors. No doubt, visitors are looking for information and perhaps even an experience that will connect them more intimately with the landscape/site. I can certainly see why certain folks would be approached.

      You should take that into account if you want to reach out to ordinary Americans who wouldn’t go to a CWI or Sacred Trust lecture during your next visit.

      Not sure I understand this point. I was not looking for visitors to approach me on the battlefield for information. I did reach out to a wide range of visitors to Gettysburg on Saturday by giving a lecture at the visitors center.

      • Pat Young Jul 7, 2014 @ 4:34

        Kevin, you wrote; “Next year we decided to dress up in period attire and walk the battlefield and share our knowledge with whoever will listen.” I was seconding what you said if with my tongue in cheek.

        I will say that as someone who teaches popular education in my Immigration Law Clinic at Hofstra Law School, if a student told me that a particular way of dressing, lets say in a choir robes, got a bigger listenership in a certain community, I would order some robes to test that out. You might want to try dressing as U.S. Grant next year and your wife as Mary Lincoln before heading out to Little Round Top to talk about The Crater.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2014 @ 5:03

          I was kidding about dressing up, but now that I think about it some more… 🙂

          • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 7, 2014 @ 7:13

            For the Crater, dress up as Ambrose Burnside or James Ledlie. With the correct makeup, Michaela could be William Mahone.

            • Buck Buchanan Jul 7, 2014 @ 8:45

              You are a bad man, DR Simpson!

              I was going to suggest you interpret Billy Mahone, Kevin…but you would have to kneel the entire time.

            • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2014 @ 8:53

              I think Michaela could pull off a pretty good Otelia Mahone. 🙂

    • The other Susan Jul 7, 2014 @ 9:44

      There are probably a few people who find reenactors frightening. Whether it’s because they are carrying the confederate flag, or maybe they made the same mistake I did when visiting Gettysburg as a child and asked them if they were fighting for their rats. Thanks to the quick action of their commander I lived to tell the tale. 😀

  • Daniel Sauerwein Jul 6, 2014 @ 22:34


    I think it has to do with us wearing the period gear, which stands out, as well as having neat items and equipment that people can hold and touch. I just helped with a display this past weekend and I used that time to both share my knowledge and to share, when asked, that I am completing a Ph.D. and teaching.

    I do find it amusing that there were several folks portraying Grant, as you would think they would know to portray Meade, or be in Vicksburg. That said, I think you should kit out as a soldier and go and talk to people and share your knowledge, as the hobby can benefit from more historians in the ranks that can go beyond the material culture of soldier life and discuss some of the larger issues (albeit in the third person style of impression), as this might be the only exposure some folks have to history. Hope you both had fun in Gettysburg.

    • Meg Thompson Jul 7, 2014 @ 6:35

      LOL! Maybe more people just look like Grant than look like Meade. My principal looks just like Robert E. Lee when he lets his beard grow.

  • The other Susan Jul 6, 2014 @ 20:25

    There was this strange fad in the 90s for historians, or people I presumed to be historians, to dress in costume for their picture in the back flap of their book. It seemed like back in those days, if you wanted a sucsessful book or movie you had to appease the “reenacting community.” I still hear reenactors threaten to pull their support from things these days, but I don’t think they have the power they used to.

  • Forester Jul 6, 2014 @ 19:12

    I was talking to some Pirate reenactors at a festival earlier this summer, and their information contradicted what I thought was true. Admittedly, my source of information on pirates was a video game (“Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag”). When I mentioned the game, they were like, “Oh, that …. it isn’t accurate.”

    Anyway, I scribbled down what their pirate stories into a notebook and Googled it all when I got home. I also Googled the video game, to see how accurate it was. Lo and behold, the video game and the reenactors were both full of crap. There were SO MANY mistakes in both accounts of pirate history that it was staggering.

    Then I realized, that reeactments are basically games. They’re a simulation, meant to give you a “hand’s on” sense of experience, even if it’s not really accurate. If you take reenactments as a game, it’s just fine. But don’t trust the man in the costume for accuracy any more than you would trust your XBox.

  • Will Hickox Jul 6, 2014 @ 12:23

    David Woodbury recently posted on the similar issue of people impersonating Civil War soldiers in schools:

    Having done some reenacting in my teenage years, I can testify that reenactors are a very mixed bag: they run the gamut from knowledgeable historians and amateur historians, to people just escaping the house for the weekend, to mildly frightening right wingers and gun enthusiasts. The very best tend to be the groups and individuals who give demonstrations at national parks.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2014 @ 12:32

      Thanks for the link, Will. You are right that the NPS is usually very good about maintaining quality control when it comes to living history demonstrations on park ground.

  • Meg Thompson Jul 6, 2014 @ 11:06

    What a welter of opinions! What I find interesting is how many historians have been a reenactor of some variety at some point in time. I was a civilian reeneactor for several years, at Fort Tejon, in Southern California. I left the hobby because I married a man in the “real” Army. I asked him if he would be interested in reenacting, and he graciously considered my query for a couple of days. Then he told me, “No. I wear a uniform and take orders for a living, I am pretty sure I don’t want to keep doing it for a hobby.” So, I started a Civil War Roundtable at Fort Huachuca instead.

    And now, I am almost through with a Masters in Military History with a Civil War emphasis. I must admit that the idea of having a book jacket with a description of me sounds better if I have a degree–“Civil War buff and former reenactor”just doesn’t cut it as a reliable credential.

    Still, it is the journey that gives the depth, color and passion to the destination.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2014 @ 12:16

      Hi Meg,

      Let me be clear that I am [not]impugning all reenactors and impersonators. I have some good friends who are well respected historians and as you noted spent time as reenactors/living historians. I was struck by just how quickly visitors gravitate to individuals in period clothing.

      • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 6, 2014 @ 23:10

        “Let me be clear that I am impugning all reenactors and impersonators.” I’m sure that there’s a word missing here … “not”?

        • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2014 @ 2:12

          Thanks for catching that, Brooks.

        • Meg Thompson Jul 7, 2014 @ 9:29

          I saw that as well, but decided to just leave it–maybe Kevin meant what he said there! lol?

  • Bryce Hartranft Jul 6, 2014 @ 10:53

    Kevin are you not a proponent of open access to the intellectual community? Perhaps your blog is to a peer reviewed journal as these costumed enthusiasts are to a battlefield guide – a democratization of history.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2014 @ 11:58

      Kevin are you not a proponent of open access to the intellectual community?

      Absolutely. I believe that it is up to each individual to question authority, from websites to people dressed in hoop skirts.

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