The National Park Service’s five major Civil War battlefield parks — Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Chickamauga/Chattanooga, and Vicksburg — are losing ground.
In 2020 those five sites had a combined 1.8 million visitors, down from about 3.1 million visitors in 2018, and 10.2 million in 1970, according to park-service data. The famed battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, had about 536,553 visitors last year, a 92 percent decrease from its peak draw in 1970 and the lowest annual number of visitors since 1946.
As the U.S. slowly emerges from the pandemic-driven shutdown of public activities, delayed and canceled reenactments of historic American battles are returning to the events calendar. However, they return amid growing concerns about their continued appeal, the effect on communities traumatized by gun violence, and the fullness of the history they portray.
Some reenactment organizers are reinventing these events to address such concerns, inviting community input, and tapping technological tools to bring them in step with changing demands in how information is consumed.
“If you’ve been doing an event for over 40 years, you need to reconsider what you’re doing,” Nancy Van Dolsen, executive director of Cliveden, a National Trust historic site in northwest Philadelphia, told the Chestnut Hill Local.
Cliveden stages an annual reenactment of the American Revolution battle against the British for control of Philadelphia. A weekend-long event on its property in the Germantown neighborhood, features cannon fire and gun smoke, as well as numerous reenactors. The event was described in a Chestnut Hill editorial as “long, smokey and booming loud.”
“It was conceived for the Bicentennial celebration (1976) and has not changed a great deal since.”
Gun trauma in particular is cited among the reasons to shift from the traditional reenactment scenes, with one Cliveden citizen noting that “recreating the battle as entertainment is sending the wrong message about guns and violence.”
The October reenactment, however, will be different as the event incorporates yet-to-be announced changes in response to a study it commissioned and produced by a committee of historians, reenactors and community members.
The committee deliberated over the relevance of the event and its potentially traumatizing effect on neighbors grappling with gun violence that nationally is on track to be the highest level in decades , with 405 mass shooting so far this year.
The committee’s findings were published in Considering Re-enactments: The Battle of Germantown in the Light of 21st Century Gun Violence. Among the suggested changes:
Offer more programs leading up to and after festival to expand the perspectives on the American Revolution and its connections to today.
Offer only one reenactment during the festival.
Continue to work with partners in Historic Germantown consortium to offer programs at other sites to spread the festival throughout Germantown.
Update and increase marketing efforts to bring greater awareness to programming.
Create advisory committees with members of the local community and reenactors to provide continued input for programming.
One person interviewed for the study stated that the Cliveden reenactment was “an outdated, boring and fictional tradition that smacks of white elitism,” a comment that mirrors criticism of reenactments of other wars, including the Civil War, by some who say the events romanticize combat and gloss over the causes of war.
The “profound struggle over slavery and emancipation, racism and equality, citizenship and disenfranchisement — are largely confined to the margins,” according to a New York Times story.
“Civil War reenacting has really changed over the past decade,” Dana B. Shoaf, Civil War Times Editor, told HistoryNet. “Many of the Baby Boomer generation have aged out of the hobby, and there aren’t as many ‘younger’ people doing Civil War [reenactments]…but it’s tricky. There still are a lot of younger folks out there, they just do it differently. They put emphasis on education and trying to have as authentic experiences as possible… I would say that while there may not be as many participants, the ones that do are committed to accuracy.”
Many reenactments do hold presentations on the war’s underlying issues and feature more than just battle troops, including doctors, nurses, journalists, and other professionals of the era.
To that point, some community members told the Cliveden committee the reenactment was of significant educational value and has been conducted within proper historical context.
Reenactment attendance has also been affected by generational shifts in how the lessons of history have been shaped by the Internet, as increasing numbers of people go online to read stories and watch videos that are both educational and highly entertaining.
Many reenactment organizers in recent years have been creating new opportunities for the curious to dive into history online.
The National Park Service and a group of historical institutions, for example, hosted a number of Virtual Patriots’ Day events, including performances by reenactors.
Coffeeordie.com featured a recent story on a four-part YouTube series, created by the American Battlefield Trust and Wide Awake Films, that takes viewers through a gritty virtual-reality tour of Civil War combat.
The National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, recently unveiled the VR journey War Remains where history buffs are able to take a virtual reality trip in time to the battlefields of World War I — an immersive experience that will test just how much reality they can handle.
War Remains, according to the museum’s press release, is a “powerfully designed sound and a custom set that allows you to feel the trench and experience the vibration of the floor as explosions surround you. Audiences will undergo the annihilation of innocence caused by the First World War and bear witness to the emergence of modern warfare.”
With some battle sites and museums adapting to technological advancements, there are calls for this to become the norm.
For on-site reenactments, one Germantown reenactor told the Chestnut local, organizers need to do a better job of getting spectators involved.
“Battles are just a tiny, tiny part of history,” Deb Fuller, told the Chestnut Hill Local. “But I think, if you do these conversations, you can get people involved — there are hands-on activities — the public can’t touch the guns, they can’t be part of the battle. But they can help sew a tent together, they can help polish buttons… and if you’re talking about getting involved in history, they can really get involved, as opposed to watching a bunch of guys shoot at the air on a battlefield.”