Thousands of people participate in Civil War reenactments each year in the United States. They’re sharing a tradition of reenactment that stretches back to the years of the war itself.
To herald Christmas 1861, a year when more than 4,000 fighting men had been killed in Civil War battles and the Union was in disarray, groups of citizens got together to fight mock battles simulating the conflicts raging on battlefields elsewhere. Writes Sue Eisenfeld for The New York Times, "We tend to think of Civil War reenactment as a modern phenomenon, a way for people in the 20th and 21st centuries to experience a taste of what the conflict was like. But in fact, staged battles began while the war was still underway. Known as 'sham battles,' 'mock battles' or 'mimic battles,' these battles were enacted for a variety of reasons: entertainment, practice and to demonstrate to civilians back home what happened during the war."
Shams were especially popular during the holidays for entertainment, and they were mostly confined to the North. On December 5, 1861, the Daily Nashville Patriot published an article noting “the Yankees are great on shams,” she writes. But they were also intended to accustom new soldiers to the pace of the battlefield and help them imagine themselves as fighters, rather than farmers, she writes: "Some places, like Forst Monroe, a Union outpost in Virginia, conducted sham battles daily."
As the New Georgia Encyclopedia records, Civil War reenacting was part of a longer tradition of shams fought with blank ammunition by American militias. Before the Civil War, town festivals often featured a pageant with costumed citizens dressing as Revolutionary War figures.
Directly after the war ended, Eisenfeld writes, veterans were commissioned to serve as reenactors of a conflict they themselves had fought in. ""On April 21, 1865, the town of Massillon, Ohio, was right back into the business of luring crowds with sham battles as part of a day-long 'jubilation over the recent victory of the Federal armies and the surrender of Lee.'" The pageantry and drama of mock warfare offered great entertainment, even when the consequences of the real thing were so bloody.
Later, when public interest in the war revived in the 1880s, the tradition of the sham battle was revived, and many sham battles were conducted purely as entertainment, the Encyclopedia writes. “Although these sham battles were usually not attempts to re-create specific Civil War battles, they were conducted with strong undertones of both sectional pride and national unity.”
The idea of reenacting stuck around, but modern Civil War reenactment was truly born in the early 1960s around the time of the war’s centennial. The first big reenactment, of the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as First Manassas, took place on July 21-22, 1961.