For years I have said, “You cannot go back; you can only go forward.” Recently, this was demonstrated to me in a very real way.
As many people know, I was a Civil War Reenactor for many years. I joined the hobby in the early 1990s, met some great people, saw some amazing places (Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Manassas, The Wilderness, Sharpsburg/Antietam, Vicksburg, Olustee, Brooksville, Pleasantville, Richmond, Atlanta, Charleston, Shiloh, and others from Maryland to Texas), and eventually met the gentleman who would introduce me to my wife of 22 years. The sounds, the smells (the wool of the uniforms, the leather accessories, the canvas tents, the burning wood of hundreds of campfires, the gunpowder), all filled my senses and gave me a profound feeling of reliving the past in a very real way.
Yes, there were the usual cast of characters in reenacting: the half-pint little dictators who believed that their reenacting rank was their real rank and let it go to their heads both at reenactments and in their real lives, the “thread counters” who would find fault with everything that you did because it wasn’t 100% authentic in their minds, the yahoos who thought that they were still fighting for the causes of the war… but there were also the vast majority—like me—who were there to experience and to teach the trues history of that turbulent time period. And before you ask, yes, I had both a gray and a blue uniform in my closet.
Shortly after I got married, I began moving around the country because of my work, making it impossible to be active in reenacting. But I never stopped loving the hobby. When we finally settled in a place where I knew we’d be staying for a while, I was able to become active again, and my family joined me. This brought new joy to the experience for me.
Then, about five years ago, I found myself on the receiving end of a coordinated effort to rob me of the joy derived from reenacting. Two different groups of people from two different reenacting organizations that I belonged to went out of their way to harm me, my reputation, and my position in the two organizations. Their tactics and motivations were so disgusting that I left the hobby. But unlike before, this time I sold all of my uniforms and equipment, my collections (except for a few pieces of memorabilia that held special meaning to me), and the bulk of my book collection, which was extensive. I turned my back on the thing that had literally changed my life and had been the cornerstone of my activities for over twenty years.
In the years since, I have often missed the hobby and the people I used to know. But the longer I was away, the harder it became to stay connected to those people—including the man who introduced me to my wife and had been like a brother to me for nearly thirty years.
In the early days of reenacting, two films had a tremendous impact on me: Glory and Gettysburg. When I watched those films, I could smell the smells, hear the sounds, and feel like I was right there with the actors on the screen. But a few weeks ago, Glory was on television. It had been years since I watched it, and I was curious. I sat down, turned on the movie, and… nothing. No sensory experience at all. I was just a guy watching a movie on television. This was unexpected. Was reenacting no long part of my life’s blood? I had to put it to the test. I pulled out my super-deluxe copy of Gettysburg, loaded it into the player, sat down, started the movie, and… nothing. No sights, no sounds, no smells… even my memories of having been to Gettysburg dozens of time didn’t come into play. It was gone from me. Like a thief in the night, the hobby was now dead to me.
Looking back, I miss the people, I miss the way reenacting once brought me joy, but I don’t miss the nonsense and the folks who go out of their way to ruin the hobby for others—as if they and they alone have the right to determine who get to be part of “their” little club. I fell victim to those folks, and they succeeded in tainting my experience so well that even my memories are harder and harder to recall with any joy.
I now live in the same metropolitan area as when I first began reenacting. I don’t associate with any of my fellow reenactors, I belong to no reenacting or battlefield preservation organizations, and I participate in no heritage events. It’s as if that part of my life never happened. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that reenacting’s only purpose was to introduce me to my wife, and once that happened, the hobby no longer had purpose for me, and my mistake was trying to continue in the hobby long after its purpose was done. I was trying to go back to those happy times leading up to meeting my wife, instead of moving forward with my life. I’ve learned my lesson.
The journey with my wife continues, but without the shackles of the past trying to hold us back from where we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to be doing. Some amazing things have happened to us since leaving the hobby, and I predict that the best is yet to come.
Like spring cleaning—getting rid of items around the house that are no longer needed—we all need to clean out our lives, removing those items that no longer add value, that no longer move life forward, that no longer have a purpose. You cannot go forward if you’re clinging to the baggage of the past. I discovered that the hard way. Don’t be like me!