The average person’s engagement with this year’s bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is unlikely to go beyond reading an extra op-ed or raising a glass of Old Crow in tribute to the defenders of the Union. For some, though, these anniversaries are occasion for packing up the car, driving hundreds of miles, and spending weekends in tents, dressed in leather cured with liquid from squirrel brains. These people are historical reenactors, and although they may be stranger than you or I, their world is a fascinating one, and long overdue for a book-length examination. Charlie Schroeder, with his recently released Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment, jumps ably into the breach.
My sympathies have long been clear. When I was younger, I regularly attended reenactments, and still do on occasion. (Where else, at age 11, would one hear the designation “French and Indian War” rejected as anglophiliac by someone dressed in the garb of a French marin, or absorb exact accounts of where, in the film Gettysburg, you could look for the raconteur in front of you — this location was generally somewhere to the left of General Pickett.) Until I’d experienced it in person, musket fire simply never registered as visually thick or as a phenomenon that one literally tastes (the flavor is single-note sulphur). And the sound of an 18th-century cannon, which Schroeder had a hand in firing, but I’ve only ever seen, has made me jump more than once, because it’s louder than any fireworks I’ve ever heard.
It may reassure readers better grounded in the world of today that Schroeder did not start out with such an affinity for the world of reenactors. (Nor, at times, does he seem to have begun with much knowledge of history, but we’re all flawed.) And yet, while embedded with a series of historical-reenactment groups, he develops not merely respect but enthusiasm for the curious pursuit.
To start: Are these people strange? Well, yes. He notes, “Over the course of last year I heard reenactors described as ‘weird,’ ‘nerdy,’ ‘strange,’ ‘bizarre,’ ‘wacky,’ ‘nutjobs,’ ‘crazy,’ ‘off,’ ‘dorks,’ ‘insane,’ ‘wackos,’ ‘geeky,’ and even ‘flamin’ idiots’ — and that was what reenactors called themselves.” Are you going to find that level of self-awareness on reality television — or, perhaps closer to home, in the local artisanal-pickling class? Some of the participants — particularly some of the Vietnam War reenactors willing to kill “villagers” while spouting racial epithets — seem positively deranged; the vast majority come off as eccentric autodidacts motivated by the sincere and undeniable proposition that history takes on new meaning when experienced firsthand instead of being merely scanned on the page or the screen.
From a Roman fortress in Lafe, Ark., to a bateau journey on the St. Lawrence River, from the Civil War in Florida to ’Nam in Virginia, Schroeder dives into the vastly different experiences that historical reenacting affords and emerges with a set of impressions about as varied as you would expect of the world’s nearest simulacra of time travel.
There are a variety of approaches to reenacting, some of which involve RVs, some pallets; the author develops respect for those determined to wade rather far into the past. Schroeder notes, of musket fire:
There was something oddly rewarding — dare I say, meditative — about going through all the steps of loading my old-fashioned musket and firing it in unison with my batallion. It’d been a long time since I was part of a team and it felt good to sacrifice my own selfish needs for the betterment of a larger group. I also really liked firing an old gun.
And this isn’t merely about those making war. Look no further than female reenactors for avid and compendious social history. Or, for clerical life, consider those such as Chaplain Alan Farley, a Baptist minister whose website is dedicated to “Ministering to the Civil War Re-enacting Community Since 1984.” Schroeder, observing this waistcoated and wire-rimmed preacher, declares himself “captivated by his bombastic fire-and-brimstone” delivery. Farley is actually out to save souls; others, such as “Father” Craig McGirr, who has been reenacting as a 1680s French Jesuit, simply stands as a fount of knowledge delivered in authentically clad form.
If all of this sounds like a bit much, remember the history-lite alternative: Renaissance fairs. Spend some time at these bawd-fests, which attract, as Schroeder describes, “visitors dressed as everything from bumblebees with Viking horns to fang-toothed trolls to who knows what” and you’ll long for a Québéquois Jesuit. I remember witnessing an exchange at one Ren fair with a man whose costume consisted mainly of facial pustules: “Who are you?” “Oh, I’m the rat man.”
The book does, of course, feature moments of hilarity born of the collision between the past and the present. The opening, which features Schroeder participating in the 24th Panzer division’s drive on Stalingrad (in rural Colorado), takes a riotous turn when several irate neighbors — and the local police — show up before the Russians do. Another crazed local attempts to steal a bateau under the cover of darkness. And then there’s simply fascinating arcana. Who has heard of Sam Agarwal, the owner of a Roman-military-garb manufacturer, whose shift of production to India is credited with reducing the cost of armor by 80 percent and spurring an increase in the financial accessibility of the hobby? Or Smoke & Fire News, which advertises “cartridge candy,” a “powder/gumball concoction wrapped to look like a musket cartridge”?
If all of this sounds distressing to you, then it’s going to be a long three years to Appomattox, or to Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans. International travel won’t help you escape the reenactors; there’s the 2015 Waterloo bicentennial; we’re approaching the 70th anniversary of many WWII battles and swiftly nearing the centennial of the Great War. Far simpler, following Schroeder’s example, to come around to this odd but fascinating hobby.
And finally, anyone so inspired by the spirit of living history as to reopen George Washington’s original distillery is someone I’m happy to address as our first president — provided that his feather is cocked correctly.
— Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn.