Enacting History is a collection of new essays exploring the world of historical performances.
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THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
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Chapter OnePresent Enacting Past
The functions of battle Reenacting in Historical Representation
Battle reenactments function as enactments of history, and their particular modes of representation address questions of authenticity, performance, and meaning. Popular since their initial inception in the 1960s, battle reenactments today boast hundreds of thousands of participants who portray soldiers from wars ranging from the French and Indian War to Vietnam. Their purpose is twofold: to entertain audiences with a showy display of artillery and to educate these same audiences about the history of the war and the living conditions of the soldiers who fought in it.
Reenactors view their representations of history not as performance but as embodiment. Rather than "characters," they refer to their actions and appearance as "impressions." The idea is not to represent specific people, although some reenactors do represent major figures as needed (more on that later), but to portray the common solider. This focus on the "average Joe" allows reenactors to sidestep the major ideological arguments that surrounded the war in question, as, for example, in the Civil War, where Confederate soldier reenactors are not bound, in their minds, to have an opinion on slavery. Yet reenacting does raise ideological issues, especially with regard to the representation and interpretation of history. What is the event? Who has the "right" to represent it? What is the link of the reenactment event to the "original"?
Reenactments occupy a unique space within the field of history and historical enactment. They are events that reference either a specific battle or a specific time, depending upon the war. Because of this, they cannot be considered battle simulations, or aspects of hyper-reality, as there is a historical event to which they each refer. Yet they are not specifically historical, either, because they are reoccurring in present times, causing a rupture between the signifier and signified. As a result, reenactment and the history it purports to enact are trapped together in a symbiotic relationship of progressive clarification and determination, a form of Deluzean ritornello. As Michel de Certeau reminds us, "historical science cannot entirely detach its practice from what it apprehends to be its object. It assumes its endless task to be the refinement of successive styles of this articulation." This oscillating process bounces around in an in-between space whose function is dependent upon how it is observed: as history, as performance, or as education. It occupies a liminal space, functioning as a rite of passage from enacted present into reenacted past.
The question of authenticity lurks around every corner of battle reenacting and, in fact, in all aspects of the larger living history phenomenon. Authenticity is a linchpin for reenactors; they judge the impressions of themselves and others by how closely they adhere to the available information about the war being fought. To the outsider, it can seem like splitting hairs, as a successful impression may hinge on a type of button or color of thread. Jenny Thompson recounts an anecdote from a Battle of the Bulge event where a participant was dressed down by his commander, a confirmed hard-core reenactor, for having 1944 suspenders on his uniform instead of 1943 suspenders. Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic contains numerous stories of reenactors striving for authenticity in their impressions, even down to dropping weight to achieve "the gaunt, hollow-eyed look of underfed Confederates."
The desire for authenticity divides the reenactment community into two basic camps: the "farbs" and the "hardcores." The term "farb" has several definitions. To Tony Horwitz, farbs are "reenactors who [approach] the past with a lack of verisimilitude." Jenny Thompson defines a farb as "a reenactor who is judged as having failed to establish a legitimate link to history." Hardcores, on the other hand, are the opposite extreme, those persons who go to tremendous lengths to make their impressions as authentic as possible. This farb/hardcore binary is, in my opinion, the core issue for battle reenacting: It encompasses the representation of history, how real is it; the authenticity of that representation, how true is it; and the meaning that can be made from the representation—can those viewing the representation believe it or not? Such a focus means that authenticity, while ostensibly a surface issue, remains a driving force in reenacting and living history circles, at least for the participants.
This farb/hardcore binary also asks how far is far enough where authenticity is concerned. Hardcore battle reenactors, as well as reenactors at other living history sites, have gone to great lengths to make their impressions as authentic as possible based upon available records, but how far is too far? Many hardcore reenactors no longer participate in commemorative battle events because they cannot experience the ultimate "period rush": live gunfire. These groups prefer to focus on drilling, forced marches, and the details of the soldier's life that occurred outside of fighting. By keeping their impressions outside of the space of the actual reenactment, hardcores remove their discourse from the overall historical enactment process. While this may appear to simplify the issue (authenticity debates are no longer a real factor), it actually makes the reenactment's ability to link to the historical event more difficult because it severs potential links to the past it is trying to represent.
A final question that must be addressed is the question of who is more "professional"—the hobbyist reenactor or the professional living historian. Living history sites such as Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg employ fulltime living historians who are trained in the history and practices of the time they represent and how to convey that information to the tourists who come through their exhibits. These people see themselves as separate from—and often superior to—battle reenactors, who, in their minds, are amateurs who lack the necessary training and education to be more effective (and, in fact, are usually seen as a hindrance to the living history profession as a whole because they are believed to convey inaccurate information). The antipathy is so pronounced that many reenactors detest the term and prefer to be called living historians, as they feel the former designation contains only negative connotations. Yet is this aversion to the term necessary? Many reenactors devote the same amount of time to preparing and researching an impression as any professional performer puts into creating a role. Reenactors at Texas Revolution events I have attended are a treasure trove of trivia and minutia likely unknown even to most PhDs in Texas history.
I propose that amateur, used to describe those involved in "the hobby," as battle reenacting is called, is not used in the modern sense, with its overtones of ineptitude and lack of commitment, but in the way it was used by interpretation pioneer Freeman Tilden: "For this word once described a person who could not be otherwise than happy, since he was doing something for the love of it; not for material gain, not even for fame or pre-eminence." In this sense, most, if not all, reenactors are amateurs, regardless of the level of authenticity they display (and that level is, of course, dependent upon who is setting the bar). This type of amateur status, however, conveys not a sense of inadequacy but a unique knowledge gained from self-study, accumulation of materials for impression, and participation in events that further the participants' understanding of both the hobby and the events it represents.
I now want to turn to a specific example of how battle reenacting can be fraught with issues of authenticity, performance, and meaning in the enactment of history. It concerns the relationship between the construction of "Mexican" and "Texian" in the battles of the Texas Revolution. Each spring since 1985, the Crossroads of Texas Living History Association and Presidio La Bahia have presented the reenactment of the Battle of Coleto Creek and the "Goliad Massacre." The two-day event includes three battle sequences and living history displays of period weapons, cooking styles, army encampments, and military drills—all common to exhibitions of war culture. It also includes the screening of films about La Bahia and lectures by noted authors about the history of the area and major historical figures like Col. James Fannin. Unlike most public battle reenactments, however, this particular event contains something a bit different: a reenactment of the massacre, the execution of 342 men under the command of Lt. Col. James Walker Fannin by the Mexican Army forces of General José de Urrea. Video cameras in tow, the audience follows behind as a group of "Texian" soldiers are marched to a site near the Presidio (where part of the actual executions are thought to have occurred); then, with the accompanying audience safely tucked behind a barbed-wire fence, the Texians are gunned down by the Mexican soldiers, who then stab the corpses with bayonets and rifle the pockets of the dead men for valuables. The audience proceeds back to the Presidio for the execution of Fannin and the wounded before a final first-person living history performance by longtime area reenactor Dennis Reidesel, based upon the account of Isaac Hamilton, a Texian army survivor.
The Battle of Coleto Creek/Goliad Massacre living history program is only one example of how the major events of the Texas Revolution have been transformed into powerful sites of performative remembrance. All of the major Revolutionary battle locations—Gonzales, the Alamo, Goliad, and San Jacinto—hold annual reenactments, usually on the actual sites themselves or close to them. (In the case of the Alamo, the reenactment is somewhat allegorical in nature, given the shrine's current location in what is now downtown San Antonio; however, as with all good reenactments, there is still plenty of cannon fire to excite the viewers.) The San Jacinto battle site is a Texas state park that can be visited year-round, as can the Alamo shrine and Presidio La Bahia (the site of the Coleto Creek/Goliad reenactment). Other arenas, such as the city of Austin's Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, also provide a year-round venue for the remembering and performance of Texas history in general and the events of the Texas Revolution in particular. Each of these sites functions as a locus of cultural memory for Texans and non-Texans wishing to re-view the past as well as a way for individuals to actually take part in the making of history (in the case of the reenactments themselves).
Historian Richard Flores states that "cultural memories, disguised and 'entangled' with the workings of the historical discourse, are spatially and geographically embedded in geographically fixed sites of public history and culture." Goliad is one such site; the massacre of the Texian forces became a battle cry for the Texian army at San Jacinto less than one month later, where, with cries of "Remember the Alamo!" and "Remember Goliad," the Texians routed the Mexican Army in a nineteen-minute battle. The ensuing slaughter of Mexicans troops was justified in the minds of the Texians as payback for the killing of their fellow soldiers at the two earlier battles. So, Goliad is a site infused with history and memory on both sides of the Texas Revolution; the yearly reenactment determines how those issues are enacted for the benefit of the attending public and, therefore, how history is remembered.
Certainly, there are questions of authenticity in play at Goliad. Mexican Army soldiers are kitted out in appropriate uniforms, and Texian army members are also appropriately attired. Dennis Reidesel, for example, wears the traditional red coat of the Alabama Red Rovers unit to which Isaac Hamilton belonged. While I have run into a few "stitch nazis" (as hardcores are often called), most of the reenactors are happy with maintaining the essence of an impression without sweating every little detail. For example, one Mexican Army officer I spoke with at Goliad was drinking a Dr. Pepper from the can throughout our conversation. The two Mexican Army cavalry riders were teenage girls who wore their hair up under their caps. Many of the Texian and Mexican army officers, who were supposedly thin to the point of emaciation due to poor rations, were significantly overweight. Do these anachronisms make Goliad a less "authentic" representation of history? Perhaps. Yet there may be more to Goliad than just representing what happened. Certainly, the decision to enact the massacre in a brutally authentic fashion is a decision that, for whatever reason, ensures that the overall impression remains in keeping with the dominant interpretation of Texas revolutionary history.
Many of the participants are self-reflexive about their role in reenacting, seeing the need for communication with the audience as more important than the need to be continuously "in character." This foregrounding of the "educational mission" of the reenactment, the ability of the participants to relate to people both inside and outside of their impressions, makes Goliad a very accessible event. Even Dennis Reidesel was willing to answer questions from the audience following his first-person Isaac Hamilton reminiscence as part of the massacre reenactment, although he did so in "character." (During the "down times" between battles on Saturday, Reidesel not only spoke about his impression, but also was willing to discuss the craft of reenacting with interested parties.) Many times, the quest for authenticity is a barrier to audience interaction, as audiences do not expect authenticity or understand the reenactor's desire for it. Yet without some elements of authenticity, the reenactment could not unfold and tell its story. So, authenticity, while not the watchword of the day at Goliad, is still in play and a necessary part of a successful present-time enactment of the historical event, reinforcing the symbiotic relationship discussed earlier.
Performance is also a central issue at Goliad since, as a small reenactment (by most standards), it does not attract a large number of participants. (My count one year was between seventy-five and one hundred participants. San Jacinto, on the other hand, had well over one hundred soldiers alone one year.) Battle reenactors typically play more than one role, depending upon the venue. This process, called galvanizing, ensures that there are equal numbers on both sides to make the battle more interesting and last longer. Many find themselves on both sides of the field during the same event. At Goliad, Ricardo Villerreal, a longtime reenactor, plays both the Mexican officer who demands that the Texians be executed as Santa Anna ordered and Carlos de la Garza, a Tejano rancher who saves his Texian friend Nicholas Fagin (and several others) from execution. (Villerreal plays Juan Seguin at Alamo reenactments.) Another reenactor, who plays the Mexican battlefield commander at Goliad, joked that he would be sure to "die" during the battle at San Jacinto either because the Texian reenactors treat the POWs badly or because the woolen Mexican uniform was too hot for late April in Baytown. This ability to "choose" their roles in the events allows them to craft an impression that is comfortable to them. Questions of ethnicity are not addressed—most of the Mexican army officers are played by Anglos. This trend makes for a whitewashing of the event that privileges the hegemonic interpretation of Goliad as the site of a massacre of innocent men instead of the execution of rebellious citizens and insurgents. Due to the Texian victory, the former interpretation of the event trumped the latter, with consequences that were far-reaching for portrayals of Mexicans in Texas history to this day.
The image of the "Mexican" reflects a complex web of political, economic, and cultural factors that had emerged by the early twentieth century. It is a facet of what Richard Flores calls "Texas Modern" or "how the forces of modernity wreaked havoc on Mexicans and Mexican Americans as they were displaced through the forces of technology, industrialization, and capitalism, or social production more generally." A performance of positive "Texan" characteristics in counterpoint to negative imagery relating to Mexicans ultimately legitimated the use of violence and other tactics to disenfranchise the Hispanic population. The "police arm" of the state had a long history of dispensing unequal justice by allowing "Anglos who murdered mexicanos to go unpunished," a history predating the Texas Revolution.
The disenfranchisement of the Hispanic population helped to bolster the image of the Texan as decidedly non-Hispanic. Performances of the "Mexican" became the ethnic counterpoint to performances of the "Texan." The creation in the latter part of the nineteenth century of a "dual wage" and colonial labor system (which segregated workers into different classes of work and different pay scales based upon ethnicity) separated non-white workers economically from their Texan counterparts. So did the segregation of Mexican American schools, which operated (until found unconstitutional in 1948), without even the pretense of the "separate but equal" conditions found in black and white schools. The formation of a "Chicano labor reserve," which ensured labor that was cheap and plentiful, set the boundaries of Texan identity in the first half of the twentieth century firmly outside the Hispanic community.
Goliad is also permeated with conflicting meanings found in the stereotypical characters of the "good Texian" and the "evil Mexican." One redeeming Mexican character, a woman, to break the evil Mexican stereotype was the "Angel of Goliad," Francita Alavez. The "traveling companion" of a Mexican army officer, Alavez is credited with saving several of the men under Col. James Fannin's command from execution following the Battle of Coleto. In addition to her inclusion in the yearly reenactment, her descendants travel to Goliad each year to commemorate her role in the revolution, and there is a statue erected in her honor near Presidio La Bahia.
Excerpted from Enacting History Copyright © 2011 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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