By Austin Williams, 5th VA Co A
Civil War reenacting is a broad hobby with a wide spectrum of participants who all want different things out of the hobby. Just because you joined a particular unit doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the best fit for you. Maybe you’ve started to notice that the other members of your unit aren’t as serious as you are about the authenticity of your impression. Maybe you’ve watched with envy other units conducting interesting first person scenarios and want to join the fun. Maybe you’ve started reading period letters and diaries and are noticing how far the experience is from what you’ve encountered at most reenactments. All of these are signs you may find reenacting with a progressive or authentic group more fulfilling and a better match for your interests than the mainstream units that represent a large percentage of the hobby. However, it can be intimidating to join a new unit, particularly given the reputation of progressive/authentic reenactors being “stitch-counters” who look down on all those who fail to meet their lofty standards. The reality is that many members of progressive or authentic units started their reenacting career in more mainstream units and made the transition when they realized they wanted something out of the hobby that they weren’t getting with their original organizations. Most progressive/authentic reenactors are eager to help you join their ranks if you’re willing to put the same care and attention into the authenticity of your impression as they have. No one expects you to have a perfect impression right away. The following tips, drawn from the author’s own experience joining the progressive campaigner Stonewall Brigade after years as a mainstream reenactor, can help you make that transition smoothly.
Research Over Reenactorisms
Common knowledge runs rampant in the reenactor community – things that your first sergeant confidently told you, that you heard from someone on sutler row, or that you can’t even remember where you heard it from. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this common knowledge is either flat out wrong or has no basis in historical documentation from the period we seek to portray. When you transition from a mainstream to a progressive/authentic unit, be prepared to question what you thought you knew about reenacting and the experience of Civil War soldiers. If you have picked a quality unit, your new comrades will be able to cite specific research using period primary sources to justify as many details of their impression as possible. If not, you probably should consider another unit, because research is the fundamental foundation of authentic reenacting. As you become more comfortable as a progressive/authentic reenactor, you will likely start conducting some research of your own, reading the letters and diaries of soldiers, examining period photographs, or delving into archival holdings. The same principle holds true regarding drill – many reenacting officers and NCOs unfortunately learned their drill from other reenactors or through modern drill digests/summaries rather than by cracking open the period drill manual. Your new progressive/authentic unit should be drilling straight out of original manuals and, when there are inevitably questions of interpretation or how vague written instructions should be put into practice, they will turn to other period sources to answer the debate. For instance, the Stonewall Brigade drills using Gilham’s Manual for Volunteers and Militia rather than the more common Hardee’s Light Infantry Tactics based on research in primary sources that the original Stonewall Brigade used this manual. All of the common period drill manuals are available online for you to study, along with a wealth of lesser-discussed manuals detailing every aspect of period military practice.
Assess Your Gear and Upgrade Slowly
Unfortunately, much of your mainstream gear will likely need to be replaced with new, campaigner quality gear. The good news, however, is that you should be able to do so slowly, as some of your gear might be “close enough” to get by for a limited time while you work to steadily upgrade. Other gear may just require modification to bring it closer to progressive/authentic standards. In particular, brogans and leather accouterments might be close enough to period patterns that only a truly educated eye will be able to spot that your cap pouch isn’t a standard model 1850 cap box or that your brogans aren’t exactly right. If they are black leather in a relatively generic pattern, you may be able to delay upgrading them until after you’ve addressed higher priority items. Your musket can continue to provide good service, but you will want to look into having it “defarbed” by having the modern markings removed and the stock refinished. Depending on your skill level, you might be able to do some of this work yourself with the help of online guides, such as striping off your stock’s factory polyurethane finish and replacing it with something more period appropriate. Your mainstream canteen may still be serviceable after removing the metal chain (other than the New York Depot, most Federal canteens and all Confederate canteens were issued with cord attaching the cork rather than chain) and replacing the wool cover with one of the jean wool canteen cover kits available from various quality sutlers. Your belt may still work, but you may need to purchase a new buckle (particularly if you fell prey to the common Confederate reenactorism of wearing an upside down US plate buckle…). Work with your new unit to examine your existing kit, see what needs to be replaced first, what can be altered, what you get by with for a time, and what you might be able to borrow from your new comrades.
Upgrade Your Jacket(s) and Headwear First
The two items that are least likely to be “close enough” for temporary service are your jacket(s) and headwear. These are the two most prominent parts of a Civil War uniform and thus mainstream vs. progressive/authentic quality can be apparent from a distance. Mainstream sutlers are rife with jackets bearing little resemblance to the cut, fabric, or color of period uniforms. Unless you were a particularly luckier or better informed purchaser than most, odds are high that the jacket you purchased isn’t close enough to your new unit’s authenticity guidelines to pass muster. If you are building a progessive/authentic Confederate impression, you will likely eventually need to purchase multiple jackets, as the uniforms worn by Confederate soldiers changed multiple times throughout the war. Lower quality headwear also stands out from a distance if it was made with an inauthentic profile/shape or from materials which don’t match period construction. Cheap wool felt hats that can’t hold their shape or kepis with plastic-like brims stand out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, quality headgear is a relatively inexpensive upgrade and is a good first step for improving your impression. Work with your new unit to identify the headwear and jacket(s) that will be most versatile for the impressions your unit regularly adopts.
Aim for Generic Nondescript
As you are working to assess your gear needs, aim to acquire versatile, foundational gear for a generic, nondescript impression. Many mainstream reenactors pursue various speciality impressions with distinctive, non-standard uniforms or incorporate flashy uniform items that, while they existed in the period, were not widely used. For instance, in most cases you will want to remove all brass insignia, feathers, or other decorative adornment from your hat (unless it is documented for a specific impression). Similarly, items such as gaiters or havelocks rarely appear in period documentation beyond the early months of the war. Yes, there are period photographs of some incredibly distinctive uniforms (Confederate cavalryman Captain Samuel Richardson’s leopard skin trousers being perhaps the most outlandish), but just because it existed, doesn’t mean it is appropriate for the impression you are portraying. As an overall rule, base your impression on specific research whenever possible and, if unit-specific research isn’t available, fall back on what would have been most common at that time and location.
Get Used to Carrying Your Gear
While progressive/authentic reenactors may pay more for individual pieces of gear, they generally own less equipment overall than their mainstream comrades and definitely bring less to an event. At most events, we are called upon to portray troops on campaign. While the large tents, wooden furniture, and heavy cast iron cookware that grace most mainstream camps certainly all existed in the period, as with uniforms you need to consider whether they are appropriate to the unit, time, and place being portrayed. Soldiers on campaign were almost exclusively reliant on their own backs to carry their gear and, thus, traveled light. As a general rule, if an event involves portraying troops on campaign, you shouldn’t be bringing more gear than you can carry, whether on the walk from the car to camp or on an extended march from campsite to campsite. Practice packing your knapsack or blanket roll, be ruthless about considering what you pack, and make sure you can move comfortably while wearing your equipment. Odds are good that you need to adjust the length of your canteen and haversack straps to keep them from hanging too low or riding too high – analysis of period images shows most soldiers wore them between the level of their beltline and their elbow. Accounts of soldiers dropping packs prior to going into battle become conspicuously less frequent as veteran troops learned the hard way that they risked never returning to their equipment. You should likewise become comfortable marching, drilling, and fighting with your gear, including your blanket roll or knapsack (again, unless there is period documentation indicating that the unit you are portraying discarded their packs).
It’s Not All About Gear
Progressive/authentic reenacting is about more than just purchasing the best uniform and equipment money can buy. How the authentic reenactor acts is just as important as what he wears and the best part is that this part of the transition is completely free. Study period rations and learn how to cook authentic food. If you smoke, forgo modern cigarettes for the weekend in favor of period tobacco. Learn how to conduct guard duty based on the period manuals. Learn period slang and pepper a few choice phrases into your first person conversations. Learn to render a period salute and understand how to practice proper military etiquette. Above all, read and study constantly. Progressive/authentic reenacting isn’t about what clothes you wear, what drill manual you use, or what unit you are a member of. It is about consistent learning and study, always understanding that there is more you could be doing to improve, and striving constantly to be as close to the period as possible. We will never fully replicate the experience of the Civil War soldier, but by constantly trying and falling short, we ensure we are doing all we can to honor their memory by portraying their lives as accurately as possible.