You are on page 1of 8


I have seen the elephant
A critical assessment of the educational value of living museums and


using specific examples from the civil-war reenactment

“The Skirmish at Gambles’s Hotel,”

cvbnmqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmq Florence, S.C.,

wertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmqwertyuio March 8, 2008

klzxcvbnmqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnLW Franklin, RPA
MA, University of Leicester




“I have seen the elephant,” is a phrase often found in the writings of civil-war soldiers to describe the

experiences of war (Robinson, 2008, intro). Its origin is lost in time, but in versions of a folk tale from oral

tradition, a group of blind men touch a different part of an elephant to learn what it is like. When they compare

their experiences, they learn that they disagree. The story illustrates that reality may be viewed differently

depending upon one’s perspective, suggesting what seems an absolute truth may be relative; perhaps you had to

have been there to understand .

Fig 1, The Blind Men and the Elephant (1888, Hanabuso Icho).

The closest we can come to the experiences of an earlier era, and understand how witnesses to an event can

arrive at such different conclusions, is at a living history or reenactment event.

Page | 2
There is strength in its theatricality, and the multi-sensory appeal gives one some idea perhaps of what it

was like to have perhaps been there. Even if somewhat flawed, it is much closer to what the people of that era

and event would have experienced; not a display, but a moving, ever-changing event of sight, sound, smells,

and experiences, which people today find much more stimulating than simply looking at objects (IPAH, 12.ll).

One may think of history as the juxtaposition of events with dates and places, but anyone who has ever

seriously studied history knows that it is never just about the events themselves. It is the thoughts of people

expressed in their actions that are meaningful (Collinwood, 1999, 39). The perspective gained from interaction

with the individuals engaged in living history and the observation of the people in action with the objects and

events brings meaning to the observer. In the words of a participant from the Citadel, a South Carolina military

college, “It is a good way to actually stand in their feet or as close as we can to the way it would have been,

except no one dies.” The meaning may be subjective, but so it was to the historical individuals; that’s the lesson

of the elephant.

Archaeology and history benefit greatly from living history re-enactors using their own resources in

considerable numbers to bring history as entertainment to a large number of people, perhaps exciting interest

where there might not have been any before. The downside is that living history re-enactors may feel no

obligation to present views contrary to their own, and prefer to play roles with which they are comfortable

(Boardman, 1997). In Southern reenactment events it is difficult to find Union troops, slavery being reenacted

is virtually unheard of, the native American role is nonexistent; and the version of events is often biased. For

example, according to the group that arranged the reenactment, approximately 500 federal soldiers marched

toward Florence to destroy the railroad station there. The soldiers had set an ambush for a train departing

Florence, but the engineer detected the ambush and reversed the train. The federal troops pursued and

encountered approximately 400 confederates near Gamble’s Hotel. The ambush failed, and the federal troops

were driven off (

No mention was made of the Northern version of events, that the “railroad station” was a stockade and that

they were attempting to free the 16,000 prisoners reportedly being held there (Federal Writers Project, 239).

Page | 3

This reenactment unit was from Florence, and based on conversations with the re-enactors, they were

familiar with the stockade, and the federal version of the event; but uncomfortable with it, and chose to re-enact

a scenario based on a Southern perspective. That was clearly the elephant in the room; but, the event wasn’t

just about a battle reenactment. In their words:

“The 23rd SC Infantry is an organization of living historians who portray the lives of soldiers from both the North and the South

during the period of the American Civil War. We learn from and enjoy the ways of life of an era gone by.

One of the main reasons for doing living histories is to inform you, the public about the life and times of the 1860’s.”


The event therefore also featured a living history site including what they consider to be a historically

correct presentation depicting army life, and a civilian homestead on which the organization conducted an

education program. The site was organized into several “education stations” manned by first and third person

narrators in period costume (Fig. 2).


Fig. 2, Education Stations

It has been observed that if you provide a group of schoolchildren with an opportunity to participate in

uncovering the past that you will have a convert for life, (Smardz, 1997, 103), and considerable interest was

evident in the approximately 2,000 schoolchildren observed, in addition to hundreds of participants and

spectators to the battle. The crowd appeared to consist of equal numbers of males/females, about 60%

Page | 4
caucasian, 40% black, roughly the ratio of the area’s population (Http:// This indicates

that the event was shared by a cross section the entire community.

The “Education stations” were portraying the S.C. Confederates as ordinary common folk, caught up in an

event beyond their understanding or control, defending the south against northern aggressors. The political and

economic events that caused the clash were probably far beyond the world they understood. The re-enactors

specifically wished to illustrate this perspective and emphasize that the war was not about slavery as commonly

represented (Encarta, 2008).

Fig 3, Settler’s Cabin

One presentation was made around a cabin constructed to appear authentic to the era (Fig. 3), equipped

with genuine artifacts and replicas. The first-person presenter said that he and his family were refugees and

there to rebuild. He told the tale of Sherman’s army taking everything of value, and burning everything else.

Then, in an apparent effort to tie the past with the present, and perhaps justify Sherman’s march, lessening the

division between North and South, he went out of character and said that both the Germans and the Soviets had

used “scorched earth” tactics during WW2, to prevent the other side from using the resources and encourage


Reverting back to first person, he said, “it was a lie” that the war was about slavery, that he and his family

never owned slaves. He asked the group what they thought the war was about, and one of the adult visitors

responded, “state’s rights.” He then gave a number of illustrations of what state’s rights meant, asking

questions of the audience and then responding with the “correct” answer. The children did not ask any

questions about state’s rights or slavery, but were listening intently. The narrator continued, “slavery was

wrong, we’re not here to tell you otherwise, but it didn’t cause the war. We are here to tell you what happened,

Page | 5
both the bad and the good.”

At the next station, the emphasis was on how things were used, and items were handed to the students to

examine. There were a number of questions, usually from the boys, about the weapons; for example, “How did

they carry it?” “How big a hole did it make?” The girls generally asked questions about the clothing: “Did it

keep you warm? “How did you get those buttons so shiny?” The response was, “With confederate money, it

wasn’t any good for anything else.” There were no questions or comments overheard about states rights or


Fig. 4, Sanitation Station

At the Sanitation Station exhibit (Fig. 4), a re-enactor in period dress presented camp sanitation and medical

care, asked questions of the audience and corrected their responses. Nothing was said about slavery or states

rights. In general, younger children pointed and asked “what’s that?” to everything on display, but I did not

hear any of the children ask a specific question about sanitation or medical care. When I asked the narrator

what he hoped the children would learn from his presentation, he replied, “That what they have wasn’t always

available, like clean water.”

At the next station, a small group of about 20 in the rain watched the demonstration of field smithy. Boys

clustered in the front; but the girls, with one exception, walked away disinterestedly. The children again asked

a number of questions, generally for every object on display.

At the final station, the provost, a big, burly, bearded, redneck stereotype made a presentation to three black

teenage girls, in a driving rain. The girls asked him, as he was trying to retreat into his tent, “Why don’t you

have shoes on?” He replied, in character, that “The army was broke and shoes cost money. Think about that if

Page | 6
you think a confederate soldier could own a slave.” He then showed a sawed-off shotgun, and said his job was

to keep order in camp. The shotgun, he said, was used only on deserters, desperate men that had heard what

Sherman was doing and were trying to leave camp to go home and take car care of their families.


Based on the questions observed in the field, and the actions of the students, the event was effective at

creating general interest about the life in an earlier era, and the young students exhibited a keen curiosity about

the objects on display, but little interest in specific events, or in understanding how events and attitudes of that

era are connected to today. I could discern no interest or understanding of the reason for the battle, or even who

won or lost.

A teacher from a visiting school was kind enough to question her students about the event, and pass along

their comments and questions. In general, based on the student’s responses, the event failed at their stated

objectives of: “letting them know the war wasn’t about slavery,”, and the emphasis on state’s rights; but

successful in generating an interest in the lives of the people.

It was far more entertainment than education, yet there were several thousand people exposed to history –

individuals who may have just watched television instead of having their curiosity aroused. Prior to this

reenactment, I was unaware of a prison stockade in Florence, but because of this event, now I do; and now, so

do you. Most may not have learned anything specific about state’s rights or the cause of the war; and the side

of history they heard might have been biased; but who knows how far the curiosity generated will take them.

The lesson of the elephant illustrates that the perspective of history was biased when it was happening. That

the present portrays the past in a manner useful to itself is not necessarily misrepresentation but is

understandable and beneficial if it brings, as it seems to, a sense of community through a shared connection

with the past, for good or bad. As Kutruff pointed out (1995, 279), the past no longer belongs to itself, but to

the present.

Page | 7

Boardman, K., Revisiting Living History: A Business, An Art, A Pleasure, An Education, 1997, Alfam.Com. A

panel session presented at the annual conference of the National Council on Public History, Albany NY.

Collingwood, R., Dray, W., VanDerDussen, W., The Principles of History and other writings in philosophy

of history, 1999, University Press, NY, Oxford


Federal Writers Project, 1941, SC Guide to the Palmetto State, US History Publishers, USA.

IPAH, Interpretation and Presentation of the Archaeological Heritage, Leicester, The School of Archaeology

and Ancient History, University of Leicester

Kutruff, C., Fort Loudoun Tennessee, a mid-18th century British fortification: a case study in research,

archaeology, reconstruction, and interpretive exhibits, in Politics of the Past, edited

by Gathercole, P., and Lowenthal, D., 1994, Routledge, NY

Robinson, C., 2008, Alonzo Bump Civil War Letters, University at Albany, NY

Smardz, K., The Past Through Tomorrow, in Presenting Archaeology to the Public, Digging for Truths, 1997,

edited by John Jameson, Jr. AtaMira Press, California

Page | 8