The men and women who research the 18th century and then appear in costume and in character to reenact significant moments in American history spend the rest of their days as bankers, computer salespeople, firemen, engineers, doctors, students and retirees. From teens to septuagenarians, the one thing they share is an enthusiasm for learning and a keen appreciation of history. Kevin Gatlin of the Sudbury Militia in Massachusetts sums it up: "One can join for the simple pleasure of dressing funny, waving at neighbors in parades and sharing a beer at the tavern. Or you can make it your life by traveling from Quebec to South Carolina during the year for reenactment events and everything in between. The main thing though is having a love and deep respect for our history. What we [Americans] accomplished in obtaining our independence remains awe-inspiring and should never be forgotten."
Everyone is Welcome
Although many of the reenactors are white men, like the historical figures they portray, everyone is welcome to join the militias today. Each group has its own attitudes toward women and non-white members. Some allow women or people of color to assume the role of a white man, and others encourage an exploration of a particular identity. For example, Charles H. Price, Jr. of the Lexington Minute Men plays Prince Estabrook, a former slave who fought on Lexington Green.
Time and Money
The cost of joining a living history society is negligible -- often a token fee to pay for the group's newsletter. However, to outfit oneself for public viewing requires an investment of time and money. Most groups require at least a few years of participation in the reenactments, and are very strict about anachronisms. Wrist watches or cameras are forbidden, for example, although some leeway is given to wire-frame eyeglasses, because of the expense of period glasses.
Creating a Period Character
According to Gatlin, "A basic 'kit' can be acquired for around $300 - $350 if you purchase your clothes through a catalog supplier for men (tricorn hat, shirt, vest, breeches, stockings, garters to hold them up and buckle shoes). There is a similar cost for women (cap, straw hat, chemise, skirt, bodice, apron, shoes). This is why many quickly turn to making their own clothing." Auction sites are another source of period costume. Finally, the groups sometimes redistribute outgrown costumes, especially for children. A basic outfit is usually customized if the reenactor chooses to play a particular character. Musical instruments, cooking utensils and pocket watches can all differentiate a reenactor. A working musket can cost from $500-700.
The Guns Are Real
Most militia groups hold "musters" or events at least once a month. The meetings range from lectures on the role of African Americans in Revolutionary history to seminars on costuming, or -- the most important -- drills on gun safety and military discipline. Wayne McCarthy of the Lexington Minute Men says the question he gets asked most is: "Is that real?" And the answer is yes, all the guns are working replicas. Although bullets are not shot, the guns may discharge up to fifteen feet of flame. In the vicinity of highly flammable costumes and wigs, and naive spectators, the reenactors must be very careful with their weapons.
History as Hobby
In Sudbury, Gatlin writes, "We have had speakers discuss Bunker Hill, 18th-century antiques, the role of weather in various battles, battle tactics, the effect of the Massachusetts gun law changes on musket carriers like us, guest 'characters' like Ben Franklin, Sam Adams and Paul revere. Music has also been an important part of our meetings, Fyfe & Drum groups, a harpsichord and dulcimer manufacturer, you name it! Anything to add to our knowledge of the times and the reenactment hobby."
Families can participate together in living history. Children are invited to carry flags or learn to play a fife or drum. "Being together as a family, traveling to historic sites, and sharing all that comes with it, with the larger reenactment community, helps to form attachments that last. We are several generations strong in some of our families," Rhondda McConnon reports. "It's an experience I wish every child could have. Leaving behind most modern conveniences and having to come up with something to do and even having the time to be bored, it's priceless."
Reenacting Women's Lives
Although the men in uniform often command most of the attention on battle reenactment weekends, women make up half of some companies. Many women act as interpreters, like museum docents in period costume, keeping spectators within safe areas and explaining the events as they unfold. Some women are in the auxiliary, helping behind the scenes. Others carry muskets onto the field, provided they dress appropriately -- that is, as men -- to keep the scene historically accurate. Women and non-combatants are also found at market areas on the periphery of battles, selling period goods, participating in cooking contests or watching a Punch and Judy show, says McConnon. In 2003, a group called "18th Century New England Women" staged an alternative to a battle -- a reenactment of a tavern scene at Hartwell's Tavern in Minute Man National Park. The novel presentation included an "unexpected" birth that occasioned gossip, advice on midwifery and excuses for the men to leave the building!
Keeping History Alive
Most reenactors have three goals: to get the details right, have fun, and keep the history alive. As McConnon explained: "So, will everyone always have all the correct information and dress the part perfectly? We can only wish. I'm for high standards but I'm also for keeping this history out there for all to see. If bringing attendance up at a battlefield or volunteering to man a historic site helps to keep its doors open or to cause a person to want to read more about history, we've done a good job."