Fighting words

From their mouths to your ears

I try to give a blend of “how to” and “how it was”.  This week is “how it was,” direct from one of the fellows who was there.

In preparing a school presentation, I came upon the letters of Riley M. Hoskinson, commissary sergeant for the 73rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry.  He was 43 in 1863 — one of the older fellows, for sure, but apparently his pre-war work as a stone mason gave him the kind of strength and endurance he needed. Here’s his detailed account of the battle of Chickamauga, where the 73rd was with Sheridan’s Division, McCook’s XX Corps. At the end there is an interesting description of the hospital; it appears a great many wounded were asking for things merely to reassure themselves that someone was there to take care of them, something to keep in mind if you’re part of a field hospital scenario.

Here you go:

Riley M. Hoskinson and his wife, Martha, after the war

“Camped near an immense spring, drew & issued beef to the men. Cook and ate some supper, pulled some Ragweeds and made a bed of them, used our canteens and boots for a pillow, covered with our oil blanket, slept soundly and sweetly, under the calm blue Heavens till morning.

… about 3 O’Clock of Saturday morning Sept. 19, we turned into camp, 15 miles south of Chattanooga in the valley of the Chickamauga, Georgia. I was too tired to hunt wood or make a fire so I tumbled myself down in some brush covered with my oil blanket and fell asleep for the balance of the night, although it was cold & frosty, was only awakened by our bugle calling for us to up and away. Ate a hasty breakfast and just as we expected to roll out, orders came that ours and the 1st Brigade would stay in camp till about Noon.”

First gun at Chickamauga, Alfred Waud

“While I sit penciling these lines the constant roar of cannon & musquetry are distinctly heard in our front only a few miles distant. We expect our turn will soon come to join the deadly fray, as we are told, the Rebels are in great force just a little in front of us. About 10 O’Clock we slowly move forward, About X O’Clock in the afternoon we come to the battleground of the morning and still the sound is far to the front.”

Lost at Chickamauga Adolph Metzler

The conflict lasted till near 9 o’clock at night. I shall not attempt its description. I am not equal to the task. Language can’t do it. “

“Sabbath Morn …  At 10 O’ Clock the cannonade becomes terrific in the Extreme, mixed with the incessant crash of musquetry. The work of death goes fearfully on. Our Brigade still not called, some few of them have lain down to sleep, some are writing letters to loved ones at home while scores of others are buying & reading the daily Newspapers and a general calm & seriousness pervades the rank & file. Just at half past ten O’clock orders come for our Brigade to rush to the combat, away they go on double quick down the hill and into the woods, out of sight, which is the last  I saw of the Regiment, or ever will of many of them, “till Heaven’s last thunder shakes the world below.” … The cannon shots were so rapid as to be (most of the time) too frequent to count, and the musquetry resembled the crackling of a handful of salt thrown into the fire, add to this the constant screaming of officers and men, various bayonette charges. Men marching at doublequick in all directions trying to get better positions. Cannons & caissons being hauled at full gallop in every conceivable direction, couriers going at the topmost speed of their best horses. Then add the fearful wounds, bruises, cuts, slashes, groans & cries, bloodshed & death in all its forms, then imagine as much more as you can and then you will fall far short of a description of this Awful contest.”

Confederates advancing to capture the guns, Gaines Mill. Note how Waud caught the glint of light on the bayonets.

” I forgot to be afraid, and became so vengeful as to pray God that the whole southern Confederacy might be annihilated, for causing so much needless suffering and death. Our doctors never made their appearance so we of course stood idle spectators, at last up came a poor fellow that had been struck on his left thigh by a piece of shell, and about half size of my hand of flesh entirely carried away. I took his handkerchief and bound it up to staunch the blood, in a few moments more many wounded passed by us and one a tall handsome young man, the blood streaming from his mouth, Stuart asked him if he were wounded in the mouth, he simply pointed to his left side, where his clothes were all tattered by a stroke from a piece of shell.”

Union field hospital, Savage’s Station. Somebody must know the story behind those hats!

“As we went to the Hospital, we noticed in some woods at about a quarter of a mile distant from the road, several Secesh cavalry skulking in the timber. As soon as we came opposite them they would step out and shoot, then dodge back and hide, then come out and shoot again, this was repeated several times, as much as twenty or more, when a cavalry man of our own galloped up to us and said “don’t you know these fellows are shooting at you: Get out of the way, as rapidly as you can.” I replied, if they are shooting at us I would not be afraid to bare my breast and let them shoot at it all the afternoon if they could do no better than they had been doing. Just at that moment some of them who had a long ranged gun, let slip and the ball said, “sleo, o,o,o” as it passed in a few feet of my head. We now went a little faster, and were soon out of their range.”

Second Corps field hospital, Chancellorsville. Note the diamond corps badge on a pole. Alfred Waud again. The man was everywhere.

“Reached the Hospital in safety but had only time to unload our wounded when the whole premises, six Hospitals in number, were surrounded by two Brigades of Wheeler’s Cavalry and a Regiment of Infantry, yelling at the top of their voices as if Hell had suddenly erupted itself of all its contents. In a few moments, seeing we made no resistance, a tall fine-looking Texan rode up and told us we were all Prisoners of War.”

“The first duties assigned to me were to go around and take the names of all the wounded, their Co., Rank & Regiment. I found we had 146 then living, beside 19 that were so badly wounded as to die soon after coming in. One of these is shot through the Gullet, so that when he tries to drink, it runs out at the wound, another shot in the right eye and out at the ear. Two others shot through the hip and out through the Privates. Two others directly through the right Leg and yet able to walk unsupported. Many of the balance have fearful wounds in their thighs, and different parts of their bodies that will more than likely cause their death. …  Strange as it may seem to you, I can now stand and hold one of a man’s legs while the other is cut off and not feel the least particle of that faintish disposition that troubled me so much in former life. Helping the Doctors cut off limbs and bind up wounds is now my daily duty.”

Confederate field hospital, Cedar Mountain. A key consideration was a well, for water.

Sept. 23rd Calm, cold morning. Two more men died last night, some of the men are digging one vast grave for all at once, as we have not to date had time to bury any of them. We stored them in the cellar till we had our room almost covered. While I write a long cherished leg, belonging to a Capt. McIntire of the 51st, Ill. Now lies before me a catch for the flies as we cut it off yesterday. So it goes. It is much more easy to kill than make alive. Stuart & several others were sent with a Flag of truce over to the battle ground, and found not only all our dead (at least 500) unburied and near 100 more variously wounded but still living, lying right where they fell. They collected them together in little groups, gave them bread & water – all we could raise at this time, for our provisions were all out and those of us at the Hospital had to live on boiled wheat. There they had to leave them, as we had no means to get them away, but sent on Thursday morning, 24th, a detail to dress their wounds and do for them all they could. I will now try and describe some little of the sufferings.”

Sufferings of a Hospital

“The sound is very much like that of a lively revival meeting, where many pray in a low tone at the same time, mixed with loud exclamations, such as “O Lord” “O My God,” “Lord Save,” “Lord Help,” “Lord Have Mercy”, xc. Xc. Commingled with incoherent cries & groans. This is our doleful music, day and night, with the addition of the wants; such as “I want up,” “I want down,” “I want a drink,” “I want the pot,” “I want some medicine,” “I want my wound dressed,” “My wound is too tight,” “Mine is too loose,” “I am too hot,” “I am too cold,” “Doctor, how long can I live?” “How long must I lie thus?” “How long will it take to get well? “xc, xc, xc, xc. Then stretch imagination to its utmost and can form some faint idea of the reality. ”

He and Stuart, his 19-year-old son, managed to escape. His full story can be found here, at the University of Washington’s digital collection.

Housekeeping:  I’ve received notice some of you haven’t been able to register with the email plug-in. If that’s you, drop me a line at and I’ll take care of it for you.  Also, I’ve had to build in a block for temporary email addresses, too many hackers out there.


“The horror …. the horror….”

Acting and reenacting – from magical to ridiculous

OK, we’re not going to learn how to become Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz by reading a blog.   On the other hand, we don’t NEED to become Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz to improve  our own reenacting experience and that of everyone around us.

Some of us are better at first person than others. The late Hank Trent was terrific; he became a person from 186x at living history events, and often went an entire weekend – or week, if that’s how long the event went – without breaking into modern mode.

I’m not that good at it. I can’t discuss events contemporary with the war as if they were actually contemporary.  Nor can many of us.  My preference is to simply have some consuming supervisory role like first sergeant that

You don’t need to be Brando, but should try hard not to be Beavis or Butthead.

requires immersion in the duties and actions, with the words flowing from that. Your mileage may vary.


What I do is, quite accidentally,  much like the Konstantin Stanislavski school of acting, which Brando practiced. I will very roughly characterize that as putting yourself in the given circumstances and acting accordingly.

There are a million photos out there of reenactors dressed in the 1860s and acting like they are from the 21st Century, and I’m not even talking about the capital crime of sneaking a peek at your cell phone.  And I’m not going to include any images of them, because it isn’t necessary. Not only have we all seen it, we’ve all done it, myself included. I’ve noticed that I do it more when I’m with a group waiting for a battle to start and talking about their new cars, the fortune of their preferred sports team, or current events.  I do it less when I’m with a group more likely to await a battle with an impromptu quartet of good voices singing a period Irish song like “A Nation Once Again,”  or simply discussing the current weather.  Or being silent in the face of an impending challenge.

We can all, to improve our own and everyone else’s experience, no matter where any of you are on the authenticity immersion scale, do one particular thing: Learn how people behaved under fire, whether wounded or not.

There were all kinds of reactions, including laughter.  The insight for how to act is simple:  Too much of anything is too much. If there are five guys sitting up watching the battle move away from them, that’s too many. Wounded men did do that.  They also tore open their clothing to see where they were wounded and how badly; they laid on the ground and occasionally twitched an arm or leg; they groaned. They crawled away. They hobbled away (if you’re going to do this, put a little pebble in one of your shoes, big enough to give you an ouchie if you come down on it. It will make your limp extremely plausible and you won’t give anyone a laugh by forgetting which leg is “injured” and switching back and forth.) They got out pencil and paper and tried to write notes. They called for help. They cheered on others.

Of course, if you opt for dead, for cripes sake be dead. There is nothing more disconcerting than a riotously lively corpse.

We happy few who were in the Miller’s Cornfield fight in 2012 at Rear Rank Productions’ “Maryland My Maryland” event at Boonsboro had a stunning experience, due to weather and some serious effort by Confederates to put themselves in the moment of Sharpsburg. There was fog that morning, and we Union troops heard but did not see advancing Confederates. We fired into and advanced into a terrible red mist caused by the rising sun through the fog and smoke from the cannon.  There was yelling and shouting and shooting and the usual confusion. We emerged into a thin cleared space and found dead and wounded and dazed Confederates everywhere, so thick on the ground in some places they were in bloody piles. Those fellows had put some thought and effort into that particular moment, and it created an experience none of us will forget.

Here’s a YouTube clip from that event It captures the moment, depicting in especially vivid detail the moment when Starke’s Brigade is caught from the left rear by elements of the advancing Iron Brigade.  Notice that nobody is over-acting or under-acting.  It’s quite plausible, and we get a thin slice of what it must have been like. This is what happens when several thousand reenactors collectively eschew the 21st Century and opt for “the moment.” Footnote: There were no spectators at this particular battle. This event, by the way, had a big sign at the entrance to the camps saying , in effect, “1862 begins here.”

Now, if you’re interested in more – and some of you are interested in careers in acting — here’s a link detailing the various acting styles and techniques.  From there you can follow up and learn more about the ones that appeal to you, because Google.  The rest of us will simply have to remember that less is more when it comes to the 21st Century when it’s supposed to be 1862. In the language of the times, if all else fails, “Shut your potato trap and give the red rag (your tongue) a holiday.”  Rear Rank Productions is staging “On to Richmond!” June 2-4 at Endview Plantation in Virginia; those of you attending will have a high bar to cross to beat the Miller Cornfield fight.

 Last week’s post included a quiz asking you to identify a period-correct chicken.  It was a Dominique, and Jean Dominguez of Florida came in first with the right answer. A copy of “How to Camp Out” by John M. Gould of the Maine Volunteer Infantry is on its way to her.  You can find out more about the Dominique breed and other heritage breeds of livestock at The Livestock Conservancy.


Eggs: The period-correct ‘cheat’ for hopeless cooks

And a contest, with a prize

This is a period-correct chicken. The first person to correctly identify it gets a free print copy of “How to Camp Out” by John M. Gould of the Maine Volunteer Infantry. Replies to

This is the week where I take pity on all who simply cannot figure out how to cook anything on an open fire.  All you need to know for this is how to boil water, how to tell time, and a tablespoon. And you can do it at home.

Hard-boiled eggs.

You can put them in your haversack on Friday and, if you don’t do anything too clumsy, they’ll be good for eating all weekend with no fuss, no burned fingers, no pans to clean up.  And we’ve had chickens for at least 4,000 years now, so eggs are period correct. They may have been scarce after an army was in the neighborhood for more than a few days, but your story is they were given to you by a grateful housewife. Stick to your story. Don’t answer questions about why she was grateful.

So you are at home.  Fire up the range, put on a pot of boiling water.  How much? Four cups.  Four real, measured cups. You can find the measuring cup, right?

So now it’s boiling. Put in a tablespoon or two of white vinegar.  Now put in your eggs.  It’s liable to stop the boil for a moment; as soon as the boil starts, mark the time. This should now be regulated to be a “gentle” boil, not a violent one where the eggs are tossed around and water is boiling out of the ban. Then, 14 minutes later, take the pan off the stove and remove the eggs. Let them cool and dry.

How many eggs?  Enough so there’s still water on top after you put them in.

“But I don’t want my eggs to taste like vinegar.”  Well, they won’t. It’s not taste, it’s chemistry.  The vinegar is acidic. The egg shell is a calcium-based, alkaline (base) material.  That much vinegar in that much water for 14 boiling minutes erodes the shell just enough to make it easy to peel when it’s time to eat.  If you have ever tried to peel hard-boiled eggs and had the shell stick like it was glued to the egg, you will appreciate this.

“But I don’t want to eat hardboiled eggs all weekend.”  OK, just about the time you get tired of eggs, they will begin to look darned good to others, and you can trade for whatever they’ve got.

For those who can cook over an open fire, you can use hardboiled eggs to improve the calorie content of just about anything else.  Rice, for instance.  Chop up an egg as the rice finishes cooking and drop it into the rice; give it a stir. (You could drop a fresh egg into the rice, but keeping fresh eggs intact through a campaign weekend is pretty hard to do.)

All this is better with a little salt.  Salt adds its own flavor to food, but it also “wakes up” the flavor of foods. Kind of like a force multiplier, if you’re into war games.

Next week: Do you need acting classes?

Here’s your old newspaper clip reward, very much on today’s topic:

Syracuse Daily Courier and Union, May 8, 1862

Hardboiled eggs are referenced, but note the preachy, sanctimonious tone of the article. At the time this was published, May 8, 1862, the volunteers berated by the writer had just come off the bloody battle of Seven Pines and would soon be battered in the Seven Days fighting.



Support your arms!

You’re probably doing this wrong, too

And, depending on your shape – literally, ectomorph or mesomorph – it may be quite difficult to get this right.

The same units that teach “Right shoulder shift” as hold-the-weapon-straight-up-and-down invariably are the ones that teach “Support arms” as slanted, with the butt of the weapon out in front and the weapon tilted over a shoulder. For an exhaustive treatment of this, with an overwhelming number of period photos aimed at convincing all the doubters that vertical is correct for “support arms,”  see the treatment of support arms by Marc A. Hermann, whose widely cited article is including on the Website of the Liberty Rifles, among other places.  For a faster, how-to-fix-it treatment, read on.

First, “by the book,” Silas Casey:

Support—ARMS. One time and three motions.

  1. (First motion.)  Bring the piece, with the right hand, perpendicularly to the front and between the eyes, the barrel to the rear; seize the piece with the left hand at the lower band, raise this hand as high as the chin, and seize the piece at the same time with the right hand four inches below the cock.
  2. (Second motion.)  Turn the piece with the right hand, the barrel to the front; carry the piece to the left shoulder, and pass the fore-arm extended on the breast between the right hand and the cock; support the cock against the left fore-arm, the left hand resting on the right breast.
  3. (Third motion.)  Drop the right hand by the side.
  4. When the instructor may wish to give repose in this position, he will command:


  1. At this command, the recruits will bring up smartly the right hand to the handle of the piece (small of the stock), when they will not be required to preserve silence, or steadiness of position.
  2. When the instructor may wish the recruits to pass from this position to that of silence and steadiness, he will command:
  3. Attention.  2. SQUAD.
  4. At the second word, the recruits will resume the position of the third motion of support arms.

Seemingly simple, yet over the years there’s been a tendency for reenactors to “slope” the weapon backward.  There’s nothing in the text you just read to indicate that’s wrong, and those who display the results of fine eating inevitably find that their body shape makes that slope more likely than not.  However, a glance at period photos and at the actual illustrations in the various manuals shows that the weapon is actually vertical, at right angles to the ground. More, the weapon is pretty much on the soldier’s side; some reenactors find that putting their left hand on their right breast pulls the weapon to the front of their bodies, compounding the problems of “big belly.”  Which is a status symbol in some cultures, by the way, which I mention just to dilute the pain of self realization some of you are experiencing….

So how do we deal with this?

This fellow has his hand on his right breast, barely, and the weapon is straight up and down and on his side, not his front.

First, you can’t get rid of that belly by Saturday, so clear up that which you can clear up: Before taking the field for drill, move your canteen and your haversack from your left side to your left butt – move it all to the rear and get it all out of the way. (You may want to slide your cartridge box back that way, too, it helps with other weapon positions.) Before you pick up your weapon, you should be able to hang both arms straight down at your side and touch only wool with your hands.

Second, for some of you, accept that girth is an issue and the partial remedy is the position of your left  hand.  The Casey’s manual says put it on your right breast. Other period manuals say waistbelt. One shows that hand up higher, almost at the shoulder.  Whatever: If “left hand at right breast” pulls the weapon to your front, move your left hand to the left until the weapon is hanging at your side. Perhaps that will be at the line of buttons down your sack.  It will be less of an error than the alternative, which is the weapon riding your belly.

Note the side view. This manual – Baxter’s – called for the left hand to be on the waistbelt. That makes it easy to get the weapon right at your side instead of on your chest.

Is this comfortable?  Not at first, especially marching. It feels like the balance is precarious and the weapon is going to fall forward.  But it gets more comfortable as you get, literally, the hang of it, which involves having it at your side rather than out front.


Next week: Some more food stuff.

Meanwhile, here’s your newspaper clipping of the week:

July 3, 1861, Adams Sentinel, Gettysburg



Real men. Real food? Step up!

Friends don’t let friends order pizza in camp

One doesn’t need to bring along a can of Dinty Moore just to survive a weekend of reenacting.  There’s a lot of stuff you can easily do that makes for better eating, healthier eating and more authentic eating.  This week we’ll take a break from drill and talk a little bit about food. I’m surprised and concerned at the number of people, especially younger reenactors, who are lost without a microwave. So I’m keeping it simple and fast: I prepared this and cooked it and was eating in less than an hour.

We can cover campaign food another time. This time, it’s in-camp cooking.


  1. Abandon expectations about having a modern meal.
  2. Replace with expectations of an attractive meal using whole, raw food and produce cooked over a fire.
  3. The opening premise is MNRE: “Meals NOT Ready to Eat.”  This was the army in 1862.

We already talked about fires in “Cooking in the Field: Part Two.” Today we’re just going to talk about one recipe, something the Originals might* have prepared in a situation where the camp kettles caught up with the company and they were staying in one place for a few days.

The first one is easy as can be.

Here’s your raw ingredients. I have the most luck with yellow potatoes – like Yukon gold – when it’s mashed potatoes. The serving vessel holding the potatoes is 10.5 inches across the top – that’s a pretty small head of cabbage, but watch what happens.

Cut the bacon into small pieces – the size of a quarter or less. Fry until it is crisp.  Crisp matters; soggy bacon won’t be as good, even though, pretty much, all bacon except raw bacon is good on its own. Partway through, drain off the grease into a cup and save it. Drain it off when you remove the bacon and set it to one side, as well.

Peel and cup some potatoes. Set them to boil. After 15 minutes, they should be tender.

Cut up some cabbage into pretty small pieces, like for cole slaw. Ditto an onion.

Here’s the raw ingredients cut up for uniform cooking. Note that the small head of cabbage sort of exploded, or bloomed, when it was cut up. The potatoes are chunked so they’ll cook faster. The bacon is cut up so you don’t have to “crumble” it later, probably using dirty hands. 🙂

Set the bacon aside. In the remaining grease, sauté the onions until they carmelize (they turn translucent a bit brown).  Put the onions with the bacon.

Now pour in some of the bacon grease you saved and sauté the cabbage a bit. Not too much. Five minutes should do it. Put in salt and pepper.

What it looks like when it’s cooked. Warning: That’s half the cabbage. It overwhelmed my frying pan and I had to cook it in two batches. That’s why you reserve some grease! Cabbage is just slightly wilted and browned. Onions changed from white to translucent, and they also got sweeter.

Drain the water out of the cooked potatoes. Transfer them to your serving pans.   Put some milk or cream in the potatoes and mash them.  Put in more salt and pepper.

The cooked potatoes, ready for a splash of milk and mashing.

Then mix in the onions, the crumbled bacon and the cabbage into the potatoes.

When it’s thoroughly mixed, make a small hole in the middle and drop in a chunk of butter.  You’re pretty much done.

How much? The answer would be “whatever” depending on how many you’re feeding and what you have on hand.  The recipe you’re looking at had less than a pound of bacon, one big onion, seven potatoes and a small head of cabbage. You’ll find bacon and onions shrink a bit and cabbage might seem a bit out of proportion on the heavy side, but it doesn’t matter in the end, it tastes wonderful.  Milk or cream? Probably less than a half-cup. Butter? Half a stick? They are just flavorings.

This is something the Irish guys in the volunteer army would have “brought to the table,” to abuse a phrase.  It’s traditional Irish colcannon, and the key basics are the potatoes and cabbage, which can alone be “colcannon.” All the rest is period-correct variation on a theme. Could it be ham, instead of bacon? Issue salt pork?  It can be anything they would have had, so long as it is cut up into very small pieces and sautéd.

Do you really need the milk? No, and that is the one ingredient they’d have found tough to procure.   Would condensed milk work? I don’t know, never tried it.  It would simply add sugar to the mix, in addition to the milk.

The finished product. This overfills a two-inch-deep serving dish 10.5 inches wide.


Note that this is individual-portion friendly: It gets spooned out, and if well mixed, everybody gets about the same amounts of all the ingredients. It is a nice blend of sweet, salt, bacon, starch, smooth, crunchy, and sweet-soft when you hit a piece of carmelized onion.  Tip:  Use decent bacon.

Next week: Now that you’re fed, how about some drill? It’s time for us to figure out how to do “support arms” around our modern-man physiques. Take that any way you want.

  • “Might”.  Yeah, “might.”  I don’t have any photos of guys eating colcannon. You want specific proof they ever ate one of these common-as-shoes recipes I’m going to serve up once in awhile, go find it. It will make a nice doctoral thesis, I’m sure. Meanwhile, we’re hungry. I will give this link, courtesy of the “Food History Online” blog. It’s got some document citations for the dish back to 1785.

Your newspaper clip of the week: Baltimore Sun, April 15, 1865

Right shoulder shift

This is an easy fix, and an interesting mistake.

A great many reenactors do “Right shoulder shift” with the musket utterly vertical. That’s utterly wrong and utterly tiresome, because it forces the right arm to constantly tense to hold the weapon upright.

If you look at a photo from the war, it is pretty clear the Old Guys did it with the musket at a slight diagonal across the back of the neck.  With that tiny adjustment, all your right arm is doing is keeping the weapon from falling to the ground, because your shoulder near the neck becomes a fulcrum and the weapon is balanced upon it.

The 26th NY drilling. Not only are they at “right shoulder shift,” they are at “right shoulder shift, rest.” Contemplate that. Also, note that the covering sergeants are all at the same position as the rank and file, not doing a “sergeant’s carry.”

How did we get this so troublesomely wrong?

♦ Fear of clouting the fellow behind you with the muzzle of your weapon if you tilt it too far backward. That got simplified to “any tilt is a bad tilt, even across the body.” Don’t dispute that, you know you’ve heard someone get chastised for a droopy musket with a “hold it straight.”

♦ Commingling instructions from “Support arms” with instructions for “Right shoulder shift.”  Vertical is OK for support arms*, the fulcrum for that, done properly, is the hammer across your forearm.  But somebody long ago, when there were about 10 Civil War reenactors, got it confabulated in a twisty way, and those 10 taught it to 100 and those 100 taught it to 1,000 and here we are today, proudly doing it wrong.

Here’s the words, from Silas Casey:

Right shoulder shift—ARMS.

One time and two motions.

  1. 219. (First motion.)  Detach the piece perpendicularly from the shoulder with the right hand, and seize it with the left between the lower band and guide-sight, raise the piece, the left hand at the height of the shoulder and four inches from it; place, at the same time, the right hand on the butt, the beak between the first two fingers, the other two fingers under the butt plate.
  2. 220. (Second motion.)  Quit the piece with the left hand, raise and place the piece on the right shoulder with the right hand, the lock plate upward; let fall at the same time, the left hand by the side.

Can’t really see the slant in that, can you? Maybe that’s why Casey included a diagram:

Can I just sing the praises of Mark Tackitt for a moment?  This living historian has collected and put online an almost endless series of references, including dozens of manuals, regulations for armies, articles written about drill, and a mess of other items you can drift happily through forever.  I’m hitting a few things every Tuesday in this blog that are generally classified as “stuff I see being done wrong a lot that we can fix very, very easily.”  Mark (“Silas” on the field) has done a much more ambitious project, one that took years and never ends: Compilation and discussion of everything, including stuff most of us have never even heard of, let alone do wrong.  I am humbled and awed every time I go on Silas’s Reenacting Links.

Note 1: In answer to a question, yes, I’ve been a writer for decades and I can’t stop just because I’m collecting my Social Security investment due to “retirement.” Writers never retire.   Here are my Civil War related books:

Seize the day! A guide to wringing more satisfaction from your civil war reenacting experience. A practical how-to for living historians.
The Ludlam Legacy   A 16-year-old rich kid finds himself orphaned, shipwrecked and on his way to war with the 7th New Jersey. History-heavy fiction.
Brother William’s War      A southern bank clerk becomes a reluctant warrior. History-heavy fiction based on a true story out of Chester, SC.
I believe you can get the entire lot digitally for about $9. Did I mention writers rarely get rich? 🙂

Note 2:  The 142nd PVI Co. G, Stroudsburg, Pa., will be at the Pike County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society on Saturday, April 22, from very early until about 4 p.m.  We will be doing basic drill at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and will probably provide an escort for President Abraham Lincoln for his address at 2 p.m.   We would be delighted to have any and all join us; it’s informational for the public and a chance to drill. We don’t care about stitches for this event, we care about attitude. We are also winging it on food.

The Historical Society is at THE COLUMNS MUSEUM, 608 Broad Street, Milford, PA.   Careful with the GPS mapping: There’s a Milford in New Jersey, too, a long ways away!


You’re probably doing this wrong

.. if you’re doing it at all.

“Countermarch” probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. And so it’s a good topic for the first in our “spring drill” series of posts.

After thinking really hard, I can’t come up with a single instance since I started doing this in 1992 where a unit I was with or in proximity to did the countermarch correctly. I’m sure it’s been done, but I don’t remember seeing it.

What I have seen is someone yell “countermarch!” when they want to stop a flank march (“column of fours”) and get the group to march in the other direction. Everyone marches around some pivot point. The whole battalion, one company after another.

Since a regiment of a thousand men could take up a thousand feet of road – a fifth of a mile – why would you want the poor schmoes at the end of that column to have to walk all the way along the length of the regiment before reversing direction and covering the same ground? What are you, a sadist? Besides, if you want to reverse direction in a countermarch, you just halt, front, and march by the other flank.

The “Real Countermarch™” is not for a flank march, but for a column of companies.

Another reason for learning it?  really annoying one, in my opinion?  As a training exercise, simply to introduce recruits to the concept of “breaking two files to the rear,” a concept that continues to baffle those reenactors who always drill in companies and never drill in battalions, and therefore don’t understand the maneuver is intended to compensate for the fact that in a battalion front, you are boxed in at each end by other companies.

A “Real Countermarch™” involves each company changing direction almost within its own footprint.

You know how I’m always caviling that you really should read the sections in Casey marked “principles of” the whatever?  You really can make better sense of the countermarch if you grasp the context – the principle behind the maneuver.

Picture a battalion in a column of companies.

For whatever reason you wish to face it in the opposite direction. You could just say “About face,” but that produces a scramble among file servers. Here’s countermarch, with Casey’s instructions in green and my comments in black.

343. The company being at a halt, and supposed to constitute part of a column, right in front, when the instructor shall wish to cause it to countermarch, he will command:

Countermarch.  2. Company, right—FACE.  3. By file, left.  4. MARCH.

Here’s the company, fronted, in a column of companies. The men are facing toward the top of the page, first sergeant is on the right, second sergeant on the left.

345. At the command march, both guides will stand fast; the company will step off smartly; the first file, conducted by the captain, will wheel around the right guide, and direct its march along the front-rank so as to arrive behind, and two paces from the left guide; each file will come in succession to wheel on the same ground around the right guide; the leading file having arrived at a point opposite to the left guide, the captain will command:

Just read the words and follow along: Right face, with the added twist of that pesky “break two files to the rear” command. Here’s all it means, shown in picture form. Then it’s “by file, left,” and the men wheel around the first sergeant. Note that the file closers (more than we usually have in reenacting, yup) move out along with the rank and file and also go around the first sergeant. NOTE: left the captain out front to remind you where the “front” is right now. The text says he’d be over by the “bent files” making sure everything goes right.

Company.  2. HALT.  3. FRONT.  4. Right—DRESS.

346. The first command will be given at four paces from the point where the leading file is to rest.

347. At the second command, the company will halt.

348. At the third, it will face to the front. Note that the files of four “undouble” and that the “front” is now at the bottom of the page!

349. At the fourth, the company will dress by the right; the captain will step two paces outside of the left guide, now on the right, and direct the alignment, so that the front-rank may be enclosed between the two guides: the company being aligned, he will command FRONT, and place himself before the centre of the company as if in column; the guides, passing along the front-rank, will shift to their proper places, on the right and left of that rank.

Note that the captain positions himself to see if the alignment is straight. When he calls out “Front!”, he moves to the center and THEN the two sergeants switch places, so the first sergeant is again on the right of the fronted company and the second sergeant is on the left.  They both pass in front of the company, no big mystery or ritual here.

All lined up and ready to go – toward the bottom of the page!

IF you are being led by a particularly daring battalion commander and are marching left in front instead of right in front, (because a great many reenacting units never do learn “left face”), you do all the same things except you go around the second sergeant instead of the first sergeant.  Please don’t think about it too long or hard, you’ll get a headache, just trust that that’s what happens.

Here’s what it looks like in a column of companies at half distance:

OK, you got bad news that you were doing it wrong when you did it at all, so here’s a little taste of the past to get the bitterness of despair out of your mouth:

Why, yes, that is an advertisement for Howe sewing machines, appearing in the Jan. 4, 1861 edition of the Syracuse Daily Courier and Union. There were an estimated 100,000 sewing machines in use in the country by 1861, most in homes, not factories. Women with families to clothe saw the immediate value and manufacturers, having failed to convince tailors that machines were the future, pitched the idea to women. They also allowed women to buy the machines with payments made over time, the first such financial arrangement in history. And from those modest beginnings we are now all $779 billion in credit card debt….

Note:  The 142nd PVI Co. G will be at the Pike County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society on Saturday, April 22, from very early until about 4 p.m.  We will be doing basic drill at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and will probably provide an escort for President Abraham Lincoln for his address at 2 p.m.   We would be delighted to have any and all join us; it’s informational for the public and a chance to drill. We don’t care about stitches for this event, we care about attitude. We are also winging it on food, so bring your own.

The Historical Society is at THE COLUMNS MUSEUM, 608 Broad Street, Milford, PA.   Careful with the GPS mapping: There’s a Milford in New Jersey, too, a long ways away!






Why we sweat the details

Sweaty details, plus: Lost Manhood

There’s going to be a series of posts on really basic drill in the next few weeks (because Spring Drill).  Each will focus on the right way to do things, which is to say, the way they were supposed to be done 1861-65.  There will be some discussion on why so much of it went wrong for us, which I honestly believe came about with a combination of dyslexia and out-of-context reading decades ago, combined with some muscle memory from the modern military veterans who form a small but significant portion of reenactors. And I’d like to touch from time to time on the differences between what we do as living historians and what “real” militaries do in their training.

Critics of sweating the details say it’s a form of extremism or fanaticism; sometimes you can pass a campfire and hear someone bemoaning the “drill Nazis” (or, in the case of the material-culture-done-exactly-right folks, “stitch Nazis”). The demurrals to this argument, at least the ones against accurate drill, are many, but boil down to these:

  1. It takes no more time, no more energy, and no more money to do the drill properly than it does to do it improperly.
  2. We are supposed to be depicting history, and doing it accurately adds to the depth and texture of our own experience while simultaneously lending verisimilitude when we inform the public with our actions.
  3. A huge part of the military experience, since forever, is the bonding that takes place. That comes from sharing hardships, danger and experiences. We are usually a little light on hardships and we face almost no real danger. That leaves experiences, and in my world experiences that are successful leave a better residue of camaraderie than those that are unsuccessful or even mediocre. Getting the drill and maneuvering done the way “they” did it is a visibly tremendous shared success.

Another often-heard argument against “doing it right” is our inability to get it ALL right.  If we can’t field troops of the right age, what does it matter if we do the drill in a half-assed way? If we can’t trash the furniture and shutters on houses to build our fires, why sweat the drill?   If our aging bodies can no longer endure the savaging of ten-mile marches or cold, hard ground bivouacs, what’s a little sloppiness doing “Right shoulder, SHIFT?”

The remonstrance:

  1. If we could get it all right, we would; some of it is out of our control, like property damage, our age span and its operational limitations, and above all the modern knowledge we bring to this endeavor to replicate history. But doesn’t that mean we should try even harder, not less hard, to make sure the things we can control are done properly?
  2. Philosophically, anything worth doing is worth doing right. Knowing what’s right and doing it wrong when you could do it right simply makes no sense.

Yet another argument: Not all units in the Civil War were good at drill.  So some slop is acceptable.

The rebuttal:

  1. Varying degrees of skill at drill were a fact, sure.  We’ve all heard about the  regiment at Antietam that came into the fight so green they had to be put in line by  sergeants from another regiment, who simply told them, when they were properly aligned, to stand there and fight. Which they did.  And it would be good to reenact that sometime. But it seems to be the exception.
  2. Drill is tactics. Tactics is maneuver. Maneuver is essential to success.  There’s a plaque at Pamplin Park outside Petersburg that details how a Yankee commander discovered an unmanned portal in the Confederate trench line and gave the “necessary orders” to change the alignment and formation of his advancing line to funnel the most men through that gap in the fastest time possible, and in a way that allowed them to expand the breach as they burst through.  That doesn’t happen — under fire, as part of a general advance, done on the fly — without a great deal of expertise at drill.  Go read it yourself if you want, a day with a visit to Pamplin Park is better than a day without such a visit, anyway.
  3. A great many soldiers took pride in their drill skills.  I present you with the expressively disdainful words of Alfred Bellard, who moved from the 5th New Jersey infantry to the Veteran Reserve Corps after taking a knee wound at
    Corporal Alfred Bellard, 5th NJVI + Veterans Reserve Corps

    Chancellorsville. These come during April 1864, when he talks about the need for drill due to the commingling of service branches in the VRC: “As there was so many men in the ranks, who had never handled a musket (being for the most part from the cavalry and artillery branch of the service) the evening dress parade was done away with and a half-hour’s drill took place instead. It was amusing to anyone who knew how, to see the way in which the new men broke into fours, or made an oblique movement. Sometimes they would crush up and so break the line, or hang back and so leave a gap in the ranks. Altogether it was a nuisance for men who were up in their drill to be placed in the ranks with them.”

Meanwhile: I’m starting a new feature each week, a period clipping from a newspaper. These will be offered without much comment, as a kind of window into life, news, advertising and humor from our era. Here’s the first, from The Jeffersonian of Stroudsburg, Pa., January, 1862. This is umm both advertising, life and humor, I guess, on the terrible affliction of self abuse….



The Clothespin: Taboo?

We use much that is not quite right, but, mysteriously, sometimes don’t use things that are just fine.

Are we suffering from clothespin aversion in Civil War living history?

The lowly but incredibly useful clothespin is rightly missing from Rev War reenacting. They don’t start showing up in period paintings until the 1800s and those who have exhaustively researched this topic (no, really!) say they just weren’t used.  But for those of us trying to depict the Civil War, both “plain” and spring-loaded clothespins were in widespread use.  Plain ones included homemade pins and manufactured, milled pins, the simple split pins we still see today. Like the three-rivet steel frying pan, once you’ve got the idea, it’s hard to improve on it.

But people have tried, mightily. There are bushels of patents for clothespins. And like everything else in the world, there’s a blog! And for clothespin enthusiasts, there’s more than you’d expect on clothes pins, in, of course, a collection at the Smithsonian!

The first mechanical, spring-loaded pins were patented in 1853, by Daniel M. Smith of Springfield, Vt.,  and quickly caught on.  The problem for us is that the common spring-loaded pins we see today aren’t the same.  We have what is called a coiled fulcrum spring, which sounds tricky but once you look at any modern mechanical clothespin, it becomes clear what it means. There’s a picture at the end of this just in case it’s totally outside your experience.  These pins weren’t patented until the 1870s.  The ones that would have been in circulation during the Civil War had a much simpler arrangement, a simple coiled spring between the non-gripping jaws; compress the spring by pinching the non-gripping jaws, the gripping jaws open, you put in the clothing, and let go. They were not as strong as the coiled fulcrum and that’s why you don’t seem them around any more. It was hard to even find a photo.

Daniel M. Smith’s 1853 patent for a spring-loaded clothes pin. Many thanks to the Vintage Clothespins BlogSpot for the tedious job of separating this image from the incredibly arcane and opaque archives of the U.S. Patent Office.

So, if you see one of these at a flea market, act bored and see if you can pick it up for a quarter. If not, there are plenty of plain, shall we say, “unhinged,” clothes pins from which to choose, including ones manufactured last Thursday.  Look at the unsprung comparison image in Smith’s sketch; it is essentially the same modern clothespin you can buy today. And if you want to craft your own homemade pins out of split wood and leather, that’s OK.

Homemade clothes pins. The leather is wrapped around the wood while wet and pinned into place with brads. When it dries, it shrinks and produces a tight fit.

Why don’t we use these more?  Why haven’t there been debates about the use of these?

Two reason, I think, even if it’s mostly speculation on my part.  First, they don’t show up in period military photos or drawings, that I know of. Second, a great many younger-than-me-at-least reenactors simply aren’t familiar with clothespins.  I remember helping to take down the washing from the clothes line. A lot of folks today remember taking the clothes out of the dryer. So they never got exposed to the potential of the simple clothes pin.

These are modern, plain vanilla clothes pins virtually identical to milled pins made before the Civil War.

It’s a perfectly fine device for its intended purpose; your damp shirt or blanket will dry faster if you stretch it out on a line using a couple of clothes pins, than if you drape it over a line or a limb and effective double its depth. It would seem to be an indispensable part of a laundry exhibit, yet you’ll find dismounted cavalry with mortars are more common.

But it’s also useful for temporarily holding together other things: holding together a corner of a shelter-half that has torn open its grommet; serving as a third hand for holding anything that will fit between the jaws; pinning your shirt to a branch to keep it from blowing away or sliding to the ground; and, in times of desperate need, becoming kindling. Two clothespins in your knapsack weigh approximately one ounce. And, of course, if you can find an 1853 Smith, you can brag on it. 🙂

NOTE: For reference purposes, the photo below is the kind of pin that came into use AFTER the Civil War. For those who want all of the details right, this is The WRONG Clothespin!

The WRONG clothespin for the American Civil War.


Eating civilians. No, wait: Civilians who eat. Yeah.

Eating in the field, Part Five

How, if you brand yourself and market yourself as a family unit in the Civil War military living history world, do you plausibly account for civilians, male and female, at meals?

The very visible answer to this is that a great many units simply don’t bother with plausibility at meals, whether there are spectators around or not. Out come the paper plates, the ketchup bottle, the Manwich makings, aluminum pans and even gas stoves.  Meanwhile, what are the civilians, male and female, doing while the troops are doing their military thing? Very often they are left to their own devices.

There’s another way. It’s more involved, but more rewarding.  If your military unit is already equipped to do company meals, there’s no added expense. There is a need for added cooperation among all members of the group and for synchronization with the event schedule. But it’s in keeping with one of the seven pillars of this site: Learn it, do it, teach it.

The U.S. Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission are the two biggest civilian organizations we associate with the Civil War. There are others. They are represented at some events, sometimes in the form of an informational setup on sutler row and less frequently as a functioning unit actually interacting with troops.  That opens a window of opportunity for a unit that wants to extend and deepen its journey into authenticity and also wants to extend its educational value to the public. It opens to meals plausibly prepared with civilian and military involvement and participation. And it provides a valid, history-based reason for civilians to be at an event and participating as full partners to the military, making a contribution both to authenticity and education.

This poster, aimed at drawing people to a USSC fundraiser, shows the organization’s activities in the field.

In short, it can help your unit get invited to more events and to more authentic events.

Early headquarters, USSC, at Gettysburg. Is this the store owned by Fahnestock & Co?

This essay is no place to explain the many functions of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which included camp inspections, fund-raising fairs on the home front, and other useful activities for events.  You can find useful material online, including “The History of the United States Sanitary Commission and “The Sanitary Commission of the United States Army, A Succinct Narrative of its Works and Purposes.”  This essay IS the place to discuss the USSC’s role in food for soldiers.

What kind of food? Transportable and condensed, intended for distribution in hospitals and field hospitals of the Army. “Concentrated beef soup, stimulants, crackers, condensed milk, concentrated coffee, corn starch, farina” are among the supplies distributed by the USSC at Gettysburg while the battle was raging.  Note, usefully for us, the USSC was present with the Army in the field at other battles, as well.  Further, at Gettysburg especially, food poured in through the USSC for the use of the field hospitals after the battle ended, including poultry, fish, mutton, eggs, soft bread, vegetables, butter, “tons” of ice, and “a variety of other articles of substantial and delicate food.”  Again, for our purposes, this food was both distributed directly to hospitals and made available at kitchens operated by members of the USSC in cooperation with soldiers both wounded and from nearby units. One such location fed 3,000 soldiers in one day, all described as “slightly” wounded.

You can surely see where this is going.

Putting a USSC kitchen next to a field hospital? Excellent opportunities for “first person” 24-7, plus a wonderfully educational combination for interaction with spectators.  And when it’s time for the unit meal, “slightly wounded” soldiers get to help prepare it, under the direction of the civilians in the USSC, using, plausibly if not temporally consistently, all the “substantial and delicate” food you can imagine, so long as it’s not made by Marie Callender or Hungry-Man Meals.  You end up with a tableaux vivant worthy of a photograph instead of having the place look like a modern church pot luck dinner.

The details of this have to be worked out by the participants. I’m painting with a roller here, broad strokes. But here are a couple of things I’ve found important:

  1. Respect the civilian involvement.  Unit leaders need to establish the time for food prep and the time for eating, and make the military schedule adjust to that both in terms of supplying labor and of being on time for dinner. Nothing dismays cooks more than a savory meal ready at the prescribed time, after a heavy investment of time, energy and, usually, some ingenuity, and word that the men are out drilling and “will be along in awhile.”
  2. Have folks other than the meal preparers do the cleanup afterward. Believe me, it makes a lot of tired people very happy.
  3. If you’re the military top guy, stay on top of what the “kitchen” needs, whether it’s wood, water, labor, or a kind word. Use the chain of command to get all of it, including the kind words. There’s nothing like three cheers and a tiger for the cooks.
  4. Invariably you’ll have extra food. It just works out that way.  Put out the word you’ve got it and people are welcome to have at it.  Somewhere there is a fellow looking at the mess in his haversack and wondering if he can order in a pizza. Save him from himself; feed him!
By August of 1863 the USSC had an attractive camp near the railroad east of Gettysburg and close to Camp Letterman and other huge field hospitals.