When to Die

Inside the World of Civil War Reenacting

When To Die is a film that examines the legacy of the United States Civil War through reenactors.

 

The Civil War reenacting community boasts 30,000 members across the United States. From 2013-15 we followed four mainstream reenactors from the North and South. Over these final years of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, the community, primarily made up of Baby Boomers, saw peak numbers in participation before retire from the hobby.

When to Die gained unfettered access into the lives of our characters beyond the battlefield and into their homes and workplaces. It was essential to examine both their contemporary realities and their Civil War personas to truly understand their motivations to reenact and how the hobby fits into the larger context of their lives. From the rowdy and restless to the wise and wary, When to Die depicts the personal journeys of a diverse mix across the mainstream reenacting community:

Jake Jennette, North Carolina

Commander - Army of Northern Virginia

As a high school student in the 1950's, Jake’s parents forbade his pursuance of a theater scholarship to UCLA, so he instead enlisted in the Marines Corps. Jake became a career Marine serving twenty-two years in the Corps which included two tours in Vietnam. Jake returned from Vietnam afflicted with PTSD of which he still suffers today. Initially turning to alcohol for relief, Jakes introduction to Civil War reenacting and the strength of his wife, Margaret – a true Steel Magnolia - straightened out his life. It tapped into his love of theater, yearning for military camaraderie, and a connection to his ancestors. Cathartic, familial, theatric - reenacting gave his life meaning as he rose through its ranks. Fiercely patriotic and uncompromisingly Southern, Jake prepares to retire as the country’s foremost Robert E. Lee persona from the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), one of the largest reenacting organizations in America with 4,000 members. It is a bittersweet exit to a fruitful, forty-year career: leaving his reenacting family to spend more time with his wife of 50 years. A leading Southern voice within the hobby, Jake brings to light the complexities of Southern heritage in modern America.

As a high school student in the 1950's, Jake’s parents forbade his pursuance of a theater scholarship to UCLA, so he instead enlisted in the Marines Corps. Jake became a career Marine serving twenty-two years in the Corps which included two tours in Vietnam. Jake returned from Vietnam afflicted with PTSD of which he still suffers today.

Initially turning to alcohol for relief, Jakes introduction to Civil War reenacting and the strength of his wife, Margaret – a true Steel Magnolia - straightened out his life. It tapped into his love of theater, yearning for military camaraderie, and a connection to his ancestors. Cathartic, familial, theatric - reenacting gave his life meaning as he rose through its ranks.

Fiercely patriotic and uncompromisingly Southern, Jake prepares to retire as the country’s foremost Robert E. Lee persona from the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), one of the largest reenacting organizations in America with 4,000 members. It is a bittersweet exit to a fruitful, forty-year career: leaving his reenacting family to spend more time with his wife of 50 years. A leading Southern voice within the hobby, Jake brings to light the complexities of Southern heritage in modern America.

Luther Johnson, Illinois

29th United States Colored Troops

An African American reenactor raised by a single mother and five sisters on Chicago’s notorious West Side, Luther relocated to Joliet ten years ago. Apart from his daily nine-to-five, Luther is an avid outdoorsman, has his own carpet cleaning business, use to race muscle cars, and recently received his MBA, yet still finds time pursue his passion of reenacting. Luther is a quintessential representative of the African American reenacting community. He recruits inner city teens from Chicago, exposing many to an environment outside the gang-ridden violence of the streets for the first time while teaching them African American contributions to American history. Luther lends his perspective on the African American experience from post-Civil War assimilation, growing up in the Chicago in the 70’s, to life today.  

An African American reenactor raised by a single mother and five sisters on Chicago’s notorious West Side, Luther relocated to Joliet ten years ago. Apart from his daily nine-to-five, Luther is an avid outdoorsman, has his own carpet cleaning business, use to race muscle cars, and recently received his MBA, yet still finds time pursue his passion of reenacting.

Luther is a quintessential representative of the African American reenacting community. He recruits inner city teens from Chicago, exposing many to an environment outside the gang-ridden violence of the streets for the first time while teaching them African American contributions to American history. Luther lends his perspective on the African American experience from post-Civil War assimilation, growing up in the Chicago in the 70’s, to life today.

 

Dr. Steve Fratt, Illinois

1st Brigade Illinois Volunteers

A dedicated professor of military history at a Christian university, and a Tolkien expert with a PhD in philosophy, Steve tirelessly engages his students through reenacting and constructing homemade board games in his basement. Through his board games, Steve has recreated everything from the Battle of Waterloo and Gettysburg to the Battle of Helm's Deep, as a humanities approach to understanding warfare.  A military man at heart, during the Vietnam War Steve missed his summons to West Point in his teens due to mononucleosis, but now feels redeemed as a Colonel in his reenacting unit after twenty years in the hobby.

A dedicated professor of military history at a Christian university, and a Tolkien expert with a PhD in philosophy, Steve tirelessly engages his students through reenacting and constructing homemade board games in his basement. Through his board games, Steve has recreated everything from the Battle of Waterloo and Gettysburg to the Battle of Helm's Deep, as a humanities approach to understanding warfare. 

A military man at heart, during the Vietnam War Steve missed his summons to West Point in his teens due to mononucleosis, but now feels redeemed as a Colonel in his reenacting unit after twenty years in the hobby.

Will Krakower, New Jersey

12th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry

The future of reenacting rests on the shoulders of young men like Will. A history major, aspiring history teacher, and glee club member at Rutgers University, Will is a rising leader within the reenactment community. As the predominantly Baby Boomer demographic of reenacting retires after the 150th Anniversary, Will offers a necessary youth to carry the torch of the hobby for the years to come. 

The future of reenacting rests on the shoulders of young men like Will. A history major, aspiring history teacher, and glee club member at Rutgers University, Will is a rising leader within the reenactment community. As the predominantly Baby Boomer demographic of reenacting retires after the 150th Anniversary, Will offers a necessary youth to carry the torch of the hobby for the years to come.