Civil Wars reenactors make dresses (2014).
PhotoAtelier, Wikimedia Commons
dispatch / memory

The Decline of the Civil War Re-enactor

The 155th anniversary Gettysburg re-enactment was a snapshot of a hobby with dwindling ranks.
The sun rose on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, 2018, to reveal a line of cars parked behind the Union Army’s tents.

It was an annoying historical anachronism for the brigade’s commander, Ted Brennan, 49, who was brushing his teeth with a horsehair toothbrush.

“We try to be as authentic as we can without getting dysentery,” Mr. Brennan said of his unit, several of whom were frying bacon and brewing coffee over a fire. They were camped in a sea of canvas tents that housed many of the 6,000 re-enactors at the event. Beyond the spectator stands and hot dog stalls, the Confederates were camped just out of sight.

The 155th Gettysburg anniversary re-enactment, which was held over the second weekend in July, was a chance for dedicated hobbyists to blast away at each other with antique rifles and rekindle old friendships over campfire-cooked meals. Spectators paid $40 to watch nearly a dozen mock skirmishes over the course of four days, and there was an old-timey ball on Saturday night. An Abraham Lincoln impersonator was on hand to pose for photos.

It was also a snapshot of a hobby in decline. Gettysburg is among the biggest re-enactments of the year, and it still draws thousands to the sweltering Pennsylvania countryside in the middle of summer.

But that’s nothing compared to the re-enactments of the 1980s and 1990s, when tens of thousands would turn out. In 1998, at the 135th anniversary of Gettysburg, there were an estimated 30,000 re-enactors and 50,000 spectators.
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