Sawbones

Becoming a medical reenactor was one of my dreams. A bucket-list item truthfully, and something for which I had studied for over a decade-and-a-half. So, when the opportunity arose to be a medical reenactor of the War Between the States, I couldn’t believe my ears, nor contain the excitement!

Starting with my first reenactment on the field, I portrayed a medic. Now, two years later, I alternate between medic and assistant surgeon. Since I have treated numerous reenactors for real ailments and emergencies, the boys call me “Doc.”

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There are many things that go into being a medical reenactor. One doesn’t only have to understand the military side of reenacting, the orders on the field, chain of command, the role of infantry, and safety on the field, but also every type of wound they would have incurred and how to treat them. Hours upon hours of research go into every aspect of our portrayal. We have to know every wound, how they would have examined it and determined treatment, what type of treatment they would have given, what tools and supplies they would have used, and whether they would have even had them! These details will change depending on which battle is being portrayed and what year it was, whether or not it was a multi-day or massive casualty battle or not, whether supply trains had been captured, or the blockade had affected supplies, and even which side of the war one is portraying. That means that one has to have an understanding of each battle, the troop movements, the capture of supply lines, and how they managed.

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Explaining that his leg is shattered and we are going to have to take it off, just before I put him under chloroform.

For instance, the Confederate medical corps used Chloroform or Ether whenever they had it, and they had lower mortality rates with its use than the Union army did (None by the end of the war). On the other hand, the Union medical corps was still having occasional casualties from anesthesia complications at the end of the war. They also would not use anesthesia for an amputation on a wound over 24 hours old. They thought the complications from the anesthesia along with the wound would be more than the patient could overcome, but did not account for the shock they would incur, which would subsequently kill many.

What did they do when they ran out of chloroform, such as at the battle of Sharpsburg, or when a Union soldier had received the wound more than 24 hours prior to facing the surgeon? That is the few instances where they would have to call in strong men to hold them to the table. Thankfully, they did have access to medical whiskey (if that had not also been taken in a raid, or drunk by the staff or trouble-making soldiers, as in a few cases), and at times morphine. Morphine had just come on the scene about this time and was being put to use. It came in liquid or powder form, and was applied topically to the wound for local pain relief, or might have a small amount placed in the mouth, or injected into the arm. The problem was that dosing was not yet understood, nor its addictive qualities, and after the war America began seeing its first cases of Morphine addicts and DTs when it was no longer available to them.

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Photo Credit: Kenny Stancil

At the beginning of the war, there was no procedure known as excision, but by the end of the war, there was an entire chapter on the procedure in the medical textbooks!

The procedure known as excision came about because of the physician’s desire to send as many boys home whole or functional as possible. If you read the records, you will see that they did not enjoy carving on boys and taking off limb after limb until they were stacked as high as the windows, or even rooftops, but for many it was the only way to save their life. If the bone was shattered beyond repair, if the blood vessels were severed, or nerve function destroyed then the limb had to come off. To leave it would mean the patient contracting gangrene and pyeamia (blood poisoning), and certain death. But for those whose bones were damaged, but blood flow and nerve function remained intact, could there be another option? The doctors found there was. They would send the patients back to the general hospitals and after they had recovered from the initial shock of the bullet wound(s) – the average soldier came in shot 3-4 times – then they would take them into surgery. During surgery, they would remove the damage section of bone, make sure all splinters or fragments were removed, and ensure that blood flow and nerve function remained intact. Then they would put the two ends of bone together and put the patient in a type of splint which would keep the limb aligned and the bone pieces together. The patient would then have to remain on strict bed rest for 6 weeks with absolutely no pressure on the limb. The idea was that if the bones would grow back together, then the soldier would retain use of his body. It worked! In fact, it worked on such a great scale that it changed the cobbler industry! Cobblers started making shoes with elevated soles so that patients who had undergone excision on their legs could once again walk as a normal man!

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Example of Excision. Picture taken while in Gettysburg, PA.

Amputations were literally a life-saving procedure. Most people think of them as barbaric, but most of the time, it was the only way to save their life or to save as many men as possible. When a soldier was shot with a .58 caliber to .69 caliber Minié ball or round ball, it could literally shatter the bone or joint. It could cause breaks for inches up the bone, or worse yet, the bullet could have lost momentum or ricocheted off another object before impacting the soldier. That impact with another object could cause the bullet to start spinning end-over-end and when it struck the soldier it would continue its momentum, causing spiraling breaks up the bone. If any of these were the case, the limb would have to be removed or the soldier would die a painful death.

The average amputation took only 12 minutes. TWELVE minutes! They had to be fast for multiple reasons. One, if the patient stayed under anesthesia for more than about 15 minutes it would kill them. Another was getting the limb off and homeostasis restored. They also had to be fast because the boy in front of them wasn’t the only one wounded and bleeding to death. By quickly and efficiently treating each one, they could get to more wounded in a shorter amount of time, and thus save more lives.

These doctors, in many cases, were innovators and world changers. Now, you did have the quacks and those without formal medical training treating some wounded (a standard for army medical doctors came into place during the war, but early war was terrible), but there were also those who changed the face of medicine. Many of the things that we take for granted in medicine today can literally be traced back to the War Between the States. These would include such things as washing wounds with cool water instead of warm. This, unknown to them, caused an environment that was unfriendly to bacteria, of which they still did not know or understand. Another is cutting out infectious areas with boarders of good tissue in order to keep it from spreading. We take this for granted today in cancer treatments and severe diseases, but it was more of a novel idea during the war. Sealing wounds came onto the forefront during the war, causing quite an argument through the Confederate medical corps, but they would eventually prove that by hermetically sealing wounds the rate of infection went down significantly. Today we do this with things like sealed dressings, wound vacs, and more.

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Example of a surgeon’s medical case

Prior to, and during the war, abdominal and chest surgery was considered certain death. To go into the chest cavity, the patient would surely hemorrhage or get an infection and die. Yet, the doctors would work on the chest superficially and take out broken pieces of ribs, or tie off surface vessels if the patient had been shot in the chest. They would cover the wound and wait and see if the lung would seal off itself and re-inflate, or if the patient would die. Abdominal surgery was viewed the same way. Most patients shot in the belly, or those who had doctors attempting to go into the belly, would die of peritonitis. Yet, all this would change with the nearly fatal wound of Joshua Laurence Chamberlain at the beginning of the Petersburg campaign. They could not let the hero of Little Round Top die, and so the first successful abdominal reconstructive surgery took place on American soil! (Those details are for another article). Now we take it for granted that surgeons can go and do surgery on whatever organ or body system is need. But that was not an option prior to these brave and innovative surgeons.

I could go on and on about the discoveries and innovations alone for well over an hour (I actually do when I’m lecturing!), but I will not bore you with them in this article. Suffice it to say that these old, barbaric “Sawbones” were hard-working men trying to keep as many men alive and together as they possibly could. Considering the carnage they were seeing, the lack of supplies, and the overwhelming number of wounded, not to mention the diseases and malnourishment which took out 2/3 of those who died, these men achieved more than one would imagine under other circumstances.

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Photo credit: Kathryn Holland. Field Hospital, Hurricane Shoals 2017

When we portray these men, when we stage a field hospital and do surgery on our men, what do we do? We attempt to think of each of these details. We strive hard to make sure that each component from our assessment, to tools, to treatment methods are to the standard of what these men had and did. We choose our cases specifically out of the medical records or journals of the doctors and nurses who treated the wounded. So, if you ever come to one of our events and see my co-surgeon Joel and myself treating the wounded, know that we have done our research and you are getting a little taste of the horror and help that these brave men endured. We hope you will join us soon!

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Being on the Battlefield

A common question I am asked is, “What is it like to be on the battlefield?” It’s a really good question, but not one that is easily answered. The answer varies depending on the battle, one’s position, and one’s rank.

 

For the basic enlisted soldier, the majority of their focus is on listening to the orders of their officers and NCOs and following them. Making sure they use their training and execute their orders well.

 

For Corporals, their job is to ensure safety, to maintain and dress the line, and complete whatever order the NCOs or officers give. They may have a squad of men assigned to them for whom they are responsible to oversee and lead.

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Photo credit: Kellie Banks

Sergeants are responsible for holding the line, keeping the soldiers where they are supposed to be in the line, and are an alignment point for the line.

 

1st Sergeants maintain the stability, safety, and structure of the unit. They make sure everyone has what they need (a Sergeant or Corporal may do this for the men assigned under them as well). They watch what the Captain or Major are doing and make sure they have what they need, as well as trying to anticipate any needs or upcoming commands to be ready for them.

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Photo Credit: Kellie Banks

Officers- roles of officers change with every rank. Captains are over Companies, Majors and Lt. Colonels are wing commanders. The Colonel commands the battalion. The officers read the enemy. They see what is coming and try to counter it. They have to think on their feet and command men, knowing the consequences of their commands – whether right or wrong. There is a certain pressure on them, because the lives of the men under them are completely in their hands.

 

Medical- Medical varies based on which role we are playing. A head surgeon or battalion surgeon is usually in the general hospital or the rear field hospital. A field surgeon may be on the field, but will be behind the line of battle, not on it (you hope. I have had the line of battle shift on me and end up right in the middle of the fighting). Vivandieres would also be behind the line of battle, but may be on the battlefield tending the wounded. Nurses would be in the hospitals, with a few exceptions, such as if one were portraying Clara Barton or Annie Etheridge, both of whom did take the to battlefield behind battle lines (these ladies were Union). Our job is to check the wounded, get them stable and back on the line, or to the hospital to the rear.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

For all of us, we learn and manage to navigate the terrain for each event, adjusting what we are doing to make sure orders are carried out correctly and we still stay safe. Everyone still feels the concussion of the cannon fire, quickly learning what to look for, and when to cover one’s ear for protection. We all quickly learn the sound of a musket volley, or fire by file and make minute adjustments as needed. The smell of gunpowder fills our noses, sounds fill our ears, and at times, senses start to overload if a lot is happening at once. It is easy to become lost in the moment, to truly be living in the battle with all the chaos, fighting, enemy movements, or hand-to-hand combat. There is excitement of the unknown, the horror of seeing fellow comrades fall.

Carrying the wounded-Shannon Herron

Photo Credit: Shannon Herron

When the first shots are fired, adrenaline kicks in. Our response varies based on our role and whether we are giving or taking orders. Some of us are more seasoned, so the musket fire does not affect us as much. Some are military veterans and the musket fire puts them back in the zone with which they are so familiar. For me, it depends on which role I’m playing. If I’m a soldier or medical corps, I’m ready for battle. I’m thinking both offense and defense. If I’m in a civilian role, it is a very different response. I know that army is coming, and I know they are up to no good. It means we need to hide our valuables, our food, our children, and if possible ourselves. The Yankees love to come in, steal our supplies and manhandle the women, who usually have no defense until the Confederate army arrives, most particularly when we are reenacting the battles in Sherman’s march to the sea.

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Photo Credit: CR Studios BW Atlanta

As a soldier, there is a particular moment when the enemy begins advancing. You watch them, you study their movements and see what they are going to do, and as enlisted, you pray your officers will give the order for you to fight, and an order that won’t get you “killed.” When they enemy advances toward you and there have been no orders for your line to advance, you can feel the anxiety building. There is an instinct in all of us to want to fight back. Some feel our breathing speed up, some get a knot in their stomach, or sweaty hands. These feelings are intensified when we are facing an opposing line of reenactors we don’t know. We don’t know how they were trained, we don’t know what they can, or will do. There’s an added level of tension there because not only do the officers have to try to read the opponent and properly counter them, but on a more basic level, we realize there is a much more likely chance of someone getting hurt. When we fight and train together often, we begin to trust each other. We know what they know and they know us. We know what they are capable of, and that we all work hard to keep each other safe on the battlefield. When we have an unknown opponent, it is much more like fighting the war itself. We know they aren’t out to kill us (unlike the actual war), but we know there is a higher risk of someone getting hurt.

 

When our officers get fired up, and begin to fight an aggressive battle, that’s when it starts getting fun! There will be lots of movement, much more determination than a predictable battle. They move men back and forth, the opposing line trying to find a weak spot to breach the line. The musket volleys and artillery fire encourage the adrenaline and our resolve. We listen over the din of battle, we taste the sulfuric grains of black powder in our mouth as we rapidly tear open cartridges and load as fast as we can. The smell of smoke fills our nostrils as the cannon blasts wrack our bodies. The gunpowder hangs in the air like a blanket, cloaking some of the movements of our enemy. Thoughts run through our heads even as we execute the commands: Are you going to run out of ammunition before they are stopped? Are you going to die today?

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Photo credit: Rebecca Partin

I’ve had a few heart-dropping moments when instances felt very real for me on the battlefield. My first was a moment fighting the battle for Atlanta, over a year into my reenacting experience. I had been in multiple battles and multiple roles by that time. During this battle, we were making our final assault on the Federal line, pushing them back hard. I was medical corps and thus on the field behind the line of battle. I had knelt down to tend one of the “wounded” when the lines clashed and moved right in front of me. As the lines collided, one Yankee private broke through the line and came right for me! As medical corps, I am considered a non-combatant, and therefore unarmed. I had no way to defend myself, and was on my knees tending a wounded soldier. I saw the Yankee private coming toward me, and in that instant, I knew I was done! If he got to me, there was nothing I could do. My heart jumped into my throat and my breathing increased all in one second. I tried to find a way to oppose him, but while he was just feet away and before I could get to my feet, one of my brothers in arms took him to the ground in epic style. I quickly looked to him, nodded my thanks, and went back to my duties with a big sigh and deep breath.

 

The second of these events was at our most recent reenactment. The battle had been going for some time, and I had been dispatched to the Confederate right flank. We were losing men as casualties, and I was checking them. With a yell and a charge, the Federals attacked our position. The lines quickly clashed, and the Federals were busting through in places before our men could shore up the line. One of the Federal officers (who is a friend of mine and fights fiercely) broke through the line with part of his company just feet from my position. All the emotions and the thoughts of that first experience came rushing back as this time many men broke through the line. I thought, “Boys, stop them or we are done!” Thankfully, our boys in gray came in before I was taken prisoner or killed.

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Photo Credit: Shelia Chasteen

Other reenactors have stories upon stories to tell. Many nights we it around the fire and tell these stories to each other. If you have the opportunity, sit and talk with a reenactor and ask what it’s like. If it’s during an event, we will tell you in the first person of the character we are portraying. If it is outside an event, we will tell you about reenacting, the history, the art, and the skill of what we do. We love to share our passion with anyone who will listen or wants to learn, and we are always learning from each other!

 

I hope this blog has given you a little taste of what it’s like to be on the battlefield during the battle, with all the sights, smells, emotions, and experiences that comes with it! If you are near the middle Georgia region this weekend, be sure to stop in at Old Clinton in Gray, GA! They will be reenacting the battle of Sunshine farms, and the Battle of Griswoldville (part of Sherman’s march to the sea)!

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Getting Into Character

One part of reenacting is becoming the person we are representing. Some may think this is easy, but it is not always. We are representing people from a completely different time and culture from ours, as well as a nation at war. Friends and relatives were either fighting beside each other, or against each other. Motivations were as varied as the people in the ranks.

 

To truly reenact the war, we have to have reenactors in nearly every category: Confederate and Federal from infantry, cavalry, and artillery, medical corps, civilians, merchants, chaplain, and more. Each of these areas requires a different character, and a certain mindset and responses.

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Photo Credit: Heidi Edge

There are lots of ways we learn about our characters, and how to portray them. For most of us, we are always reading, whether journals, letters, autobiographies, manuals, or records – any primary document that will help us understand the events, what the participants had, how it impacted them, their thoughts, responses, and more. We look at personal accounts of the role we are playing and try to understand what they went through. My friends who portray solders study them, the military, the orders and rule of camp, the command structure, what they would have done, how they lived in camp, what they did between battles, what their duties would be (and are) depending on their rank, how they interacted with civilians, and more.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

Those portraying civilians study what it was like whether they were in town or following the army. Were they an army wife, mother, or child? Were they married to enlisted man or an officer? What point in the war are we portraying? How long would we have been blockaded here in the South, or are they portraying a Union wife with very little affect of the war on their way of living?

 

Those of us who portray doctors and nurses study the life and journals of those who were there. We study the medical procedures of the time, what they had to work with, what was known and unknown during the war, and what was changing. This could become important depending on whether you are portraying Federal or Confederate, and what part of the war is being lived. Some procedures did not exist at the beginning of the war, but were becoming commonplace by the end.

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Photo Credit: Sheila Chasteen

Everything changes when we get into camp. There we are living out of what we bring and can throw together with other reenactors. We are affected by the elements, and at times, by lack. We live in tents and have to warm ourselves by the fire. Life in the 21st century ceases to be in many ways. Once we put on the uniform, things change even more. You move differently, you feel different, you respond differently. I have friends who will be Confederates at one event and I’ll walk up, hug them, shoot the breeze with them, and at the next event when they are Federal, they are the enemy! We will call each other names, raid each other’s supplies, give them a wide birth, and of course shoot at each other! There was one event in 2016 where we had to split up part of our company, and some of us had to fight for the North. My Colonel, of whom I think very highly, had to galvanize. I was in gray, and as he was pulling his blue coat on, I told him, “I’m going to really not like you for about an hour, Sir.” That statement was very true, for I shot him three times on the field! (Thank goodness we are only using black powder).

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Photo Credit: Les Patton

I have friends who portray some of the best darn Yankees I have met. Trust me, my ire certainly rises seeing them across the field, and I do NOT want to mess with certain ones in camp when they are in Federal blue. There are others I want to rile beyond words! For one of my friends in particular, there is a certain je ne sais quoi about him when he takes the field in Blue or in Butternut – and it’s different depending on which role he is portraying. I once asked him why he played Yankee, and why he was such an absolute rapscallion when he did. I love the answer he gave, and I will try to do it justice here: “Because I have to represent who they were, and the brutality they brought down here. If I don’t, then I do an injustice to my family, and our ancestors who fought them, and I can’t do that.” He does a very good job at it, almost maniacally at times! When he is in Butternut (Confederate), I have seen him stand tall in the face of a Yankee onslaught. He is not easily moved or impressed by their tactics, always wanting to counter them and take them down, even under fire.

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Photo Credit: Sherry Knight Frazier

My beloved Captain is a little different. He loves the South, though he does have to galvanize occasionally. He is the constant Southern officer, runs a tight camp, shows respect to his fellow officers and those who outrank him, is a good leader to the rest of us (though to be truthful, Stephanie runs the camp). He loves our history and our heritage, and wants to see it portrayed well. He is calm and level headed at all times, which is good because we have some hot-tempered ones in the bunch! He’s very inviting to all, and encourages those who are interested to come to an event and see if this is for them. I would not be a living historian on a battlefield were it not for Stephanie’s invitation to come talk to them, and his invitation to join the 53rd GA for an event. Oh how immensely glad I am he offered!!!

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

Our member, J.R., is a filmmaker and is making a documentary about what it was like for the more than 400 women who disguised their sex and fought as men, and what it is like to portray them. That is her role in our company and on the field. She fights, marches, drills, and performs her role in camp just like the men. She is honoring those women, about whom few people are even aware. (Shout out to Reenactress Documentary!)

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Photo Credit: Reenactress Documentary

Mindset is everything. For some, the mindset starts before we get to the event. Some watch Civil War films such as “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals,” “Shenandoah,” or “Field of Lost Shoes.” Some listen to music from the war, performed by some of the historic bands such as “The Unreconstructed,” or the “97th Regimental String Band.” Many of our men are military veterans. They tell me they go back into military mode mentally. They know we are about to face an enemy and their training, both from the real military and our training as soldiers of the War Between the States, kicks in, just at a lower level than when they were in combat. Others have been reenacting so long that it has become second nature! For these, once they are in uniform and it’s time for action, they are in character.

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

For most of us, things change even more when we go on the battlefield. For those who have been reenacting decades, they think not just about the battle, which by now is like second nature, they are also always thinking about the safety of the men and horses, as well as putting on a good show for our audience. Many of those portraying Federal troops go from relaxed, to cocky, troublemaking good-for-nothings (and I mean this in the nicest way possible, guys), to fierce, aggressive fighters on the battlefield. There are a few in particular I look for when we are opposing them, because I know the most ferocious fight will come from their part of the field. All compassion is gone, only a determined enemy there to wipe out the South. For many of our Georgia reenactments, and depending on the battle we are recreating, some of the Federals decide to fight like they were under W. T. Sherman and his ruthless band of soldiers.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

For the Confederates, particularly at the reenactments here in the deep South, we are constantly in mind of the fact that this war was fought on OUR soil against our homes and families. We know when the Federals come through and man-handle the women, and raid the buildings (yes that is part of some of the reenactments- I’ve experienced it!), those were our women, homes, and lives destroyed. There is the feeling of the home guard, the last stand between victory and annihilation, and the last hope of keeping the Federals at bay. At times, there is desperation, at times anger, and at times, the intensity of “you will only get through over my dead body.”

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Photo Credit: Les Patton

For me, I become a mixture of modern times and the 19th century. My job as medical corps is to truly monitor our men and make sure everyone is okay, and that is real job in itself! But I also watch and act with those who are “wounded” by the battle, or get wounds of war, such as this last event where a guy “lost his leg” from a cannon shot. I jump in to determine if they are alive, dress the wounds, and see if I can get them back on the line or if they have to be moved toward the rear and medical care. My mindset is always on how to treat their wound with what I have, and what could have been done on the field, verses having to be performed in an actual hospital.

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Photo Credit: Les Patton, Editing credit: Shelby Chasteen

We act in ways we hope is both accurate and honoring to those who lived it. We set our mindset on the way the person we are portraying, or our ancestor, would have thought and felt. We strive to do our job well, whatever that role may be. We feel a great responsibility to make sure we tell the REAL story to the audience, and give the public some small taste of the real war, in all the unadulterated facts. Most of all, it is our passion that makes us who we are. Our passion for our history, our passion for honoring those who lived it, our passion for reenacting!

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Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

I hope this gives you a small look into the world of reenactors and all that we do. We are not simply people play-acting and shooting guns and cannons. There are many historians in our midst, and a love and connection to the history and to each other, which runs deeply through all of us.

 

*Please be sure to check out our photographers and the Reenactress Documentary! You can find them on Facebook, and you can find Reenactress Documentary here: https://www.facebook.com/reenactress/app/216201571807288/