Receptive Reenactments

I do not think that most professional historians care for reenactments of past events, primarily because of their belief that people in the present can never truly “reenact” the past and so any attempt to do so will lead inevitably to trivialization. There is also a general disdain for battle reenactments, which seem to dominate such endeavors. I share those views, but I also see a lot of positive aspects of communities coming together to explore various aspects of their past. I think activity is important, especially for the generation I’m teaching now, whose engagement in the past seems confined to video games. I was fortunate to grow up around reenactments of the more “festival” type, so I don’t associate period dress-up with formations necessarily, and here in Salem I’m an enthusiastic supporter of any attention to any event that does not revolve around profiteering from the tragic events of 1692. Looking at reenactment trends, it appears that we’re moving away from big battles and towards progressive social movements: suffragists, labor actions, protests. There are attempts to capture the spirit of the past in more engaging “pop-ups”, rather than by slavish devotion to every little stitch: just contrast this New York Times article about the diminished ranks at Gettysburg with this blog post on events celebrating Chicago’s more colorful past. Even though I am having real difficulties with the writing of PBS’s Victoria this year, I did like Lucy Worsley’s recreation and reenactment of Victoria and Albert’s 1840 wedding, which was all about the details: dress, venue, menu, CAKE. BUT Worsley was able to take all those details and weave them into something that had lasting significance: the reinvention of the British monarchy in the nineteenth century through big majestic events. Obviously we are still affected by royal weddings today.

Reenactment Cake

Leslie’s Retreat (which happened on this date in 1775), is a perfect event for reenactment as it involves both a military maneuver and social protest against that maneuver, is a local event that can be tied into a much larger context, and must be played out with both words and actions. Despite the weather, the third annual enactment went off very well on Sunday: instead of taking it outside and down to the riverside, everything happened in the confines of the First Church. Even though his role is mythical, Major Pedrick warned the congregation of the imminent arrival of the British, they marched, the compromise was reached, and the reception began.

Reenactment 2

Reenactment 10

Reenactment 1I am not showing you Major Pedrick because he should not have been there!

Reenactments can trap you in their details if you are not careful. Even though it was largely irrelevant to the day’s discourse, I became fixated on the logistics of the British soldiers’ landing and march. So off to Marblehead I went, to see the two referenced landing locations, very near to one another, and then their possible routes to Salem. There I also saw the Marblehead plaque marking the occasion, which (like the account of Samuel Roads in my last post) seemed to imply that the story was all about Marblehead!  Well there you have it: there are at least two sides to every story, so you might has well just aim for the spirit of the occasion.

Reenactment 3

Reenactment 8

Reenactment 9

Receptive Reenactment

Reenactment 5

Reenactment 6

March Map 1776 2 Des Barres

Thanks to Tom P. for leading me to what I think are Homan’s Cove and Lovis’s Cove, the landing places referenced in the sources. From there I presume that the British marched through the town of Marblehead (on what streets I do not know) and then to Salem along the above road on the 1776 Des Barres map (Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library).

18 responses to “Receptive Reenactments

  • Eilene Lyon

    I’ve been considering this topic for some time in a different context. I like your take on re-enactments. I don’t really get why so many are about war and other negative things. Surely there are many great historic events that didn’t involve killing people!

    • daseger

      I’ve been thinking about it too, Eilene: these are rather preliminary thoughts; I’m really not sure exactly how I feel about reenacting or recreating “history” yet. I do like the spirit of it, but I am concerned about potential trivialization. I do hope we’re moving away from exclusively military reenactments however.

  • EAMurphy

    I would like to take issue with your “slavish attention to every little stitch” comment. I think that you will find that some of the most exciting living history events are being done by people who aim for a high degree of authenticity in both the material culture they are wearing and demonstrating, and in the historical research they are presenting. It’s also an interesting fact that those reenactment groups that are engaging younger folks and growing are the ones that have the higher authenticity standards. And stated authenticity standards like the ones just updated by Minute Man NHP for their living history events, tell the reenactors that the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars they have put into researching and creating their kit and interpreted impression is respected. Especially here in New England, the reenactment community has been moving beyond the battles for some years now, and places like Minute Man, Strawbery Banke, and Salem Maritime have been hosting high quality programs, some of which do involve battles, because battles happened in Eastern Massachusetts, but also involve programs like political protests, loyalist refugees, and trade.

    • daseger

      Thanks for your comments, Emily. I certainly did not mean to offend but rather to delineate the spectrum of opinions on reenactments. My thoughts are not fully developed about any aspect of public history really–I’m working them out here and welcome all views. I think stated authenticity standards are great, but they are also going to exclude people who might want to engage in “history” in a more whimsical way, like many who participated in this weekend’s reenactment of Leslie’s Retreat.

      • EAMurphy

        Is “whimsy” really the word that you want to use to describe events that ended with people losing their homes, livelihoods and lives? These were real people making serious decisions that not only affected themselves, but hundreds of people who had no voice in the eighteenth century political process, and a light-hearted event veers dangerously close to reinforcing the great man, imperialist version of history that we as professional historians have worked so hard to complicate and contradict.

      • daseger

        So your position is that those that do not attend to every little historical detail have no right to reenact past events?

      • Eamurphy

        Not at all, but when you are doing living history you are saying “look at us and think of them,” and if you are not doing the best you can at that moment to get the history and material culture right, then you are reducing these events and people to mere caricatures.

      • daseger

        ok, totally understand and believe me, I have the utmost respect for those who strive to do so. But that’s not what Leslie’s Retreat is about, so I guess I’m trying to figure out how that type of reenactment is still respectful or evocative of the past. I don’t know what adjective to use–if not whimsical, perhaps more casual?

  • fbradking

    As an old member of Glovers Marblehead Regiment, I find I agree with EAMurphy about the details of today’s reenactments. While our own regiment has followed the career of General John Glover and often celebrated his role in the RevWar, there are so many other aspects to reenacting that are important as well. I myself joined Glovers 15 years ago to learn American history and learn I did! Being part of the group stimulated my interest in women’s roles in the war, in the habits of dress of the RevWar period, housing, food, families, and what happened in my own town as a result of the war. (I’m also still proficient with a musket!) While we as a regiment often have participated in battle reenactments, our gift to our town is that we offer an annual summer encampment at Fort Sewall, where we show how people of the time lived, ate, dressed, played, danced, and worked together — elements of a history much larger than the battles themselves! No one can claim to be fully accurate in every detail, but our mates in “the hobby” (as it’s been called) make a big effort to present themselves accurately to an interested public. And kids who grow up in reenacting groups almost always have a reverence for American history that lasts. As do all reenactors, we in Glovers hope people see the value of looking back and honoring what came before, down to the last possible detail, and presented as close to the original as possible.

    • daseger

      That’s great–much of my reply above would apply here too. I honor both of your commitments, and am wondering what roles the less-committed reenactor can play in our ongoing “dialogue” between the present and the past.

  • FairytaleFeminista

    While there is the possibility of trivializing history because of costumed recreations, I think anything that gets people interested in history–authentic history–should be encouraged. History boiled down to names and dates all too often makes it inaccessible and boring to others. I earned my MA in history, but nothing made it come alive for me more than visiting historical sites and reading historical fiction. History should engage all the senses.

  • Brian Bixby

    My partner spent weeks trying to track down a particular type of 18th century Spanish officer’s uniform, based on a meager reference to the male protagonist in her historical graphic novel having worn such a thing. I was torn between admiring her devotion to getting the historical information right, and suggesting that the author may well have misidentified the uniform, seeing it came from the other end of Europe and the protagonist wasn’t officially entitled to wear it.

    It’s akin to the re-enactors’ problems of authenticity, and reminded me of just why it looks more important to them than to most non-public historians. (And I really wish the category “public historian” didn’t have it’s current meaning. What, the rest of us only do history in private?) The visual elements are one of the ways they ground themselves, help keep them interested, just as finding out the first marquess in England was created by Richard II, a detail of little importance, nevertheless helped me see why the rest of the nobility might be upset with Richard II.

    • daseger

      Wow, very useful analogies for me here, Brian! There just seems to be such a disconnect here, between academic and public historians, between academics and the public, and then there seem to be rules about what should be reenacted and what should not. I’m just probing and thinking.

  • Brian Bixby

    I argue the subject with myself, too! 🙂

    (And my apologies for not proofreading and leaving behind an “it’s” that should have been an “its.” It’s amusing that I feel a need to apologize for this, and not some of the other typos I’ve committed in comments on your blog. I guess because most typos are obviously typos, while that one looks as if I did not learn a well-known lesson.)

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