Last year I confessed my desire to be a historic reenactor. The blog post made the rounds in the encampment during the inaugural War of 1812 Muster in Greenfield Village, and at the event when I revealed in conversation that I was the "wannabe," many participants generously shared with me some of their stories and why they reenact. I got some great insight that isn’t often revealed when walking though as an observer at such an event. For visitors, the reenactors faithfully remain in character - teaching us through living history. And over the years, through the Civil War encampment, the dramatic performances at the village and museum, and now through this 1812 event, I know my family and I have learned so much. (This year’s War of 1812 Muster is Aug. 18-19.)
After last year's 1812 muster, I received a nice note from a woman who participated as part of the First Regiment Volunteers:
I am so glad you came (back) out to see the GFV 1812 premier! I had read your “Reenactor Wannabe” blog the week prior and wanted to share an insider’s view with you. I thought that perhaps you had considered mostly the more superficial aspects of it as a hobby.
I have re-enacted on the coattails of my husband these past 16 or so years. He deeply loves late 18th- and early 19th-century American history and has a passion for sharing it with others. Now our two pre-teen sons are also involved. I have been in two different groups and found them both to be wonderful communities. I say “community” as I really feel that when we come together, we recapture that sense of small town support and interdependence that goes way back and often feels to be missing today. This community will gently nudge you not to be “farby” (unauthentic). They will share their patterns, stories, accounts, antique finds, historical tidbits and camaraderie with you. They share the clothes off their backs (hand-me-downs for the kids or an extra cap when you forget to pack yours!). They teach you and your children period card games, how to use historic tools, play a fife, make lace or rush a chair for example. They work together on the demonstrations (like the kids’ recruiting station) and cooperate on projects such as making reproduction wooden boxes or shingles to give back to the host historic site. Community members reach out to each other in order to overcome - as you said - “the logistical feat it must take for those involved to be there.” They help each other put up tents or work to save them from rising flood waters. They potluck communal meals and share fire pits. I could go on. I have learned much and look forward to my weekends with my community of dear friends. Nothing else propels me to research historic recipes and then to eagerly iron clothes for a couple hours like a reenacting weekend on the horizon!
I was grateful for her perspective, and her note prompted me to dig a little deeper and learn more. During the Civil War Remembrance this year at Greenfield Village, I had the opportunity to talk with some of the reenactors while they were preparing their camps for the annual Memorial Day Weekend event. (Reenactment groups from near and far participate in the event. They register in advance and are required to meet certain authenticity guidelines to ensure historical accuracy is presented to visitors.)
“Can I fire a musket?” Ken Giolando told me was the first question his then 15-year-old son Tommy asked when in 2004 Ken proposed the idea of participating in Civil War reenactments.
And, since the answer was "Yes," Tommy's reply was an enthusiastic, “I’m in!”
Ken, his wife and children joined the 21st Michigan Reenactors, after years of wanting to reenact - but just not knowing how.
I met Ken and his family as they were setting up camp for the annual Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village. It was an unusual sight for me: The village filled with present-day trucks and trailers.
Patty Giorlando demonstrates a spinning wheel, a skill she recently acquired participating in reenactments.
As an annual attendee of the remembrance event, I’ve always marveled at the detailed camps built by reenactors. My appreciation of the event grew tenfold as I witnessed all of the effort the participants put forth sharing their love of history with those of us who walk through. I think it really hit home when I saw cannons and horses unloaded.
Since I continue to toy with the idea of participating as a reenactor some day, I asked Ken how he got involved in reenacting.
“I used to go to events and think, 'Oh, we can't do this.’” He suspected you had to have all kinds of money to buy "all the stuff," or the people who did it must be part of some special club or professionals or something.
“Then one year, I was organizing a living-history event in the city that I live," he said. He went online to find some Civil War reenactors and came across 21st Michigan. “They came out to the event and were great.” The members who participated learned of Ken’s interest and - just like that - they asked him if he wanted to join.
He said the group was so welcoming and encouraging – and getting involved was not as hard as he thought. “We had never really inquired because we just assumed." He said there's a good lesson in that: Do not assume.
Dave Tennies portrays Senator Jacob Howard, and Ken Giorlando is the Postmaster.
Ken portrays a Postmaster of the mid-19th century. He uses period correct stationary, stamps, pen and ink and a desk to accent his presentation. Letters written by the many members of the living history community are actually sent and picked up through his post office.
Ken and his family - like other reenactors - are motivated by their passion for history. The Giorlandos are very active and participate in 20 or more reenactment events each year. Some are events that the 21st Michigan puts on for its members – such as a Civil War-era Christmas gathering. He and his family pitch their tents and interact with the public at some events (like at Greenfield Village), and at others, they have an opportunity to stay in authentic period housing.
Ken, his wife, daughter and one son are members of the Civilian Contingency of the unit, while his other two boys are part of the Volunteer Infantry – and that’s where the musket firing come in.
“The 21st Michigan’s view is to get you going, get you in some clothes and have you come out to see what it’s all about. If you have a love and a passion for this – we want you to do it.” Ken said the group strives for authenticity, not wanting visitors to see anything farby. “We work hard at that and encourage each other to do the same.”
Ken explained to me the different levels of reenacting - mainstream, progressive and what he called hardcore. Mainstream reenacting is where there is a lot of interaction with the public. The more progressive events may include public interaction, but in an overall environment that offers greater authenticity. He said the hardcore events are where there is no public, and reenactors are doing it for their own experience – like going off into the woods, setting up camp and reenacting battles, etc.
Andy Assenmacher, also a member of the Civilian Contingency of the 21st Michigan, added that the group has all levels of reenactors, its members are very encouraging and don't criticize. “We have lots of families,” he said. They also freely pass around clothes for the children since they are quickly outgrown
Dave Tennies (pictured above with Ken) got involved in reenacting by default. His son wanted to be a reenactor, and he needed a parent. That was 15 years ago. His son isn’t reenacting anymore, but Dave portrays former Michigan Attorney General and eventual United States Senator, Jacob Howard. During the Civil War, Senator Howard worked closely with President Abraham Lincoln in drafting and passing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery.
I talked with Lorna Paul, a long-time participant in the Civil War event at Greenfield Village. She's a member of the 4th Michigan Co A Voluntary Infantry Reenactors, which also has civilian and infantry contingents. Lorna was encouraging and explained to me how her involvement grew. Like Dave Tennies from the 21st Michigan, it was Lorna's children who prompted the family's involvement in reenacting years ago. Her children are now grown and don't participate often, but her two-year-old granddaughter enjoys accompanying her to events. Lorna is a seamstress, and she often makes and repairs period clothing for other reenactors. (I actually met quite a few reenactors what are able to incorporate their love for history with their work.)
Jeff Sinclair is a member of the 102 Colored Troops. He's been reenacting for 16 years with the 30-member group that includes story tellers who portray Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Their group also has a display of medical supplies and implements, and they set up numerous educational boards.
Jeff said he had come back to the states after working overseas and was looking for some fellowship. In his work, he came across some people who were reenactors; he was intrigued so he tried it out. He said it's a great group of people and that participating at the event at Greenfield Village is one his favorites. "It's always so joyful," he said.
Larry O'Donnell acquired a pre-Civil War transit made by Henry Ware of Ohio, which seemed to prompt his involvement. He's been reenacting for five years and was at Greenfield Village as part of the 4th Texas. Larry portrays General Jeremy Gilmer who was a topographical engineer. Surveying equipment was an essential tool during the Civil War. It was common for troops to build a bridge, retreat across it, then blow it up so opposing troops couldn't follow. In real life, Larry is a member of the Michigan Society of Professional Surveyors, a group that has an educational component that allows Larry and other members to borrow historic equipment to share with the public at events. He had some of that equipment at the event, too.
Many reenactors I spoke with told me of the sense of community they experience at events, that they have gained cherished friendships and made priceless memories. I can say after talking to many, many friendly people who were so willing and eager to share with me their stories, I realized that although how they got involved in reenacting is unique to each person - the reason they got involved is universal: They all have a deep passion for history, want learn about it by experiencing it for themselves and are moved by the desire to share it with others.
With greater insight and appreciation, I'm looking forward to learning even more at the War of 1812 Muster and want to say on behalf of those of us who visit as observers and students:"Thank you!" Thank you to all you reenactors out there for sharing your knowledge, your energy, your artifacts, your time and your passion for history with so many strangers. You are an inspiration to many.
Kristine Hass is a mother of five and long-time member of The Henry Ford. She frequently blogs about coming events and visits to America’s Greatest History Attraction.