Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reenactors Reinforce History Lessons by Robert Lee Murphy

Reenactments of historical events reinforce the lessons studied in school textbooks or enjoyed while reading historical fiction. Whether it's clamoring pirates, jousting knights, or warbling troubadours, the reenactors who participate in these activities are often meticulous about the details of their costumes and accoutrements. Wandering through an encampment of reenactors is an entertaining way for the observer to be able to visualize scenes similar to those an author struggles to describe on the written page. In my case, while researching for my trilogy, The Iron Horse Chronicles, there were three types of reenactments that proved particularly helpful.

Civil War reenactments provided information that I used in book one, Eagle Talons, wherein the protagonist, Will Braddock, has numerous connections with the United States Army. Will's father had been killed in the Civil War, and Will carries with him his father's Army Colt 44-caliber revolver. General Grenville Dodge, Will's mentor, and other senior managers involved in the construction of the first transcontinental railroad served as officers during the Civil War. Will is in close contact with the frontier army that consists of men who fought in the recent war, on both sides, and now protect the tracklayers from the attacks of the displaced and displeased Indians. As a resident of Nevada, it is not easy for me to travel to the eastern states to witness the reenactments of the major battles of the Civil War; although, I did have the privilege several years ago of attending a three-day reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. The photo shown here is one I took of a much smaller reenactment in the Las Vegas Valley in 2007, allowing me to get up close and personal with the reenactors, talk with them about their rewarding hobby, and study firsthand the equipment and weapons I describe in my books. Local reenactments, such as this, provide valuable opportunities for students to "rub elbows" with the real thing.

Early in book two, Bear Claws, Will Braddock has a heartrending, personal encounter with a Mountain Man. Later in the book, he leads a hunting expedition that requires the skills used by those early explorers of the American West. Throughout the western states, and the Rocky Mountains in particular, there are numerous large encampments of Mountain Men reenactors. But, like the Civil War reenactments, smaller, local encampments provide excellent opportunities to see how the Mountain Men lived, how they trapped and shot their game, and how they prepared their meager repasts. Las Vegas hosts an annual encampment of Mountain Men at the Spring Mountain Ranch, a Nevada State Park. Admission is open to the public, with a small vehicle admission fee. I enjoyed walking the grounds of the ranch with the Mountain Men in 2006, when I took this photo.

In book three, Golden Spike, Will Braddock struggles to help the Union Pacific in the race against the Central Pacific to see which can be first at the joining of the two halves of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. Visiting the actual site where this historic event took place is always educational, but it is particularly so if you can be fortunate enough to be present on the anniversary of that occasion. I enjoyed doing that on May 10, 2014, when I spent an inspiring day at the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Hundreds of people joined me in blustery weather (which is the way the day commenced in 1869) to witness the reenactment of the driving of the golden spike.

The reenactment at the Golden Spike National Historic Site is particularly unique in that written records exist describing the event and documenting the words spoken by several of the actual participants. Many newspaper reporters were in the audience on May 10, 1869, and wrote down what they heard. Since there was no public address system in existence at that time, and most people were too far away to hear exactly what was said, there are differing versions of the speeches. Some of the more prominent speakers distributed written copies of their speeches, which provide a more accurate basis for the script used during the reenactment program. The words of some of the players, however, have had to be recreated. Overall, the National Park Service produces a close to authentic reenactment in their commemorative ceremony of the driving of the golden spike.

The National Park Service has prepared a short reenactment script for use by grades 4 to 6. It can be found at the following website:

1 comment: