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Historical Reenactments 101

Tips for Visiting Your First Reenactment


Battle of the Hook, Gloucester, Va.
Photo © Nancy Parode

While many people think of the Civil War when they hear the word "reenactment," you can actually attend reenactments of events from almost every period of history, from ancient Rome to World War II, in many countries around the world.

What to See and Do at Reenactments

The typical reenactment takes place over a one- to three-day period. Reenactors gather and set up an encampment, using reproductions of tents, cooking equipment and camping gear from the period they represent. Each day of the reenactment, you can visit the encampment, talk with the reenactors and watch demonstrations of everything from open-fire cooking to minor surgery – on a mannequin, of course. You can learn to dance or listen to musical performances. You can also shop at a reenactment in a special area called the "sutlers' camp." Here you'll find all kinds of items related to reenacting – everything from swords to tents to hand-sewn dresses.

The highlight of the reenactment is usually a particular battle or historic event. Spectators head to a field or viewing area to watch the reenactors gather and "fight" the battle. Everything is authentic, from uniforms and weapons to the battle formations. Of course, the reenactors don't fire real bullets, but they do fire their weapons, using black powder, so things can get loud and smoky.

Reenactments aren't just for men, of course. At a typical reenactment, you'll also see women and children in period costume. You might attend a Civil War fashion show or a colonial sewing circle. Ladies' teas and other demonstration social events are very popular.

Surrounded by History

If you attend a reenactment, you'll quickly discover that the experience is different from visiting a living history museum. The reenactors are all volunteers. Many of them create a "persona," or historical character, and develop a backstory for their persona to share with visitors. Others represent actual people, such as Banastre Tarleton or Robert E. Lee. Some reenactors are new and might not feel confident discussing minute details with you, while others grew up in reenacting families and can tell you anything you want to know. You may meet reenactors who stay in character ("first person reenactment") as well as those who tell you about the past from a modern perspective ("third person reenactment"). In any case, reenactors spend a great deal of time and money on their hobby, and do what they do simply because they enjoy it.

You're surrounded by events at a reenactment. When you pay your entrance fee, you'll receive a schedule for the day, and you can design your experience around your interests. It's fun to wander through the encampment, but you might also enjoy watching an artillery demonstration or learning how to do an English country dance. At a large reenactment, there will probably be two or three performance stages, as well as demonstrations and ongoing events – there's almost no way to see absolutely everything in one day.

Enjoying Your First Reenactment

You'll find reenactments around the world, from Canada to Argentina and from the UK to Japan. Some reenactments are sponsored by a national or state park, while others are annual events organized by reenactment associations. Battle reenactments usually occur on or near the day the actual battle took place. If you decide to attend a reenactment, here are some things you'll need to know.

  • Expect uneven terrain. Cornfields and state parks aren't completely level. Wear comfortable walking shoes and plan for mud, gravel and slopes. Some reenactments offer golf cart shuttle service for wheelchair users; contact the sponsoring organization for details.

  • Dress for the weather. The reenactors may have to wear wool, but you do not. Bring sunscreen, umbrellas, sun hats – whatever will make you comfortable. Closed-toed shoes will be more comfortable, whatever the weather, because you'll be doing a lot of walking over dirt, gravel and straw.

  • Plan to stand for long periods. If you're watching a battle reenactment, there may or may not be bleacher seating available. You'll need to get to the bleachers well before the battle begins to get a seat. Consider bringing a camp chair or blanket to sit on. Be aware that you might have to park far away from the battlefield, so you'll have to carry your camp chair all day.

  • Think about meals before you arrive. Food is typically available at reenactments, but you might want to pack a sandwich or snack, particularly if you need to eat at set times.

  • Prepare for porta-potties. There's no other way to accommodate crowds on a large expanse of land.

  • Expect crowds. You'll be amazed at the number of people who turn out for historical reenactments

  • Talk with the reenactors. They are usually more than happy to answer your questions. Inside their encampment, open tent flaps indicate that the reenactors inside are awake and ready to speak with you.

  • Don't try to do everything. Particularly at a large reenactment, there's more going on than you'll be able to see in one day. Select your must-see events and plan your day around them. After all, you can always come back next year to enjoy the things you missed.
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