What do camp fire smoke, sweaty wool, gunpowder, wet canvas, freezing cold, fainting heat, and the great outdoors all have in common? Well, if you are a living historian, they are all things you experience and love.
Some call us crazy, some call us impassioned, some say we live in the past (you think? ;D), some say that we can’t let go, and some say a whole lot of other things which shall not be repeated by a lady such as myself. Something special happens when one decides to become a living historian. We sign up for days of hardship, nights where one cannot get warm, heat that puts grown men down, marching in Brogans until our feet feel as though they will fall off, and days without running water, plumbing, or electricity. Yet, we thrive on it. We can’t get enough of it, and when there is an extended time between events, we miss it.
We have a saying when someone comes to take part in an event and leaves with the passion coursing through their veins and a gleam shining in their eyes, that “they have been bitten.” At times we teasingly warn them that if not treated, it becomes a full-blown illness from which they cannot recover. My company teases me that I came in already “bitten,” and in a way, it was true. It had been slowly festering in me since my childhood with my first doses of living history, particularly with the War Between the States. Once I took the field at my first event as a reenactor, it was like a second dose. By that second event, there was no chance. I was hooked! It had bitten me so well that not only did I know it, but my company and reenactors from other companies could tell as well! Smells, and other sensory triggers that were once less than desirable, such as sweaty wool, now smell wonderful to me. Recently I drove by a location where they were clearing land and burning a pile of wood. That smoke wafted in through the air vents in my car with the fresh air, and all I could think about was being in the field with my company.
These weekends are not only about the events, and the fun we have, they are about so much more. There is a brotherhood among many in the reenacting world, particularly among certain groups. There is a family bond for others, like those in my company. I have friends across company lines, and many of them are quite close. I talk to some of them weekly, if not several times a week! But we also realize we are there for a purpose. We don’t just go out there to play soldier or hang out with our friends, we go to honor those who went before us. We go to honor those who fought, sacrificed, and died- on both sides.
My reason for being there is many-fold. First, I LOVE the history. I have been studying about it diligently for more than a decade and a half! Once that interest started, I have never fully been able to get over it. I have read, studied, explored, visited museums and battlefields, just because I love it. However, for me there is a special niche within the history that particularly holds my heart, and that is medicine. So many of the changes within the medical profession can be traced back to the War Between the States, whether surgically, women becoming nurses, the formation of an Ambulance corps, the skill of triage, creation of dog tags and so much more, all have their roots in the WBTS.
Second, depending on the event, I portray either a nurse, or medical corps. While I love nursing and think of these women I portray nearly like sisters, I find that I prefer being medical corps for many reasons. First of all, I get to be near the action. I hear the shouted commands, feel the concussion of the artillery, and I get a nose full of the smoke from the black powder as a volley is fired. I get to be in the thick of it, you might say. Being part of our medical response team, it also means that I am close to our guys if anything happens for real, and it certainly has! I am close enough I can monitor them and watch over them along with my fellow nurse, Lisa. But we are also there adding another layer to the event which was not present regularly, until the last year or so, and that is representing the wounds of battle and their care. Sure, guys would get “shot” and fall, and you would see many men “dead” on the field, but now we get to show the audience one small taste of what that carnage may have been like. Now they see guys go down and bandages applied with blood staining them, checking wounds, getting some men back on the line, and some drug to the rear. Some of our guys are good actors and will be screaming and writhing when they get hit and while we are treating them. We hear reports of audience members talking of how real it makes everything seem. All of a sudden, they aren’t watching a performance, it’s as though the guys really are shot and down. Suddenly the war seems just a little bit more real, and that makes it worth it!
So how do all the smells I listed at the beginning apply? The campfire smoke means camp with your second family. It means evening time without the rush, sitting around the fire telling stories, trying to stay warm, or sharing our latest research so that everyone can learn from each other. It means food full of flavor, coming off the open fire and having a delightful meal.
Sweaty wool reminds us of marching, suffering under the heat, and a brotherhood brought about by mutual sacrifice and sometimes misery. It means living in our ancestor’s footsteps for a few days, and getting a very small taste of what it was like for them and all they suffered during this second War of Independence.
Gunpowder means battle and fighting a common foe. It means adrenaline, fear, ire, and passion all rolled into one. It means trying to do justice to our ancestors in how they fought and who they fought, as well as how they died. It means dealing with the carnage of war in a safe place, where the buddy you just shot will get up once the battle is over, whereas our ancestors were at times fighting and killing their own flesh and blood.
Wet canvas means days of camping in all kinds of weather. Rain, snow, heat, and glorious weather have all played upon those surfaces. It means a few days getting back to the basics and back to nature. It means a few days disconnected from the 21st century and its technology and being able to slow down, take a breath, and really live again.
Freezing cold, fainting heat, and the great outdoors – well, that just means reenacting! Would I do it again? Absolutely. Every chance I can, whether through lectures, living histories, or reenactments. But as we must still hold down jobs and life in the 21st century, I am grateful for the chance to time travel several times a year, to spend time living before the era of technology, spending time with my second family, and getting back to the basics and one of the topics I truly love. Until my next event, I will have to remember the memories that are brought on by the smell of burning brush, or the black powder smell after fireworks are fired, or smelling the well-used (and full of odors) uniform coat that sits in my office even as I write this. Until then, I wish my reenactment family many blessings. To all of you, my readers, I hope I have inspired a passion for the history of this nation all the way back to its founding, and a gratefulness for all our ancestors- who sacrificed and died for their beliefs. To those who came before and fought this terrible war, both Federal and Confederate, I hope to continue to honor you well.