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Top Five Tips for Getting Started in Civil War Reenacting

By Austin Williams, 5th VA Co. A

People come to Civil War reenacting in a myriad of ways. Perhaps you have a friend in the hobby who has encouraged you to give it a try. Perhaps you attended a reenactment as a spectator and found yourself wishing you were in the midst of the smoke and confusion rather than watching it from afar. Perhaps you have a deep interest in the Civil War and want to experience it and understand it in a way that books can never truly capture. But, for whatever reason, something about recreating the life of a Civil War soldier resonates with you and you’re interested in joining the hobby. Before you purchase a musket and show up to your first event, you may find the following tips useful. They are designed to save you money, help you avoid some of the most common mistakes first time reenactors make, and give you the best chance at enjoying the hobby over the long-term.

1) Put the Credit Card Away: The absolute best advice anyone can give you is to delay purchasing any gear. Almost every reenactor can tell you stories about uniforms or equipment they rushed to purchase when they first started out and later regretted after they learned it was of poor quality or didn’t fit the impression they ultimately pursued. Any unit you’re interested in joining should be eager to loan you a uniform and equipment for your first few events (if they are not or if you’re pressured to purchase equipment right away, you’re probably considering the wrong unit). Before you start investing cash in reenacting, attend enough events to ensure that it’s a hobby that you truly enjoy and want to purse. Do not make the mistake of spending a lot of money on gear that ends up gathering dust in your basement or up for sale on eBay.

2) Consider What You Want Out of Reenacting: Spend some time thinking about what aspects of reenacting interest you. Are you really excited about being a part of large battle reenactments? Are you looking for a highly immersive experience that puts you right in the shoes of a Civil War soldier? Are you looking for something you can do with your family? Are you interested in conducting research into tiny details of soldiers’ lives? Like any hobby, there is a broad spectrum within reenacting with different informal clusters of individuals and groups focusing more or less attention on authenticity. There is nothing inherently better or worse about any of these clusters – they are each different ways of experiencing the hobby and it is important that you pick the one that most closely matches what interests you. As you look at different reenacting units, you may see three terms in particular, which are commonly used to describe different segments of the reenacting spectrum. Many groups may bridge these labels and there is a great degree of variation within the clusters, but generally reenacting organizations fall into one of the following categories:

    • Mainstream: These units are the most relaxed about their impression and may enforce few, if any, authenticity guidelines. However, they are often larger in size and are more likely to prioritize attending large battle reenactments, referred to in the hobby as “powder burners” due to the amount of shooting you’ll likely do on the battlefield. The focus of many of these units is more on the social aspects of reenacting and the excitement of battle reenactments than in necessarily getting all the details of military drill, uniforms, and equipment exactly right. These groups often have little to no primary source research behind their impression, relying instead more on common reenactor practices than consulting period materials. You’ll usually be able to recognize the camp of a mainstream unit by an abundance of large tents, cast iron cookware, and wooden furniture. All this gear can get expensive, is time-consuming to set-up and take down, and requires space at home for storage. Many of these units are family-friendly and men might be accompanied by their wives and children. If you attend an average reenactment as a spectator, these are the units you are most likely to see, as they’re often camped in an open field close to the spectators.
    • Progressive: These units occupy the middle of the authenticity spectrum. They may attend a combination of mainstream events, as well as more authentic, immersive events. They will likely incorporate some smaller “living history” events in their calendar which do not include a battle reenactment, but instead focus on portraying Civil War camp life for the public. They will make a concerted effort to ensure the authenticity of their uniforms, equipment, and drill, but are willing to accept some compromises as needed. They will also usually adapt their impression in some way to fit the unit and time period being portrayed, which often means you will ultimately need to purchase a wider array of uniforms and equipment. While there may be a few members of the group who conduct research using period primary sources, most members will rely more on reading contemporary secondary sources and the knowledge of their fellow reenactors to improve their impression. Most progressive units are also campaigner units, meaning that their camps will have minimal canvas and men are more likely to be sharing small tents or tent flies without any of the heavy cookware or furniture found in a mainstream camp. A campaigner should be able to pack more or less all their equipment on their back, whether just to carry his gear from camp to his vehicle or even for an extended march as part of the event. If you attend a reenactment as a spectator, you may have to work harder to find these units, as their camps are often placed farther from the public in wooded areas to limit the number of modern intrusions. The Stonewall Brigade is a progressive campaigner unit – click here to to learn more about us.
    • Authentic/Hardcore: These units are the most dedicated to ensuring authenticity down to the smallest details. They are often smaller in size, but can offer a more fully immersive experience that will get you closer to the life of a Civil War soldier than any of the other groups discussed. Their impressions will always be adapted for the unit and period being portrayed, so you will need to acquire an array of different uniforms and equipment to meet their exacting authenticity guidelines. Authentic units are highly research driven and a significant number of unit members will regularly conduct primary source research into every possible aspect of soldier life. A single weekend event may be preceded by hours upon hours of extensive research and the purchase of particular uniform items, etc… unique to the event. These units may only rarely participate in battle reenactments and often instead focus on conducting smaller events where they can ensure high standards of authenticity for all participants. Some of these events will be conducted without spectators to remove all possible traces of the modern world, so you may not find them at all if you attend a reenactment.

3) Do Your Research on Units: The current reality of the reenacting hobby is that every unit is eager, if not borderline desperate, to add new recruits to their ranks. Any unit you contact should be extremely welcoming and do everything they can to have you join their ranks. However, it is important that you find a unit that is a good match for you if you want to continue to enjoy reenacting over the long-haul. The unit you ultimately join should be in a position to provide the elements that you want to get out of reenacting. If you’re interested in an immersive, authentic experience, joining a mainstream unit will be a poor fit. Each unit also has a slightly different personality and quirks – they might be laid back or intense, their members may all have similar backgrounds and have known each other all their lives or they may be more diverse, they may be highly social at events and the life of the party or they may be more reserved. These characteristics can be challenging to identify by examining a unit’s website or Facebook page or by chatting with the members at an event. You may need to attend a handful of events with them before you get a good feel for the unit’s personality and whether it is a good fit for you. If it’s not, consider trying another group. If there were other units at the events you attended who seemed like a better fit for what you’re looking for, consider contacting them about falling in at their next event. You may want to speak candidly with your current unit’s commander about what you’re looking for in another unit, as they may have contacts or suggestions for other units that you can consider (if a unit commander isn’t willing to do this, its probably a sign you should leave that unit anyways, as they’re not looking out for your best interests). It is ultimately more important that you be happy and fulfilled in reenacting to ensure the hobby remains vibrant than for any particular unit to add an additional musket to the ranks.

4) Read As Much As You Can: The best way to start your career in reenacting out right is to read extensively. You’re obviously interested in the Civil War, otherwise you won’t be considering reenacting. Odds are that you’ve already read a decent amount about the war, but most Civil War books focus on the movements of vast armies and the leaders who directed them. While this material is of interest to reenactors, our hobby requires a detailed knowledge of the daily experience of individual soldiers. While some of the research is now a bit dated, there is no better place to start than Bell Wiley’s classics The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy and The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. They are great foundational introductions to the topic. As you build your knowledge, there is a wealth of information available in online archives and books drawn from soldiers’ letters, diaries, and post-war memoirs. If you can find material written by men from the unit you portray, even better. For further reading suggestions and links to many of these online resources, please see the Stonewall Brigade’s Recommended Reading list.

5) Purchase Slowly and Strategically: When you are ready to start purchasing gear, take your time and make your purchases strategic. Most units will be eager to help you select gear that fits with their authenticity standards and will offer up the unit commander, a non-commissioned officer, or another senior member to mentor you through your initial purchases. They should also have a list of recommended vendors that sell uniforms and equipment that meet their unit’s standards. For instance, the Stonewall Brigade’s list is located here. Work with your unit point of contact to ensure that the items you select even from these vendors are appropriate, since not every jacket a particular vendor offers will fit your unit’s desired impression. Your mentor can also assist you in finding used gear either from unit members or outside resources like eBay or Facebook. This can be a great way to save money, but make sure you run all major purchases by your mentor to ensure you’re buying quality gear and not getting swindled. The best first purchase you can make is a pair of well-built shoes, usually called brogans or bootees. Most units will have a decent collection of clothes, gear, and even muskets that you can borrow, but it is often difficult to find loaner shoes since many reenactors only own a single pair. They are also made from a relatively standardized style, so they can be used across a wide variety of impressions should you ultimately decide to join another unit or develop a different impression. If you wear eyeglasses, consider purchasing period frames high on your shopping list as well.

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