I’ve developed an enormous appreciation for Civil War reenactors during the two years Erin and I have been researching for and shooting our documentary, Make the Ground Talk. Hardcore reenactors know their history, from the minutiae of buttons and biscuits to the details of their characters and units and the moment-to-moment evolution (or devolution) of battles.
But the hardcore men who portray soldiers of the United States Colored Troops — as well as the men and women who play enslaved and free people — dig especially deep into archival material and newly unearthed research on 19th-century African America. Their research goes beyond the standard great-general, tactic-and-strategies history, out of both necessity and conviction, into the lives of the largely ignored people who turned the tide of war toward the Union. By embodying women and men who actually lived, who fought for their own freedom, and that of the Union, they act as emissaries from the past. Their very presence expands and reshapes the work-in-progress we call American history.
The September 2014 reenactment of the battle of New Market Heights was historic in its own way, Malcolm Beech, a reenactor and president of the USCT Living History Association, told me. The USCT — African Americans in general — are usually slotted in to such events as an afterthought, he said. "In some places in the South with these reenactments, you’d think the Confederates won, because they organize the scenarios. They decide the order of battle. In New Market Heights today, this is one of the first times that African Americans were at the table, describing and participating with the scenarios.”
With my incessant questioning, I was keeping Beech from the buffet dinner event organizers had laid on. So I let him sign off: "It’s no different than when people tell you about cowboys and Indians. As long as the cowboys write the books, cowboys always win," said Beech whose brow was glistening from the late evening sun I had compelled him to endure. "We have to tell our own stories. We have to write more books. We have to do more research."