Historical sites in America are thick with historical reenactments and living histories. From famous attractions, like Colonial Williamsburg, to lesser known sites, such as Mansker’s Fort, it is far from difficult to find a historical site with people in period clothing walking about. Americans have a fascination with their own history, a fact which is made obvious by the popularity of shows like “Band of Brothers” and “Antique Roadshow,” as well as the mere existence of the History channel. This love of history is often transformed into historical reenactments, which are both fun for the actors as well as the audience. However, the ubiquity of historical reenactments does not mean that they are uncontroversial, as their accuracy tends to be suspect with historians.
Camp Music at a Civil War Reenactment (source)
Many historical reenactments claim to be recreating a true and factual history, to be portraying history as it actually happened. In a public context, they often present themselves as a learning experience, not just an enjoyable activity. Yet, these claims are often tenuous at best. While some historical actors take great time in researching the events and characters to create more accurate portrayals-- often referred to as the “progressives,” they are undoubtedly outnumbered by the “farbs,” or those who put considerably less time and effort into their historical reenactments.
Civil War Reenactors on Tank (source)
What is at stake here is the whitewashing of history. With half-hearted reenactments, which serve the actors’ desires to roleplay more than a desire to educate, come misrepresentations of history. Actors and audiences focus more on nostalgic material, such as day-to-day activities or technology, rather than the actual atmosphere of the time. Racial, class, gender and other important issues get submerged under conversations about gun types and food preparation. Even important aspects of battlefield experiences are left out of battle reenactments. Instead of seeing something which points to the horror and blood of Civil War battles, one might instead see an actor or two reposing on the grass, playing dead, or even just a group of people in period costume relaxing and peacefully playing music.
Civil War Battle Reenactment (source)
As one historical reenactor laments, the audience is partially to blame for the whitewashing. Chris Ketcherside writes, “Most often the public simply asks, ‘What kind of machine gun is that?’ and the discussion ends there.” Anti-semitism among Allied soldiers in WWII or racism against African Americans in the Civil War are topics most of the audience would not feel comfortable seeing ‘lived out’, if they would be interested in them at all. Yet, these aspects of history often seem to be entirely lost in reenactments, even for the interested audience.
Afternoon Tea at the Plantation (source)
The historical sites on Moss Wright Park in Goodlettsville, TN are exemplary of this misrepresentation of history. Moss Wright contains two historical sites-- Mansker’s Fort and the Bowen Plantation House. Mansker’s Fort is rife with historical reenactments, having numerous events open to the public, and even more for group trips, where one can watch a blacksmith at work and receive treats from pioneer women. Despite being a replica fort, Mansker’s advertises itself as “authentic,” as a place where one can “experience the lifestyle” of a Cumberland settler. Yet, there are conspicuous absences in the history provided. For instance, the Native American community is rarely represented, and if it is, it is by white men and women portraying Natives in the one-dimensional role of the villain, emerging from the woods and chasing the runners as they jog down the park paths.
Advertisement for Masnker's Station Event (source)
Field Trip to Mansker's Fort (source)
Even more disappointing than this misrepresentation of Native-Settler interaction is the absence of history from the Bowen Plantation House. While the site name is the “Bowen Plantation House,” the Goodlettsville website prefers to refer to it simply as the “Bowen House,” which “is truly a Tennessee treasure.” According to their website, “Through [Captain William Bowen’s] hard work and own ambitions, [he] became prosperous in the new settlement and eventually owned over 4,000 acres.” Not only does the website suggest Bowen acquired his status through individual accomplishment, but it does not make a single reference to slavery. If it is possible to erase slavery from the narrative of a plantation, Goodlettsville surely attempts to do this.
Wedding Celebrations at the Bowen Plantation House (source)
The problem of historical reenactments is the willingness of the audience to believe what they see, and the desire of the actors to produce an idealized portrait of the past, one that does not account for disease, horrific medical practice, and the grim reality of race, gender and class relations. Historical reenactments present themselves as ‘authentic,’ and as a learning experience. Yet, while technology may or may not be adequately represented, crucial dynamics and realities are left out of the event, as they do not fit harmoniously into the narrative the actors wish, or are desired to, create.
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