Do you love Civil War history? Clearly you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog! But have you ever wanted to get deeper into the immersion of the era? You can’t lie and say you’ve never been interesting in handling a Springfield rifle or donning a crinoline just for fun. You’ve probably seen or at least heard of the battle reenactments and demonstrations at national parks. Those are real people dressing up in period accurate clothing, doing what they love by representing the soldiers and ladies of Victorian times. And it won’t take much for you to become one of them!
But where do you start? Who do you talk to? What do you need? These are questions I asked myself early in my passion for Civil War and though I haven’t taken the plunge and purchased my own hoop skirt just yet, I’ve talked to plenty of reenactors about the hobby.
Where do I start?
So, there are a number of things you need to consider when you’re ready to dive into the reenactment community, and things you need to be aware of.
Firstly, you should decide what exactly you’d like to do. This will point you in the right direction. There are plenty of options for everyone interested in joining a group, but sometimes these options are limited. Let me explain.
Every Civil War reenactment group differs in size and focus. A well-rounded group will have an infantry branch, artillery, cavalry, and civilian contingent. What this means is that they will have members who represent the foot soldiers of the army, they may have one or two cannons complete with a six or eight man team to operate it, along with a few horses accompanied by riders, and a group of men and women who represent the non-military aspect of the Civil War. However, due to size of the group, location, and resources, this may not be possible. Your local group may only have an infantry company and civilian contingent. They may only have infantry and artillery, but no civilians. But this shouldn’t limit you in what you choose to do. If you really aspire to be part of a cavalry unit and the nearest group is a couple of hours away, you can still “play” with that group. There’s always something for everyone to do and I’ll break down the different factions in a moment.
Another thing to be aware of when searching out a group is that, like any organization, there are rules. Some, as I’ve been told, like to screen their potential members. This could mean going to a reenactment event with the group so they can get a feel for how you react to loud explosions, how you handle confrontation and social encounters with other reenactors and spectators. Some are not as strict and will only invite you to a few group meetings (if they have them) to get you connected with whatever branch of the unit you’d like to be involved with.
Something to be mindful of are fees and costs of joining a group. Groups may charge a small annual fee for participation and this is usually linked with a 501C nonprofit group. Some may not, depending on the size of their unit. But more than this, you should be aware that not everything will be provided for you. The uniforms/clothes, the equipment, tents, etc. are all at your expense. Some groups or individuals will loan you a set of clothes to get you by until you can create a full “kit” (ensemble with accoutrements), but it is expected for you to get these things on your own through the connections you make within the group. These things to create your kit can be found at major reenactment events, which I’ll explain later, and perhaps bartering with other members. If Sue’s dress is getting a little too tight for her and it fits you perfectly, she might give it to you or trade for it. This is something to work out once you’re in the group and decide what exactly you want to do. Which now, I’ll elaborate upon.
These are the guys who go out and represent the infantry aspect of the war. They’ll dress in their respective uniforms (Union or Confederate), shoulder their effects, and fire rifles. Everything from the kepi they wear to the type of shoes they slip on are (ideally) accurate to what a soldier would have worn back in the 1860s. Thankfully, there’s a wealth of historical record and information stored in museums and books to tell reenactors exactly what they should wear and carry.
Some things are universe, but not exactly. The accessories of the soldiers are probably a good example. Take haversacks for example. In the Confederacy, untreated canvas bags were more common in the regiments, but on the Union side, they weatherproofed their haversacks and these are the ones you’ll see in museums because they were better preserved. While it’s feasible for a Confederate soldier to have lifted a weatherproof haversack off the dead body of a Union soldier, it’s better that the Confederate reenactor portrays the majority rather than the exception. Cartridge boxes and percussion cap boxes might be the only exchangeable pieces between Union and Confederate soldiers. The rest will vary, especially the uniforms. Equipment in the Union army was issued directly from the government, and therefore was the same across the board for the most part. The Confederates were less identical in their uniforms, as there are varying shades of butternut, homespun, and jean wool to create this multi-toned spectrum in an infantry line. Weaponry also varied due to newer and older models being used on either side, and sometimes these rifles looked very different from one another.
Why I explain all of this is because, if you aspire to becoming a soldier, it’s likely you won’t have one kit. Your gear and uniform will depend upon who you are representing. And I’m not just talking about which side of the conflict you’re on. If your unit is, for example, is out of Louisiana, but you’re going to a battle where there were absolutely no Louisiana troops, you can’t go walking into the field with a musket that would have been totally unavailable to a soldier who fought in that battle. Nor can you wear a uniform that would not have been worn by that infantry group. Construction of the uniform must be taken into account. This is not something to worry about so much with the Union side, since everything was issued by the government, but this is especially vital for a Confederate reenactor.
This could mean that you have a few, if not several different outfits and gear kits for a given reenactment season. Some estimates have been given to me on how much a kit could cost, and again it depends on where you get your stuff and how detailed you wished to get with the interpretation. Expect a ballpark of around $2,000.
Now, recover from your sticker shock for just a second to read this. What group your in may play a role in how much money you dish out for your kit in the end. Some groups absolutely will not represent a Confederate regiment or unit in a battle. Some groups will not play Union for a day. Because of this, you may end up spending less or not have to own a variety of kits. However, it’s best to be prepared to switch sides for a battle if you need to. Again, I’ll explain this later.
If your group is lucky enough to have a cannon, you’ll likely have a team of artillery men to go with it. These are marked by the red caps or pinstripe down their uniforms. Along with getting the uniforms right, as I explained above, these individuals will need to be trained in more than just firing a rifle. Training and pyrotechnic drills are a must for artillery units. These are pieces of weaponry that can dish out some real damage, even if you’re not standing directly in front of it.
If your group does NOT have a cannon, it’s likely they won’t have an artillery group, but it’s not infeasible for you to create one yourself. If you happen to own a functioning cannon that is accurate to the Civil War era and what they would have brought onto the battlefield, you can round up your own artillery unit within your group.
Like the artillery faction, not every unit will have a cavalry branch. If you live in a rural or country area where owning horses is pretty common, it’s more likely they will. But, this is not to say, again, that you can’t start your own as long as the group officers can agree on this. If you own a few horses that you’re willing to “donate” to the group (not literally, but for events and such) then this could be a fun and unique option for you. Calvary served an integral part for both armies and it would create a more well-rounded representation of a unit. The same can be said for the artillery.
Rank and Officers
One inner aspect of Civil War reenacting for the soldier contingents is rank. Yes, you have a rank and you can excel in rank if you have the aspiration to do so. When you first enter the unit, you’re awarded the rank of Private. As you improve your kit and participate more in events, you might be voted to a higher rank such as Sergeant or Captain. Yes, voting within the unit is a thing within the reenactment community, just like it was back then.
If you were to create a unit, you may be considered a Captain and can award these ranks to those whom you see fit to serve in those places. These ranks, however, are not just awarded and left there. They come with responsibilities within the group and during reenactments. A Sergeant will have more duties than a typical private. Sometimes this comes with monetary responsibilities or obligations to attend certain events and an individual’s ability to carry out these responsibilities can have an effect on whether they are voted up in the ranks or not. And the number of officers within a unit can be a fixed thing. So, there can only be one Captain, but there can be several Sergeants and dozens of Privates. And only when that Captain chooses to retire or step down from his office, a Sergeant can be voted up into his place.
If, in many circumstances, a reenactment unit comes to an event and they have to blend with another unit to complete a regiment or company, ranks can temporarily change depending on the need during the engagement. Like, there wouldn’t be more than one captain over a company, so the visiting captain would step down into a lesser role out of courtesy to the home captain. Just as an example
There are many, MANY more options available to the reenactor who doesn’t want to shoot a gun or ride a horse.
A civilian contingent is comprised of all those people who either serve the army in a non-military capacity, or they’re the people left at home once their soldiers went off to war. This can include women, nurses, cart drivers, musicians, merchants (called suttlers), blacksmiths, carpenters, or even reenactors of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, or other politicians. A rule of thumb can be that “if they had it, you can be it.”
Clothing and kits within this branch are just as important as with the infantry or artillery, and they take as much pride in their appearance as their brave soldiers do. It’s not uncommon for a soldier reenactor to bring his wife or family along with him to the events and they represent the civilian aspect of the war. It can be eye-opening to spectators who don’t know much about the war to see this part of history alongside what they expected to find on the battlefield.
If you don’t see something that instantly piques your interest, then create it. Joe Kurtright and Craig Wolford founded the musical group 7 Pounds of Bacon, and attend regular events to play music that would have been popular during the war. Formerly soldiers themselves, they’re well known in their circle and once they reached a certain age when going off to battle wasn’t feasible for them, they turned to something else they enjoy to contribute to the feel of the events.
So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to talk specifically about women within the Civil War reenactment community. Before you make the same mistake that I did and think that all women do is flounce around in pretty dresses and wave handkerchiefs at the men, let me drop a few truth bombs here. While there are some who do this, that is NOT the majority. Many women don’t want to be idle just as much as the men do. There are plenty of things for them to do at events.
If you are a Civil War history fanatic, you probably know that women served a big role in the war without ever having to step on a battlefield. Nurses, spies, laundresses, sewers, factory workers, merchants, and even soldiers (don’t get ahead of me on this). You can represent this aspect by creating a visual demonstration.
Terry Peattie, of Gainesville Florida brings an agricultural demo with her to events to educate spectators and school groups about what farming would have been like back during the Civil War. She brings seeds and vegetables in her display for people to handle. She, unlike some women reenactors, represents the lower class of society. You won’t see her in a big crinoline dress, but a more modest and plain outfit that would have been worn by the ladies who were left to take care of the home when their men went to war. Along with her daughter Nadia Peattie, Kate Devine, and Debra Solomon, they strive to represent the typical woman of the era. It was my privilege to watch them hand out apples to the troops as they were marching toward the battlefield at the Olustee reenactment, something they do every year. For some of them, this is the highlight of their reenactment experience because they’re playing their part just as the women of the era would do.
Then there’s Diane McDougall of the Order of the Golden Teacup out of the Florida reenactors, who represents the wealthier upper and middle-class society of the era. She’s a respected and highly knowledgeable seamstress and historian who helps guide young ladies along the path to proper civilian class representation. Reenactors like Diane will take budding reenactors under their wings to show them the best merchants to purchase their clothing at – and steer them away from the worst. Again, cost is a factor that will determine whether you want to represent a high society woman or lower class. When I asked Diane about this, she posed the question, “Well, how much does a car cost?” I reply, “It depends on the make and model, I guess.”. And she explains to me that it’s the same with clothing. The quality of fabric and whether you can make it all yourself will be a huge factor in how much you’re going to put out for your kit. Jewelry is also something to consider, and many feminine impulses to lunge for the pretty things have to be tempered by common sense and historical guidance.
Just like in the infantry, it’s easy to get certain details wrong when it comes to dressing the part.
“Stitch Nazi” is a vulgar and rather unpleasant term thrown around to label those who will degrade or humiliate other reenactors for not being “period correct” right down to the construction of their stockings. Though they exist, the best mentors are those who will constructively correct reenactors who may have a kit that isn’t quite right. A common thing I’ve heard is that if it looks acceptable from 2-3 yards off, then it’s good. No need for a magnifying glass. A lesser derisive term for picky infantry reenactors is “Campaigners”, who are the equivalent of “Stitch Nazis”, but for men.
One way to help avoid a fashion fiasco is to simply ask. Facebook groups abound for those who want some input on dresses, stitching, jewelry, and the like. Civilian Civil War Closet (https://www.facebook.com/groups/CivilianCivilWarCloset) is just one of the Facebook pages that will become invaluable resources for civilian contingents in general.
Now, I mentioned that there are women who yearn to represent a soldier. Be aware that if this is something you want to do, you may encounter some controversy. Yes, women soldiers did exist. Yes, it is documented. No, not every unit had them. And no, not everyone is going to be happy with you if you try to don a military uniform and march into battle. This all depends on your group and how well you can pass for a man. If you are rather buxom and even binding doesn’t hide the fact that you have some parts that a man doesn’t, it’s not advisable for you to play a soldier. If you can’t hide your long flowing hair under a kepi and you don’t want to cut it short for the sake of the hobby, you might want to take a step back and reassess. If you can’t handle the loud boom of the rifles or the camping that is sometimes required for event accommodations, just forget the whole thing.
However, if all of these things pass for you, then it’s up to your group and how they feel about it. Some will welcome you into their ranks. Others will tell you flat out that they don’t want girls on the battlefield. One reenactor that I interviewed said that it ruins the immersion effect for him. He could be in a battle line, firing his rifle, and become transported through time to that exact battle he’s reenacting. Then, he looks to his left and he KNOWS there’s a female soldier there, and it ruins the moment. This opinion isn’t isolated. Whenever I brought up the idea of a women soldier reenactor, the expressions of my interviewers changed instantly. It is a controversial topic, but when I watched the reenactment at Olustee, I spotted quite a few women in the march. So, despite all the hype, it is a thing. You just have to decide if that’ll be YOUR thing.
Finding a Group
Once you’ve decided what you want to do, you need to find a group. The best way to do this is a trip to Google. You can search “Civil War Reenactors Near Me” and you won’t have to look far to find someone to contact.
Most groups will have a monthly or at least quarterly meeting you can attend. Once you’ve connected with an officer or member of that group through their email or Facebook, you can ask to come to the meeting with them so you can discuss further steps to joining.
Another way is to meet them in person at a local event.
Types of Events
There are a few different types of events, and each one serves its own purpose. The first is what is called a “Mainstream Event”. These are typically large, held on public or private property (not at a national park) and are open to spectators for an entry fee. These events usually center around a battle reenactment like Olustee, Gettysburg, Shiloh, etc. Some will be annual depending on the scale of the battle. Others will be semi-annual or once every five or so years, like the Gettysburg reenactment. At these Mainstream Events, you’ll encounter suttlers, who set up tents and sell all things Civil War related. Some are there for the reenactors, selling uniforms, belt buckles, rifles, haversacks, cartridge boxes, boots, dresses, tent supplies, furniture, etc. Others are set up for the spectators and will sell everything from toys to books to mugs, and Civil War artifacts. It’s typically at these main events that new recruits will team up with a seasoned reenactor and go shopping for their equipment.
Campaign events are a little different. These are not open to the public, but are strictly for reenactors, specifically the soldiers. Some Campaign events involve long marches that go for miles and miles, and these are more for the benefit of the reenactors than for spectators. It helps them to fully get in the shoes of the soldiers they represent and pay honor to those who fought. Outdoor camping is a must for these events, as it can be for the Mainstream events as well.
Then you have the Living History Demos. These can take place most often in a public place like libraries, museums, or national battlefield parks. These are small, lowkey, and though they are open to the public, these events are centered around education. The reenactors that come to a living history demo must first register for the event in advance and be reviewed by the park or host of the event for authenticity. Talks, demonstrations, and first-person interpretations set these apart from the Mainstream or Campaign events. One other key difference is that there is absolutely NO combat associated with living history demos. While firing a musket or cannon is typical, these are not being fired at one another in a battlefield or combat scenario. The National Park service prohibits this onsite for safety reasons.
But, no matter the context or location, any of these places are ideal for getting connected with reenactors. Some units like the Georgia Sharpshooters, have a set few events every year that they will participate in. Soldiers like Gene Harmon give infantry/rifle demonstrations at the Andersonville Living History Weekend in March every year. His fellow reenactor, Amy Blaylock, also plays her part in the yearly reenactment of Sweet Water Mill as a mill worker. This just further illustrates that there’s a role for everyone in the reenactment community.
Some of you, the minute I mentioned camping had one of two reactions. You got excited or you got discouraged. If you’re like me, you’re of this latter group. However, for someone who doesn’t like the idea of sleeping on the ground or going a day without washing my face, you have to know that it’s not all dirt and filth.
While camping accommodations can be crude or primitive (canvas tents with no floors), there’s a lot you can get away with. You can bring cots, modern blankets, heaters or fans (if you have a power source) or anything else clearly contemporary. The key is that if the spectators start to come around, you hide that like you’re stashing away candy from a child. You don’t let them see a bit of the modern stuff because it will ruin the display as a whole. Bringing a modern tent is a huge no-no. If it’s visible, it has to be period.
Reenactors have become rather inventive. I’ve seen cooler cases that are disguised a hardtack shipping crates. Furniture as well, can have a modern appeal with a wash basin if you should need it. Tents can be designed or rigged to have a partition to hide everything modern in one half of the tent while keeping another half looking perfectly period. There’s plenty of ways to still be comfortable at an event.
And if none of that appeals to you, there’s always a hotel, but it’s usually recommended that you stay onsite so as to avoid traffic and such. At Campaign events, getting a hotel is highly frowned upon, and depending on your location, darn near impossible.
Sometimes tents won’t be available to you at all, which sounds terribly inconvenient, but it’s completely accurate. Soldiers took only what they carried with them and sometimes only the officers had tents. Privates slept on the ground or perhaps teamed up and had a simply tarp set up to keep the rain out. Oh, and weather doesn’t give you a pass for a tent either. Sometimes reenactors sleep in the rain with no shelter. It just shows the tremendous amount of dedication for the hobby.
No matter how you decide to reenact, whether its as a soldier, nurse, musician, or mistress, the goal of every group is to honor those who served in the war (whether in battle or on the home front) and to educate the masses about this pivotal time in American history.
Special Thanks To
Gene Harmon and Amy Blaylock of the Georgia Sharpshooters Battalion
George and Ethan of the 4th US Brigade out of Florida
Terry and Nadia Peattie, Kate Devine, and Debra Solomon, all Civilian Florida Reenactors
Diane McDougall and Sheri from the Order of the Golden Teacup
List of Civil War Events – https://civilwartraveler.com/
List of Civil War Reenactor Groups by State – http://nps-vip.net/history/reenact/