23 November 2005 by Published in: General musings 5 comments

Reenactors and Living Historians – Definition?

Eric has asked me to write a little piece concerning the definitions of “reenactor” and “living historian.” For the most part, the public doesn’t see much of a difference between the terms, and uses them interchangeably in a generic sense. There are, however, several important differences. Since “reenactor” is a more specific term, I’ll define it first.

A reenactor is one who does a military impression and participates in battles and the resulting “camping” scenario. To put it plainly, these are the soldiers that one sees at battle reenactments. Reenactors are typically members of particular units, and there is a structure to the rank system, just as there is in modern military units. Most often a captain commands the unit, but ranks can be higher. New recruits start at the rank of private and can work their way higher to non-commissioned and commissioned levels.

The term living historian applies to a much broader group. Simply, a living historian is any individual who portrays a historical person – and it can be a military or civilian impression. A reenactor is a living historian, but not all living historians are reenactors. There are many types of living historians, portraying a variety of historical personalities, including but not limited to:

• Military – common soldier, non-commissioned and commissioned officers
• Civilian – common citizen of the period, medical personnel, musical, religious, sutler, wife of a soldier, etc.
• Political – politically significant historical figures (one example would be an impression of Abraham Lincoln)

Therefore, one can see that all reenactors are indeed living historians, but not the other way around. But because the term “reenactor” seems like a general term, the public often applies it to everyone mentioned above.

The term “living historian” is different, by definition, than simply a “historian.” Anyone, such as an author of historical works, a teacher, a researcher etc., is a historian, but a “living historian” presents their avocation by portraying an individual from history. This can be a specific individual, such as Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Clara Barton, etc., or simply a non-specific person of the period.

All of these terms, incidentally, apply to any period of history. There are many WWII reenactors who dress in the uniform of the period and reenact battles and camp life of the time. If someone resembles, and dresses like, for instance Dwight D. Eisenhower, and only speaks to the public as that persona without actually participating in battles and encampments, then that person is a living historian.

I hope this helps clear up the similarities and differences in the two terms. Once again, “living historian” is the broader term of the two, encompassing military reenactors and those who portray individuals of a particular period in history, and present themselves as such. “Reenactor” is much more specific, applying only to those soldiers who participate in battle reenactments and encampments that the public identifies with particular events throughout the year.

J. D. Petruzzi

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  1. Clay
    Wed 23rd Nov 2005 at 12:05 pm

    My DBW (Dearly Beloved Wife) calls them all “time transvestites,” thus avoiding this problem all together.

  2. Wed 23rd Nov 2005 at 3:42 pm

    Hey, that’s even better, Clay! That was much more simple 🙂

    J.D. Petruzzi

  3. Vince Slaugh
    Wed 23rd Nov 2005 at 11:00 pm

    Could you please elaborate on why you restrict the term “reenactor” to military impressions? Why isn’t a civilian living historian who reenacts a specific event (such as a political rally or soldiers’ fair) considered a civilian reenactor?
    My gut reaction is to claim that a reenactor is any living historian whose impression is based on an event, such as a battle or political rally. Therefore, there could be military reenactors and civilian reenactors. What do you think?
    (My background: I am a civilian/military reenactor/living historian, but I consider my hobby of secondary importance to studying the actual history. If there’s ever an effort to discuss improvements to the hobby, you’ll hear from me again…I have a long, long list. Anyway, I still have fun with the hobby, enjoy local events, stay away from mega-events, and always look for ways in which it can make me a better historian.)
    Thank you very much,
    Vince Slaugh

  4. Thu 24th Nov 2005 at 12:30 am

    Hi Vince,

    Well, I’m trying to get away from that generalization of the term “reenactor.” As I mentioned, the public substitutes one term for the other. So you know, I’ve also been both – I’ve reenacted for several years as a Confederate private, and do living history as a Federal officer (tours and presentations on battlefields, speaking engagements at schools, etc).

    I think it’s a generalization to say that any event is a “reenactment.” It’s just my opinion, but I see the battles as reenactments, and not simply everything else from history such as political rallies and such. I think all of this is why Eric correctly states that if you ask 100 people to define these terms, you’ll get 100 different definitions 🙂

    I too have a long list of suggested improvements to the hobby. I was involved with a particular living history group, but left it (along with many others) due to disagreements with the way it was run. Now, I’m no longer part of a specific living history group, and instead do presentations on the Gettysburg battlefield at the request of the Park Service along with another Federal officer. At this point, I am one of only two living historians permitted to do so at Gettysburg (there are other reenactor and living history groups that camp and do particular presentations, but what we do is quite different). The only other groups who do what we do are Park Rangers and Licensed Battlefield Guides, and we have a special permit to conduct our events. I’m much happier now than I was when I was a member of that old group.

    J.D. Petruzzi

  5. Janet Hess Boyle
    Fri 16th Apr 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Thank you for the information & photos regarding the Fairfield Penn. engagement of July 1863. I was so excited to see the actual place where my great grandfather Charles Philip Hess had fought. I understand that he had served in Company A, 6th United States Cavalry. As quoted from Centennial history of Missouri “He substained severe injuries in the engagement at Fairfield, Penn. July 4, 1863, when his left knee was dislocated by a horse falling upon him after the animal had been shot.” Imagine my excitment at seeing the Marshall house where he may have been treated!

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