For the first time in three summers I attended the Jackson (Michigan) Civil War Muster last weekend. The intent of this posting is to convey how I perceive re-enacting in general and this event in particular have changed, and ways – in my experience – they’ve remained the same.
What’s different? Anyone familiar with Civil War re-enacting in the last decade will attest that the hobby is in a lull. Many that took up the hobby in the 1980s “aged out” of it at the end of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2015. The number of younger folks coming into re-enacting has dwindled. Starting out in the hobby is expensive: a brand-new reproduction rifle musket can retail for $1,200. Nowadays many demands are made on young peoples’ time, to say nothing of their penchant for passing the hours in front of a computer screen. Finally, the rise of new dimensions of re-enacting, particularly the World War II-era, has diverted people from channeling their energies into Civil War re-enacting.
The bottom line is, around the country dozens of small re-enactments, and not a few larger ones, have disappeared forever. Any number of re-enacting clubs have disbanded, while the membership of surviving ones has shrunk. It is now common for a handful of soldiers belonging to several different clubs to be “amalgamated” at events. At first glance it might appear that Civil War re-enacting itself is passing into history!
There’s no denying these realities. Despite them, I believe what I saw at Jackson this year means my hobby will hang on, albeit in a more concise form than before. Numbers were down, but the Jackson Muster still drew enough soldiers, cavalrymen and artillerists for battles and exhibitions of camp life. As ever it featured “historical presenters” whose first-person talks by figures like Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln drew crowds of visitors seeking to be better informed about issues of Civil War times. During battles the hillside viewing stand was less heavily populated than before, but there were still hundreds of spectators.
A unique and enjoyable experience for me was helping a friend fulfill her longstanding dreams of taking part in the muster as both a soldier and as a lady. She did a good job of picking up basic infantry maneuvers during morning battalion drill, and was a stalwart in the ranks in the course of the afternoon’s battle. (Even though it was a Union defeat.) In the evening she learned several period dances, taking part in them with grace and aplomb.
The opportunity to do things like these, and to educate others about this important period in American history, are the reasons why, after 25 years, I remain committed to Civil War re-enacting.