Sunday, May 4, 2014

Put Your Hands Up (Single or Otherwise)

My husband leaves for work at an insane hour every morning and I often have to choose between going back to bed, staring into space while I think about making coffee, or somehow being productive. Today, I decided to write. I have some things I would like to work on, but wanted to blog to rev my writing engines (for old time's sake).

My initial post idea came as I scrolled through my blog feed:

"Civil War blah blah blah" 
"Sesquicentennial blah blah blah" 
"Civil War blah blah blah"
"Reenactments blah blah blah"
"National Park Service blah blah blah"
"Civil War blah blah blah" 
"History blah blah blah"
"What can we do better blah blah blah" 
"Civil War blah blah blah" 

See what I did there? I replicated my feed obnoxiously. My point, however, is I had planned to illustrate the number of recent articles and posts that contributed to my initial post idea this morning. HOWEVER, a combination of little coffee, little sleep, and the fact that a number of these posts just replicate each other, I decided I shall just jump on in without major hyperlinking.

I read about reenactments, specifically about a viewer's perspective of what makes them "good." For the most part, I agree. I stumbled when I read:

One of the best reenactments I ever saw had no casualties at all. It was at a national park. Since the NPS doesn’t allow casualty reenactments, the soldiers did everything but take hits. They advanced, retreated, yelled, and took cover, but nobody feigned an injury or death, while a ranger narrated the action.  It was both enlightening and entertaining, and the crowd seemed to enjoy it.
That part about rangers narrating the action tripped me right into a whole slew of thoughts. I began cultivating how I would respond via blog post. This whole topic came up quite a bit while I worked at Andersonville and I seriously am behind on writing some living history/reenactment post(s). 

Keep following, I am going somewhere, I promise.

I thought a more simple way to address the concept of battlefield "reenactments" or "living history events" would just be to say if it were me, Elizabeth, a white woman hovering around 30 years of age, married, educated (to some extent), who lived during the Civil War, I would have had nothing to do with a battle. I would not have seen it, I likely would not have experienced it at all. I did not say I would not have experienced war, just not battle. So as a member of the audience, I would be nothing more than a mere spectator without some serious provocation happening by the interpreter. I've seen it in a fair amount of female visitors' faces in the past. *Yawn* I can't believe I have to see another one of these things. It's my husband who likes war and history so much, why do I have to attend?

I was then going to write about on how Civil War historians like to include women (heck! we get our own month and everything!). Guess what, guuuuys. It isn't even March AND I am going to talk about women's history. [Say, whaaaaaaa?] I planned to bring up the fact that just about every Civil War historic site uses particularly generic souls like Kate Cumming or Francis Claylin/Clayton to demonstrate women during the Civil War.*  Since they left behind "stuff" like a picture or a journal, they get remembered. I even planned on including a picture of myself from a while back; I dressed out for a living history event as a young, seasonal ranger who (at the time) felt I should just do what I was told (even if it meant wearing no making and dressing like a boy). Ok, I can still include that:

Guess which one is the girl soldier! 
For the time and event, I dressed out to ensure enough "soldiers" were available to man the cannon crew. Theoretically, I was also there to serve as the token "women-in-war" character, too. I could talk about all those lady soldiers!

As my blog post idea shifted, I thought about writing how living history and interpretation evolved in my life and its contributions to what and how I do things today (hint: dressing in historic costume since I was a kid). I still wanted to keep the core of the blog post about being a woman in the 1860s, trying to reveal what my life would have really included. I wanted to make sure I touched on the severity of life on the "home front" as I sometimes think "home front" is an obscure idea and definitely sweeter sounding than "battlefield." I would mention themes like fear, sorrow, survival, desperation, and starvation. I would mention the complexities of womanhood based on economic situation, environment, and regions. My imagined 1860s self could have many different ways of living and surviving.

Ultimately, I wanted a visual center piece of a woman from the era who looked roughly my age. "Let's all look closely at this photo," I'd propose. "Let us imagine her life and all that she carried with her. Let's think about what she experienced that was likely not battle. She lived an extraordinary life and now remains an unidentified woman in a photo." See, I knew that most photos of the women were likely unidentified. It's like I've done some research before or something. So I headed over to the Library of Congress Digital Collections and searched "Civil War women." That would seem logical, right? I imagine many people search these images for either educational resources or for visual effects. The Library of Congress revealed to me some of the issues of how women are remembered historically, especially from the Civil War. Look at this:

Note all the "Unidentified woman, possibly a nurse" titles. (Library of Congress website)

Just on the first page of the collection, ten of the fourteen women are "possibly a nurse." Talk about generalizing the Civil War experience of women! I understand there may be a reason this collection says that (maybe they are photos from a nursing organization of sorts), but if you were just passing through and found these, what would be your first assumption? The majority of women worked as nurses during the Civil War! That would mean the majority of women experienced battle in one way, shape, or form. Historians' number of nurses vary and the highest number I've seen say that nearly 20,000 women volunteering as nurses. That number reveals statistically the chances of serving as a nurse during the American Civil War was in the single digits, hovering around 5% (and that is only when estimating that generous number of 20,000, not the more likely 5,000 to 8,000 who volunteered as nurses). 

So there we have it. A post that followed my pre-coffee stream of thought about women and living history. There stands a common assumption at Civil War sites that "booms" bring visitors, so living history events should always include cannons or other firearms. Of course, I don't always agree with that notion. If we are being mindful of audiences, how are battle sites capturing their complete audience when "reenactments" include a "ranger narrating the action?" A better question might stand if asked "how are Civil War sites engaging a broader audience when living history events include 'rangers narrating the action?'" It is still the same old thing to the same group of people. 

So, where are the ladies?

*A few notes: I pick on Kate Cummings and Francis Clayton as they are both Western Theater women and I know of many [unnamed] parks and battle sites that include "special programs" on these women. I also limited my discussion to white women, as that would have been my perspective during the war; obviously women of color had even more complex experiences. Additionally, I know of a handful of places that do quality interpretation of women during the Civil War even at living history events, but the majority of Civil War sites do not begin any form of justice to interpretation of women. Finally, I am not saying that women shouldn't dress up as a males in modern interpretation; I am just challenging the content that most battle sites choose to include when they remember to talk about women. (Especially in that required month of March).**Even though I am back to operating as a free agent and not officially for the government, I feel I should keep up my disclaimer. These thoughts and opinions are entirely my non-caffeinated ramblings and do not officially represent any of the National Park Service.

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