Have you ever heard that, “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins” expression?
This American Indian Proverb suggests we take time to consider other perspectives before we act. I’ve tried to apply this to my own comprehension of history. After all, if we only have one side of a story we only have half the story. What about the other half?
I’d heard from some people that most history is written by the victors. From that context there may only be aspects documented that seemed relevant to a select number of people. Others, like the vanquished might not have much of their side told. In so doing we’ve somewhat dehumanized the history that we tell. The feelings, pain, despair, and anguish are left out and we tend to focus on other things that disconnect us from a fuller impact.
I wanted my writing about history to be both relevant and insightful. I wanted it to help people in the present to relate to events in the past. So I decided to become a Civil War reenactor. Little did I know then the extent of learning the experience was going to be. That’s because I enlisted with a group of authentic reenactors. These people really know their stuff. They are the kind of folks that try and do everything like it really was back then. For starters, it was pointed out to me that the conflict was not a Civil War but a War Between the States. I found that interesting and the first of many definite varied points of view to discover in studying the subject.
It was also pointed out to me that if I wanted to transition into this time period certain kinds of apparel and behavior was required. That meant wearing wool or cotton clothing and a hat. Virtually everyone back then wore a hat of some kind. In my observation, they seemed a lot more purposeful for sun protection than most hats we have today. There were no zippers as yet. Everything was fastened with buttons, even the under garments. I acquired a pair of shoes from a vendor who specialized in reproductions of early shoes. When they arrived, I was amazed at how beautiful the soft leather was. They were one of the most comfortable pairs of shoes I’ve ever worn. These shoes were so good that I still have them nearly 30-years later. The soles and heels have been repaired and replaced but the leather is just as soft and comfortable as the day I first put them on. It’s made me think about the quality of some products today. Do you ever wish you had something as good and lasting?
Wearing period attire alone doesn’t make one fit into the time period I found out. I had to learn the jargon and expressions of the time. That included several behavioral practices almost lost in this time. For example, I had to learn to stand up when a lady approached or entered a room. Introductions were important. You tipped or lifted your hat in greeting and were always cordial. Boy, what a difference this was to social interaction today. I found that the ladies really liked being treated with such respect.
Portraying a soldier then can take a lot of effort. I chose to learn the aspects of a soldier that served on either side so I wore both blue and gray. Doing this taught me a lot of things. First of all, I learned that men on both sides of the conflict had a lot of things in common. Dairies and stories I read related how at varied times individuals from either side peacefully socialized and shared things like tobacco, coffee, or passed letters. As I delved more into written accounts, I began to see the human side of individuals from either side. Each of them had their reasons for fighting and sometimes those reasons didn’t line up with the causes and factors I’d initially learned in school.
The more I studied and reenacted the more I could find myself understanding some of the rationales behind why these people fought. The experience has given me a different perspective than I had before. It’s also shown me the importance of going to all kinds of sources for information. The books written by common soldiers or family members relate more than some of the more formal history books. Someone’s journal can also given a glimpse of the thoughts and feelings the people had. I personally found myself keeping a journal of what I saw, thought, and experienced. At times, it has helped me to relate more to this history. It’s also in some sense given me the chance to walk the moccasins of others.