According to a July 4, 2011 NPR segment hosted by Michele Norris, at last glance there were approximately 30,000 Civil War reenactors in the United States. This number had taken a nosedive from 50,000 over the previous decade. The interviewer, Gigi Douban, explains part of the reason behind the decline in interest for the hobby. She lists “The cost of travel, the cost of gear. That runs into the thousands. And it’s economic pressures like these that have some shying away from re-enacting. And the ones that are doing it are doing less of it.” Mr. Dana Shoaf, the editor of the Civil War Times, adds that “There just aren’t as many kids that are… finding re-enacting as an enjoyable hobby.”
However, Douban also reports that many get into the hobby “through word of mouth.” If so, then perhaps another underlying problem is advertisement. But advertisement, of course, has a double edge: if a product is to fly, or a hobby to survive, a specifically positive perception is a must. Requiring students to visit a battlefield or museum or to read The Killer Angels does not necessarily do enough to convey the gravity or the intensity of playing with historical fire—of wearing the blue suit in the summer. In place of prosaic means of communicating the power of living history, we need to find unexpected, asymmetrical means of reaching out. Some might expect me to recommend, as a person who does feel something when I wear the blue suit, that we give each kid a kepi and run them through Civil War 101. Nothing so grand. I think one of the simplest ways has already debuted and coupled with a better understanding of what reenactors do could help save the hobby: comedy.
That’s right. Call me crazy, but a character on South Park once said that comedy was how people came to terms with something they did not understand. I believe it. Even to the devoted, the nineteenth century is an alien place. To most, the Civil War is, at times, too alien to be interesting. Thus, I think it helps when someone like television host Conan O’Brien covers the Civil War. His sketch titled “Conan Becomes a Civil War Reenactor” is a personal favorite of mine, and I would argue that it does much for the hobby by virtue of Jedediah Longtree’s (O’Brien’s) anachronistic nature. That we can watch the 123rd NY Infantry roam the woods of Georgia in wool, sleep in open tents, and survive on wood fires and still think that Conan, with his preoccupation with hand cream, is the weird one of the bunch helps viewers see the universal in the hobby. By acting as a gatecrasher to the 123rd’s weekend party, by interrupting their social order, Conan lets the audience see, by contrast, that the boys in blue are humans too. That power to make the public self-evidently categorize a modern man and a group of nineteenth century throwbacks as “people, too” is remarkable.
While it will take more than laughs to communicate the power that we perceive in the story of the Civil War, laughter at ourselves, as always, helps break the ice.