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Why Are There So Many Civil War Reenactors?

On this day in 1861, at 4:30 AM, Lt. Henry S. Farley pulled the lanyard on a 10-inch mortar, sparking its charge, and propelling its shell over the still waters of the Charleston Harbor. Seconds later, the shell exploded inside Fort Sumter. The American Civil War had begun. This morning, Fort Sumter marked the 150th anniversary of the first shots of that war, the first of many battle commemorations that will take place between now and 2015. Not surprisingly, about a thousand reenactors have converged on Fort Sumter; currently, around fifty thousand people participate in Civil War reenactments, and the number will likely grow during the many upcoming commemorations. But reenactments often involve a serious time commitment, so why is reenacting so popular?

One reason, suggests Stephanie Decker of the University of Kansas, is that reenactors tend to be flexible in accommodating other reenactors whose conceptions of authenticity differ. Decker notes that reenacting can be held to a wide range of standards:

To say something is period is a shorthand way of saying it is authentic to a certain period of time. However, group members may disagree as to what it means to be period...For some members, being period simply means dressing in clothing that looks authentic to the period of time they are reenacting, while for other members being period also means taking on the mindset they imagine was prevalent in, and therefore authentic to, a time period.

In some hobbies, these differences of opinion would lead to those who considered themselves "more authentic" disassociating themselves from the "less authentic." (In indie music, the former group is often known as "Pitchfork readers.") But, Decker writes, reenactors are considerably more forgiving of their fellow history buffs:

I found that group members who have different standards for behavior or different interpretations of what it means to be period often resolve these differences by using 'bridging discourse' to demonstrate to one another how their behavior can be considered period. By using bridging discourse, members demonstrate to other members that they care about the same ideology and therefore belong in the same group, even if they do not act the same...In other words, reinterpreting and justifying seemingly inauthentic behavior has become an integral part of the group’s reenactment of historical culture.

Without this flexibility, and with more tension among reenactors over authenticity, there would be fewer reenactors, and Civil War commemorations would be far less interesting.