For the Beginning Reenactor, Before You Buy a Thing!Dear Reader – If you’re a beginning reenactor, a “fresh-fish” in the lingo of the Civil War, than this article is for you. This article is particularly for you if you’ve taken enough time to discover the difference between mainstream and progressive reenacting. If you recognize those two camps for what they are and would prefer to be in the latter, please read on.
by Paul Calloway
Note that my purpose here is to tell you how to get started in Progressive Reenacting, not to debate the subtle or not-so-subtle differences between Progressive and Mainstream Reenacting.
What Should I Buy?
Hold the phone! Nope, if you’re fresh in the hobby you need to rephrase that question. Try it like this, “what should I read?” Yes sir, that’s the question you need to be asking. You are fortunate that a lot of good folks have already done an incredible amount of research and most of it is available through a connection to the World Wide Web. This is one source – but not the main one.
The main source for your information should be diaries, letters, first-person accounts, family histories, photographic evidence and dogged footwork. I urge you to never leave this resource out of your studies – this is what will be your guiding light when the world of reenacting politics has you scratching your head in confusion. This is the resource that bears little or no post-war corruption – lean on it, depend on it, learn from it.
Here are some resources for you to try to get your hands on:
Corporal Si Klegg and his Pard by Wilbur F. Hinman
Hardtack and Coffee by John Billings
Echos of Glory; US & CS
Whenever time allows, read. These are your textbooks. You’ll learn so much about the real life of a Civil War Soldier. Note that there’s nothing but cursory information in those volumes about Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. You know why? You’re not reenacting those guys, you’re reenacting the lives of 3.5 million men and boys that turned their backs on home and hearth and waded waist deep into the bloodiest conflict this nation has ever seen. We don’t need any patronizing nonsense about Abraham Lincoln winning the war – he didn’t – it was boys not old enough to shave that won the war. And they won that war by defeating an Army of men and boys that should be immortalized as heroes and never as villains.
Your secular textbooks will never teach you this because it’s not politically correct. But living history and careful research will teach you the truth of the Civil War and a desire to do it right will overwhelm you and invigorate you with passion.
Trying to do it alone in this hobby is tough. Trying to do it alone and do it right is impossible. I encourage you to find a like-minded group or mess to help you along the way. In my experience the smaller the group the better. You’ll hear a lot of nonsense about the big groups having more resources to help you out – baloney, in a small mess you’ll get the kind of personal attention a fresh-fish needs.
Which Side do I Portray?
You’ve probably already made up your mind on this one. I encourage you to consider this – as of 1999 Confederates outnumber Federals by a ratio of about 3 to 1. If you want to be a Rebel, that’s fine, but when finding a mess to join, I encourage you find one that also is interested in portraying a Federal impression. Get over the nonsense about “my grandfather would roll over in his grave if…” They were ALL heroes!
How Do I choose a Mess/Unit?
There are a number of factors that will come into play when finding a unit to join. The primary factor is finding like-minded individuals that are interested in portraying Civil War Soldiers accurately. There are many units out there with nice guys that say they are interested in portraying Civil War Soldiers accurately…. and perhaps they are. However, saying you are a progressive/authentic and actually being one are two notably different things.
You should consider an infantry impression first. Depending on your situation you may choose to also consider Cavalry or Artillery. I caution you to tread carefully if interested in doing Zouaves, Marines, Regular Infantry and the like. This can be done right but often times is not.
Find units that have Authenticity Standards – read them. Compare and contrast those standards with the Authenticity Standards of other groups claiming a similar impression (ie. Western Confederate, Eastern Federal.)
Find units that have suggested Vendor Lists – read them. Compare and contrast those standards with the Vendor Lists of other groups claiming a similar impression (ie. Western Federal, Eastern Confederate.)
Find units that are willing to give you References – check on those references. . Compare and contrast those references with those of other groups claiming a similar impression.
Some good groups to look out for in those references:
I would like to list some groups to beware of but would probably get sued or something.
- The 33rd Wisconsin
- The Cracker Company
- The Rowdy Pards
- The Southern Guard
- The Campaigners
- The 1st Minnesota
- The 42d Indiana
- The 49th Ohio
- The 10th Texas
- Army of the Pacific
- The Mudsills
- The Skulkers
- The Stragglers
- The Rockport Mess
- The Bully Boys
- The Critter Company (Cav)
Are you starting to get the concept now? There’s a lot of research to be done in this hobby – even down to which unit you will portray and which group of guys you will consider your pards. Only after carefully weighing and exploring to the fullest extent, all of these options should you even consider choosing a particular group. Remember, even real nice guys can be farbs (ie. Have poor impressions.) There’s few things more painful in the hobby then having to walk away from a group that you’ve called home because they can’t cut the grade. Do you research up front and this won’t happen.
Of course there is also the issue of geography. It’s preferable to find a group that is nearby – other members within an hours drive. This way you can travel together, get together for a coke sometime or just stay in touch without long distance phone calls. This is not all important though – there are plenty of examples of guys that live hours away that still participate at all the events… the internet and mass transit are wonderful things.
OK, that done should I jump right in?
Maybe not. It wouldn’t hurt you to go to an event first – still not having bought a thing. You should probably get in contact with the group you’re interested and express your desire to see them “in the field.” I don’t mean in a battle, I mean in the field – living as soldiers really did. You should know how they might have lived by now because you read all that stuff I told you to right?
Some of these groups do what’s called “first person” all the time. You may have to present yourself as a potential “fresh fish” unobtrusively. See if you can see who seems to be the leader in the group. Don’t necessarily look for stripes – look for the guy that looks the most like a civil war soldier. Ask him for a word in private and then tell him what’s on your mind.
What should I buy? (Part II)
Ok, here we are again. Are you still with me? By now you’ve probably selected a group to join. Good for you. Look at this group’s Authenticity Standards and Vendors List – It will probably list a lot of names you’ve hear of and will probably read something like this:
I’m hesitant to list vendors to buy your equipment from because this list changes so often. These folks are good today, dried up and dead tomorrow – so please be wary if you are too far from the date which this article is being written (12/16/99)
- Chris Daley (General Line – mostly US)
- Nick ************ (General Line – mostly US)
- Charley Childs (Uniform Kits, Blankets, cloth)
- Ben Tart (General Line – mostly CS)
- Tim Allen (hats)
- Moore & Company (Leathers)
- Quartermaster Woolens (Blanket)
- Missouri Boot & Shoe
- Lodgewood (Muskets)
- Nancy Eddins (Shirts, drawers, socks)
- Sullivan Press (Miscellaneous articles) – beware of any vendor using the term “Haversack Stuffers” (Farb Alert)
Have your pards help you develop an impression that’s individual to you but melds with the group concept. Example: In certain Western Federal units there are not enough guys wearing black Hardee hats or perhaps it would be great if there was one guy wearing a top-notch forage cap – with the brim cocked up showing serious attitude. This is the kind of thing to determine before you rush out and start buying.
Some groups have winter projects in which they make things, or they may have a guy in the unit that makes great stuff but is not widely known. Take advantage of these resources whenever possible.
Unless your group has resources similar to those just mentioned, you’re probably going to spend $1,500 before it’s all done – but usually this can be done over a year or two. Note that even when buying from the worst vendors you’ll still spend $1,300 or more and end up with lousy equipment that is historically a joke. In December, 1999 - $1,500 is the price to do it right for an infantryman.
If you can’t buy everything at once, your pards will likely help you out with loaner gear. Get your jacket, hat and shoes right away if you can – plan on spending about $300. Next comes the pants and shirt – another $200. Now a canteen (w/ correct cover) and haversack and gum blanket - another $150. Leather Accoutrements and blanket $200. Rifle and bayonet $500. The last things you’ll buy are the tent-half, a knapsack, a soldiers watch (depending on your impression), a Bible perhaps, a hand-knit scarf – basically the things that make you an individual.
Am I done?
Not by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin. There’s a lot of work to be done yet. You say, “what now?” Research my man, read your butt off. Keep at it and try to keep your attitude in check. You may be an authentic now but you don’t want to bully the other folks around if you can help it. The farb you assault today could be the next up-and-comer in the authentic movement – who knows he might even surpass you! So don’t make enemies.
I encourage you to visit the Authentic Campaigner website regularly - it has links to dozens of articles on a variety of topics to help you with your impression. Good Luck!