Cedar Creek aftermath

Media interviews: Channel Crash Davis!

Some of you may have seen where Keith MacGregor, captain of Company F, 142nd Pennsylvania, Federal Volunteer Brigade, was interviewed by the Washington Post in the wake of the “device” that threatened to cancel Sunday’s Cedar Creek battle. ​

He did well, plus the reporter wasn’t interested in yanking extremist statements out of nothing.  However, not all reporters are saints.

If you find yourself in the same situation, called upon out of the clear blue sky to speak for your hobby in tumultuous times, the best advice I can give you, based

I’d characterize this reporter’s stance as “aggressive,” and the interviewee has his mouth shut as he gets a firm grip on his composure.

on 38 years in journalism, is to think very carefully before anything comes out of your mouth. Especially when someone shoves a microphone in your face; they are trying to trigger your mouth into uttering something rash. Just shut up and think. Silence is your friend; you are not in a hurry because, guess what, you’re going to be speaking for every reenactor who isn’t going to be interviewed, so you have to get it right.  Keith figured that out and managed to convey what we were all feeling Sunday morning: What we do is too important to us to call it off under duress.

So it’s not a time for a personal manifesto, or smart-mouth (sarcasm is completely lost in print and subject to wild misinterpretation on television) or boasting or shouting or, God forbid, “We’ll give them the bayonet next time”; it’s a time to think about the best thing to say on behalf of your pards and the hobby in which we have all invested countless hours and countless dollars.
If all else fails, if you are out of ammunition, take a “hit”. In journalism it means replying off topic.  I suggest Crash Davis’s (Kevin Costner) advice to rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin Laloosh in “Bull Durham”:
Crash Davis: It’s time to work on your interviews.

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: My interviews? What do I gotta do?

Crash Davis: You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: “We gotta play it one day at a time.”

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Got to play… it’s pretty boring.

Crash Davis: ‘Course it’s boring, that’s the point. Write it down.

Or one of these, same movie, if asked about your beliefs:

Annie Savoy: What do you believe in, then?

Crash Davis: Well, I believe in the soul, … ​the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.

[pauses then winks and walks away]

​The reporter will get the idea you don’t like the question, you’ve thwarted them, and there’s nothing in there they could include that wouldn’t get them an interview with their assignment editor asking them if they’ve lost their mind.
Or you could channel Patrick Gorman in Gettysburg, and just groan at them, “Worst ground I ever saw.”  Or Kilrain:  “I’m Kilrain and I damn all gentlemen.”  That’s my go-to inane, conversation-ending nonsequitor.
Just remember this: Silence is your friend. Open brain, keep mouth shut for a moment.

Living out of your haversack

It’s not a sensory deprivation experience

(A break in the series of articles dealing with Duties of the Private, based on questions asked of me at the Cedar Creek event 10/14-15/2017 by a couple of young fellows.)

All that kitchen stuff we drag to events doesn’t have to be there.  Living out of your haversack can make a reenacting weekend pretty easy.  It’s merely a matter of containing your activity within the footprint provided by the food that lends itself to the experience.

Living without ironware, coolers, giant frying pans, ironware, fire grates, ironware and ironware is possible. You can use just your haversack and you don’t need to fill it with ice.  Stories about food spoiling over the course of an event are, with some easily avoided exceptions, mostly fairy tales.

Here’s the broad rules for a good experience:

  1. No modern packaging. No tin foil, no clear wrap, no plastic. Wrap it in brown paper or cloth. Cloth sacks are invaluable in keeping the sugar out of the coffee out of the bacon out of the flour.
  2. Plan on spending time preparing your food. Right, this is not the modern expectation. We think about food and, moments later, we eat food, thanks to microwaves and ranges. Food in 186x required preparation.
  3. For your first time eating from your haversack, keep it simple.

Tip #1: Most people who get sick shortly after reenacting events are suffering from food contaminated with fecal coliform.  Whether it’s portapots, squatting behind a laurel bush, or lack of awareness about just how fast horse manure can get from the horse to the field to your shoe to your hand to your food, it is contamination and it will make you sick.  So the first tip is two-fold: Be aware of the danger you face, and wash your hands before you handle food. This isn’t a modern imposition. Most everyone in 1860 grew up with the admonition that cleanliness was next to Godliness, even if some were too stupid or too tired or too far away from soap and water to implement the advice.

Tip #2:  You can fry food, you can boil food, but either way, the smaller the chunks you start with, the faster the process. Faster cooking means less time spent nursing a fire and less time gathering firewood.

Tip #3: Things that you wouldn’t normally think of combining, like ham, rice, apples and onions, take on a whole new aspect of desirability in the field.  The solution for that combination is to put the thing that needs the longest cooking on the fire first, then add the rest in stages. That would be rice (you have to bring it to a boil and then keep it at a simmer. Twice as much water as rice), onions (take longer than you think), ham, and apples (if you overcook apples, they disintegrate into a visually disturbing red mass of peels.)

Tip #4: Things that are first fried and then boiled impart different flavors. Fried onions added to rice and carrots yield a very different taste and texture than onions that are simply boiled. The good news: It’s your onion and your choice.

Things you can bring:

Beginner’s menu:

Dry sausage (it’s available at most supermarkets. It’s the stuff they don’t refrigerate. That’s a clue that it won’t spoil. It will last longer than an Egyptian mummy.)

Two apples; two

Two small onions


A small sack of coffee

A small sack of sugar

A small sack of salt.

This menu uses minimal water. You can cube the sausage, apples and onions, fill up your big tin cup half way, dump it in and put it on to boil. Crumple up a piece of hardtack when it’s about done and you’ve got most of the basic food groups, warm and tasty.

Intermediate menu 1:

A pound of slab bacon (it will get eaten, don’t worry).

One each: onion, potato, carrot and apple.

Coffee, sugar, salt



You now have the option of frying the bacon in a pan or canteen half, generating grease, and breaking up hardtack and frying that in the grease also. It is surprisingly good, especially if you eat this Saturday after a day outdoors.  The rice can be boiled and used in combination with any of the other ingredients.

Intermediate menu 2:

All of the above, but substitute groats for rice. Groats are shelled but not pressed or otherwise processed oats or buckwheat. It’s cereal; you cook it like rice, and it can go either as breakfast, in which case you might want to hit it with sugar, or a main meal, in which case it’s used just like rice.

Hardtack and groats can be found at various suppliers, you just need to get online.

Beyond the basics:

When you figure out this stuff isn’t going to kill you, it’s time to refine what you do. Our 19th century counterparts had access to vegetables and foods that have fallen out of favor today, things like parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes. It is also good to check what the availability of food would have been in the areas and at the times being reenacted; apples have a long storage life, but peaches as peaches have a short season. Canned or preserved peaches are a different possibility. And there’s always country smoked ham, which you can also get by googling online if you aren’t familiar with it.  Like dry sausage, it is impervious to decay. But try it at home before you take it in the field, it’s not to everyone’s taste or personal biology.

Featured image:  Cooking supper, Si Klegg and his pards.

Footnote: Yeah, there was a bomb threat at Cedar Creek and it turned into a big deal for us. I’ll address it when things settle down a bit.  For now, switching to WWII, just “keep calm and carry on.”

Here’s your newspaper clip, from The Bedford Inquirer, Bedford, Pa., January, 1862. Look at all the donations of ham and sausage!  Big reenacting things will come out of this same town in 2018, stay tuned for more details in future posts.




Time to think about Christmas

The perfect Christmas gift for your umbrella group commander

“Parade, Inspection and Basic Evolutions of the Infantry Battalion,” by Dominic J. Dal Bello, Army of the Pacific Press.  Here’s the link:  http://press.armyofthepacific.com/order.htm

There are other great books on that site as well. The Army of the Pacific Press specializes in “Clear and Concise Manuals for the Living Historian.”  Sound familiar?  Yup, same idea as this blog, predating me by two decades. 🙂  And even better researched, and also fully aware of the limitations imposed by the ephemeral nature of our Civil War experiences and the constraints of our modern lives.

Don’t consult with other officers in buying these; if your umbrella commander gets ten copies, I assure you he has nine other people who would benefit from a regifting. 🙂

About the blog:  In momentary hiatus, because: DIY home renovations that have the entire house in chaos.  I feel like Thomas Rosser at Tom’s Brook after Cedar Creek: routed, dispersed and with no command and control and no place to sit down safely and think about what just happened. 🙂





Duties of the private, part 2

It’s not all eating, shooting and leaving

After we’re done saluting, we get to work. August V. Kautz, in “Customs of Service,” is very clear that the private’s first duty is to learn “the first principles” in “Customs of Service.”  He breaks it down, first, into duties in camp or garrison, and then into three priorities: Guard duty, work assignments and “daily duty.”

This week we’ll tackle guard duty.

Guard duty is the highest priority, and there’s a nice procedure for mounting the guard company that highlights all the principles of operating a regiment. But here’s what you need to know as a private, for now:

◊ Guard duty requires the soldier to be in full marching order, including knapsack, haversack, and full canteen.♦ The context gives you the reason:  Guard mount involves creating a separate guard company, answerable to regimental command.  In the real army, if a regiment were ordered to break camp in a hurry, the guard company would not be dispersed. It would be kept together and marched out as a company, and dispersed later when it could be done in an orderly fashion. That had to be, at least in part, to make sure men didn’t suddenly take advantage of the hubbub of breaking camp to disappear, with the guard command thinking they were with their company and the company commanders thinking they were with the guard mount.  It had more to do with operations in the field:  A guard mount in the field (picked duty)  is at some distance from the regiment, and dispersed across whatever area it is assigned. Re-assembling the guard company will take some time and moving it as a company attached to the regiment makes sense, so having the men already equipped for the march is logical and efficient.

Guard mount of the 114 PVI, Brandy Station, Va., 1863. Note that the men are all in full marching order. They appear to be dividing into “reliefs,” with, perhaps, the supernumeraries at left heading back to camp. Dunno. Will download a huge Library of Congress version of this and check. Meanwhile, Notice the three officers to the right: Colonel at the far right, Officer of the Day next, with sash, and Guard commander. Those are the only three men the forming guard company answers to.

But that’s just the beginning.  The private can expect to be marched to the guard mount headquarters by his first sergeant, and he can expect to be inspected.  He can expect to meet the people to whom he is responsible as part of the guard company:  The guard company commander, the officer of the day, and the commanding officer of the military organization mounting the guard (a regimental commander or a brigade commander, usually).  That’s it.  He does not have to take orders from anyone else while assigned to the guard, and in fact is required to challenge, not obey, at night.

For a complete tour of guard duty, it’s 24 hours and the company is divided into three “reliefs,” or what we in the 21st Century might term “shifts.”  That’s a bit more than we usually need for reenacting units, but it’s good to know.  Each shift is further subdivided, so that men are actually “on post” for only two hours at a time.

When a private is assigned a post, he becomes a sentinel and has two specific sets of duties, “general” and “special.”  General duties of a sentinel in camp or garrison are:

◊ Take charge of the post and all public property in view.

◊ Salute all officers passing according to rank (during daylight).

◊ Give the alarm in case of fire, or the approach of any enemy, or any disturbance.

◊ Report all violations of the Articles of War, Regulations of the Army, or camp or garrison orders.

◊ At night, challenge all who approach and pass none but those with the countersign. All others have to be examined by an officer or noncom of the guard before they may pass.

Special orders are particular to the location, the mission, or some other factor. They might, for instance, be to guard stores and allow no one to take them without a release from the quartermaster or commissary. Or they may be to allow no privates or noncommissioned officers to leave camp without a pass. Or to call for the corporal of the guard for an escort if civilians wish to enter the camp.

This is a pretty well known photo of a sentinel on the Chain Bridge between Arlington, Va., and Washington, D.C. It looks pretty casual. Note that “field modifications” have been made to the guard shelter on the right; a board has been knocked out so the guard can see who is approaching without sticking his head out into the rain the shelter is supposed to protect him from. Also note that the fellow on the left looks disturbingly like Rob Hodge, well known reenacting purist and film maker.

The private can expect, in camp and garrison, to walk a beat, which will be shown to him when he is posted.  If he can’t carry out his duties — a group of ruffians looting a house, for instance — he calls out his number (which will be the number of the post he is assigned) and shouts for the corporal of the guard, whose problem it becomes.

Now, who do guards salute? And how?

For officers passing by below the rank of captain, the guard salutes simply by halting, facing the officer, and stand at a “carry,” ie., support arms, shoulder arms or right shoulder shift.  If above the rank of captain, the salute is “present arms.” The officer of the guard, and the guard’s organization’s commanding officer, also get “present arms” whatever their rank might be. (Lieutenants often end up as the CO of a guard company.)   There’s more:  Armed bodies of men passing nearby get a “present arms.”

That’s during the day.  At night, the private on guard challenges any who approach.  The challenge?  “Who comes there?”  (Not, “Who goes there?” Although there’s evidence, see the photo below, that, “Who goes there” was commonly used, just like we do.)

There’s more, but most relevant are the countersign and the parole.

The countersign is the “secret word” given to those who are authorized to enter or leave camp. Obviously the sentinels will expect to hear that when they challenge. However, they will not expect it to be shouted, because that would give it to any skulkers who are trying to get back into camp after a spree and are lurking nearby.  The sentinel, arms port, issues the challenge, and the first response should be, “Friend.”  The sentinel says “Advance with the countersign.”  If there are several people, the sentinel says “Advance one with the countersign.” It’s not empty ritual. Here’s the context:  The first challenge should come when the unknown group is within deadly range, but not so close as to be able to stop the sentinel from firing.  He has “the drop” on them.  “Advance one” means only one person is going to come closer, close enough to softly speak the countersign so that only the sentinel can hear it.

In this sketch by Alfred R. Waud, the officer of the guard has been summoned at the approach of a group of mounted men. The caption says “The picket guard. “Who goes there?” “Friends.” “Dismount one friend, advance and give the countersign”. So apparently “Who goes there?” was in play, even though the manual says the challenge is supposed to be “Who comes there?” Perhaps the manual writer was anally retentive and wished the men to use syntax appropriate to the context? For sure they didn’t get “goes there?” from a bad movie. 🙂

The parole is simply an additional secret word given only to those officers authorized to make the rounds of the guard posts.

What’s a sentinel to do if there’s an emergency?  Yell!  An even bigger emergency? Fire his weapon!

Now, is all this a bit much for reenactors? Depends on what you’re doing.  A full guard mount scenario is quite a spectacle for a living history; it allows an uninvolved officer to explain what’s happening to spectators, including the full marching order, the supernumeraries (“extra” men sent with the sergeant in case the men picked for guard were inspected and rejected), the protocols, all the rest. There’s opportunity for theatrics, visuals, scenarios.   Special instructions for the sentinels would have to include how to deal with people in modern dress, including, probably, saluting them and asking if they need directions or an escort in the camp, etc.  It’s an attractive part of an event, one that drags spectators into interaction. That can’t be all bad.

Guard duty in the rain. He’s having a full “immersion” experience. Sketch by Edwin Forbes.

It’s also good if you’re looking for a full immersion experience. I’ve done it at “campaign” events where we were live from Friday night through Sunday afternoon, with picket duty usually taking place much of Saturday night. If it is all night — which happens sometimes at some events — it is usually a good idea to seek volunteers from people who do not need to drive long distances to get home on Sunday – they are either passengers or live reasonably close by.  Guard duty, even with reliefs, robs you of sleep. Not enough sleep makes you a bad driver.  That’s our concession to modern times: We don’t assign people according to a duty roster, we ask for volunteers. In return you get to spend an hour in the dark wondering if what is approaching is an ornery enemy reenactor looking to enrich your experience, a raccoon, or a haunt from the private graveyard you passed on the march earlier.  Footnote: There was never any shortage of volunteers at those events, because “that’s what they came out for.”  Your mileage may vary and it’s all good.

Reporting in full marching order doesn’t necessarily mean standing sentinel in full marching order. There’s plenty of photos showing sentinels without knapsacks and haversacks; presumably they are at his post of duty, not back in the main camp.

MEANWHILE:  That time you are chewing the fat in camp, look up, and realize the table you’ve been looking at all weekend is a facsimile of one in a Library of Congress photo:

Table built by Frank Bowker, pioneer and cook of Company D, Seventh New Jersey Volunteer infantry, a reenacting club in southern New Jersey.
Noncommissioned officers’ mess of Co. D, 93d New York Infantry, November 1863. Coincidentally, this is the same regiment to which last week’s “news clip” featured guy, Lt. William O. Swain of Berkshire County, Mass., was actually assigned, despite the newspaper assigning him to Berdan’s. Newspapers, getting it wrong since 1750. Meanwhile, one of the officers in the background may very well be Swain. Small world, then and now.

Next week:  Real work details, and real “daily duty,” plus “what we can do in a reenacting context.”

Here’s your period news clips related to today’s topic:



Duties of the private

Let’s hit the basics!

A weekend at a fine local event at Cold Spring Village near Cape May, NJ,  has gotten me out of the monument megrims, and I’ve got the motivation from the weekend to get to writing again.  It was inspirational to hear noncoms fixing the dress, hear “Everybody steps off at once, dammit, it’s a battalion command!” and “Put those muskets straight up and down for support arms!!”  That was Second Battalion USV as the core structure, with the  69th Pennsylvania, Co D of the Seven New Jersey, the 142nd Pennsylvania Company F, and Company K, Sixth Wisconsin. It was nice seeing a coordinated effort to drill everyone in Casey’s and then use it, too. Good seeing sergeants assign men to work details. Almost felt like how the real deal is described, even though “it’s just a hobby.”  And the civilian presence at this event was stellar in terms of impressions. And there’s one more incredibly cool thing, but it will have to wait until next week.

Which all leads me to this week’s topic, the “duty” of a private in a reenacting club.

Brigadier General August V. Kautz includes, in “Customs of Service,” a very beefy chapter on the duties of a private, and if you want to improve your skills at living history, in explaining all this to the curious public, I commend it to your attention, courtesy of the drill page of the 64th Illinois.   What I’m going to deliver, though, over a period of several weeks, is a combination of Kautz and adaptations or insights or “short form” techniques for reenactors. Kautz did something similar, including items such as “customs that are equally binding, though not provided for in the regulations.”  In other words, what was expected by those organizing the armies whether it is in the official regs or not. Isn’t that great?

So this saluting stuff:  Want to get it right and know why it’s a good thing for us to deploy?  Read on.

Salute under arms. And does he have his hat brim cocked back so you can see his face? Great, now we’ll see this overrepresented in the hobby. 🙂

The regs say, in paraphrase, to salute officers when you meet them and to look right at them when you do it.  Salute with the hand to the head (“raise…hand to the right side of the visor of his cap, palm to the front, elbow raised as high as the shoulder”) if not under arms, and salute to the breast (if carrying a musket. They also say that if you’re seated and an officer arrives, you stand, turn to the officer, and salute.  And both of those: It’s usually just done the first time each day you meet in the course of going about.

Here’s three of Kautz’s observations about “customs” which are not spelled out in the regulations:

◊ “When soldiers are marching in the ranks, they do not salute, unless ordered to at the time.  If employed in any work, they are not expected to discontinue their employment to salute.”

◊”A soldier or noncommissioned officer, when he addresses an officer, or is spoken to by one, salutes; on receiving the answer or communication from the officer, he again salutes before turning to go away.”

◊”When a soldier enters an officer’s quarters armed, he simply makes the required salute and does not take off his cap; but without arms, or with sidearms only, he takes off his cap and stands in the position of a soldier and delivers his message or communicates what he came for in as few words as possible and to the point.”

“Having fun…”

Now, since “this is just a hobby,”  and a darned democratic one as well, a lot of this officer-delineating ritual gets tossed out because, after all, it’s not really a captain up there, it’s just Fred.  But if your unit is one that neglects this utterly, you are missing out on one of the important insights soldiers got during the war: Officers, even the guy who was  your ferry captain or mill owner or lawyer back home, have power and authority and — here’s a twist — need to be reminded of it by the people they may be expected to order into life-and-death situations. For our reenacting/living history purposes, we can see it as reminding Fred to maintain a captain-like outlook, demeanor and deportment for the purposes of the reenacting exercise.  The purposes of the exercise include having fun, but “fun” has different forms. The underlying reason for reenacting is to experience and demonstrate the attributes of soldiering and civilianating* at the time of the Civil War, for our own amusement and edification and for the amusement and edification of the public.

Some “fully immersed” originals….

Units that assume “full immersion” mentality for a weekend usually don’t have any problem with some of this officer delineation, because that’s where their heads already are, from step-off on Friday until they hit the parking lot again on Sunday afternoon.  But the rest of us might want to consider incorporating more of it, specifically making note of the time when “make it real” is in effect.  My suggestion would be “from reveille until the spectators go home,” because that puts the camp on a “reality” footing for all the meals, setting the stage not only for realistic work details, but also for the “custom” that in a company mess, privates are called first and it moves up the ranks, meaning officers eat last.  And yes, I’m doing private as often as possible these days.   🙂

More next week.  If there are particular areas you’d like explored, by all means send me a line.

*Civilianating.  Yes, I just made that up.

Berkshire County Eagle, Massachusetts, November 1861. Records show Swain, who was 29 when he enlisted, survived the war, discharged in Nov. 1864 as Captain of Company B, 93rd NY. No luck tracking down the fate of his “unlucky” predecessor, Lieut. Smith.



Has Charlottesville killed reenacting?

Cripes, this is all so depressing.

Current events are so depressing. We’ve reached a point in monument removal and institution bashing, some of it understandable, some of it fed by ignorance, where reenacting and living history are being called into question. I can’t write about hobnails or johnnycakes or “Present ARMS” while this is going on.

So what’s a Confederate Civil War reenactor to do?  Hang the musket over the fireplace and pack it all in?  Get all bristly when people ask you if you’re a white supremacist? I suspect a lot of Confederate reenactors are missing some events this year, judging from some of the turnout I’ve seen. I mean, when’s the last time Union forces outnumbered Confederates at New Market, which is usually a Rebfest? It happened this year.

We need to think this all through and have cogent, simply expressed concepts for those occasions when we are questioned or, worse, accused.

Let’s see if we can agree on some starting points. I might add I’ve had a head start on this, because when I moved from New Jersey to South Carolina to take a job, I also took up Confederate reenacting, and I had to think some of this out to calm down my employer.  That may or may not have been a success — if that was an unstated reason behind the falling out we had, it remains unstated to this day — but I did have to do some thinking.  And I learned an awful lot about the South from my experience. (I do Union now that I’m in Pennsylvania, but still retain Confederate gear for the occasional classroom presentation.)

First lesson:  They’re all dead.  All the people who believed whatever they believed to make that war inevitable are all dead. Sometimes visitors to your campsite need to be reminded that yes, the fire is real, but “we” are “not.”

Second: Our goal as reenactors and living historians is understanding. We understand in order to better explain, or to satisfy our own thirst for knowledge.  Our learning method is immersion in the historical context, as best we can re-create it.  We teach the same way, through what amounts to a grown-up version of show-and-tell.

We do not have to believe what they believed in order to either understand them or explain them, but it is important to both understand and explain if we are to reap the lessons they learned without shedding the blood.

Third:  Our values as 21st Century human beings have no bearing on our involvement in historical mimicry, other than the obvious one that as modern people we are very interested in history.

Fourth: A key point is that while politicians and leaders clearly had reasons for secession and war that are not acceptable today ¹, the “regular folks” we tend to represent may or may not have shared those reasons for picking sides and joining up to fight. That’s your escape valve, to keep from making it too personal.

Some of our ancestors, we know, were coerced into joining by peer pressure; others were clearly mislead by myths spread by agitators. (Remember weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Same thing. And we’re still hearing from those who maintain there were such WMD, just as we still hear from people who believe states seceded because the Northern mudsills were planning a violent invasion of the South all along.)

Fifth: Those of us who have an additional motive of “honoring” an ancestor who fought on one side or the other also have an additional burden, because unless you own a letter or diary from that man spelling out what his motivation was, you really have no damn idea why your ancestor went to war and no business, if you are truly respectful, of putting words in his mouth.

Most of us do not have firsthand knowledge.  We may have family stories, but rarely words from the soldier’s own hand. But we can’t gild the lily and paint 21st Century values on our ancestors to clean them up for modern palatability. That goes for both sides.  Not every Confederate soldier’s family owned slaves, but not everyone called “abolitionist” today believed black people were the equal of whites. Some wanted slavery abolished so there would be no excuse for having black people around. ² The sad truth is most people in 1860 believed in the superiority of the white race, even those who believed in legal equality of races and equal protection under the law.  So it’s not a question of the pot not calling the kettle black; it’s the far more interesting and complicated reality that not everyone was either a pot or a kettle, and they came in all shades of grey. As we do today.

12-star flag of the Sixth South Carolina Infantry, issued October, 1861.

Notice that I haven’t suggested exactly what you should say to visitors to your living history or colleagues who ask you if you are going to keep on reenacting.  That’s up to you. I’ve merely tried to give you starting points.

I will tell you this:  Don’t hide  your flags at events.  The battle flag itself is a great place to start a conversation about how the regiments in the Confederate army took on a life of themselves. Its use as a tool for maneuver, as the rallying point when things went wrong, the battle honors proudly attached, the blood stains – that all resonates with people, and gives you a starting point for explaining how the valor of the men who fought under the flag became a transferrable and valuable legitimizing commodity for the white supremacists who hijacked it for the KKK in the 20th Century.  Not the 19th Century – the original postwar Klan did not use the battle flag.

You will not change anyone’s mind about what the right thing to do might be.  You will give them understanding of why emotions can run so high. Just don’t use that tripe now circulating as an Internet meme that connects the battle flag with Christianity, St. George, the Last Supper and, I think, Andy of Mayberry.  They needed a flag with a diagonal graphic to distinguish it from the Stars and Stripes, period.  That’s interesting all by itself. Again, don’t gild it, let it speak for itself.

A final note: I’m sometimes accused of being too optimistic about humanity and a bit of a Pollyanna. I recently noted I hadn’t met many reenactors who were white supremacists, and was told by several people I hadn’t been paying attention. Well, yes I was, for 27 years, because it was important to me. Perhaps I had a lucky selection of units, especially when I was in South Carolina and North Carolina, but I heard no racist comments around the campfire, even when they finally forgot (they all eventually did) that I was not only a damn Yankee but some kind of liberal pollywog to boot. That’s Sixth South Carolina, Eighth South Carolina, 13th South Carolina, 38th Georgia, Salt River Rifles, 30th North Carolina, 21st North Carolina, 26th North Carolina — the Palmetto Battalion and the Fourth Battalion ANV and Stepp’s Legion.  I found fellows, instead, who went to great lengths sometimes to separate themselves from white supremacist stereotypes, including welcoming the occasional black man into the Confederate ranks not to prove that there were black fighting men in the war, but that they are above issues of race now.    Your mileage may vary. I know what mine was.

I hope I’m in a better mood next week and can write about something not so fraught with emotional land mines. You know, whether they ever wore their forage caps backward and what the term “barefoot” really meant. We’ll see.








¹ We know their reasons because, unlike our own Uncle Bill, they wrote them down.     That’s a link.  If you have not read those declarations of secession until now, you really, really, really should read them so you are, in these troubling times, fully informed. It’s all there: the belief they were suddenly politically impotent, the belief in white supremacy, the desire to protect and expand slavery.  Just remember, they’re all dead and they are NOT YOU!

² American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States


Camp beds, cracker boxes, drummers and grates

Creating the moment isn’t that hard…

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.