Writing her doctoral thesis has literally involved a fight on the battle field for the historian Marie Bennedahl. She has been studying what it looks like when people from outside academia creates history. In her survey, she has been studying what happens when the American Civil War is reenacted in Scandinavia.
In order to get really close, she has participated on the staged battle fields herself. How is the war interpreted? What memories are in focus? And what unwritten rules apply for women and men who would like to take the step into camp life?
Reenacting the American Civil War in Scandinavia
The American Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865 and has since been retold many times in books and on film. But it lives on also among people in our time who meet to reenact the battles and camp life in reality. Participants dress up in uniforms and crinoline, they are divided into military units and cook food over the camp fire. And, not least, they stage historical battles, Unionists fighting Confederates, often in front of an audience. This phenomena is an example of reenactment.
In her dissertation, Marie Bennedahl has – for several years – studied two Swedish and two Danish associations that engage in reenactment of the American Civil War. The aim was to study what happens when the war is interpreted by Scandinavian practitioners. More specifically, she has studied how gender and gender roles affect what we remember from the past, and what it means to use your own body to experience the past.
“I’m interested in how things are done when people outside school, academia and museums make use of and create history. History is not present as a completed story, it is something that we shape all the time”, says Bennedahl.
The past vs history
“There’s a difference between the past and history. The past is what has really happened, while history is our interpretation of what has happened. And we interpret this differently depending on who we are and in what situation we find ourselves. The result is that we remember certain things, while there are other things that we do not remember. One can say that history is based on the memories of what has happened. In my research, I use the concept collective memory, that is to say when a group creates a common interpretation of what has happened”, Bennedahl continues.
Bennedahl made use of a research method that is uncommon for the subject of history, autoethnography, which means that the researcher is part of the material. For Bennedahl’s part, this meant that she joined the associations and studied her own participation. She tried on different roles; for instance, infantrywoman, artillerywoman and cook, for both the Union and the Confederation. She also carried out interviews with participants and analysed photographs.
The men have precedence of interpretation
Bennedahl means that, first of all, this is a clearly male arena. Military events, like the American Civil War, are traditionally linked to men. This results in the men having a more obvious role in the reenactment. They have precedence of interpretation concerning the perception of the past, thus, they shape history. The gender roles are clear. Men are expected to wear uniform and be soldiers, while women are expected to wear dress and take care of the household. When someone goes against this, there is confusion. When, for instance, a woman takes part on the battle field in uniform she is viewed as deviant.
Different perceptions of the past
However, this is not the whole picture. In her material, Bennedahl could see that different groups can have different memories of the past, even if they are part of the same community. With some people, there is a clear memory tradition highlighting traditional values and clear gender roles between women and men. This memory is rooted in the American Civil War, and is used as a form of criticism of today’s society. While in other groups, primarily on the Confederate side, there is another memory tradition. It emphasises the Confederate states’ strive for freedom, their struggle for a country of their own. A picture is constructed of the Confederate states as progressive and modern, where women very well could have been soldiers. It is an adaptation to contemporary norms. In this way, the participants change the common memories, to make it easier to include women.
“This is an adaptation of what happened, there were in fact very few women soldiers. In this way, history is changed”, Bennedahl explains.
“My research shows that ‘ordinary’ people also affect history, not only institutions have that power. It also shows that both gender and corporality affect our perception of the past; for instance, who can take part and what is emphasised. And this is something that we can affect”, Bennedahl concludes.
Marie Bennedahl, email email@example.com, phone +4670-776 21 88