“People look at the war in black and white and it wasn’t black and white.  It was color.” – Art Stone, Civil War Reenactor

KABOOM.

April 12, 2011. Cannon fire echoes across Charleston Harbor, in South Carolina. Civil War Reenactors portraying Confederate militia are marking the opening salvo of the Civil War by firing on the Federal Garrison at Fort Sumter.  From across the country approximately one thousand  dedicated reenactors have converged on Charleston to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.

Most reenactors are hobbyists. They combine period dress with modern comforts like coolers and comfortable beds. But a select few strive for historical authenticity, and are willing to do almost anything to achieve it. They are known as hard-core reenactors, or Authentic Campaigners. Their devotion to the Civil War is obsessive, even destructive.

Beginning at Fort Sumter, and for three months, National Geographic embedded with a handful of the most hard core reenactors who eat, sleep and breathe the gunsmoke of Civil War history, including:  Art Stone, who claims to be the re-incarnation of an actual Gettysburg soldier from 1863;  Zack Forsythe, a Marine Corp veteran who served three tours in Iraq, making the difficult transition to civilian life with the help of reenacting;  Travis Brooks, a sixteen year-old high school student striving to become one of the youngest members of the most elite group of reenactors in America;  and Audrey Teller, a woman whose decision to reenact as a male soldier challenges the reenactment community’s definition of authenticity.

We follow these reenactors, from the garrison at Fort Sumter, to the iconic battlefields of Manassas/Bull Run, and Gettysburg, the mecca of reenacting.  We find out what it takes to be a hardcore reenactor and travel back in time with them to experience how the Civil War was lived, felt and fought, providing a rare look inside this exclusive, insular and deeply passionate community.

Big reenactments, like the 150th Anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas, attract thousands of participants from around the world and an equal number of spectators. The remarkable scale of these battles — with mounted cavalry, terrifying artillery blasts, and thousands of infantry — is testament to the powerful hold the Civil War still exerts on the popular imagination.

But the obsessive devotion of reenactors has invited mockery and skepticism from academic historians. Are they simply adults playing dress up with guns? Or living historians, celebrating the sacrifices of the individual soldier and keeping a vital chapter of the American story alive?

To learn the answer, we went home with our subjects, joined them around the campfire, and followed them into battle. With high-speed cameras and unusual perspectives, including the Musket-cam, we bring the Civil War to life in an effort to understand what the men (and women) who fought this war felt and experienced in battle and understand the sacrifices they made.

We also confront some of the taboos of the reenactment community, including slavery, a topic rarely addressed despite its very centrality to the war. We meet Marvin Alonzo Greer, a slave reenactor. And we encounter the Lost Causers; Confederate sympathizers who still argue that the world would be a better place if the South had been victorious. From a reenactor in Florida, we get a humorous lesson on how to die in battle, and war is made profoundly real when we visit the gravesite of Zack’s friend Chris, a U.S. soldier who died in Iraq.

And we share the frustrations and triumphs of our subjects. Travis Brooks, the young reenactor, survives the gauntlet of Manassas, earns his stripes and goes on to “see the Elephant” — experience Battle for first time – at Gettysburg. Audrey finds her role as a women soldier challenged at Fort Sumter, but persists, with the support of her husband and the dean of women reenactors, and fights on. A strange experience on the Gettysburg battlefield suggests Art’s story of re-incarnation may be true. And Zack, the young battle-hardened Marine, finds the camaraderie in reenacting he needs to soldier on with life, and passes on reenacting to his five year-old son Gabriel.

The film concludes with a moving tribute to the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. Gazing at the long rows of anonymous gravestones at Antietam and Gettysburg, through the eyes of these hard-core reenactors, we now better appreciate the cost we paid as a nation to preserve the Union.

For more, tune in to Extreme Civil War Reenactors tonight at 9p et/pt.

Comments

  1. Amy Kirkpatrick
    United States
    May 10, 2012, 9:49 pm

    What a severe disappointment this show was. The strangest people are always showcased on these shows, never the true living historians.

  2. Tracey McIntire
    May 11, 2012, 8:11 am

    I was excited to see that you were doing something on women reenactors. Imagine my dismay when that part was cut. You missed a golden opportunity to make your documentary stand out from the others–instead we got cliched characters (the “reincarnated reenactor,” the “recovering soldier,” and the “young kid learning the ropes”) and footage from mainstream reenactments that make the real hardcore folks cringe. You fell into the “reality show” formula–shame on you. You’ve turned into the History Channel and that’s NOT a compliment.

  3. Brian Mitchell
    manassas va
    May 11, 2012, 1:04 pm

    I know Audrey Teller personally as she is a member of my reenacting group, and I can honestly say her portrayal of a Union private is better then most males.
    Her knowledge, passion, and dedication to authenticity is unriveled by most in the hobby.

  4. Jonathan Foust
    North Carolina
    May 11, 2012, 2:16 pm

    I noticed that even though the uniformage looked to be in line with the Hardcore mentality, I saw a wristwatch in there. I didn’t feel like this show really focused on what made a hardcore different from farbs or mainstreamers. It would have been much more interesting and informative for them to follow a reenactor or unit from each school or thought in order to highlight the differences. Good show, but not great.

  5. Ben SChaffer
    United States
    May 11, 2012, 10:14 pm

    The cameramen were so dang annoying at Fort Sumter. The safety officer told them to back away from the cannon if they wanted to keep their heads in socket…but they kept getting closer and closer

  6. Extreme Something « Kitty Calash
    May 12, 2012, 5:35 am

    [...] Geographic’s Extreme Reenactor aired Thursday night and we watched with a kind of…intrigued [...]

  7. ken
    chicago
    May 12, 2012, 9:11 am

    where can I find the guitar backing track from this show or at least the drum loop?

  8. doug lyons
    May 12, 2012, 2:06 pm

    As far as these sorts of shows go I don’t think it was too bad. I was really hoping that the show would focus more on the daily lives of soldiers on campaign – how they ate, drilled, passed the time of day etc. I thought far too much focus was placed on the battle scenarios and it was, frankly, laughable to show footage from Gettysburg 2011. This was a poorly attended event supported mustly by the farb / mainstream element of the reenacting community.

    Had the director waited a year he would have had the opportunity to film a campaigner regiment (15th / 16th Iowa at Siloh) in camp, on the march and in battle. A missed opportunity …

  9. MIchael Stone
    Pentwater, MI
    May 13, 2012, 7:00 am

    As a retired Civil War reenactor of 15 years, I found that this program brought back many memories of my participation. Is there any chance that this program will be available on DVD, in the future?

  10. Bill Williams
    May 13, 2012, 11:06 pm

    Amy, I lived in Gettysburg for quite some time and interacted with the living historians every weekend. I hate to break it to you, they’re all weird. This show would have had to search to find the non-weird ones.

  11. Barbara Dee
    Iowa City, Iowa
    May 18, 2012, 9:27 am

    I was very disappointed to see that they cut out the section on Audrey Teller. I have done some Civil War reenacting, and I lecture on the role of women in the Civil War. It is very hard to get factual numbers – but it is estimated that upwards of 700+ women disguised themselves as men and served with the military. Sara Emma Edmonds Seely, Harriet Tubman, Francis Clalin, Jennie Hodgers (Albert Cashman) all served in the war as soldiers disguised as men (with the expection of Ms. Tubman – she did not disguise her gender)

    At Gettysburg in the days after the battle the townspeople discovered that one of the Confederate dead was a female. Years ago while excavating a mass grave in Shiloh – one of the skeletons was a female – with the Minnie ball still lodged in the hip.

    No – there were not a lot of women serving as soldiers – but we were there! It is part of our honored history and it should be included in Civl War reenactment.

  12. Anita Henderson
    Woodbine, MD
    May 19, 2012, 8:41 am

    Agree about Audrey who has an awesome impression! I was travelling to Chicago and missed the program ;-( Does anyone know when it is going to be repeated?

  13. [...] freak factor was still sufficient for National Geographic to do a one-off reality show titled “Extreme Civil War Reenactors.” (The word “hardcore” presumably sounded a little too much like the adult film industry.) [...]

  14. [...] Nation Geographic’s story and all photos are from : http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/05/10/extreme-civil-war-reenactors/ [...]