2013-02-21 / Entertainment

Re-enacting History, One War At A Time

By Nick Malawskey


CARLISLE, Pa. (AP) – To the uninitiated observer there is something a little disorienting about being in a room with 300- odd years worth of living military history re-enactors, where fulldress French and Indian War militia rub shoulders with World War II German Wehrmacht soldiers, as a World War I British soldier trades tips about where to buy boots with a Russian Army paratrooper.

A glance around the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle at Saturday's re-enactor recruitment event shows a lot of fresh, young faces wearing uniforms of all types – a surreal moving montage of American history. With the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg around the corner, historical re-enacting has an opportunity to reinvigorate itself as events pique interest in the nation’s history.

Structurally, re-enacting is broken by time periods (say Civil War or World War I) then individuals are split between units (all of which are based on historical military units) on each side of the conflict. And while it’s easy to paint this hobby in broad brushstrokes as an odd American fetish, people have been re-enacting the past for thousands of years.

In their coliseum in Rome, Romans re-created historical Greek battles (now granted, no one is forcing modern men and women to choose between period dress and lions). In modern England and France, there are groups dedicated to the Dark Ages and the Napoleonic wars, even as other groups maintain World War II fighter planes and bombers for display.

Re-enactor recruitment event at the Army Heritage Center View full size Emmitt Greenleaf, a 20-year army veteran, talks with K.C. Kirkman and Levi Taylor, both portraying World War II soldiers, at the re-enactor recruitment event at the Army Heritage Center. A range of historical periods were represented, from the 17th Century to the 20th Century. Joe Hermitt, PennLive.com

Some people work on cars, or go bird watching. Some people dress up in wool surcoats and lug muskets – or semiautomatic World War II rifles – around grassy fields in New York and Pennsylvania.

The hobby is expensive, (a full-dress uniform with equipment can easily run several thousands dollars) time consuming and can bring on skeptical looks from the general public.

It begs the question: Why bother?

“If you really want to learn history . there is a world of difference between reading a book and putting on a uniform,” said John Gildersleeve, of Winchester Va.

A history book can tell broadly why something happened. But only by tugging on the boots can history buffs get a real feel for how it happened.

Enzo Carr can speak at length about what a pain it is to keep a U.S. Army dress uniform in tip-top shape. The young man can also talk in detail about the pros and cons of the various weapons used by the Army in World War II.

He was defending his unit's M1919 A4 machine gun (lovingly named “Wilma”) from the weathered eye of Gildersleeve, who was playing one of any re-enactor's favorite past-times: grilling a younger re-enactor on the finer points of his or her equipment.

“What’s the difference in the cyclical rate between an A6 and an A4?” Gildersleeve asked a khaki-clad Carr. Carr, to his credit, knew the answer and fired back a bunch of technical information on the weapon's performance.

Like most re- enactors who have been in the hobby for more than a few decades, he's bounced around time periods. Gildersleeve has marched in the Civil War, fought with the U.S. Army in World War II and is currently working with a German army unit. (The Germans, he said, simply have better toys.)

And yes, there’s an acknowledgement that maybe dressing up as a German solider might be taken a little oddly by the general public. And yes, it may seem a little strange to see a German and American soldier arguing over whether or not the war could have ended differently had the German’s pursued a machine gun development over other matters.

But as Gildersleeve pointed out completely unprompted: It's a damn good thing history turned out the way it did.

Many of the re-enactors are ex-military who have a natural interest in their own profession's history. Others are kids who grew up “playing solider” during the Cold War, and admit to engaging in an escapist weekend fantasy – in other words, big boys playing with big toys.

Then there is the fight against what is seen in some circles as the general neglect of history by modern Americans.

Rick Clark, a Revolutionary War re-enactor with the Pennsylvania State Navy, participates in encampments near Philadelphia at the site of a former Revolutionary War fortress. He said that each year at least one person asks his group why the soldiers built their fortress so close to the airport.

Re-enactor recruitment event at the Army Heritage Center View full size Lou Sliazis of Freehold, NJ, portrays a World War II Soviet Sgt Major at the re-enactor recruitment event at the Army Heritage Center. A range of historical periods were represented, from the 17th Century to the 20th Century. Joe Hermitt, PennLive.com

That general lack of understanding is also evident to Roy Long, of Chambersburg, who is a French and Indian War re- enactor at Fort Frederick State Park in Maryland.

The Revolutionary War – and our subsequent independence from England – is predicated entirely on that earlier conflict, he would argue. England raised taxes to fight the French, the taxes angered Americans (who had gained combat experience fighting the French) which led our declaration of independence and subsequent victory.

But ask most people about the conflict and you'll get a blank look, or a confused question about whether the French beat the Indians.

Still, to a non-re-enactor, it is disconcerting to see a German Army unit, or a southern Civil War calvary unit on display. At some level, you wonder: Is this really okay?

In unguarded moments of conversation, even the reenactors themselves will admit to having some of the same qualms.

One World War II Allied re-enactor said he can see the historical worth of a having a German Army unit and even enjoys participating in encampments and activities with them.

But he also admitted that some groups (say those who pose as Nazi SS units) may cross a line.

And for some, it’s at that weird, surreal place – staring at a solider with a swastika on his arm – that the blurring of reality and history hits a little too close to home.

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