Re-enacting events of the Civil War actually began not long after the war itself had ended. In 1913 over 50,000 Civil War veterans gathered in Gettysburg at a reunion. While the reunion was not specifically a re-enacting event, the veterans did re-create a battlefield encampment in which they stayed while attending. One might expect some division among troops from both sides but in actuality there was none. President Woodrow Wilson even said on the 4th of July that,
“We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten – except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.”
The explosion in popularity of participating in, and watching, re-enacting events over the last decade or two most likely has its true origins in the commemoration of the Centennial of the Civil War which occurred from 1957 to around 1965. At that time re-enactment evolved as a way to commemorate the battles of the Civil War without introducing too much controversy given the highly politicized atmosphere of the original conflict. Re-enactment events could occur and participants could take part in them without volatile political divisions or real conflict. After all, the outcome of the battles was already pre-determined by history and revising those outcomes would denigrate the history itself. During the Centennial celebration the largest re-enactment was the Battle of Manassas in 1961. In fact, members of the U.S. Army actually took part in the re-enactment on the actual site of the original battle.
From that point on re-enacting grew slowly with mostly small recreational re-enactments occurring. It wasn’t until 1986 when the Battle of Manassas was once again re-enacted, this time for the 125th anniversary of the Civil War, did the re-enacting movement really start to take hold and grow. The Battle of Manassas re-enactment included roughly 6000 re-enactors and footage of the event was subsequently used in some documentaries on the Civil War. In 1993 the movie Gettysburg was released and incorporated many re-enactors as extras. The film spurred interest in the Civil War and re-enacting as a hobby.
As the scale of re-enacting events grew so did the demand for replica items such as uniforms, hats, and armaments. Many re-enactors began to demand that these items be manufactured with the same materials and in the same manner as had been done during the Civil War itself. The more authentic the re-enactments became the more people adopted the lifestyle of those who lived in the 1860’s. The reflects the meaning of the term “living history” where one attempts to live a period in history just as those who lived during that time did. The more authentic the better.
The larger scale events also attracted more media coverage and attention from the public. One of the largest re-enacting events was the 135th anniversary of the Gettysburg battle at which roughly 40,000 people took part. The event itself actually was staged at Bushy Farm which is about six miles from the actual Gettysburg battle ground. Due to political risk aversion the U. S. National Park Service does not allow any re-enacting on historical battle grounds under their control.
Other aspects of Civil War re-enacting have grown in popularity as well with many Civil War balls being held as well as steamboat galas. Participants dress period appropriate and behavior and etiquette is period correct as well.
Re-enacting as a hobby will more than likely increase in popularity as the tradition is passed down to the younger generations. To be able to as accurately as possible simulate life during the Civil War gives participants and spectators a better feeling of the life of a soldier during that time. Of course, the true level of suffering and tragedy of soldiers and their families cannot be overlooked and isn’t, but re-enactors can feel a bond with those soldiers and civilians of the past.