This post is like chowder …

… leftovers plus little bits of this and that

Bed #2, for Sheree. She cut and hemmed all the canvas

1. Last month I built an 1857 camp bed from plans worked up by A.J. Hamler, who has written two books on Civil War woodworking. It turned out pretty good. Caveat:   I have a hardwood kiln near me in Palmerton, Pa., so I can get just about anything for a reasonable amount of money and then mill it any way I want. I also have a somewhat better-than-average collection of power tools and some grounding in carpentry, so this stuff is not that difficult for me. Your mileage may vary. My biggest problems right now: I need a mortiser and I lack patience.

The one-inch red oak got a coating of shellac to keep the moisture out. Linseed oil could also be used. Both are relatively cheap. Varnish — real varnish — is quite pricey. Don’t be tempted to use a modern varnish, it’s pretty much plastic.

So how common was it for officers to have camp beds? (Enlisted sure didn’t have these!) There are various beds in period photos, and there are for sure hundreds of newspaper advertisements for “camp beds” in the war years, often in the same ads pitching military goods, camp chairs, camp furniture, etc. But this particular item? There are photos of similar items.  I do know some of us find it increasingly difficult to sleep on the ground, although I kind of prefer it if I can get some slight padding under me along with a rubber blanket to block the moisture coming up out of the ground.  And these are sure better than a modern cot.

2. Speaking of concessions in the name of necessity, I converted two old hardtack crates into chests. They were left over from one of the “Recon” events I helped out with years ago. They’ve been doing duty as “jumble” boxes at events ever since. That is, whatever you don’t know what to do with, you throw it in the hardtack box and it becomes a jumble. While all the changes are within the realm of “plausible” in terms of 1860s material and techniques, I don’t think there’s really any provenance for this kind of thing, at least not that I’ve seen.  However, it still looks like a hardtack box when it’s closed and it keeps modern medicine out of view and easily available.

3. I attended an event this spring at which two groups pooled manpower to create a viable company.  One of the key elements in a successful weekend was a very viable drummer, and by very viable I mean “a drummer who does not threaten to break your legs by changing the cadence in mid-stride.” We need more of them.  It was so easy to stay in step that it was a morale booster; it made turns easier; it kept everyone focused.  At the risk of sounding like Major Major Major Major*, who wanted to mount stainless steel universal joints in people’s backs, attached to a steel bar, to make everyone march better:  Things go better when we maneuver crisply in the run-up to the fight.  Perhaps we ought to ask event organizers to suspend registration fees for real drummers.

*  “Catch 22,” Joseph Heller.

4. Campfire grates.  Does anyone have any period photos of Union or Confederate camps where the cooking is being done on a grate? If so, could you please share?

Got some great period newspaper clips this time.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 1862
Richmond Dispatch, Nov. 1861
Evening Star, Washington, DC, 1861

Beneath an endless sea of canvas …

… that doesn’t look like anything from the Civil War

We are revisiting tents and tent flies this week.  I remembered I styled myself  the Jersey Gallinipper*, an annoying large mosquito. Mosquitoes reminded me of flies, and flies reminded me of “reenactor porches” in military camps at too many events.

(Let me clarify that this is not about reenactor camps of expedience, under whatever euphemism they exist.  They are what they are.  They are not, though, purporting to be facsimiles of military camps.  The military camps should look like military camps. They don’t.  Reenactor porches are a big reason why they don’t look like Civil War military camps. )

Here’s the starting point: Pitching a fly OVER your tent is not an exercise in redundancy. Nor is it done primarily for rain.  It was, and still is, a sure-fire way to keep the inside of your tent cooler. The fly blocks the sun from hitting the tent itself, so the tent canvas doesn’t heat up from direct sunlight and thus heat up the air in the tent. Next event I’m measuring temperatures in tents with flies and without them, and will add the results here later. I don’t know who got the idea to forego the fly over the tent and turn it into a porch, but, like crabgrass, the porches grow and proliferate every summer.

So if you do nothing else, a fly put back over the officer’s tent gets us back to Civil War practice.

Those tent-fly “porches” on officer tents at reenactments are so wrong. You can look long and hard through period photos and you will never, ever find anything that looks like this, taken Somewhere in America Sometime in the Last 20 Years:

Nice table. Nice poles. But the key item that makes this “reenactor” and not “period” is simply the angle of the fly. It needs to match the tent.

Let’s count the things that are not representative here.

  1. The fly is too small.
  2. The center poles are not tall enough.
  3. The slope of the fly does not match the slope of the wall tent.
  4. The wall tent is not high enough or wide enough.
  5. There is no fly over the wall tent.

Now, there’s much to admire in this camp, it’s got a nice table, some crates, and a lot of the farb stuff we sometimes have to accept is all out of sight.  These folks, whoever they are, are making an effort, even though it looks a lot like a camp of expedience rather than an officer’s tent – I’m looking at the dresses hanging inside.   I’m not real sure about that fire grate, but that’s a topic for another day. Today it’s tents and flies. And poles, because that’s part of the problem of “size.”

So what does “right for the period” look like? Here ya go:

This appears to be the back of the officer’s tent.  If you look closely you can see a fly over the tent itself, and another extending toward the background. The tent is pretty tall, since we don’t know how tall those officers are we can’t do more than speculate that it’s probably about nine feet.  There appears to be a reinforced hole near the peak, perhaps for a stove pipe? Hard to tell.  Nice chairs, too.

We can, however, do better than that. Here’s another photo, which shows, among other things, how to do a “porch” properly. (Porches aren’t wrong – we just do them wrong!)

October 1862, Pinkerton, Lincoln and McClernand.

Now, Lincoln was six feet four inches under that hat, and with the hat he appears to be just about at seven feet.  Look how much higher the ridge of the tent and fly are – nine feet? And the average reenactor wall tent is seven feet tall. You would be in the position of demanding that the President of the United States doff his top hat for the privilege sharing your fly. Don’t be like that!

Let me pile it on here.

Rebels. Identified as 9th Georgia regiment, but don’t quote me. Unless we’ve got some dwarves, that’s an 11-foot pole to the peak. With a fly. And how about those nice chairs and short little longarms. I’m not even going to guess.

 Give up? No? OK, here’s as close as you are going to get to a reenactor-like setup, and it’s not really close:

OK, so there’s the problem and there’s what the solution looks like. How did we get in this pickle and what can we do to gradually correct it?

Buy bigger tents and bigger flies with taller poles and use your old “side poles” for firewood.  Find some other use for the small flies.

Why haven’t we already done that? Several reasons.

Ever try to fit a nine-foot pole or an 11-foot ridgepole inside a Camaro or Explorer?

Cost. The bigger the tent, the more it costs.  And if you got to be colonel, you already found yourself spending some big money on uniforms and whatnot. The least expensive wall tent is eight feet, six inches wide, eight feet, six inches long, seven feet high and has two-foot sidewalls. Sound familiar? It should. They are everywhere.

Over the years newbies emulated what they saw around them at reenactments, which was seven-foot-high tents (see above) with little postage stamp flies out front in the ubiquitous reenactor “porch.”

Here’s a clue: The bigger the bug 1861-1865, the bigger the tent.  (Check out the first newspaper clip below if you want to see How Big.) So if you’re a big bug in our little world of curious people with a peculiar pastime, you really need a big tent. Here’s a nice start on big tents, at Tentsmiths: nine feet tall, 11.5 wide, 11.5 long, sidewalls five feet high.  And even bigger if you want.  Other tent makers have similarly sized tents, I included these folks simply because it was the first vendor I got to.

How about the poles?  Yeah, you aren’t getting poles for these tents into a Camaro. But we’re talking about a tent for the leadership of a unit:  Somebody has a van or a pickup truck with a ladder rack. Let them bring the poles.

What about the fly? A big bug needs a big fly. How big?  Look at the photos from the war itself; the flies are slightly longer than the combined length of the two diagonal edges of the tent. So you need to work that out, colonel, which is why we have engineers on our staffs. Wake ’em up, surprise the heck of out them, give them a problem to solve.  Then take the dimensions to your female civilians with a Web source for light canvas and beg them to spend some time this winter with the period-correct activity female civilian activity called “Making Things for the Boys at the Front.”

What about putting it up?  No one person can put up one of these big tents. That’s why you have a staff, if it’s pre-event, and why you have what are known as “work details”, where a sergeant directs several men and your tent goes up in period fashion.

So the correct tent does a lot for you.  Virtue is it’s own reward, of course, but in this case you’ve made the correct tent into a group project in both planning and execution. It’s not up there with dodging bullets as a bonding experience, but we work with what we have, right?

Now, colonel, here’s your first task:  Start a Go Fund Me page so your unit and its friends can support the quest for authenticity, verisimilitude, good cheer, world peace AND a cooler tent by purchasing all this for the use of whomever gets to be colonel this year.

*Mosquitoes are the state bird of New Jersey. (A Cliff Claven moment brought to you by the Jersey Gallinipper.)

Here’s your newspaper clip rewards for this week:

Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 29, 1861

Reenactor Myth #28: No mowed lawns

More stuff we didn’t know.

Today’s post is simply point-of-interest on something I see reenactors mentioning sarcastically these days: Fighting battles on mowed lawns.  It is widely regarded as chronologically incompatible, as if our ancestors always fought hip-deep in weeds.

Well, did they or didn’t they mow lawns in the 1860s?  As with pencil sharpeners and rubber bands and macaroni, the answer is a surprising “Oh, yes they did,” and sometimes with lawn mowers.

Hartford Courant (Connecticut) June 2, 1864

The default answer when living historians are asked about period lawnmowers is, of course, “sheep.”  Good for a laugh and you can move on to something you do know the answer to while they are chuckling.  But they did indeed have lawn mowers, and some of us have probably, in our youth, used something very similar, the cylinder blade push mower.

These lawn mowers go back at least 40 years before the war. Research shows the first mower was invented in England in 1830, primarily to cut the grass on sports grounds (think cricket and croquet and rugby) and in the gardens of the wealthy. It was a more efficient device than the scythe.

Early reel mower. Note the metal wheels. My brother ripped his hand open on one of these when we were kids, needed a lot of stitches. He fell into it while it was moving.

Ransomes of Ipswich, England, began making mowers as early as 1832. A U.S. patent for a reel lawn mower didn’t come until 1871, after our war. But we had them, either imports or mowers manufactured under license or manufactured as American knockoffs of the British machine. There are advertisements from newspapers of our period. But not many.

The title of this photo in the Library of Congress is “Alma Gluck cutting grass with a scythe, Aug. 3, 1917.” Now, Alma Gluck was a Romanian-American opera singer and there’s no way my imagination can explain why she was cutting grass with a scythe. It apparently didn’t hurt her, though, since she lived until 1938. But the point is: This is how it was done. Notice that she doesn’t look happy. But I think that’s how opera singers always look.

Far more commonly, a scythe attached to a snath was used. There are few among us who have used a scythe, the metal cutter, attached to a snath, the curved wooden handle. Since it involves monotonous hard labor, usually on hot summer days, that is absolutely hell on a bad back or on anyone with scoliosis (raising my hand here, carefully), it is understandably not a pastime too many people want to get involved with. But it is how people kept their lawns trimmed. And you can still buy the scythe, from a company like Scythe Supply, which also includes instructional videos and tips on using and sharpening these instruments of torture.

Cyrus McCormick’s reaper

It appears to have been much like the typical scythe used for cutting wheat.

Evening Star, Washington, DC, 1861

Of course, by the time of the Civil War, mechanical reapers, drawn by horses and mules, were in use in many areas.  Cyrus McCormick invented the first reaper in 1831, remember? Fourth grade history lesson, I think.

This is Cliff Clavin. He knows odd things. Be like Cliff Clavin!

We all know we are camping, marching and fighting on mowed and brush-hogged greenery because 1. event organizers need to avoid higher insurance premiums caused by grass fires and 2. reenactors are sissies – there are BUGS in those weeds! —  and 3. spectators want short grass because it allows them to gleefully point out reenactors who can’t march to the step. But now we all know mowed grass and fields were realities. And we can do a Cliff Clavin if anyone asks about lawn mowers!

  (Writing the incredibly long sentence about insurance reminds me, I missed posting the blog last week.  While I am retired from journalism, I do public insurance adjusting, my post-retirement career, on a commission basis (helping homeowners with property damage get their money from the more miserly insurance companies) and things got a little busy. Also, I was building a camp bed from an 1857 design and time just got away. I looked up and it was Thursday!)



Earn the stripes!

A practical guide to becoming corporal

“So, Bill,” they all said, “why don’t you stop whining about unprepared corporals and do something about it?”

So I did. Today I share it. Lucky you.

My observation has been that a lot of units award corporal stripes for unit attendance. That helps solve the problem of attendance, but does little to solve the problems of unit effectiveness in maneuver. “Just show up” was not the yardstick then (face it, they had no choice!) and shouldn’t be more than part of the yardstick now.

Knowledge is the correct yardstick for a more successful unit, one that can get it done without a bunch of drama and yelling.

Let’s not disrespect “real” corporals by failing to know what they knew.

My suggestion is that units allow anyone who has attended X number of events to 1. get a cockade and 2. become eligible to take the Basic Corporal Test I’m including here.  This test is so basic that a corporal in 1863 who knew only this would be considered halfway prepared. But it includes all the elements needed to make a REENACTING company better at weekend events. It includes a couple of things just for reenacting that the originals either didn’t have to think about or found to be implicit but not explicitly spelled out. Those items are marked JFR (Just For Reenacting).  If you want the Living History Certified corporal test, just wait awhile, it’s in preparation, as are tests for sergeant and company commander. Pass the “living history” part of any test and you’re qualified to talk to visitors about what that rank was responsible for.

At the very basics, a reenacting corporal should be capable of training new recruits, knowing correct principles of maneuver, and seriously taking responsibility for the well being of the rank and file.

Here’s the test. I’ll include a link to the answers at the end. Four points for every correct answer, perfect score is 100. You set the points needed for corporal in your unit.

(NOTE: There’s an interactive version here if you want to cut to the chase.)

A. (JFR) A new recruit presents himself to the corporal armed and accoutred and ready to be trained.  The first thing the corporal must do is:

  1. Introduce himself.
  2. Check the recruit’s canteen for water.
  3. Make sure the recruit’s buttonholes have the right number of stitches per inch.
  4. Tell the recruit he’s required to bring the beer at the next event.
  5. Check the recruit’s weapon to see if it’s loaded.

B. In a company front at a halt, the captain calls out “Right wheel, march.” The correct “touch of the elbow” is:

  1. To the left, to the outside of the wheel.
  2. To the right, to the pivot point.

C. When doing present arms, the correct alignment is:

  1. Second band at eye level, weapon held eight inches from the body.
  2. Second band at eye level, weapon held tight to the body.
  3. Hammer hooked over waistbelt.
  4. Left thumb touching first band, left forearm parallel to the ground.

D. When doing “Right Shoulder Shift,” the correct final position is:

  1. Weapon straight up and down on the right shoulder.
  2.  Weapon on right shoulder, tipped back slightly and angled across the back of the neck slightly.

E. When doing “Support arms,” the correct final position is:

  1. Weapon on the left side of the body, hammer forward resting on the left forearm, weapon vertical.
  2. Weapon on the left shoulder tilted back, hammer forward resting on the left forearm.
  3. Weapon on the left shoulder tilted back and across the back of the neck slightly,

F. In which of the following conditions is complete silence not required in the ranks?

  1. In place, rest.
  2. Parade rest.
  3. Marching to the step.
  4. Rest.
  5. Attention.
  6. Halt.
  7. Route step.

G. The best way for a corporal to correct an alignment problem is:

  1. Bring it to the attention of the captain.
  2. Bring it to the attention of the sergeant.
  3. Tell the individuals what they must do.
  4. Shout that the alignment must be corrected.
  5. Forget about it, it’s not my problem.

H. When the company is in a column of companies moving forward, and the captain orders “Right wheel, MARCH,” the correct combination of principles is:

  1. Touch in, look out.
  2. Touch out, look out.
  3. What’s a column of companies?
  4. Touch? What do you mean?

I. When marching by the flank and to the step, the step is taken from:

  1. The sergeant at the head of the column.
  2. The captain of the company.
  3. The lead corporal.

J. When marching at the left oblique, regardless of formation, the guide is:

  1. To the right, always to the right.
  2. To the left.
  3. To the colors.

K. In a flank march, when the command is given “Company into line, MARCH,” the manuals say the first thing to do is undouble files.

True or False?

L. In wheels, with either a fixed pivot or a moving pivot, the pace of the wheel is set by:

  1. The guide at the OUTSIDE of the wheel.
  2. The guide at the INSIDE of the wheel.
  3. The sergeant major.
  4. The adjutant.
Color Guard, 8th Wisconsin; they look like a grim, determined, competent bunch.

M. You are a corporal in the color guard, the color sergeant is struck down and you find yourself with the colors.  If the command is given advance, you take your direction of march from:

  1. No problem, the guys in line behind you will tell you if you’re headed in the right direction.
  2. The battalion commander.
  3. The adjutant.
  4. Your color company captain.

N. Your company is shot up with only 17 out of 32 still on their feet, you are still engaged and you find yourself breveted to first sergeant. The command is given “Right face, MARCH”. The men should:

  1. Just everybody turn to the right and go.
  2. Line up in twos and count.
  3. Turn right, form ranks of four men, and march.  The men on the left in each rank of four are now rear rank ones. The men on their right are rear rank twos, front rank ones and front rank twos.
  4. Everybody keeps the number they got when they formed up in camp and finds the right place in the column when it’s on the move.

O. (JFR) The proper time for a roll call is:

  1. Before the last note of “reveille” sounds in the morning.
  2. At lunch time.
  3. Before heading back to camp after a battle.

P. (JFR) Signs that someone in the ranks MAY be about to collapse from a health issue can include:

  1. Slowness or confusion in executing commands.
  2. Grey or “blanched” skin.
  3. Drinking water.
  4. Vomiting
  5. Muscle cramps
  6. Distended stomach
  7. Rapid, shallow breathing

Q. When firing, the correct foot position for the rear rank is:

  1. The same as the front rank.
  2. Step back more with the right foot.
  3. Step slightly to the right with the right foot.

Here’s the test, in pure form, which you can print out if you want to use it for your corporals.

Here’s the test with the answers in blue, plus some documentation of the correct answers and some discussion.

Again, here’s the interactive version, about which I am quite chuffed. Not so chuffed that I think I got it all right. In fact, please let me know about glitches. First time out of the box with the interactive thingamajig, plus it’s kind of labor intensive and I’m fried.


Eschew the Gatorade

What did they drink in the 1860s?

OK, so I told someone to “Eschew the Gatorade” and he said “Gezundheit.”

It means “avoid, shun, stay away from”. We all know not to drink the Kool-Aid.  I’m saying don’t drink the Gatorade.  You don’t need to. There’s a very easy and transportable and attractive alternate. Two, in fact.  Switchel, first, and shrub, second. Switchel is extremely easy to make, it has all the advantages of Gatorade, and it is much, much cheaper.


From Yankee magazine, July 1975

Haymaker’s Punch, also called switchel, came along before the introduction of Gatorade or any kind of discussion of the need to replenish electrolytes. Hardworking farmers in the young New England colonies knew what to turn to when they needed a refresher.

Switchel, or haymaker’s punch, as it came to be known, was the drink of choice for workers out in the field who wanted to cool off with something with a bit more of a kick than just plain old well water.

A simplified version of ginger beer, switchel may be sweetened in a number of ways–sugar, honey, or maple syrup–but our preference has always been molasses.

Here’s a classic New England recipe:
Mix 1 quart water, 1/2 cup molasses, 1 teaspoon powdered ginger, and the juice of 1 lemon. Serve ice-cold.

The ingredients: Molasses, apple cider vinegar, ginger – and water

Now, you can use lemonade if you have lemons. But – follow me, now, we’re twisting a modern adage here – what do you do when life does NOT serve up lemons?  Use vinegar, of course. It’s what most old recipes call for anyway.  Use it in the same proportion as the molasses – 1/2 cup molasses, 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, 1 teaspoon powdered ginger. Or as much ginger as tastes good to you. The recipe is just your starting point; you can adjust the proportions until you find a formula that suits your palate.  And you didn’t even know you had a palate!

OK, that’s half a cup of molasses on the bottom and a cup of vinegar on the top. Half a cup is four ounces, by the way.

What if you swear by fresh ginger root and won’t touch the powdered stuff? Several recipes say to peel it, cut it, crush it and boil it in the water you’ll be mixing with the other ingredients, straining out the chunks after it’s boiled awhile.

See, folks, that’s a real measuring spoon there, not a guess: One teaspoon.

(Hit the good old internet with your search engine to find other recipes, although be careful on this:  The hipsters discovered switchel two or three years ago and the Web is choked with twee variations. You want an old, traditional recipe, not something with vanilla and rosemary in it. My mouth is puckering already just at the thought. )

You don’t need to take gallons of switchel with you to an event. You can take switchel concentrate – mix everything but the water, put it in jars or bottles, and bring it along.  Add it to water when it’s time.

That’s eight measured cups of water, which equals a half-gallon, marked by the red line. It’s over because the vinegar and molasses add a cup. That red thing on top is a funnel.

You can drink it hot.  You can drink it lukewarm. You can put ice cubes in it. You can add more or less water until it’s a comfortable taste.

Ron Myzie and/or I have made gallons of this for command staffs at various events. It’s always a big surprise hit for people who have never tried it. And there are some reenactors who won’t take to the field in the summer without it, especially among the small number who spend all their event time engaged in period activities (that is, sweating profusely) rather than lounging under period-wrong tent flies.  It’s got energy, electrolytes ¹ and fluids, same as Gatorade.  And it tastes good, another tribute to our ancestors and their ability to be comfortable with the technology and materials they had at hand.

And the cost. To make a half gallon of switchel  cost me $1.08:  4 ounces of vinegar (25 cents), four ounces of molasses (63 cents) and one teaspoon of ginger (20 cents). Your mileage may vary, but that’s based on carefree supermarket purchases by a man who usually doesn’t look at the prices until he gets home.  A comparable amount of Gatorade is $3.13.   It’s 1.7 cents per ounce for switchel and 4.9 cents per ounce for Gatorade. That’s one available price for Gatorade, you can shop and get it for less, but you aren’t likely to find it for 1.7 cents per ounce, plus when you’ve bought Gatorade you have to drink the stuff.

Switchel with ice. See the white stuff in the bottom of the glass? Yeah, unmixed ginger. Shake it better than I did! (I didn’t notice this in the photo until after I’d finished off the switchel. Oh, well.

Then there’s the “nutrition.”  Gatorade is touted for its electrolytes, namely potassium.  However, Gatorade has 4.5 milligrams of potassium per ounce; switch has 35.5 milligrams of potassium per ounce, the bulk of it from the molasses. And if you’re concerned about too much potassium, forget it: Your clever body, if you are normal and healthy, tosses out excess potassium (and salt, but that’s a story for another day) whenever you visit the plastic boxes. If you aren’t normally healthy regarding potassium, you undoubtedly already know what the problem is and what you must do about it.

We haven’t talked about shrub. No, not the Monty Python routine. Please, not the Monty Python routine.  Think “fruit syrup with zip.” We’ll tackle shrub another time. It’s a little more complicated and time consuming and shrub, also, has been usurped by the hipsters, some of whom make the most dilettante reenactor poseurs look like sturdy stalwarts of the yeomanry when it comes to taking cool things to absurd extremes and rendering them ridiculous.  C’mon, I’m not being mean: Even Norm Abram has stopped wearing plaid flannel shirts because hipsters have given them such a bad name. 🙂


Why, yes, footnotes. And they are going to be links, every chance I get:



Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 1843 – someone commenting after a trip to England

Another site with a switchel recipe, cool photos and some good history: American Table. 

The pointed end of the stick

Pencil sharpeners? Oh yes they did.

Sometimes I’m going to do a column on odd stuff because of all the odd questions we get during living histories.  Like “Did they have pencil sharpeners during the Civil War?”

Yes. It was modern times in 1861. They had all kinds of useful tools, including pencil sharpeners. The most common pencil sharpener was a pocket knife, but the kind of small, rectangular sharpener with a tapered hole and a blade had just come into its own.

Hartford Courant, April, 1858

Here’s another object like clothespins – something we could use to advantage, but don’t, because so many of us think our ancestors used rocks to pound nails and wore hide cloaks to stay warm.  There are dozens of reenacting first sergeants using dull pocket knives to (badly) sharpen wooden pencils. The only thing worse would be using flint chips to do the sharpening.  Undoubtedly a lot of pencils got sharpened (with sharp pocket knives) just as millions of quills used to be sharpened with pen knives. Get it? Pen?

But if you’re smart enough to be first sergeant, you’re smart enough to learn that pencil sharpeners have been around since 1828, when one was patented in France. Another came along in 1847 in France that looked like the “prism” sharpener we all use today when the office electric sharpener is on the fritz (budget cuts to feed the shareholders, yup.) You put the pencil in a cone-shaped hole lined with blades, twist, and the wood comes off neatly and cleanly and produces a point on the graphite.

In America, it was either 1851 or 1855, and it was  yet another Yankee, Walter K. Foster of Maineee, tired of sharpening with a knife, who patented the kind of sharpener we’re talking about as “correct for our period.”

This is the best image I could find of a pencil sharpener that is correct to our period. If you spot one of these at a yard sale, grab it. If you spot two, sell me one.

How big a deal was this? Well, by 1857 Foster’s company was producing 7,200 of these a day. That’s 2,160,000 a year.  Four years later, that could be nine million in circulation in a nation, north and south, of 31,400,000.  Do the math: One pencil sharpener for every 3.4 people. Sure, some didn’t get sold, some got lost, some broke, but still a lot of pencil sharpeners out there.

Now, can we find these little gems today? Barely. I had to look long and hard and ended up in a bidding war on eBay. Don’t ask. The best bet? Flea markets and antique shops in Maine and New England. Unsold stock is probably kicking around there along with piles of desk litter coming out of old factories and attics. Keep in mind that’s just a hunch; for all I actually know there could be four million of them buried in the Sierra Madre alongside the Maltese Falcon.

There are also novelty sharpeners made over the years, mostly post Civil War, that look like something else, including one model that looks like a thimble. Several popped up on Web searches. Others looked like, if you squint, match safes, or simply some piece of obscure brass machinery. Some look like cast metal toys or tokens. Any of that would not look out of place, simply truck from your pocket or knapsack.

Hartford Courant, May, 1858

There’s another aspect to this, though.  You don’t have to have a vintage Foster pencil sharpener from the 1850s in order to have a pencil sharpened like a vintage Foster pencil sharpener would produce it.  It’s essentially the same device you can buy at Walmart for $1.99.  Nobody has to see it. You just have to surreptitiously use it, just like your f-ing smart phone.  If anyone has the temerity to bark at your smoothly conical pencil point during roll call, you can assign them to research Walter Kittredge Foster (on their f-ing smart phone 🙂 ) and prepare a report for the battalion at evening parade.

Because that’s how first sergeants roll, right?

Fun links today. Check them out:


Early Office Museum

Invention of the Pencil Sharpener, by Feed Your Brain

Also, if you’ve been asked a darn good question at a living history and didn’t know the answer, pass it on.  Figuring out the answer is why I get up in the morning.

Corporal punishment


Republishing this as a bonus column because golly gee willikers, fellas, do some people need to read it.


corporal-1The first requirement to be a corporal is to be a good teacher.  Often that’s the last consideration when reenactors become corporals – and it shows.

The corporal as teacher isn’t an opinion.  It’s what the manuals and regulations all expect. And if more people read the manuals and regulations, we’d all know that, and not make Good Old Jim a corporal just because he voted for Good Old Ezekiah to be captain, or because he always shows up.

Here it is: We’ll use Casey’s, but it’s pretty much universal.

“Every commanding officer is responsible for the instruction of his command … Captains will be held responsible for the theoretical and practical instruction of their noncommissioned officers … The noncommissioned officers should also be practiced in giving commands. “

Instruction of Corporals

66. Their theoretical instruction should include the School of the Soldier, with a knowledge of firing.

68. As the instruction of sergeants and corporals is intended principally to qualify them for the instruction of privates, they should be taught not only to execute, but to explain intelligibly every thing they may be required to teach.

If you’re one of those corporals who got promoted for other than the best corporal-3possible reason, do not despair: All you need to do is know how to read.

To that end, there’s Casey’s infantry tactics, available on line.  But there’s much more, like August V. Kautz’s “Customs of Service.”  While Casey’s and other drill and tactics manuals were carefully written by very clever, intelligent men in order to quickly create functional military officers and units out of raw farmboys, mill workers and bank clerks, manuals like “Customs of Service” were not official. They were works by entrepreneurs, encouraged by the Army, intended to familiarize civilians with what was expected of them in the military, so they could fit in. If you were appointed corporal, you might buy “Customs of Service” on your own initiative, to make sure you did the right thing, didn’t make a fool of yourself and, above all else, didn’t let your comrades down by not knowing your role, duties, and the army’s expectations. Quite a concept.

Here’s Kautz on corporals:

323. Corporal should be living examples for the soldiers in the neatness and cleanliness of their clothing, arms and accoutrements. They should be the first to fall into ranks at roll calls and should have their tents or bunks, wherever their quarters, always systematically in order.

corporal-6324. They should be familiar with the “School of the Soldier” and capable of instructing the recruits in the elementary principles of tactics (what we reenactors usually call “drill”).

Corporals are also expected to take charge of fatigue details for wood, water, and other work. They draw rations for their mess and are in charge of having their messmates keep their quarters “systematically in order.” They getting the largest responsibility when they function as corporal of the guard, which amounts to overseeing an entire shift of security – pickets, guard mount, knowing what to do, so much stuff that it’s going to be the subject of two future columns.

But you get the idea.

Being corporal gives you almost no privileges, but does convey responsibility, even in a reenacting group. Nothing is more disappointing to an officer or sergeant than a corporal unable to, on his own initiative, see what needs to be done and do it. Nothing warms the heart of officers and sergeants more than a corporal who, seeing new people in the group, takes them aside whenever there is a spare moment and instructs them in the manual of arms or other items. Or who sees the woodpile is down and rounds up three or four men and takes them to the woodpile.

Corporals have one important additional duty in formation: Make sure the soldiers near you in the rank and file understand what they are to do and actually do it.  Rather than have an officer shout from somewhere in the rear ‘dress that line!’, which nobody can execute because, really, wtf does corporal-8it mean? the corporals should notice when men are ahead, behind, or pulling apart, or bunching together, and quietly, with only enough noise to be heard by those in need of help, tell them specifically what to do in terms that are immediately applicable: “Joe and Ralph, move up.”  “BillyBob and Phineas, slow down.”  “Harry, dress is to the right, not left, move right, move right, move right, and close that hole.”

Why quietly?  Because others are listening for commands from various levels. Many times a company commander has missed an important command from the bugle or the colonel because his men were hollering out corrective commands to each other, plus the usual suggestions and debate about the right thing to do and which biological opening to plug with what kind of pointy thing.

So you’re not an ornament in formation, you’re an organic part of making things turn out right. Give it a try, your unit will be happier and better.



“O Captain! My Captain!”

“Rise up and hear the bells.”

Or at least the colonel. He’s been trying to get your attention for the last 15 seconds, because the rest of the battalion is changing front by the first company. And Captain? My Captain? You’re looking backward and talking to one of the rear rankers about the time you rolled 300 bowling. And we’re all standing here, 20 guys channeling Gomer Pyle, shaking our heads and saying “Gol-leee! Gollllleeee!”

So, yes, this week’s posting is about doing your job, at least for the few moments at every event where it really, really counts. (And I know Walt Whitman’s poem was about Lincoln’s assassination, but it was just so on the mark for this topic.)

Number One of “Watson’s Rules for Better Results“*:  In formation, company commanders pay very focused attention to the battalion commander. The first sergeant and noncoms pay attention to execution of the company commander’s orders.

Pay attention to the COLONEL!

Company commanders pay attention up the chain of command. Sergeants, down.

The very last thing a company commander should be doing is chatting. The next worst thing a company commander should be doing is fussing about the dress.

Gee, did one of these captains line up with the wrong army due to inattention? 🙂

Why?  Guys want to feel good about the time, energy, and money they’ve invested in this weird hobby of reenacting. You don’t feel good if your company is consistently slow off the line, always trying to catch up to the battalion, because there’s always a built-in delay while the first sergeant tries to herd the captain’s attention to the orders that were just given by the battalion commander.

The need for the company commander’s attention to be primarily on the battalion commander isn’t spelled out anywhere that I can find. It is, however, systemically unavoidable. The company commander must do one of two things when the battalion commander issues an order:

♦  He must see whether his men obey the command and repeat the command if they did not hear it or do not respond appropriately, on commands like “Forward, MARCH!” ;

♦   He must issue additional commands of execution to carry out his company’s responsibilities, in a command like “Change front forward on the first company.”

A company commander in 1861 would figure out very quickly, given daily battalion drill over a period of a month, that he had to stay on his toes and focused upward. Since we’re lucky to get in two battalion drills a year, it doesn’t sink in sometimes, especially when the focus of our reenacting is, de facto, primarily focused on recreating the company.  We also lack the more severely marked separation between officers and men that was sought by the Civil War armies.  That makes it harder to mark the line between having a good time with your pards with jokes and stories and needing to “get real”, shut up and pay attention to the colonel so the company will look good, and therefore feel good.

To help everyone remember, here’s an image, with the caution “Don’t be this guy.”  🙂

Captain Oblivious

Now, beyond that axiom, here’s a corollary that will really help: A savvy company commander will spend some time at battalion headquarters on Friday. He will ask what specific battalion maneuvers are known to be required for the weekend’s scenarios. He will explain that he wishes to know so that when he drills his company before breakfast on Saturday, the necessary moves can be rehearsed before they’re required at the battalion drill later in the morning.

Several things happened just then.

♦ He may have alerted battalion staff to the idea that they should figure out now what they might be doing with the battalion for the battle.  It’s pretty much never a surprise, but it’s surprising how often units don’t walk through stuff just to make sure everyone, including all the new captains since last year, know what to do.

♦ He planted the idea that his company will be prepping for its role before breakfast.  Since the battalion staff all came up from the various companies in the organization, and since there is at least some sense of competition going around, the savvy company commander also just pushed everyone else to do some company drill.  Before breakfast?  Yes, hungry guys will get it right quicker if they know breakfast comes as soon as they do.

“Wait – to the rear by the right of companies? What?”

One of the biggest complaints from the rank and file isn’t drill per se; it’s drill, at an event, that is on moves and evolutions that aren’t needed for the event.  A handful of us enjoy it no matter what; far more commonly, guys are riled up when they drill “on the right by file into line” for an hour in the hot late-morning sun, then are told to “forward into line” instead three hours later in the hot afternoon sun.  Both maneuvers require refamiliarization, especially in an era when just about every umbrella organization out there will cobble together companies with reenactors from different “clubs.

  • *”Watson’s Rules for Better Results” — soon to be an international best seller available through Amazon.
  • Footnote:  Got a Civil War living history topic you’d like researched? Let me know:

Here’s your period newspaper clip reward for this week: Where the Captain gets his clothes.

Dawson’s Fort Wayne Daily Times, January, 1862


Do the Hokey Pokey?

“You keep your left foot in, you put your right foot out.”

Yeah, well, firing from the rear rank should be a kind of a dance. It would be nice if we could all get in step. This one’s not just “let’s do it by the manual,” it’s “let’s do it so we don’t get hurt.” There are, unfortunately, some nuances. And today we commit reenactor apostasy, because we are going to move our left feet in firing.  Because that’s what they did.


(Text from manuals text is in italic for this post. Key words for the rear rank are in red. And remember, in all cases, “aim” comes after “ready,” that is, everybody’s feet in the “T” position.)


Winfield Scott’s Infantry Tactics (Pre-1855, for three-rank formation).


  1. (Pl. VIII, fig. 3.) The rear rank alone will, at the same time, carry the right foot about eight inches towards the left heel of the man next on the right.

The “rear rank” is the third rank. The front rank is kneeling. And the rear rank apparently has to bring its right foot slightly forward to truly move it towards the left heel of the man on the right.

Eight inches is about two-thirds of your foot. And from the “Ready!” position. It should pull  you into the gap and move your right shoulder slightly forward.

Hardee   (1855)


 One time and one motion.

  1. Raise the piece with both hands, and support the butt against the right shoulder; the left elbow down, the right as high as the shoulder; incline the head upon the butt, so that the right eye may perceive quickly the notch of the hausse, the front sight, and the object aimed at; the left eye closed, the right thumb extended along the stock, the fore-finger on the trigger.
  2. When recruits are formed in two ranks to execute the firings, the front rank men will raise a little less the right elbow, in order to facilitate the aim of the rear rank men.
  3. The rear rank men, in aiming, will each carry the right foot about ten inches to the right, and towards the left heel of the man next on the right, inclining the upper part of the body forward.”

Firing in four times:

  1. “The instructor will give the following commands:
  2. Fire by squad 2. Squad. 3. READY. 4. AIM. 5. FIRE
  3. LOAD.
  4. These, several commands will be executed as has been proscribed in the Manual of Arms. At the third command the men will come to the Position of ready as heretofore explained. At the fourth they will aim according to the rank in which each may find himself placed, the rear rank men inclining forward a little the upper part of the body. in order that their pieces may reach its much beyond the front rank as possible.

Remember, this manual was written for the “short” two-band .54 caliber 1841 rifle-musket and it’s 1855 replacement in .58 caliber. The little “lean forward” for the rear rank pushed the muzzle blast farther out, and the right foot moves 10 inches instead of eight.  Minutely different from the old Scott’s, tiny concessions to the change in geometry because of the shorter weapons. How much shorter? Six-and-a-half inches.

Hardee’s 1862

Hardee, now in Confederate service, revised his manual to account for the longer three-band rifle-muskets that were the mainstay of the infantries in the Civil War.

  1. When recruits are formed in two ranks to execute the firings, the front rank men will raise a little less the right elbow, in order to facilitate the aim of the rear rank men.
  2. The rear rank men, in aiming, will each carry the right foot about eight inches to the right, and towards the left heel of the man next on the right, inclining the upper part of the body forward.

So we’re back to the original Scott’s instructions of eight inches, but retained Hardee’s pre-1855 lean forward. Why? Have to ask Hardee, which won’t be easy.

Now let’s commit reenactor blasphemy: Let’s move the left foot. Just like it says in the manual.

Position of the two ranks in the Oblique Fire to the right.

  1. At the command ready, the two ranks will execute what has been prescribed for the direct fire.
  2. At the cautionary command, right oblique, the two ranks will throw back the right shoulder and look steadily at the object to be hit.
  3. At the command, aim, each front rank man will aim to the right without deranging the feet; each rear rank man will advance the left foot about eight inches toward the right heel of the man next on the right of his file leader and aim to the right, inclining the upper part of the body forward and bending a little the left knee.
Right oblique, Hardee

Position of the two ranks in the Oblique Fire to the left.

  1. At the cautionary command, left oblique, the two ranks will throw back the left shoulder and look steadily at the object to be hit.
  2. At the command, aim, the front rank will take aim to the left without deranging the feet; each man in the rear will advance the right foot about eight inches toward the right heel of the man next on the right of his file leader, and aim to the left, inclining the upper part of the body forward and bending a little the right knee.
Hardee’s left oblique. I think the left foot has to twist, but not move, or that might simply be something I have to do because my left knee is titanium and plastic. Your mileage may vary.

A couple of critical things here: In firing at the right oblique, the rear rank moves the LEFT FOOT. And it’s pretty dramatic, it’s eight inches toward the RIGHT heel of the man on the RIGHT of his own file partner.

And at the left oblique  the rear rank moves their RIGHT foot to exactly that same place, toward the RIGHT heel of the man on the RIGHT of his own file partner.

Casey’s manual is exactly the same.

Which shoulder is the rear rank firing over?  To me, it still feels like the right shoulder of the rear rank’s file partner, but here’s what you can do next time there are at least four of you: Try it out.  Bring a couple of eight-inch sticks and measure exactly where, when you put it where the manual says to put it, that brings your foot. Then decide for yourself.

Caveat: This is the manual. This is what they did.  We undoubtedly have more “sturdy” men in the ranks than they did, and we may need to adjust everything – distance of a sturdy rear rank man from his front rank file partner, where he puts his feet to fire, everything — to accommodate the vagaries of girth and spacing and safety. I’m just saying, “that’s what it’s all about.”

An aside:  1816, 1842 muskets: 58 inches long; 1841, 1855 two-banders, 48.5 inches long; 1853 Enfield rifle-musket, 55 inches long; 1861 Springfield, 56 inches long.

Here’s your period advertisement reward for this week: 1861 social media.

Oh snap! Rubber bands are period correct

Just don’t go wild with this, folks

Let’s not see multicolored rubber bands at events in every shade of the rainbow. Let’s use moderation. Let’s use plain brown rubber bands, and in modest numbers.

Because (brown) rubber bands have been around since the 1840s. Our clever ancestors figured there had to be something better than the red tape (no, really) used to tie up official documents.

So, Mayans. Yes, this really has ancient roots.

They were using latex sap from rubber trees for centuries to hold together stuff like hatchet heads and hatchet handles. They figured out, or stumbled onto, using the juice from morning glory vines to make the substance tougher and more durable, and got the first “rubber,” apparently about the consistency of a pencil eraser.

Joseph Priestley
Thomas Hancock

Mix all that with turpentine and you get something you can use to waterproof cloth. Sound like something we use? Yeah, rubber blankets and ponchos. Samuel Peale, England, 1791.  Englishman Joseph Priestley, who also furthered laissez-fair economics, discovered oxygen in the air, and gave us the many blessings of carbonated water, then did some chemistry stuff with the rubber and came up with the first eraser. In 1820 Englishman Thomas Hancock figured out how to incorporate stretchy rubber into clothing, giving us elastic for socks, suspenders, shirt cuffs, and shoes. The processing evolved, and the elastic material was used in bellows, machinery, everywhere.

Charles Goodyear
Stephen Perry

In 1839, thanks to some clumsy shop work that saw rubber, lead and sulfur dropped on a hot stove, Charles Goodyear of the United States stumbled into the process of vulcanizing rubber – which makes it stable, rather than getting a bit sticky when the weather turns hot.  And in 1845, Stephen Perry of the rubber manufacturing company Messers Perry and Co., London,  took vulcanized rubber and made the first rubber bands. They were specifically intended to bundle papers and envelopes.

How ubiquitous were they? Good question, needs more research. Have at it!

By 1875 we know the U.S. Congress was buying thousands of rubber bands every year from a familiar name to some living historians, the firm of Philp and Solomons. We know them because photos they took turn up in the Library of Congress. They were also stationers, supplying a variety of office supplies to businesses and government in the Washington area.

Additional information is harder to find and might require looking up vouchers from the war era in person, rather than online, to get a better handle on how widespread and everyday and common rubber bands were.  But you can certainly justify a few.  Just don’t use “ranger bands,” where you cut off sections of a bicycle inner tube and use them to secure your flashlight to your musket.  I get some mild criticism from folks who say legitimizing any use of some of these objects opens the door to serial material culture abusers, and if we start seeing red, yellow and blue neon rubber bands, ranger bands and striped bungee cords with hooks holding gear together on the field, it’s all my fault.  So here’s my thought on that:

Don’t do that.

My way of thinking is that if you’ve got a pile of morning reports to send to brigade headquarters and your kids used your really nice official red tape to build a kite tail, use a damned brown rubber band instead.  If someone gets in your face, just say what we know (well, what I know, anyway) at this point:  We know they had them, we know they were used to bundle paper, but we don’t know whether that was common or unusual.

Now, interesting and useful-to-us information: Most rubber bands were and are made from natural rubber, so the brown bands you can get in any supermarket are not just good, they’re good enough.The natural rubber has more elasticity than the synthetic stuff in tires.

Here is some interesting but useless information: Rubber stretches when it gets cold and tightens when it gets hot. Just the opposite of what common sense expects.

Who knew?

Some people always want more, and that’s a good thing. Here you go, rubber bands for the first link and all paper fasteners in about 1850 in the second.

History of Elastic and Rubber Bands

Office Museum

Next week: Do the Hokey Pokey (Firing from the rear rank.)