Do you really know what happened at Gettysburg or the Battle of New Orleans? The best way to find out is to re-live it.
Today, there are dozens of dedicated historical societies acting around the U.S. Most specialize in recreating bloody battles. But often, they also depict the daily life of civilians, women and children. Whatever the era, they’re the most entertaining and hands-on way to study American history.
While there are enough re-enactments to fill a history buff’s calendar, here are six re-enactments every American should see.
1. Unto These Hills
A tragic tale of broken agreements that shaped a Native American nation, Unto These Hills is pure drama, accentuated by pyrotechnic special effects and its natural backdrop—a sky full of stars. Written by the late American playwright Kermit Hunter, "Unto These Hills" depicts the sufferings of the Cherokee tribe over the course of 300 years. With 288,000 current members, the Cherokee is the second biggest tribe in the U.S. This live, outdoor production takes place every Monday through Saturday evening in the summer. The performance is held at the 2,100-seat Mountainside Theatre located at, where else? 688 Drama Rd. in Cherokee, N.C.
2. The British Invasion
For a crash course in American Revolutionary War history, head to Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. The former home of Thomas Jefferson, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, usually hosts a re-enactment of the 1781 British invasion every June. The weekend’s stars are the Virginia militia, British Dragoons and Redcoats—all armed and dressed accordingly. Still, they’re not too busy fighting to take time to meet with visitors, offer tours of their encampments and demonstrate musket and cannon firings. There’s even a muster drill program for kids.
3. Green River Rendezvous
Soldiers aren’t the only late Americans worth knowing. Mountain men played an important role in the history of trade and white settlement in the west. Every July, the Green River Rendezvous in Pinedale, Wyo. attracts thousands who come to mingle with the bearded, beaver-skin adorned men paying homage to the likes of Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick. Pioneer women and Plains Indians are also present, because after all, the original rendezvous were trading events. While in Pinedale, visit the Museum of the Mountain Man to see the Hugh Glass exhibit. Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Glass in "The Revenant" won him his first Oscar for Best Actor.
4. Civil War Re-Enactment at Genesee Country Village & Museum
Featuring an appearance by the country’s most celebrated Abraham Lincoln impersonator, Fritz Klein, the re-enactment at Genesee Country Village and Museum deserves a spot on any serious Civil War history buff’s bucket list. What sets this re-enactment apart is it doesn’t just take place on an open battlefield. Visitors can watch the nearly one thousand re-enactors defend and attack the village, around historic homes and shops occupied by townsfolk in period costume. This year the event falls on July 15 and 16 with two battles scheduled for both days.
5. The Battle of New Orleans
In 1815, the Americans, led by Andrew Jackson, defeated the British at New Orleans. It marked the start of the end of the War of 1812 and is still the last land battle fought against a foreign enemy on American soil. Today, nearly 2,000 volunteers show up at Chalmette Battlefield once a year to re-enact the battle. Some come dressed as British soldiers, carrying muskets and bayonets, and others come as American militiamen, armed with Kentucky long-rifles and a cannon. The event, usually held around its anniversary in January, is free for the public. In a modern-day twist, food trucks are even present to feed the crowds.
6. The Battle of Gettysburg
The Battle of Gettysburg, and the subsequent Gettysburg address, are a part of every American History classroom’s curriculum. But to really understand why this engagement is considered the most significant in the Civil War, why not walk on the ground where more than 50,000 soldiers lost their lives? July 1-3, Gettysburg National Military Park is ushering in the 2017 Fourth of July holiday with three-days of re-enactments and demonstrations. More than a thousand actors and living historians are scheduled to take part. It will be the 154th anniversary of the largest battle ever fought in North America.
Katie Jackson is a travel writer. When she's not working, she's chasing after a Leonberger named Zeus.