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