At the outset, it must be admitted that historical reenactment involves a certain amount of pretense, a way for adults (and children and teens) to play pretend within the confines of what is known about the past. For most people, this particular act is not controversial in the least, and therefore requires no defense. That said, there are some people within my personal acquaintance who find such matters to be at least potentially problematic, and where something is problematic, a defense and explanation is often worthwhile even where it is not required. Therefore, in looking at the legitimacy of historical reenactment, by which I mean the renovation of buildings as a context for historical playacting, the wearing of period-appropriate costumes, and the adoption of period-appropriate dialect, it is worthwhile to examine at least a couple of areas where the effort made is of great worth to the person doing the acting, and the audience of that acting as well. In looking at the legitimacy of historical reenacting, it is important to remember both the benefits to the person doing the acting as well as the larger context in which historical reenacting is worthwhile in the visual portrayal of history.
Let us first note that the pedagogical and androgogical aspects of historical reenactment depend greatly on the quality of presentation. The benefit to an audience in the efforts of men, women, and children to help the past to come alive depends in large part on the congruence between the portrayal and the reality of the period that is being portrayed. In a very real sense, those who engage in living history and seek to portray the past in the present are engaged as ambassadors from the country of that past to the country of the present. Since the past is a far country, largely inaccessible to people unless they have spent a great deal of time in study and practice and preparation in traveling there and understanding its ways, those who are unable or unwilling to take the effort to immerse themselves in a past world may still wish to gain the benefit of seeing what life is like in the past, and in order for this benefit to be provided, those who present the past must have an awareness of and an ability to present the culture of the past in the present, so that we may see to the best of our abilities the past as it was to those who were living in it, even if this requires the same sort of effort as becoming at home in a foreign land, in growing to see the familiar as alien and the alien as familiar. In order to learn from the past, we must see the past through the same eyes as the past saw itself, for only then can we engage with the past in any meaningful sense, since we see the people in it as the rich and complex people they were, not merely as two-dimensional heroes or villains. The skillful presentation of the past can help in recognizing the people of the past as people both similar and different to ourselves.
The desire to present the past well, and to help others understand those who lived before us as people and not merely as images or concepts, is a major aspect of the appeal of historical reenacting. In the reenactment of the American Civil War, for example, whether someone wishes to be a well-spoken scholar of the 20th Maine or a Southern belle, there are similar tasks that are required in order to present the past effectively. One must, to the greatest extent possible, be able to live like the people of the past, to be intimately familiar with their material culture (or lack thereof), to read the books that they read, to sing the songs that they sang, to dance what they danced, to know their thoughts about and their behavior towards God and their fellow men (and women and children). This task requires a great deal of study as well as practice, and doing so allows us to gain a greater perspective of the world by being able to place ourselves outside of the usual constraints of our personality through seeing life through different eyes. This effort at immersing ourselves in the intellectual and material culture of another time not only is often fun, but at the same time it serves to help us to avoid being too self-absorbed and as a consequence unable to relate to others who come from a different background to ourselves. Once we can make the effort to see the world through brand new eyes, even if they are the eyes of past generations and people from different backgrounds, we are better equipped to relate to people here and now as well.
Ultimately, both those who portray the past and those who observe and interact with the portrayal of the past are to gain a greater appreciation for the past and for the people who lived there. This task includes being able to view the past fairly and justly, based on its own constraints, as well as recognizing that the past is both more strange than we might recognize and less alien than we may think. It also includes being able to recognize the choices that are and were available, or were not, in different periods, which helps us to better appreciate or critique our own contemporary situation. There is also the benefit of expanding our mind and perspective, so that we may be more compassionate and understanding to others, as well as more knowledgeable about the past and its continuing influence on the present. Yet those who observe the representation of the past can only learn this from the skill of the presenters themselves. This means that those who engage in historical reenactment serve as history teachers, with all the responsibilities that task entails. Seeing history come alive, as best as we are able to help in this process, is often a more useful and more powerful way to understand the past than simply from hearing about the past in a dry lecture from a teacher who intentionally mangles a lesson on the Johnston County War, for example, to see if his students are still listening to him. We are all the better for the effort, both in making the effort to be able to teach the past effectively through our example, and in being able to recognize and appreciate the good examples of historical reenactment that we see. Whether we are teachers or students, our lives are enriched by better understanding and appreciating to the past.