Just as in the military side of Civil War reenacting, reenacting as a civilian from the mid-1860's can be an enriching experience and can help you understand what you read about the time period. Also, just as in military reenacting, you will get out of the hobby what you put into it. The information following has been compiled by Heather Nichols who has been studying and reenacting as a civilian for over ten years. If you have any specific questions or want to know how to improve your impression, please contact her at [email protected].
While Civil War reenacting has been and always will be primarily about the military actions during the period, it pays to remember that the vast majority of soldiers during the war came in with virtually no military background. These men wrote, sang and dreamed about the comforts and loved ones at home and the happy times they hoped for after the war had passed. Therefore, there is also a place in the hobby to portray the non- military side of life in mid-19 century America.
If you are contemplating a role as a civilian reenactor, you may already have an idea of the kind of person you’d like to portray. Before spending tons of money and time acquiring useless and inaccurate gear, we highly recommend taking the time to do your research. We are fortunate that this period of history left us so many photographs, magazines, diaries and letters- a wealth of first person accounts. Use them to develop your impression so that you may do credit to the people we portray and to yourself.
Use your research time to figure out how you might interact with the military side – Are you a contractor, newspaper reporter, doctor, photographer- For the ladies are you a nurse, cook, laundress, widow, member of a ladies aid society- teacher-soldiers wife?
The possibilities are endless.
The great thing about reenacting is the chance to make friends with some of the coolest people on the planet, travel, learn and in turn teach some of what you learn to the public and other reenactors. Members of the hobby become like second family. We love the chance to share what we have discovered so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Remember- everyone was new at some point-we’ve all had our learning curve.
Civilian reenacting is not just about how one looks. Just as the military reenactors need to know and understand how weapons function or how an army moves, civilians need to understand what daily life would have been like. For example-what authors, magazines and songs were popular in the day- when were certain technologies available? (yes the sewing machine was around – not everything was done by hand) how fast could you travel – by horse, rail, steam ship? What would your plates, glasses, silverware, pots & pans look like- big clue here- the blue enameled speckled ware is NOT period correct. What celebrities and politicians would you have been reading about in the newspaper? When did certain brands and companies get their start? (Poland Spring Water dates back to the 1840’s by the way)
There is an excellent book about period correct fashion for women called ”Who Wore What” by Juanita Leisch copyrighted in 1995- still available. It is a great collection of period photographs and explanations. If you are a lady reenactor- this would be the very first item to add to your research reading list.
When you do begin putting your impression together- keep in mind a few things-
Avoid “sutlerism’s” – One egregious example would be the cotton print ( usually a poly cotton blend) skirt and triangle shaped cape thingy to be worn with a white blouse that sutlers sell to uneducated female reenactors with the assurance that this style of dress is accurate and acceptable. I have yet to locate a single 1860’s photograph of a woman dressed this way.
Instead look for photographs and period drawings of people who actually lived the role you want to play- how did they wear their hair, what sort of trim, if any, was present on the gown? Was there any jewelry showing- if so what kind? How was a jacket or vest cut? Plain or patterned fabric? Look for these clues and pretend you are a mirror sending back an accurate reflection of these very real people.
For lady reenactors, acquiring the proper underpinnings is crucial to getting “the look”. The 19 century woman was no fool- each layer served a purpose and helped form the foundation that supported the distinctive shape and flow of the dresses. The layers help to protect the actual dress from dirt and perspiration. And the unique construction of the drawers was a truly practical mechanism to deal with 19 century plumbing (or the lack of it)For women- a good custom made corset is not a torture device- it is a base to promote the proper posture and support the weight of the other garments- it creates a smooth line for the very fitted bodices of the time.
Choose natural fabrics-during the mid 19 century there were 4 basic fibers and blends of those 4 fibers available- wool, silk, cotton and linen.
Modern synthetics are NOT a reenactors friend. They tend to hold perspiration and one big danger comes from a synthetic’s tendency to melt in to your skin if you get too close to the campfire.
Don’t expect to know everything all at once and don’t expect to acquire all your gear the very first year. Another ladies example would be getting a “ball gown” first. Face it girls- we’ve been force fed the Disney princess ideal since early childhood and we all would like our turn as Bell of the Ball. But, the same money that buys one really good ball gown that can only be worn in very limited settings and times would be far better spent on 2 good day dresses , some underpinnings and accessories that can transition from day to evening.
To help with the illusion of “time travel” try to keep conversations “time neutral”. Part of what most of us want in the hobby are those little golden moments when we can feel like we are really in the 19 century. One trick to help this is to not break the illusion by talking about modern things- the latest scores from the basketball game you just checked on your iphone, or what kind of truck you are going to buy. Instead – it is perfectly fine to discuss how your kids are doing in school, or who is getting married, or a trip you might have coming up ( so long as you aren’t talking about airports)-
Those of us in the 66 OVI –military and civilian - wish you happiness and success in your reenacting adventure. ENJOY THE HOBBY!
We look forward to seeing you in the field!