The wars so nice, we fought them twice.

I’ve always assumed that reenacting civil wars is a uniquely American pursuit. (There ain’t no way that Vietnamese guys get together and go through the motions of the Tet Offensive.) And it’s not just the American Civil War that people are reenacting—they do the Revolutionary War, the Korean War and World War II, too. There are a few major classes of reenactors, based on how hard-core they are, and a few types of reenactments, from living histories to scripted battles.

It turns out that it’s not just Americans who do this: the Brits get into the act. There are two English groups dedicated to reenacting their civil war, The English Civil War Society and the Sealed Knot, and I gather that the two are something like mortal enemies. There’s also a WWI group, a WWII group, and Vietnam group (!), though they’re not quite reenactors as we think of them here in the U.S.: they put on shows for special events.

It looks like it’s just an American and English thing; if there are any Vietnam War reenactors in Vietnam, I don’t know about them.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

5 replies on “The wars so nice, we fought them twice.”

  1. Actually, it goes beyond America and Britain. There are re-enactment groups all over Europe doing the *American* Civil War. There are also re-enactment groups in Germany doing WWI and WWII.

    I have a friend who used to do Civil War and Revolutionary War who has started doing WW2 in the last couple of years and his unit in NJ actually has regular correspondence and exchanges with a group in Germany. They get along quite well.

    From what he has told me about what reenacting is like, I gather that the real appeal is that it’s as close as you are ever likely to get to time travel. Especially when it’s a multi-day event with hundreds of people all in an encampment where every detail is right. Not a flashlight or a radio or a Nike sneaker or a power line in sight. When the music people are playing is exactly period and the scuffed uniforms are just right and the tents are appropriately leaky, *you’re there.*

    Is there any other experience available to people that can so thoroughly transport them to 1775 or 1861 or 1940? I really don’t think so.

  2. “Is there any other experience available to people that can so thoroughly transport them to 1775 or 1861 or 1940? I really don’t think so.”

    I don’t know but I’m sure John McCain could tell me about it.

  3. I am more of a living history person than a battle reenactor, but I have been involved in the hobby since 1993 with a group called La Belle Compagnie. We do living history of the English during the Hundred Year’s War. On the North American continent there are relatively few medieval living history and/or reenactment groups; though there are many, many more in Europe.

    In Japan there are groups doing all periods of their own history (as one would expect), and also groups doing both American Civil War and Wild West – and I don’t get the connection.

    In Germany the American Civil War is HUGE, they frequently field as many Union and Confederate reenactors as Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania do!

    Jamestown Fort hosts “Military Through the Ages” every March (3rd weekend) and they get a full ‘timeline’ event going with Romans, Vikings, Gothic Medievalists, French and Indian Wars, Napoleonic, American Revolution, Civil War, and even WWI, WWII, and Vietnam. They even have their own in house history interpreters who dress out as the famous “Company of the Fort” and also do English Civil War.

    It’s not a cheap hobby, but you learn lots and lots and lots about history.

  4. The idea of the English and Europeans doing the American Civil War is actually not so weird. Even immediately after the war ended, military academies in England and the Germanies began studying and teaching the American Civil War very intensively.

    From a perspective of military history, our Civil War was rather a big deal. It represented a major turning point in tactics and technology. It was the first use of the Minie ball on a large scale in combat, which increased the range of infantry combat from within 100 yards to roughly 250. Maneuvers had to change accordingly.

    Cavalry was transformed (in part because the minie ball allowed cavalry charges to be stopped and broken at greater distances) from primarily an offensive force to an asset focused on recon, counter-recon and defensive tactics.

    It was the American Civil War that first brought iron-clads into combat, against wooden ships and against each other. The story of the Monitor and the CSS Virginia revolutionized naval warfare globally.

    This was also the introduction of repeating rifles onto the battlefield. There were some entire units equipped with lever action Henry rifles that were the assault rifles of their day. Lever action and breech-loading technology raised the new question of marksmanship doctrine; is it better to be rapidly shooting as many bullets as possible towards the enemy, or will that just waste ammunition and would you be better off restricting soldiers to one carefully aimed shot at a time? This issue continued to be debated until the Vietnam war, in which the M-16 was introduced and doctrine was finally changed.

    The whole world was watching all of this. What they saw led governments around the world to start revolutionizing their own militaries in order to adopt the technology and tactics that the Americans had tested and proven. When World War 1 began, you can see very clearly which countries had absorbed the lessons of the American Civil War and which did not. The French had paid scant attention and made the mistake of showing up on horseback in brightly colored Napoleonic-era uniforms that allowed them to be picked off at long range by Germans who had studied American tactics. Etc.

    For anyone anywhere in the world who is interested in military history, the epoch-making importance of the American Civil War can not be over-stated. So it is really no surprise that there is so much European interest in reenacting our civil war. It ended up affecting European history just as much as it did our own.

  5. Growing up in Virginia, I always assumed that Civil War re-enactments were a thing unique to the South… people re-enacting the battles on or near the battlegrounds where they actually took place. Imagine my surprise when I moved to California and found out that they re-enact the battle of Gettysburg over THERE, too.

    I’ve always thought Iraq War re-enactments would be a nice idea. We can all pretend-waterboard each other and blow each other up with pretend IEDs. Sounds like a fun weekend, right guys?

    No? Too tasteless? It’s weird how the idea of re-enacting the current Iraq War or the Vietnam war is totally bizarre and crass, but re-enacting the Revolutionary War or the American Civil War is not.

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