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Book Review: Battlefields of Honor: American Civil War Reenactors by Mark Elson

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The American Civil War has held the interest of thousands of people for 150 years. For many people around the world, this interest is not satisfied by reading or writing about the war, but leads them to want to experience it as nearly as possible for themselves. These people become reenactors.

For some, the desire is to help preserve the history. For others, reenacting is an escape from the modern world. For many, it is both.

In Battlefields of Honor, Mark Elson provides astonishingly authentic-looking photos of reenactments and reenactors. Often he employs cameras which were specially built and uses period lenses to create wet plate photographs, which is the way authentic Civil War-era photographs were made. The result is a sometimes ghostly appearance that seems to fit the spirit of the reenactments, recalling the appearance of those who have passed into the shadows of time.

Many of these reenactors spend a lot of money to make sure that their clothing is perfect for their roles, adopt not only the look but the mannerisms and speech of the time, and attempt to follow camp life as closely as possible. Through the short explanations and the photos in this book, one learns not only about the reenactors but a great deal about the war itself and the people who fought it.

The people taking part in the reenactments who are captured in the photos include black and white, men and women, Americans, Irish, French, Italian, and English participants. They portray both famous people and the nameless and faceless soldiers who fought valiantly for their cause on both sides.

Among the actors are women playing soldiers, and there were women who disguised themselves and fought in the war. There are also women who accompany their men in the reenactments and cook, do laundry, and try to maintain some sort of normal life outside of the battles, just as women did in the camps of the day.

There are black soldiers on both sides, although not as many who choose to portray Confederates, just as there were some but not as many who fought on the Confederate side in the real war.

While it is a bit strange to see the reenactments taking place on the grounds of English manor houses, the author points out that many of these people had ancestors who had gone to America and fought in the war, and they honor these ancestors when they take place in the recreated battles.

While this is still a cleaned-up version of the past, with, for instance, no camp followers who were prostitutes in the photos, and no blood soaking the ground or fear of real injury or death, the photos nonetheless, like the reenactments, have much to show and teach us about history, in addition to being fascinating in their own right.

Battlefields of Honor will be of interest to photography enthusiasts and Civil War enthusiasts alike.

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.