Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reenacting and Commercials

Because the reenacting in cartoons was such a hit I’ve decided to do a little blog about depictions of reenacting in commercials (believe it or not there aren’t a lot of references to reenacting in movies).  There are really only two.  Both are meant to be humorous, and both resonate with reenactors in particular ways.  So here they are in chronological order…

Ebay commercial:

This commercial is pretty interesting.  Of course ebay is implying that you can get anything you want from their website, unfortunately you really can’t get much reenacting stuff from ebay.  Essentially someone out there is wondering “where do they get that stuff?” ( answered here )  and came up with this.  There are some great reenacting moments in this commercial:
1)      Every reenacting event involves the sentence “Where did you get that ____?”  or “Wow, that’s a great _____! Look at that_____ (often hand sewn button holes)” or “That is some really good fabric that jacket (or what have you) is made out of.”  Occasionally this will go even farther into something like “That is a real campaign shirt” (meaning its dirty as shit and looks like something a real soldier would have worn while marching twenty miles a day).  Usually these conversations will then evolve into a discussion of the research gone into the article of clothing. 
2)      On the reverse side of the coin there will always be someone (thank God) who will call people on their inaccuracies.  This commercial depicts an extreme example but just imagine instead of being off by 80 some years, you get called out for wearing a jacket that wasn’t used until 1864 and you’re supposed to be portraying soldiers in 1863. 
3)      There will always be reenactors who just don’t care and will charge into battle on a metaphorical segway.

Geico commercial:

Another great commercial!  This time it depicts the sole reenactor in a unit who just wants to have an authentic event but is troubled by those who just want to go on a camping trip with a Civil War theme.  He even bemoans the bad reputation their group has acquired, something that is all too true.  This kind of activity would probably get you shunned by the reenacting community (at least it should).  Reenactors though tend to be the most lax about authenticity at the end of the day, when sitting around the camp fire.  This is often when the beer will come out but in the morning things are always back to business.  I must point out though that not all groups and not all events allow for these kinds of breaks in authenticity.  I should also confess that this year at Gettysburg we were joking about having a pizza delivered to our camp out on the battlefield, it didn’t happen though and there were no anachronisms around that fire.  Instead, like real Civil War soldiers, we went into town for libations and relaxation when the day was done.

I must note that this commerical only played during the world's WORST documentary about Gettysburg, which was apparently filmed in South Africa.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


I’m going to begin this post with a little update.  I recently participated in an event at Gettysburg National Park.  This was a great little event and the perfect opportunity for me to talk about “living histories,” a type of reenacting event which I personally prefer.  The problem is, I forgot my camera that weekend.  While my disposable camera is developed I’m going to do something else I’ve been meaning to do for a while, a reenactor FAQ.  
            Over the years I’ve been asked many questions about reenacting, and some questions are asked more often than others.  These are perhaps the most basic questions about what we do, and I hope by answering them I can give a little bit of an insight into the life of a reenactor. 

Where do you get your stuff?
            Reenacting involves a lot of stuff.  For instance I currently have four different Union “impressions”.*  Most of the items you can’t just walk out to the mall and buy, in fact I don’t really know of anything like that.  Instead we rely on a dedicated community of “sutlers” to make and sell us clothing and equipment.  During the war “sutlers” were merchants who followed the army selling soldiers goods they might need (extra shirts, socks, writing supplies, and canned food just to name a few items).  Many of today’s higher end sutlers make their own goods, or contract with people who have specialized in certain items.  Most reenacting units (clubs) will recommend suppliers to buy certain items from.  One sutler’s pants might be of really good quality while his shoes bear little resemblance to originals.  Some sutlers specialize in uniforms and clothing, others leather items while others in more personal items.  Often higher end suppliers are simply a single reenactor who makes one type of item particularly well, running a small company as a side job (or in some cases a full time job).  I’m going to share with you some of my favorites.
Sells some of the best uniforms out there plus excellent items like reproduction glass bottles (under civilian clothing)
Excellent handcrafted leather accouterments
Reproduction books, paperwork and stationary
Sells personal items and tin goods
Civil War Unifroms

How much does all this cost?
            I took a minute this evening to crunch the numbers.  If I was buying all the “basic required” items from my unit’s recommended vendors it would come up to around $2,400.  Now for the one or two of you who ever thought about becoming a reenactor let me say, most of these can be found used on one of several online reenacting forums.  Additionally many reenactors and units are happy to lend out gear to new recruits when needed.    

How do you know when you’ve been shot?
            Most reenactments involve a battle, and soldiers died in battle.  We reenactors “take hits” during battle reenactments out of respect for those who fell during the original battle.  Since we don’t use paint ball guns or lasers or anything like that there is no way to know if you’ve been hit.  What we do instead is take hits when we feel it’s appropriate.  For many reenactors this happens when we’ve run out of ammunition, get too hot, our musket fouls, or we want to lie down and take pictures of the battle without looking like a complete idiot.  What this means is that during the first half of a battle, no one takes a hit.  I’m just as guilty of this as everyone else.  Some reenactors like to ham it up by taking an overly dramatic hit right in front of the spectators.  There is nothing cheesier than this (hhmm, ham and cheese).  Some unit commanders like to say “next time that cannon goes off, six of us are going to go down.”  This is kind of cool and nice to see.  A recent article also discussed the fact that taking prisoners is under represented in our hobby and has encouraged reenactors to surrender, and also explained what to do with prisoners once you’ve taken them. 
Me and the 69th New York stand over battle casualties 

Do battles have a plan? (Also “how do you know who won?)
            When we go into battle we stay in formation with the rest of our unit.  This means that we are being commanded by an officer (normally), who gets orders from the person above them, who gets orders from the person above them, who went to a meeting before the battle and discussed the details of the battle.  Often if we’re reenacting a real battle the organizers try to follow the original battle plan as best as possible but this doesn’t always work (when you’re not in the real military, command structure kind of breaks down easily).

Is that a real gun?
            Why yes it is.  I own a reproduction of a model 1858 Springfield rifled musket.  With the exception of some modern markings on the barrel, including the serial number, it is identical to an original weapon.  While it is not an original weapon from the Civil War it can fire the same ammunition as the originals.  Additionally due to the fact that Civil War weapons had interchangeable parts, I should be able to replace any part of my musket with an original part, once again this doesn’t always work in practice but it’s a nice idea. 
My 1858 Springfield Reproduction

An original 1858 Springfield
What does it shoot?
            Well, original 1858 Springfields fired a 58 caliber Minnie ball, a conical round with three groves.  This was set within a paper cartridge along with gun powder.  The paper cartridge was torn open using the front teeth and then contents poured down the barrel and then rammed down.  What do I fire? The same exact thing, except without the Minnie ball.  I pour down the same amount of powder as the original paper tubes contained. 

Left: A reproduction paper cartridge  Right: An original 58 Caliber Minnie Ball

Where do you do reenact?
            That depends on the type of event.  Most reenactments take place in areas where the Civil War was actually fought, that means Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia to name a few.  Most large reenactments that commemorate a real battle are held on a farm near the battle site.  Living histories on the other hand are often sponsored by a historic site which may or may not have actually been involved in the war, but was usually around in the mid-19th Century.   
A Living History at Fort Larned National Historic Site, Kansas
Do women reenact?
            This is a matter that has stirred a lot of debate amongst reenactors.  There were a small number of women during the war who dressed as men in order to enlist.  Some women who prefer to reenact as soldiers portray these women.  The problem is that these women, for the most part, passed as men.  Many of the female reenactors can not pass as men to save their lives which can create problems.  I used to reenact with a group whose ranks were about 40% female.  Most women though chose to portray the more traditional roles of women during the Civil War, as officer’s wives, members of soldiers’ aid societies, nurses and laundresses.   
Frances Clayton a Female Civil War Soldier

Did you really sleep out here last night?
            Of course I did, that’s my blanket right over there.  I can’t tell you how many times at reenactments I’ve been asked this question (at the first reenactment I went to as a child I remember my Dad asking a reenactor that question).  Generally yes we spend the night out.

Our Campsite at Nashamity Reenactment

            This is the biggest question and the entire point of this blog.  The answer is too long for this single post, but rather is something that I’ll continue to discus in the future. 

I’m happy to answer other questions about reenacting so feel free to email me

* In this case an “impression” is the uniform, gear, food and supplies needed to portray a soldier from a specific unit at a specific time.  For instance the impression for a soldier in the 69th New York in 1861 would be different than that same soldier in 1862, which would be different from a soldier in a different unit at the exact same time. 

Monday, June 13, 2011


Hello everyone,
I have neglected the blog for a while because I've been at archaeological field school, excavating Fort Anderson, a fort constructed by the Confederates to defend the Cape Fear River and Wilmington North Carolina.  The Fort fell to federal assault in February of 1865.  I excavated the remains of a barracks that may have been from the period between January and the fall of the Fort. 
I have some interesting blogs in the future including:
Reenactor FAQ
Reenacting and Archaeology: What can they give each other? (including details of my recent excavations)
What is a Living History? 
Reenacting and Technology
and Friends don't Let Friends Farb
I learned how to fire a Civil War cannon during field school, makes me think about transferring to artillery

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Reeancting and Cartoons

One of the goals of this blog is to look at the way reenactors are portrayed in popular culture.  Perhaps one of the places that reenacting has been depicted the most is on cartoon shows.  By my count there are six cartoons which have depicted Civil War reenactments.

The Simpsons by far has had the largest number of Civil War reenactments (not surprising considering the fact that the show has been on the air for 22 years). 

Homer the Great (Season 6)

Synopsis: It is discovered that Homer is The Chosen One, the prophesized leader of the Stonecutters, an ancient secret society.  Homer intends to use the club to stage a reenactment of the battle of Gettysburg but after the society abandons him he decides to reenact the battle with colobus monkeys instead.

What they got right: A lot of reenactors are members of a certain ancient secret society and enjoy advertising it to the point that some reenactments and groups put the stipulations “no Masonic emblems” in their authenticity guidelines.  The Camp Chase Gazette, a magazine for reenactors, ran a series of articles on how to reenact a 1860s Masonic meeting.
What they got wrong: Pretty much everything, I hope to God I never go to a reenactment with colobus monkeys!  The uniforms on the monkeys are just bad (I can’t believe I had to just write that sentence). 

The PTA Disbands (Season 6)

Synopsis: The episode opens with Bart’s class visiting Fort Springfield a Civil War era fort (which looks like something from a bad western) which has recently been purchased by Diznee and is now charging an entrance fee.  As such the class has to spy on the reenactment of the battle in which the “Ninth Bearded Infantry” slaughters a group of Confederate soldiers who are attempting to surrender calling out “we need leaches and hack saw for our gangrenous limbs.” 

What they got right: Many historic sites employ reenactors to interact with the public, occasionally involving battles.  It should be noted that the year before this episode aired Disney had proposed building a park in Haymarket Virginia dedicated to American history that would have included a Civil War fort, a battlefield where daily battles would be reenacted, and a lake where the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac would be reenacted. 

What they got wrong: The uniforms were pretty bad but that’s really about it, I personally think that this would have reflected “Corporate History” as it would have happened at the proposed park or any other “corporate” history park.

Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious (Season 8)

Synopsis: Marge is losing her hair from stress so the family decides they need to hire a nanny.  Homer says that to help to pay for the nanny he will give up “the Civil War recreation society [he] loves so much.”  The scene then jumps to Moe’s Tavern where the regulars are preparing for their reenactment.  Moe remarks that they now need a new General Ambrose Burnside since Homer has left.  It is also revealed that Apu portrays Stonewall Jackson to which he adds “the South shall COME AGAIN!” 

What they got right: Once again this is a very short segment so there’s not much here to work with but the presence of alcohol is a realistic touch. 

What they got wrong: Although a few of the bar flies wear uniforms of the common soldier the majority of men portray historic figures and generals.  In reenacting (well, good reenacting) there are very few people portraying historic figures.  In essence their group wouldn’t need that many people portraying officers and presidents.  This is a common misconception that reenactors dress up as historic figures.  The uniforms are pretty bad. 

The Sweetest Apu (Season 13)

Synopsis:  It’s time to reenact the Battle of Springfield (apparently not the same one that was fought at Fort Springfield).  Homer prepares for the reenactment by getting a keg at the Kwik-E-Mart.  The battle, which was fought between the North, the South and the East (soldiers wearing plaid), starts out well but quickly degrades with a rollerblading Disco Stu portraying Stonewall Jackson and Professor Frink in a giant mechanical spider (ala Wild Wild West). 

What they got right: Barney playing General Grant and getting drunk off of Homer’s keg is a great moment.  While the anachronisms are more over the top than most reenactments Principal Skinner getting upset at the inaccuracies is also a good moment.   

What they got wrong: The Simpson’s falls into an all too common trap, and that is that reenactors are locals who get together to celebrate a battle fought at their town and then hang up their uniforms for the rest the year, rather than being dedicated outsiders who come to in order to reenact the battle.  I suspect this is more a plot device to allow the characters to become reenactors rather than an overall misunderstanding of reenacting.  While they’re still pretty bad the uniforms are better than any other Simpson’s episode. 

Family Guy: To Love and Die in Dixie

Synopsis:  When Chris witnesses a robbery at a convenience store the family is put into the Witness Protection Program somewhere in the Deep South.  While there the family watches a “Civil War Reenactment” which involves a stage on which actors portraying Grant and Lee argue before Lee defeats a drunken and obscene Grant when he falls over, thereby winning the Civil War. 

What they got right: Pretty much the only thing is that Civil War reenactors are indeed human beings, other than that…

What they got wrong: Pretty much everything.  Civil War reenactments don’t take place on a stage and almost never involve interactions between historic figures.  The episode also depicts reenactors as ignorant rednecks who use the reenactment to push neo-Confederate propaganda about the nobility of the South and the incivility of the North.

South Park: The Red Badge of Gayness

Synopsis:  The town is preparing to reenact the Battle of Tamarack Hill (a fictional battle).   To win a bet with Stan and Kyle Cartman assumes the role of Robert E. Lee and, after getting the Confederate reenactors drunk on S’more Schnapps (the official sponsor of the reenactment), convinces his troops to win the battle.  Afterwards the drunk troops continue their onslaught across the country in an attempt to win the Civil War for the Confederacy.  In the end Kyle and Stan end the rebellion by dressing up as Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln and surrendering the Confederacy.

What they got right: Many reenactors assume that there is a spy amongst us who helped write this episode and S’more Schnapps has become a standard reference amongst drunken soldiers around the camp fire.  Indeed many a reenactment has been fueled by liquor, but of course not to the extent that the episode depicts. 
Is someone spying on us?

What they got wrong: Once again the episode falls into the all too familiar plot device of having the town members dress up to reenact a local battle.  The uniforms are pretty generic although the worst mistake is the use of the Confederate first national flag as the American flag.

The Cleveland Show: The Blue the Gray and the Brown

Synopsis: When Cleveland is manipulated by a wealthy local man, Emerson Plunkett V, into helping save a statue of the slave owning town founder Cleveland decides to beat him at his own game, by winning the reenactment of the battle of Stoolbend.  Along with Tim the Bear, Holt, and Lloyd, Cleveland wins the battle by going to the library and reading the Wikipedia article on the battle, thereby preventing the Union troops from falling into a trap.  In the end Lester, who refused to break his tradition of reenacting the Confederates, takes a “fake bullet” for Cleveland allowing him to finally defeat Plunkett by shooting him in the arm, which Cleveland notes he will have to have amputated which will get infect and eventually kill him.

Cleveland Informs the Union Commander of the Trap

What they got right:  The reenactment is hands done the best one of these in terms of material culture although it still has its problems.  They don’t say much about reenactors as a group, rather focusing on Cleveland’s own motives for reenacting.   
Lester Takes a Fake Bullet for his Friend

What they got wrong: Once again reenactors are portrayed as locals who gather to reenact a particular local battle.  They mostly act as if the reenactment is something that takes part of a single day rather than an entire weekend.  Taking hits, that is getting shot, is treated like a game children play with comments like “I got you,” “No you didn’t,” which depicts reenactors almost as children playing war. 

Honorable Mentions

There are two cartoon episodes that should be mentioned even though they don’t relate directly to Civil War reenacting exactly. 

Futurama: Lethal Inspection
This episode starts with a reenactment of the Sith-al War, a future conflict between Earth (whose uniforms bear a striking resemblance to Union uniforms) and the Sith.  The reenactment includes cardboard props and resembles Live Action Role Playing more than reenacting. 

American Dad: In Country…Club

A truly wonderful and hilarious episode.  Stan takes Steve to a Vietnam reenactment at a local country club so he can appreciate what veterans have gone through.  The reenactment is carried out using paintball guns (and derivatives including sharpies as knives, and paint sprayers as flame throwers) and golf carts as PT boats and helicopters (with a ceiling fan mounted on the roof).  Throughout the episode the country club members who seem to be going about their daily lives interact with the reenactors.  Steve takes the reenactment too far and ends up suffering PTSD.  The episode is more of a commentary on Vietnam than on reenacting but depicts the reenactors, while committed to experiencing and depicting the true horrors of war, as inevitably partaking in a farce.  A great comment though is made about Civil War reenactors when Stan says to Steve, who thinks they’re going to a Civil War reenactment, “No, Civil War reenactments are for historians and people who hate blacks.”  This commentary is something that I think is at times too true as a segment (albeit a small one) of the Confed reenacting population are proponents of Neo-Confederate beliefs. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Last 17 Years Reenacting

I may or may not be able to do a big blog post this week depending on what happens with my dissertation proposal which may or may not be due on Friday.  I’m working on an article about reenactors in cartoons, like the Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park.  In the meantime I’m going to post some pictures of me reenacting throughout the years.
In honor of Mother's Day I must note that my Mom scanned in most of these pictures for me!

My Dad and I at our first reenactment, Cedar Creek 1994

Petersburg 1994 (that's me with the drum)

One of my senior pictures, 2001

Me and a Friend from Undergrad, Cedar Creek 2004

In the Ranks at a Living History at Gettysburg National Park, 2010

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Neshaminy After Action Report

After Action Report: Neshaminy

I’m back from the Neshaminy reenactment.  It was an odd event to say the least but I had a good time.  I’m going to use the reenactment for two things, first as an after action report and second to describe exactly what a reenactment involves for those of you who haven’t been before. 
As for reenactments Neshaminy was fairly typical, if on the small and also inaccurate side (but this is representative of the hobby as a whole).  I arrived Friday night and went immediately to registration where I checked in.  Kevin (who I rode down with from the city) and I then found our camp.  My unit the 69th New York (the reenacting group I belong to) had set up in the woods beyond the civilian camps.  Most reenactors will set up a company street, this is a row of tents belonging to a single unit.  A good sized reenactment will create a “sea of canvas.”  Yet most Civil War soldiers, unless they were going to be camped in an area for an extended period of time, would simply throw down their blankets around a camp fire after a long day of marching.  You’d very rarely see an army camp composed of thousands of well ordered tents.  So this is the way we camp.  We quickly gathered firewood and made a fire, and each of us staked out a spot around the fire.  Afterwards several of us went into town for a last 21st Century meal.

Our Camp Site, My blanket is in the middle left

We awoke early the next morning and cleared any last 21st Century items out of the camp.  Most reenactments will have revelry in the morning, this one did not and so the camps slowly came alive. 

 Around 10 we formed up with the rest of the union forces, about 400 or 500 men, for dress parade and drill, which meant mostly that we had to stand around in the sun looking pretty.  After the dress parade several of us went to the sutlers to do a little shopping.  Sutlers during the war were merchants who followed the armies selling soldiers extra things they needed; shirts, socks, canned food, paper products, anything that the soldiers wanted but didn’t get issued by the army.  Today sutlers are merchants who sell reenactors our uniforms, gear and anything else we need.  When we returned to our camp (I bought a few items I needed for my 1861 impression for the upcoming 150th Anniversary reenactment of Bull Run) we found that a park ranger had been by and had ordered us to find a new camp site as camping in the woods posed a fire danger.  As we now only had about twenty minutes before we’d need to form up for battle we decided to wait until afterwards. 

Sutler Row

We formed up with the rest of the Union forces and marched out into the woods.  We could hear gun fire up ahead but could see nothing.  We were then marched quickly through the woods and out into a large open field of high grass and weeds (with several large hidden holes).  Ahead of us was a line of union soldiers and beyond I could make out the rebel lines.  We were put into reserve, standing behind the main union forces who were engaging the rebs for several minutes before we finally charged into the woods driving them back.  We unfortunately were ordered to advance way too close to the rebels and found ourselves dangerously close to each other’s rifles.  While we were only shooting blanks the weapons we use are exact reproductions of Civil War muskets (some of us were even using original Civil War muskets) and the “blanks” are simply black powder (the same type and amount used during the war) simply without the bullets.  They are extremely dangerous as they can fire out any foreign material that falls into the barrel and shoot out a long flame when fired.  I know of several people who have permanently scarred by “blanks” and in some cases people have died.  Most of the Civil War muskets were effective up to 400 yards, and so that’s the distance that soldiers preferred to fight, not the fifty feet we were from the rebels.  While we were engaged the officer of the unit next to us ran out in front of his lines to and then gave the order to fire, while he was directly in front of them.  Even if it wasn’t live fire that man still deserves a Darwin award. 

We were then ordered to fall back and the battle seemed to end.  We were all very perplexed by this.  At this point, much to our dismay, a pickup truck arrived dragging behind it a cannon in site of the spectators (of which I was told there were 18,000).  We continued to wait as they apparently reset for the “public” event.  Finally we heard the battle begin far out in front of us.  Once again we waited in the woods, listening to the battle.  Finally we were sent in.  We were still in the rear but now at least we were only five feet behind the union troops who were fighting the rebs.  At least the troops in front of us fell back and we were sent forward.  We fired a few volleys at the rebels before charging and driving them towards the river.  I saw a few rebels to my left surrender to our now overwhelming troops and at that moment we stopped, fell back a little ways and heard taps being played over the bugle signaling the end of the battle. 
Some of the Rebels at the end of the battle

When we returned to camp we found that the park ranger had returned and threatened us with a $300 fine each.  While he was gone (with the promise of returning) we quickly gathered everything we had and moved to a new location on the other end of the Union camp.  After the rather disappointing battle and the rude ranger many of our members decided to leave early.  Kevin and I decided to leave the next morning.
Cooking the Stew

That night, after Kevin had made an excellent Turkey stew, the few of us who had decided to stay sat around the fire. We were approached by a member of the unit camped next to us with an offer to join them for some drinks which we gladly accepted.  About half an hour later one of our members, Dave a retired New York City firefighter, returned to our camp to discover that while we had left only one camp fire there were now three.  My shelter half (canvas tent), and Kevin’s coat, haversack (a canvas bag for rations) and belt were on fire.  Dave quickly put out the fires.
Kevin's Burnt Sack Coat
In the morning we surveyed the damage and decided to stay around until the sutlers opened so we could replace some of the damaged items.  I cut up the tent to save the undamaged portions and salvaged the buttons in order to make small canvas bags for food and personal items.   At sutler row I was able to purchase a new shelter half from a reputable dealer as well as a new straw hat for the upcoming Bull Run reenactment.  Perhaps most importantly though I had the opportunity to get a tin type, an 1860’s period photograph, taken.  I had to stand perfectly still for about ten or fifteen seconds while the camera captured my image.  The developing of the picture would not be complete until after we were leaving so the photographer is sending the photograph to me in the mail.  As soon as it arrives I’ll share it. 
My Burnt Shelt Half

If we had stayed we would have done a second dress parade followed by a second battle and then pack up around 5pm to head home.  The reenactment also provided a number of other events which we didn’t partake including period churches services, a dance, and artillery demonstrations among other things. 
Crushing that it's edible

Friday, April 29, 2011

And I'm off!

As part of this blog I will be keeping you abreast of my wonderful adventures as a reenactor.  I’m off this afternoon to Neshaminy State Park just outside Philadelphia for the weekend for a reenactment (a real one with a battle as opposed to a living history).  We’ll be reenacting the battles of Ball’s Bluff and Bolivar Heights.
I’m all packed and ready for a good weekend.  I’ll have a post action report for you when I return.