A Diet Plan for the Civil War Bicentennial

While I enjoyed having my intellectual curiosity stimulated by speakers such as Ed Ayers, David Blight and John Hennessy, the reenactors at last week’s commemoration of Appomattox Court House just didn’t do it for me. Perhaps reenactors should exercise more control over who shows up at such an event, especially one about Lee’s surrender.

I mean, were the men of the Army of Northern Virginia really this old and overweight or are we witnessing not just the ‘passing of the armies’ but the passing of the Centennial generation?

These are just a few things that ought to be considered for the bicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War.

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21 comments… add one
  • Buck Buchanan Apr 14, 2015 @ 5:37

    One of the curses of the reenacting genre has been the TWG Syndrome….Tubby White Guy.

    The better units I have observed seem to go for a more fit individual in their ranks. It is hard work, especially when the reenactors engage in a “tactical” rather than an “interprative” event.

    Having served a US Army Infantry officer I have no desire to be a reenactor. However I do appreciate the efforts of all in the craft.

    My annoyance is more toward not every black soldier needs to portray the 54th Massachussets, not every guy with a white beard needs to be Lee and not every event needs to have a 69th New York or 20th Maine present (neither was in the Western Theater!)

  • Paul Reber Apr 13, 2015 @ 16:21

    Some twenty years ago my then five year old son was with me at a Civil War event (I believe it was Manassas) He looked at me and asked “Daddy, were all Confederates fat?” It does not take the observation of a trained historian to know, as the reenactor themselves would likely admit, that they are “farbs.”

  • Robert Hale Apr 13, 2015 @ 12:00

    As a existential question, What is worse 1) Overweight and old reenactors or 2) No reenactors at all? I haven’t come up with an answer for that.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2015 @ 12:05

      I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that weight ought to prevent individuals from taking part in Civil War reenactments. As someone whose weight fluctuates I understand the challenges. My concern is focused on important events like Appomattox, where it seems it can be argued that a bit more authenticity in physical appearance is justified.

  • Pat Young Apr 13, 2015 @ 10:47

    What are the odds? Will the bicentennial look more like 1976 or 2012 (War of 1812)?

  • Mike Hawthorne Apr 13, 2015 @ 8:43

    It’s a mid-life crisis or second childhood thing. They want to represent the youthful ‘lean wolves’ of Stonewall Jackson’s ‘foot cavalry’, but obviously can’t carry it off, by any stretch of the imagination. I get a similar feeling when I remember the scrawny outlaw biker gangs of my youth and observe their obese modern reincarnations spluttering around on their shiny Harleys, dutifully observing the speed restrictions. Such sheep in wolves’ clothing just manage to look like cosy teddy bears instead of menacing predators. Keeps things nice and harmless. God bless them, and preserve us from encountering anything like the original specimens again.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2015 @ 8:54

      Keeps things nice and harmless. God bless them, and preserve us from encountering anything like the original specimens again.

      I like that. 🙂

    • Bryan Cheeseboro Apr 14, 2015 @ 8:28

      I’ve been involved in reenacting since 2004 and I’ve really enjoyed it. I never get the sense that reenactors (at least not in the case of the ones that I know) older than the age of the actual soldiers are going through some kind of childhood complex. Perhaps some people in the hobby are experiencing a “second childhood” as you suggest; but for me, it’s helped me grow in my understanding of the Civil War Era and given me a glimpse into the lives of 19th Century Americans. And most of the reenactors I know respect the history they are trying to portray. I think reenacting is something you do for yourself and then take what you’ve learned to share with other people.

      I’ve seen this kind of criticism before about “second childhoods” and such. Before reenacting, I built scale model airplanes as a hobby (1/48 scale). I found successful building to be very satisfying and relaxing. I built museum-quality models which I displayed and sometimes donated to libraries and small museums. I appreciated that people were impressed with the detail and accuracy I tried to put into my models. But I’ve heard stories about model builders being criticized as middle-aged guys who were still virgins living with their mothers. Too bad that’s all some people see.

  • Ben Allen Apr 13, 2015 @ 8:30

    Most reenactors are about reasonable authenticity, and they have attained it. Their uniforms, equipment, drills, customs, military procedures, and weapons are spot on. (Farbs, of course, are a different story.) Also, exercising “more control over who shows up at such an event, especially one about Lee’s surrender,” amounts to discrimination against fat people. Don’t begrudge someone passionate about history just because of his or her weight. Besides, most people know that soldiers in general have been thin. Use your imagination. Imagine there are copious thin people. If you have trouble doing so, that is why Don Troiani has a business, and Osprey Publishing even exists.

    Why are you even concerned about weight in the first place? There are greater concerns about reenacting, like the multitude of Lost Causers among Confederate reenactors. Fortunately, most belong to the centennial generation, generation X, or older, so it is just a matter of time before those Rebels who are honest about Confederate “heritage” will achieve at least a greater majority. Maybe then will you see the “rancor” acted out. Of course, just because you are a reenactor does not mean you are a convincing actor.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2015 @ 8:39

      Why are you even concerned about weight in the first place?

      Because it’s what I noticed first in the video. I am not “begrudging” anyone for their weight. I am simply inquiring about an event that was in the planning stages for over a year. The purpose of reenactors is – I assume, in part – to give our imaginations less to worry about.

      • Robert Welch Apr 13, 2015 @ 8:51

        Let’s face, it physically, we challenge the historical imagination in the wrong ways. As a “larger” reenactor, I’ve publicly made the comment in presentations to college students that I’m too old, too fat, and wrong in other physical ways to accurately portray the average Civil War soldier. All I can do is speak to my own experiences and physique, but I think I’d enjoy this a lot more if I lost weight. No one can look at me and say I’m authentic in that regard.

      • Ben Allen May 14, 2015 @ 10:36

        You apparently still need to use more of your imagination than you have at reenactments. If you have to “worry about” using it, then why are you a historian? The best historians do not see their imaginations as a burden. They don’t need much to imagine, to visualize, a battle. Writing about the past always involves the imagination to one degree or another. Besides, there are plenty of thin reenactors, too. Erase the heavy ones from your imagination. However, even if all of the reenactors are thin, no reenactment, partly for reasons of health and safety, can achieve complete authenticity.

        • Kevin Levin May 14, 2015 @ 10:41

          Thanks for the advice about the importance of imagination.

  • Steve Stilwell Apr 13, 2015 @ 7:27

    I’m not “in the hobby” but some of the posts made me think of something: Has anyone considered “sponsoring” someone to participate? That is– be the financial backer of a younger, “more fit” re-en actor?

  • Robert Welch Apr 13, 2015 @ 4:53

    In my mind, the appearance of reenactors goes hand in hand with economics and the recruitment of the young. Living history is an incredibly expensive hobby, both in material culture items, as well as in travel and the cumulative small expenses of partaking in the hobby. In today’s economic realities, the ones who have the money and time to take part in the hobby look the least like the soldiers they attempt to portray. This is not an attempt to slander any of them; I’m 40 years old, I’m big, I’ve been in the field for more than twenty-five years, and I just now have the money to really work on an accurate material culture impression at a time when I am gray and it’s getting harder and harder to campaign and do the physical aspects of life in the field.

    The other side of the coin, as I see a couple of others have mentioned, is recruiting the young, and that is the golden question. How do we make history and living history palatable to those young enough to look correct on the field. The last couple of years, it’s been very discouraging to attend major authentically based events and adjuncts, and realize that we’re all a bunch of thirty and forty year old men, running around and trying to be twenty year olds.

  • Paul Taylor Apr 13, 2015 @ 4:42

    I have never been in the reenacting community, but from what I have read in some quarters, the hobby may indeed be slowly passing away. Like a few other related hobbies I am familiar with (CW book collecting, CW roundtables), younger folks are simply not replacing the older members “retiring,” passing away, etc in sufficient numbers to keep things viable over the long term. I read where one long-standing reenacting unit was considering “stacking their arms” for the last time at Appomattox this past week for some of these reasons.
    While many of the sesquicentennial events I went to were well attended, it seemed that in almost all cases, the vast majority of the attendees appeared over the age of 45. Perhaps in the big picture, the younger generations simply do not share the same interest in the Civil War than earlier ones did? Or, is it possible that with the exception of young people who choose history as their vocation, an interest in history generally comes to a person more as they age?

  • Barbara Gannon Apr 13, 2015 @ 4:14

    I think it demonstrated the Study of the Civil War larger issues. No effort to appeal to young people, you cannot talk them to death they must see things, no video games or the like. Diversity, yes there were some women and minorities but it was usually a white guy. Finally, the military side suffers from no one doing anything new. See Gallagher and Hess article. I am not blaming anyone, it just demonstrated where the Civil War stands right now.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2015 @ 4:18

      I think it would have been interesting to see soldiers on both sides behaving as we know they did. Perhaps I missed it. As John Gordon noted, “there is rancor in our hearts…”

  • Pat Young Apr 13, 2015 @ 3:41

    Actually they are exhibiting the true spirit of Civil War soldiers, who ate every time food presented itself.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2015 @ 4:07

      I should have been clearer in the post that my goal is not to make light of people’s weight (I struggle with my own.), but to question the purpose of their presence. If it is mere pageantry than so be it, but I assume some people in the hobby yearn for at least a hint of authenticity.

      • raylennard Apr 13, 2015 @ 4:23

        As a long time reenactor/living historian (over 25 years of experience) there are all types of those in the hobby. Some seek to glorify the history of their ancestry, some are there for friendship around the campfire, and yes, there are those who are there who can be called living historians with research and documentation to back up their “persona”. The last four years I have watched several folks that would not fit the typical mold of a solider from the Army of the Potomac or the Army of Northern Virginia return to the hobby or come out in force for the 150th cycle. From first hand accounts it would seem that 1/2 of those currently involved will be “retiring” after this weekend’s events. There is a new generation of reenactors coming up…the unit I belong to has a strong membership in the 17 – 30 year old demographic.

        Will reenacting go away, probably not. Will it shrink in participation? Very likely. It is estimated by those in the hobby that there are only 15,000 active reenactors today in the US. Down from the “golden age” of the 125th cycle when it was estimated there were 50,000.

        Within the hobby there is a divide between “themed camping” and “authenticity” or what can be called “stitch counting”.

        I suspect there will be smaller, and more selective (with respect to the quality of the impression and knowledge of the person) reenactments in the future. “Themed camping” may be on the way out….

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