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American Civil War Re-Enactors ... In The U.K.?

by Claire O'Neill
Sep 8, 2010

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Civil War re-enactment in America? OK. But overseas?? Last year, while on scholarship from Indiana University's School of Journalism, photographer Jay Seawell spent three months documenting the subculture in Britain. According to him, it's not so unusual.

It's hard to say whether American re-enactors would allow a digital camera on the 19th-century battlefield. But in the U.K., rules are a bit more casual. Because there's little personal connection to the Civil War, the British can have more fun with it. At least that's what Seawell's multimedia project suggests. Still, why on Earth would the British want to re-enact an American war?

"Why not? It's jolly good poppy," says Philip Clark. A lawyer by weekday and soldier by weekend, he is one of Seawell's many interviews. "The American war is somebody else's war. Over in America, I've experiened the 'Your grandpappy shot my grandpappy' stuff. Over here ... we're all friends together."

In the U.K., re-enactment in general is "a huge deal," Seawell wrote in an e'mail. "It seems that there are historical re'enactors of just about every war there." Plus, a lot of these "soldiers" grew up watching American Westerns, which often glamorize the Civil War era. Ray Thompson, for example, grew up watching them with his grandfather. "And I think it just burns into your psyche," he says in Seawell's documentary. "I've always been mad on it since I was about 6 years of age. Why? I don't know. I know nothing about the English Civil War — at all. But the American Civil War — I wouldn't call myself an expert, but I am obsessed."

Oddly enough, the re-enactors seem to take sides somewhat arbitrarily. For one subject in Seawell's documentary, it's about the "glam" of the gray and nothing more. Even odder, you'll see Confederate flags flown around with nonchalance. Complex connotation and entrenched sensitivity are somewhat lost overseas. But that's exactly what the British like about it. "Over here," Clark tells the camera, "the English Civil War from the 1640s can get personal as well — between monarchists and parliamentarians. But over here — the American Civil War — we're not so partisan."

American re-enactors might get up in arms (pun intended) about that, or about the fact that Seawell isn't using a wet plate view-camera. Or, who knows — maybe they, too, would just have fun with it. That seems to be what it's all about, anyway.

See more of Seawell's project on his website or check out his documentaries, including this one, in which re-enactors explain their day jobs:

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