Your 1st Re-enactment

We are often asked about how to get into Civil War re-enacting. Rather than continue to give short answers, here is a long-version answer that may help answer your questions. This issue is more important right now & throughout the next years to any buffs that may have ever thought about doing this because the big 150th anniversary events are here. Getting into the hobby now will give you a year or two to get into it enough to really know what is going on before the big events are gone. Most events are small, roughly 100 vs 75 or 300 vs 200 or so with a couple of cannons per side. These are local affairs & can be quite fun. About every year there will be a major event that will draw many units together and you will see 1500 vs 1400 or perhaps 1700 vs 1500 & a dozen artillery pieces per side & maybe 50 cavalry. These let you get a taste for what a real CW skirmish would have been like. But when the 5-year anniversary max-effort events come along, (145th Shiloh and 145th Atlanta) you see perhaps 3000 infantry vs 2500 infantry, 20 guns vs 25 guns & 200 cavalry all in action at once. These events create grand memories & you cannot think of a bigger event – until the big 10s happen (140th Shiloh, 140th Franklin) which field 5000 infantry vs 5000 infantry, 40 cannons vs 30 cannons, 200 cavalry, etc. All you can say is “wow!” to these grand scenes. And then there are the even bigger “quarter or half-century events such as the 150ths. We will see several events beginning in 2011 and 2012 that will bring 8,000 infantry to each side & put 100 cannons onto the field & the thundering hooves of several hundred cavalry will shake the ground. It is high-time anyone with remote interest in this hobby start getting involved if they want to take part in these historic events that will be talked about for the rest of our lives.

There are several ways or directions to take when looking at getting into the hobby, or really, way of life of Civil War re-enacting. Some are strictly into living history demos, some fewer dedicate themselves to authentic campaigning, some get into civilian aspects, but by far most people gravitate into the realm of military re-enacting. It is probably best, for males at least, to initially get into the larger arena of military re-enacting & then at some later point specialize into the role of some particular niche, such as surgeon, chaplain, non-coms, officers, musicians, etc. To really grasp the specialized roles, one has to have spent time on the lines, learing the basics, firing guns, burning his fingers on hot barrels, tasting black powder, & being foot sore from a march. Offered here is some generic advice for those that have wondered what it would be like.

Dawn breaks and you are awakened by noises around your canvas tent. The sounds of some friends outside softly talking & the crackling of the fire they have gotten going remind you where you are as you roll over trying to get a minute or two more of sleep. Just about the time you find a comfortable spot, you hear a distant bugler sounding revile & you groan knowing in a minute another bugler, perhaps your own will sound the same. Sure enough, within a minute other buglers can be heard, all with varying skill levels, sounding revile & you hear the man in the tent behind yours shout “Somebody shoot the bugler!”

Time to get up as you hear your Sgt. walking past the tent asking if you are up & announcing that everyone is to fall in at the flag in 5 minutes for morning roll call. The morning is cool & you wearily put on enough clothes to be decent, hurrying to get into the leather boots without bothering to tie them as you skip outside in an effort to hold the morning pee long enough to get politely away from camp. You make it & find a dozen others standing there, nourishing the grass while trying to look cool. Yes, ladies are in camp within easy sight of this scene, but none pay the activity much attention because the scene is common. The ladies are busy heading to the row of port-a-johns to relieve themselves probably wishing they did not have as far to go.

You fall into a crude line in time to have the Sgt. call out names. He takes a morning count of all present & will deliver this to the officers up at Staff call that will assemble the lines for the day’s fight. After that, the Capt. announces the general timeline of the day. “I want everyone to eat breakfast & be ready for drill by 9 o’clock. You have an hour to cook or do whatever you need to, but be back here in camp by 8:30 so you can be ready when they call for us.” Someone makes a snide remark about something & you chuckle as you are dismissed.

You have brought easy snacks but also have some ham wrapped up in a bag in your tent. You toss it into a pan & set it onto the coals & pour some thick black scalding hot liquid out of a blackened pot hanging on the hook into your tin cup. The tin instantly is too hot to hold so you set it down quickly & try to look like that was deliberate. It is the Sgt’s coffee, made so thick & black that light itself cannot escape its surface. By the time your ham slice is warmed up, the cup has cooled enough that you can sip at the coffee. It is bad, really bad by Starbucks or the office standards, but out here, on this morning, you’d rather have this terrible stuff than anything else. The ham tastes better here than at home too, perhaps due to the ashes that fell into the pan.

And so you look around camp & see men in uniforms. You see rows of white canvas neatly stacked in order. The flags are hanging limp from their poles, & gray smoke wafts through the camp. Sounds of horses whinnying, metal striking metal, sizzling from bacon in the pan, & the voices of dozens of men around you remind you that this is different than things you normally have done. Suddenly, for a fleeting moment, you are not you & this is not a weekend between office work & a business trip. For a short glimpse of time, you are there, 150 or so years ago, seeing what another man saw, hearing what he heard, & smelling what he smelled. And then just as suddenly as it happened it is gone & you shake yourself mentally back to reality & wonder how you can explain that to someone. You cannot, you know, & hope it will happen again.

And this is how your first event starts. The fleeting moment will come again at some unexpected moment. You will try in vain to describe it to co- workers. You will long for it & look for it, & may try to force it to happen again, but these moments are unpredictable & you learn to cherish them all like 4-leaf clovers that occasionally show themselves but are just as soon lost to the sea of clover around them.

When you decide to take the step into this life, you have thousands of questions. You don’t want to sound foolish, & you are worried you will not know what to do & will be embarrassed. This is a common anxiety & it should comfort you to know it is what everyone out there felt when they started. Thus, the experienced men know to help you on your first steps & teach you enough to let you try the hobby on without overloading you with stuff that is not needed at first. You will usually visit the unit at some small event, meet them, feel them out & decide if you want to join. You will then e-mail a couple of them for advice, & they will help you with what stuff they want you to have as well as help locating loaner items for your first event. You’ll be told of an upcoming event & they will help register you & probably work out a carpool plan with you.

Well, before you know it you have a gun, some basic uniform parts, already a couple in the unit you really like, several you seem satisfied with & probably a couple you aren’t quite sure about, but the main thing is that you are finding yourself in a pretty decent unit that is interested in having fun. When you get to the event, you will be given basic instructions one on one with a Cpl or Sgt on how to handle the gun & yourself. Then you will get into a larger line, perhaps 4-6 men & will be run through the manual of arms again as a larger unit. The groups will get larger & larger & you are suddenly lost in the crowd. Guys around you in the unit will give advice to you & may jostle you in line to get you into step or have you turn at the right place. Don’t worry though. It happened to them as well & they know how nerve racking this is. If you goof, & even veterans do, just admit it & laugh. You may earn yourself a funny nickname such as “Wrongway Charlie” or “No Gun Guss” & this becomes part of your story which you learn each member has developed through countless misadventures.

So, which side do you join up with? This may be based on which group you happen upon first, or a friendly invite that gets your interest. You may have deep-seeded roots in one side or another & wish to don the gray or blue based on Great-Great Grandpappy. Or, you may make a strategic decision based on what is needed in your area. In most Southern areas, for instance, Federals are grossly outnumbered making it difficult to put on good events unless many Confederates “galvanize” with some blue uniforms to bring up the Federal numbers.

What do you need? Well, the basics are a gun, hat, jacket, pants & shoes along with the leather cartridge box & belt with cap pouch. These items often are loaned within units since not everyone can make every trip. You can usually get away with dark brown or black boots or even black sneakers since at re-enactments spectators are a good distance away. Buying for a Federal impression is usually pretty easy. Sky blue pants & Federal blue jacket. A kepi or hat of some sort & black leather accoutrements. The kepi cap is the standard, but in some units, especially western theatres, Federals wore all sorts of hats so you can wear most anything & be correct there. In Eastern theatres you may need special headgear depending on the unit. This will be discussed early on.

For Confederates, anything goes including blue uniform parts. Some units have some special items, such as cavalry, or a unit that portrays a certain look, but for the most part anything gray is acceptable, or the more common “butternut” look and even some (not all) blue is acceptable.

As for infantry guns, the standard accepted everywhere are the 3-band length guns. These have 3 distinct barrel bands, such as the 3-bander Pattern 1853 Enfield, the 1861 US (Springfield) & the 1842 US (Springfield) guns. Some events do not allow the shorter guns in infantry for safety. There is nothing unsafe about them except that the shorter barrels make it easier to get the man in front of you too near the muzzle if the lines separate. Sometimes the men with shorter guns must be in the front ranks & that is normally where all new recruits find themselves for a couple of events anyway. But to be safe when getting your first gun unless your unit tells you otherwise, get an 1853 Enfield or 1861 Springfield.

A “sutler” is a retailer that sells re-enacting gear of various sorts. Some, like The Blockade Runner, Inc. ( are almost like the Wal-Mart of re-enacting, carrying just about everything & anything a re-enactor will need or want while keeping prices reasonable. Others specialize in shoes & do top-notch as correct as possible work, but their prices can be high. The dedicated living historian or authentic campaigner will seek out these best of the best sutlers to do business with, but the average re-enactor & especially those just starting out should do their initial shopping at the larger suttleries. Also, there is the web sites like E-bay and that can help find used equipment if you search them regularly. But, uniform parts, mostly being of wool may not be the size they are advertised as. After being washed or rained on many times, the wool will have shrunk so that 42” waist may in effect be a 40” waist. Get new items when possible because the wool wears out & by the time many people are selling them, they often are nearly at the end of their structural integrity.

So, after the morning roll call, ham & scalding hot bitter coffee, you are called to get into your traps, or “Couter-up!” which you quickly learn means to get into uniform, fit your leather accoutrements on & get your gun & fall in at the flag. The 1st Sgt is already there & gently tells you where in line to stand. You nervously stand there as other guys fall in & jostle around to get into place. Capt. comes by & tells everyone that you will soon march out to do some drill to shake the rust off, & if all goes well he’ll finish drill quickly. The 1st Sgt then steps out front & instructs “By files, count – TWO!” & instantly the far right 2 men shout “ONE!” & the next 2 men shout “TWO!” & the 3rd file of men shout “ONE!” & it goes down about half way until somebody screws up, perhaps you. Everyone laughs & 1st Sgt repeats the process until it is done right. Your number, you will learn, tells you where to be when given a right or left face. You are then right-faced, & they jostle you into place & you now find that instead of being in 2 lines you are facing to the right & are in a column, 4 men across. The Capt. then orders a forward-march & you all step off in unison with a cadence from a drummer in some units, or more commonly with 1st Sgt issuing a verbal cadence.

After a fairly short march you find yourself in the drill field where some other regiments are already at drill. The Capt. will face you back to the front in 2 lines & will run the unit through the basic manual of arms, which you were taught in camp earlier. The nervousness wears off a little as you do this & then he throws curve balls at the unit trying to get the men to think. This does cause you & others to goof, but they are not angry at the goofs. These are always good for laughs & everyone takes joy in mocking those that should know better & equal pleasure in instructing the newbies such as yourself. Then, you are again right-faced & marched a distance before another command completely new to you is given, “By Company into line – MARCH!” & everyone swings to the left & runs forward, pushing & jostling you amongst them until somehow you find yourself back into your line in front of your file partner marching forward. You are halted & right-faced again to repeat the process a few times. After 2-3 times you understand what the command means & how you will react to it and about the time you have that down, the Capt. will command a left wheel swinging his line to the left as everyone shouts to slow down or speed up. These drills are confusing & can be frightening to new men, but you realize that everyone is willing to help you learn & they remind you that they know how you feel. After about a half an hour to an hour, everyone is tired of drill & the Capt. is satisfied that his unit can behave on the field so he marches back to camp & dismisses everyone. Before dismissal however, he instructs the 1st Sgt to take you & a couple other newer guys & make sure you all know the manual of arms, the loading & firing & to answer any questions you have. He also tells the unit to be back in camp no later than noon because the afternoon battle is at 1pm.

Your gun can be bought used or new. Most guys start with loaner weapons & after an event or two locate a used one from someone in the unit at a decent price. Sure, these are used guns, but they are not complicated weapons & so they work well. A new gun will work well in all likelihood as well, & after a couple of events it will be battered with scratches, some minor rust & have discolored spots.

You are told by the 1st Sgt that later you will be in a battle, and to try not to let that rattle you. For some reason you can learn drill perfectly, & as soon as powder is in the guns you forget the basics. Even seasoned veterans can become disoriented on the battlefield sometimes. The Sgt assures each of you that this is indeed reality. He tells you that accounts abound from the era of men “seeing the elephant” for the first time & forgetting all sorts of things even getting lost among the chaos. But, he tells you not to take anything personally out there because he & some older vets will definitely grab you & place you where you need to be. It happened to them all at one time or another & he wants you to be aware that this is not personal so you will not be angry or have hurt feelings. You are anxious for the coming battle. You fear it at some levels, but look forward to it mostly because it is after all the reason you are here.

The 1st Sgt will check out your weapons & cartridge boxes & make sure you have plenty of caps and cartridges. You will have either made or bought these before now based on what the unit told you to do in the weeks prior to the event. If you do not have enough, word will spread through the unit to donate some to the newbies & you will soon have a full cartridge box of 40 paper rounds & about 50 caps in the cap pouch. You are then free to visit “sutler row” or nap, or eat, or talk or do whatever you like until noon.

You visit the sutler tents which are found near the entrance to all events. The place is crowded with civilians & soldiers alike. You wander along, looking at uniforms, shoes, buttons, guns, videos, T-shirts & all the stuff the sutlers are selling. You do not know what most of the stuff is, but locate a couple of nick-knacks, like a tin cup, a cigar, & a T-shirt of your 1st event to buy. Before you know it, noon is near & you are scurrying back to camp to arrive just as the rest are getting “countered-up.”

Noise all around the camps is similar now. You realize you have not eaten & while you are not really hungry, you know to eat something so you grab a candy bar or snack you’d tucked into the tent & wolf it down. Your heart is now beating harder as you start getting together to the calls from officers in the adjoining camps to “fall in!” Soon you are back in line at your flag. You are inspected by the Capt & 1st Sgt, & are told to drink all the water in your canteen whether you need it or not. Then, your canteen is taken with all the others by 2-3 “volunteers” picked by the Capt to fill canteens. In a while the canteens return filled with water just as you are faced & marched off this time to drums. All over the field you see similar bodies of uniformed men marching toward a designated point. Now you are getting the idea that there are a lot of you on your side. Flags are briskly waving ahead of your column & you have a martial feeling that you like.

You are somehow halted along a long line of troops & faced front where 2 officers atop horses watch you all. You study these men, trying to figure out what rank they are. They are impressive & you have another "bubble moment" for an instant, seeing an unknown senior officer astride his mount with a brilliant colored flag waving beside him & a brilliant blue sky as his backdrop. Just as soon as you have the bubble moment it is burst by someone quoting “The Holy Grail” & causing you to laugh.

You think for a moment about work & how you’d love some co-worker to see you here or take part in this someday. You see spectators watching & think how impressive this must look from their point of view. You have a camera in your pocket but can’t figure out how to get to it right then. As you debate getting it out, the General on the horse speaks & in a gravelly old voice shouts how pleased he is to see you here today. He tells you that you will march to the works & will await the enemy to charge. He tells you that the enemy is supposed to charge, get repulsed by you, charge again, get repulsed & then you are supposed to come out of the works & drive them away. Then several older vets laugh & ask what will really happen?! The General chuckles & says, “well, that is what they are supposed to do but we’ll have to see what they want to do.”

You are called back to attention, faced right again forming what you can now see is a long thick column of four men across. You can plainly see 20-30 lines of 4 men across up ahead & know there are many more lines than that behind you. At the command of “March!” this time, a very good military band strikes up a peppy tune that makes marching in step easier. The flags are all fluttering & the martial tunes & the tramping of hundreds of feet in unison makes for some feeling that you cannot quite describe. You feel important while at the same time feeling insignificant, weak & yet, somehow, powerful. The rattle of tin cups against bayonets, of horses hooves, of Sgts shouting up & down the lines & the musicians’ tune all add to this moment & you think that this must have been a common sound to the men so long ago that marched for long hours days on end.

As you near the hillside where you can already see some men in uniform like yours running back & forth, you see the crowds behind the works there & realize that the crowd will be really close to your back up there. The sudden chest-thumping thud & loud “Boom!” of a cannon shocks you. Another one fires someplace farther away & you see some cavalry gallop ahead followed moments later by smaller pops of small arms. You can’t see what is happening because of the terrain & men in front of you, but the sound of another cannon tells you that “it is on!”

As you climb the rise, men are shouting orders to get into trenches or behind barricades & before long your unit has filtered in behind some earthworks. Now, you see that there is a scattered line of cavalrymen popping small arms at a thin line of advancing enemy infantry out in front of the works. The cannon to your right suddenly blasts a huge white cloud & shakes the ground under your feet & you watch the crew working the gun. You see a billowing white cloud across the field suddenly erupt & a half second later you hear its distant boom. You think that is really cool & become fascinated by the artillery duel.

Someone shouts out “There goes the screen!” followed by “here they come, get ready!” You look & see your cavalrymen have scattered & a thick battle line of enemy is marching steadily toward your works! The artillery on your side opens up faster, as gun after gun fires, shaking the ground & causing you to involuntarily wince. You were not aware until now that there are several guns behind & above you on the rise that are firing over your head. The sudden raspy roar of small arms in a volley, which surprisingly is almost as loud as a cannon, tells you to look forward again & you see a regiment on the lower left of the works firing a ragged volley which causes a couple of enemy to drop. The enemy halts & fires a volley at the lower works. You are amazed at how impressive a line of leveled muskets looks at the moment they all fire. Your men fire again & you see some more enemy fall as their line advances again.

We can of course go on & on about this scenario, but words cannot adequately describe this action. It is of course the main event of the re-enactment, but seasoned veterans of the hobby will invariably tell you that the real reason they enjoy the hobby comes after the battle, in camp where men with common interest enjoy cleaning muskets, packing cartridge boxes, smoking old pipes, cooking on the fire & enjoying the company. That night, you are tired, but satisfied. You sit for long hours at the fire listening to the crusty old 1st Sgt play Irish tunes on his penny whistle, & listening to a Cpl. sing old songs. You get to talk about your hobby or your job to some guys, & learn about them as well. When you finally can stand it no more, you stagger off to the tent & turn-in, sleeping hard until the next dawn in which the scenario begins again.

Do a search on the web for re-enacting units in your area if interested. Or, find an event & go there & wander the camps & just ask to join one from your area. Many units are too far away to join, but can direct you to other units they know of that are closer to you. You also can contact any of the larger sutlers & just ask if they know of a unit in your area. Since they do business all over the country, indeed the world in some cases, they can often put you into touch with customers from your area that can then help you out. For more information that may help you make a decision on whether to join the hobby, YouTube searches can prove valuable sources of good videos of the re-enactments from the soldiers’ point of view as well as spectators.