Attitude and deportment

Take your braying imbecility and shelve it!

Winfield Scott, War of 1812

I was helping someone find source information on how officer relationships played out during the Civil War, ie., subordinate vis-a-vis superior, everyday stuff, plus who defers to whom and actual honors rendered by troops. In the course of the research I stumbled, literally, onto a document requested by the federal House of Representatives in 1819. They wanted a report on systems of martial law (that is, actually military rules for running armed forces), field service and police.  The report was delivered in 1820, signed by then Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was, in the wake of the not-so-great performance of the armed forces in the War of 1812 (which he helped start), charged with reorganizing and modernizing the United States military. The report itself was written by Major General Winfield Scott, who was a brigadier in that war, and, for the martial law portions, Judge Advocate Major Samuel Storrow.

A young John C. Calhoun

What they submitted is very much a prototype for a more familiar document for the Civil War living history community: The Army Regulations. You can see the Regulations emerging from this report.

What’s included in this, and not spelled out in the regulations themselves, gives us a window into the deportment and attitudes expected of the nation’s military leaders.

Whatever you thought was going on, put it aside.  Here’s the foundations of what we should be putting into practice in the field and in our reenacting clubs. And, by inference, we can figure out what we should be setting aside as not only a modern anachronism, but as simply ineffective, bad leadership.

The stunner for me was Article 2, “Base of Discipline.”  I got ready for a detailed “how-to” of lashings, thrashings, imprisonments and other harsh measures. What I read was unicorns and rainbows.

1.      It is the intention of the Government that there be established in every regiment and corps, and throughout the army, as one corps, a gradual and universal subordination or authority, which, without loss of force, shall be even, mild and paternal, and which, founded in justice and firmness, shall maintain all subordinates in the strictest observance of duty. It requires that enlisted soldiers shall be treated with particular kindness and humanity; that punishments, sometimes unavoidable, shall be strictly conformable to martial law, and that all in commission shall conduct, direct, and protect inferiors, of every rank, with the cares due to men from whom patriotism, valor, and obedience, they are to expect a part of their own reputation and glory.”


But that’s just the beginning.

Section III, Interior economy of regiments and companies, Article 16, Unanimity or Esprit du Corps:

“A spirit of good will, and even of brotherhood, particularly among the members of the same regiment, is essential to the good of the service, and to establish which the colonel will use the legal power and moral influence belonging to his rank and station. Timely interference to prevent disputes among officers, or to heal them if they should unfortunately arise, advice to the young and the inexperienced, parental reprehensions (in private) of the disorderly, and prompt arrests of the disobedient, are among his surest means of accomplishing those highly important ends, and towards the attainment of which he cannot fail to receive the assistance or support of every well -disposed officer.  The general deportment of officers towards juniors or inferiors will also be carefully watched and regulated.  If this be cold or harsh on the one hand or grossly familiar on the other the harmony and discipline of the corps cannot be maintained.  The examples are numerous and brilliant in which the most conciliatory manners have been found perfectly compatible with the exercise of the strictest command; and the officer who does not unite a high degree of moral vigor with that civility which springs from the heart cannot too soon choose another profession, in which imbecility would be less conspicuous, and harshness less wounding and oppressive.”

Please re-read the last sentence; memorize it if  you want. No, really: It says if you can’t be civil, find something else to do.

We live at a moment in history when bullying and spite is the daily watchword, even in our hobby. We have all suffered under or seen reenacting officers who are complete braying assholes. Usually we describe it as confusing reenactor rank with real rank. Turns out that’s wrong.  They are confused, but about what the “real guys” were, mostly, like.

Not everyone adhered to the conduct described by Scott as optimal for success; people are people and some are assholes.  But now, “the rest of us” have one more item in the toolbox to bring assholes to heel:  It’s not the kind of behavior the army sought in the years leading up to the Civil War.

And for the miserable little people who have nothing better to do than go online and disparage others for perceived deficiencies of uniform or military skill: You must be getting your fuel from bad movies, modern politics or poor self esteem, because what you’re doing is simply not anything leadership would have recognized as effective technique for improvement in our time period.

More on this in future posts.  But for now, please spread it far and wide.  We have enough hurdles to overcome and could surely benefit from some period-correct civility within our hobby. 🙂


Christmas 1863

Historic restoration isn’t just for buildings.

Many thanks to 1st Sergeant Geoff White, 3rd US, for bringing this historical fact to our attention. 

We are all familiar with the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which you can listen to here if you want.  Just one problem: It’s missing a couple of verses that are key to “our” war and which, in a few simple words, speak to us of the bleakness the war brought to many families.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, about 1855

It was originally a poem, it was written in 1863 by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the “missing verses” directly reference our war. Longfellow wrote it on Christmas Day, 1863, not long after getting news that his son, Charles, was grievously wounded at New Hope Church during the Mine Run campaign in November.  Charles was a lieutenant with the First Massachusetts Cavalry. Henry had gone to Virginia looking for his son after learning of his wound, and saw the army, the hospitals and the war-torn countryside first hand. It left a mark on his soul that, inevitably, he set to words.

Here are the original lyrics, with the “dropped” verses in red:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Charles Appleton Longfellow, October, 1863

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound
The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn
The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

The song hangs together better with the missing verse; it makes more sense. And it gives us insight: Behind all the fury of battle are families bearing the pain of loved ones in danger.

The wound, an ugly one to his back, knocked Charles out of the war. And the poem remained a poem, so far as we are concerned for first person and third person, until after the war. It was first set to music in 1872.  The two middle verses disappeared in the 1950s, just about the time commercial radio arrived at the conclusion that any song longer than three minutes would not allow enough time each hour for commercials to generate revenue.  Now, of course, artists can make songs of any duration and market them a variety of ways, so the commercial limitations are moot — maybe someone will record all the verses now? Maybe some Renaissance person who does living history, sings and plays an instrument? (Maybe someone already has, but I can’t find it. If you know of such a recording, please send it along!)

Now, it has nothing to do with the Civil War, but, as Longfellow advised, simple is better. (“In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.“)  Here’s some poignant Christmas thoughts equal to Longfellow’s simple eloquence, a Christmas song written exactly 100 years after “Christmas Bells” by the American bard of the 20th Century, Willie Nelson, and performed by American troubadour Roy Orbison:  “Pretty Paper.”

Just because.

Footnote: My publication schedule has been disrupted recently and will continue to be disrupted: I’ve been doing extensive home remodeling and reorganization in anticipation of a period of enforced inactivity starting Dec. 18, when I get a new knee.  I should be good to go by spring drill, but in the meantime I may be just too damned grumpy to write anything for a few weeks.  We’ll see. 


Thank Sarah Hale for your holiday

The real story of Thanksgiving

There were Thanksgiving celebrations before Oct. 3, 1863, but the important thing for Civil War replicators who want to be accurate and informative is that it wasn’t a national holiday until that date. Secretary of State William Seward wrote a proclamation making what had been a local observance a national one instead, and President Abraham Lincoln issued it as a proclamation.

But the real credit goes to a woman, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale.

And here’s the most important knowledge you can have as a War of the Rebellion living historian and educator: Hale had been campaigning for a national day of thanksgiving for years, in a deliberate attempt to defuse the polarization of the country that led to the Civil War.

Here’s Lincoln’s proclamation:

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

And here’s Hale’s letter:

Philadelphia, Sept. 28th 1863.


Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book”, to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and — as I trust — even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.

Sarah Josepha Hale. Note that it’s an autographed, printed image – she was a celebrity!

You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

Enclosed are three papers (being printed these are easily read) which will make the idea and its progress clear and show also the popularity of the plan.

For the last fifteen years I have set forth this idea in the “Lady’s Book”, and placed the papers before the Governors of all the States and Territories — also I have sent these to our Ministers abroad, and our Missionaries to the heathen — and commanders in the Navy. From the recipients I have received, uniformly the most kind approval. Two of these letters, one from Governor (now General) Banks and one from Governor Morgan are enclosed; both gentlemen as you will see, have nobly aided to bring about the desired Thanksgiving Union.

But I find there are obstacles not possible to be overcome without legislative aid — that each State should, by statute, make it obligatory on the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, as Thanksgiving Day; — or, as this way would require years to be realized, it has ocurred to me that a proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest and most fitting method of National appointment.

I have written to my friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward, and requested him to confer with President Lincoln on this subject As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag — could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.

Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.

An immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments, also to anticipate the early appointments by Governors.

Excuse the liberty I have taken

With profound respect

Yrs truly

Sarah Josepha Hale,

Editress of the “Ladys Book” 

Note the dates: Hale’s letter is written Sept. 28, 1863; Lincoln’s proclamation is dated Oct. 3, 1863.

Many readers will already know what the “Lady’s Book” is:  Hale was editor  (“editress”, I learned something today) of Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book for 40 years. It was the “mother” of every women’s magazine published ever since.

And just one more thing for your use in presenting history to the public:  She wrote the poem, later a nursery song, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  Here’s more about her.    Oh, and here’s the words to the poem.

“Mary had a little lamb”

By Sarah Josepha Hale  
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.
And so the teacher turned it out,
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear.
Why does the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry;
Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,
The teacher did reply.

And one more factoid:  The song was the first one ever “recorded.”  That happened in 1877 and the person doing the recording was Thomas Edison. The original is lost, but here’s a 1927 “reenactment” by Edison himself.

And here’s some information on how Thanksgiving translated into meals for soldiers and sailors in 1864.

Here’s more, from the late Virginia Mescher:  Thanksgiving.

And here’s your youtube bonus for committing all that to memory: No Thanksgiving is complete until someone says , “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”


Duties of a Private, Part Six

An adventure in stealth

Michael Shaara’s 1975 Pulitzer-winning historical novel, “Killer Angels,” has opening passages in which Longstreet’s spy, Harrison, must cross a Confederate picket line to reach Longstreet on the eve of the battle of Gettysburg.

“And then he struck the picket line. There was a presence in the road, a liquid Southern voice. He saw them outlined in lightning, black ragged figures rising around him. A sudden lantern poured yellow light. He saw one bleak hawkish
grinning face; hurriedly he mentioned Longstreet’s name. With some you postured and with some you groveled and with some you were imperious.
But you could do that only by daylight, when you could see the faces and gauge the reaction. And now he was too tired and cold. He sat and shuddered: an insignificant man on a pale and muddy horse. He turned out to be lucky. There was a patient sergeant with a long gray beard who put him under guard and sent him along up the dark road to Longstreet’s headquarters.”

The value of that passage has been overlooked, because in the movie, with which we are all too familiar,  the process is overshadowed, unfortunately, by the portly body and flowing white beard of the sergeant. His aspect immediately prompted most reenactors and historians to observe that “There is no way that man walked from Virginia.” Even less kind was “Sergeant Santa Claus.”

But Shaara clearly did his research.  What he described is an advanced picket post – not camp guards. It is distinguished in many period references as the “Grand Guard.”

It’s a whole different ballgame, and stealth is a major factor. The three principles of picketing in the expected presence of the enemy include:

  1. Be in a spot where you can see a long distance.
  2. Be in a spot where you are out of sight of the enemy.
  3. Be in a spot where you are in communication with other picket posts and with your supports.

All three are important, but the default rule is ‘it is often better to be unseen than to see far.’  Which explains the pickets rising up out of hiding to confront Harrison. And which explains the different expectations: You are part of a screen to protect your own forces, at some distance from the camps; you are expected to fight if the enemy advances; with good positioning and some luck, you can surprise and capture enemy scouts or patrols who stumble into your picket line and therefore provide information about the enemy.

A word about sources:  Dom Dal Bello’s “Instructions for Guards and Pickets” contains an excellent explanation of how this all works.  If you want to really get into some insightful stuff, Dennis Hart Mahan’s “Out-Post” (1847) and Daniel Butterfield’s “Camp and Outpost Duty” (1862) are what you really ought to spend some time reading.  Yes, the archaic language, odd punctuation and “different” grammar make it hard slogging sometimes, but you will get incredible insights into why some battles evolved the way they did. These are both manuals written by experts to quickly train civilians; Mahan’s cover page specifically says “especially for the use of officers of militia and volunteers.” 

Here’s Butterfield’s schematic of how a brigade Grand Guard is laid out. Note the distances. We need to talk about this!

Note that it’s a schematic: Terrain affects the actual positioning.

An observant person would notice that there are 27 sentinels backed by nine “outposts.” Each sentinel is on post for an hour.  Each of those outposts has six men, three of whom relieve the sentinels each hour.   That’s 81 men up on the bleeding edge.

Behind those are “pickets,” where you can expect to find 81 more muskets in each of the three picket posts.

And behind that is the Grand Guard, with guard headquarters and another 324 muskets, half of whom are under arms for six hours while the other half are not.

That’s a total force, if you’ve been counting, of about 700 officers and muskets.

Clearly, as reenactors, we are not going to be mounting a realistic brigade Grand Guard, since the chance of getting 700 interested Union soldiers and 700 interested Confederate soldiers, plus enough ground in a good location, is pretty much zero.

We need to work it out a different way.

It’s an elaborate enough procedure to set up a grand guard and keep it going for a set amount of time that it would probably be a major part of a reenacting experience. And we would probably be able to sustain only the sentinels themselves and their immediate supports. And we’d have to “agree” with our opposing force that the area of contact for the duration of the Grand Guard would be defined. (I remember one event where a Rambo wanna-be was proud because he’d simply gone around the end of our picket line to “infiltrate.”)

How big?  Well, how many participants for Grand Guard? If you have 40, then divide it in half (half are sentinels, half are the support).  That’s 20. Divide it by three. (We will use one of the variations that is period correct, three sentinels on one post, with one “on duty” at a time. They kept it to one hour at a time to maintain alertness – once you’ve done this kind of duty, you’ll understand.)  That’s six posts, with two noncoms left over to keep track of things and relieve sentinels for whatever reason.

Back at the support post, there are 18 rifles, two noncoms and the officer of the guard company, which this is.  You could run guard for about six hours without straining anyone, two three-hour shifts.

How big an area?  Well, we don’t always have much choice. But the distance between sentinels should probably be about 50 yards. The support post could be 100 or 150 yards to the rear.

Outer picket line in winter, by Edwin Forbes. Looks cold, doesn’t it?

One alternative is running a 40-man Grand Guard from 6 p.m. to midnight on Saturday night, on ground scouted in daylight so sentinel posts can be identified and a secluded spot for the support post can be found.  (You might consider asking for volunteers for this, with an emphasis on fellows who either live close by or who do not have to drive themselves home a long distance the next day.)

Additionally, if you have a skilled artist, a map made during daylight of the topography and terrain features is very useful. I saw such a map once, with the picket posts and sentinels are clearly mapped.  It was clearly very useful.

Other considerations from here and there in the literature:

◊ This 40-man unit is formed up as the guard company, in two platoons.

◊ It is expected to fight to delay any enemy advance.

◊ The retreat of the sentinels when pushed should not be a route that masks the fire of the reserve.  The Confederate army found out about that at Missionary Ridge.

◊ The reserve should be in a position that is not only out of enemy view, but is also defensible.

◊ No fires on the line of sentinels; masked fires only at the support post.

◊ The “real” army often doubled the men on the sentinel line at nightfall, and established a system where two of the three men on the sentinel posts walked to meet the “walking sentinel” from the next post over, and back, while one man remained immobile.  That compensated for the lack of visibility in darkness; and the mission shifted away from possibly surprising a spy like Harrison or an enemy patrol or an enemy deserter to actively screening to prevent infiltration.

A reenactor-based observation:  At a time when we are merging “clubs” at events to create realistically sized companies, we often have spare lieutenants and captains. Making one of them the captain of the Grand Guard company and assigning them to identify sentinel posts and deploy the company accordingly will not only follow period practice (“spare” officers were built into the company structure), it will give them a better taste of “the real thing” than just being file closers.

Featured photo:  Yes, it’s a staged photo, but it apparently shows a small Union support post of six or seven men plus an officer, who are on red-hot alert.  The two prone men are drawing a bead, and there are two men ready with loaded muskets if it turns out to be a real push by the enemy. The actual line of sentinels may be ahead of them, or this may be the actual sentinel post.   They varied their system to account for terrain and changing tactics – during Meade’s advance in the Overland Campaign in 1864, for instance, Confederates had developed a ‘seine trawl’ raiding system that would see a line of Confederates swoop perpendicularly down a line of lone sentinels and snatch them up, gaining information on what forces they faced.  A sentinel post set up like the one depicted would be a countermeasure to such a tactic.  (Such a tactic apparently swept up my great grandfather in June 1864 at Barker’s Mill, Va., when he was on sentinel. He spent the next six months at Libby, Andersonville and Florence prisons.)




Duties of a Private, Part 5

Camp guard duty: More than pretty poses.

What the heck does a soldier do on guard duty?  Not a whole lot of people seem to know, judging from experiences over the years.  A wake-up call at this year’s Cedar Creek kind of made the difference between going through the motions and doing it with purpose:  We had a purpose, making sure no one came into our camp to drop off another “device” and nobody left camp to get it off their person before the State Police came around (which they never did).

Guard, sketch by Edwin Forbes

We had specific, non-period duties for several hours: “Nobody in, nobody out, if you’re defied by someone or uncertain, call for the corporal of the guard.” It was kind of fun, I got to shock hell out of a drunken miscreant from the next camp over who was wasting a unique experience by rendering himself staggeringly insensible. He  looked up from his pumpkin flask of Mother’s Despair to find me looking grim with fixed bayonet.  “Oh,” he said.  “OH!”   And he wandered away toward the sinks to offload and is probably telling people he saw a ghost.  I also challenged a two-star who abandoned the possibility of pulling rank when he figured out we weren’t playing.

So, this week:  Police guard.  That is, guarding a camp.  Much different than guarding against the enemy with pickets and reserves and whatnot, but something we may find ourselves doing more often.

Edwin Forbes sketch

In last week’s blog post we formed the guard company out of delegates from each company in our battalion — three times as many muskets as there will be guard posts.  Each of the three “shifts” will serve one-third of its guard duty time actually on guard posts, with sentinels actually on their posts for one hour at a time (or two, but no more). Another third is under arms but not at posts – this group is stationed at the guard company headquarters and is available for guard-related details like escorting civilian visitors to your camp, running messages, taking dinner to the fellows on guard, relieving a guard who needs to visit the sinks.

The classic duties of all sentinels:  Protect property, salute all officers, give the alarm in case of fire, enemy, or trouble, report all violations of the Articles of War, regulations, or camp orders.  At night, all sentinels get the added duty of challenging all who approach (including officers) and of holding all who don’t have the countersign for an examination by the guard company commander.

Each sentinel can also have special orders for his particular post; I’ll use a modern example.  “Let no spectators approach the staff’s horses.”  The sentinel must, when relieved, let his relief know the wording and reasoning of the special orders. (“Reasoning: One of the horses is extremely skittish.”) Quietly. I’m against more than the necessary amount of voice, as a general principle, but guard duty requires quiet, so as not to give an advantage to anyone trying to penetrate the guard line.  That is especially true when relaying the countersign, which is simply the word that allows someone to pass the guard line.

Posts can be stationary or walking on a “beat,” also made clear during posting and relief of sentinels.

Note that the regimental leadership needs to have a sense of purpose for the posting of the guard, and expectations need to be spelled out all the way down the line to the man with the weapon. Otherwise it becomes ornamental, not functional.  Or, worse, dysfunctional. Oh, wait, you didn’t want the sentinels to challenge spectators, only period civilians? Well, you should have said so before your guard company pissed off 14 people!  Got it?

Aside:  You could, with enough people and planning and event literature spelling it out, challenge spectators at the perimeter and call the corporal of the guard for an “escort” which is actually a soldier who will give the spectators a guided tour of your camp.  That, however, presumes that your camp is filled with soldiers doing soldierly things, not sitting under the captain’s fly drinking coffee.  By the way, have you gotten rid of all those fly side-poles yet?


Now, how do you post and relieve sentinels?  Here’s the functional principles:

  1. When the guard is initially posted, it is best if done by the officer, the sergeant, the corporal of that shift, and the corporal of the NEXT shift.  Each post is given a number (so that when calling the corporal of the guard, it’s “Corporal of the Guard! Post Number Three!” or whatever.  Now the officer of the guard, the sergeant, and the next-up corporal know where the posts are.
  2. When one-third of the time allotted for guard has passed, the next shift is formed up and marched off, with its corporal and the corporal of the NEXT shift.  The detail is marched up to within a few  yards of the sentinel to be relieved, and halted. Then the first soldier in line and the corporal march up to the sentinel to get the special orders and post number sorted.  Then the relieved guard falls in at the back of the detail; when all the assignments are made, the detail now consists of the relieved guards, who are marched to the guard company headquarters and permitted to stand down.
  3. The “standard” is two hours on post. Since we have other things to do, modify it as you see fit.  (I think the original “two hours” was about as much time as the leadership thought the average soldier could remain alert without surrendering to the irresistible lethargy of utter boredom.)
Guard at the commissary. Sketch by William Henry Jackson, 44th Massachusetts, who went on to become a famous photographer.

Stuff we worry about maybe too much

Look, I’m all about the book, but sometimes we can’t see the forest for the damned trees.  Too much attention to what the book says can take the fun out of this soldier stuff. And there’s documentation for what you’re going to read next:  So:

  1. Yes, you are supposed to report for guard duty in heavy marching order. That meant, 1861-65, a packed knapsack, haversack, rations, water, ammunition.
    Really? This is a Union soldier on guard duty in 1863. I’ll bet III Corps… Note the weapon is on the ground, no canteen, and is that even a cartridge box under his fatigue coat?

    Essentially you are ready to march off if the regiment suddenly gets orders to move. However, there are many sketches and some photos of guards on post who are clearly not wearing full marching order.  Presumably it is somewhere at their post, just not worn.  Do we need to do that at an event where we know we are “parked” for the weekend?  Probably not. Do we need to do it if guard mount is a featured part of our living history, done for ourselves and spectators? By all means.

  2. No, you are not supposed to let your weapon touch the ground while actually on post as sentinel.  Again, there are a great many sketches and some photos showing that this, also, was not followed with any degree of enthusiasm.
  3. Yes, there are different salutes for various ranks of officers who may come into view. Do the best you can, and know that they will be tickled to get any salute. Shoulder arms for officers up to captain, present arms for higher ranks. Read Dom’s pamphlet or Kautz’s “Customs of Service” if you want to refine that.
  4. The challenge in some manuals is “Who comes there?”  In others it is “Who goes there.”  I favor “comes” because presumably the person challenged is coming into camp. Your mileage may vary. And come to ‘arms port,’ which may not be in your tactics book’s manual of arms, but is the correct position. At night challenge when the person is too close to run away without getting shot but not close enough to wrestle you for your gun.  And if he does, you’ve got two hands on it if you’re at “arms port.” Not likely, but it’s just as easy to do it as not.
  5. Fixed bayonets.  Again, sketches and photos, some yes, some no. I find folks in our “hobby” tend to recognize that someone with a fixed bayonet is on some kind of duty, so I say “Do it.”

Next week: Pickets.  Picket duty is to camp guard as skirmish duty is to line-of-battle drill. There’s more to consider and it’s interesting.

Featured image above the column: Another sketch by William Henry Jackson, who apparently had a Civil War with not much going on except guard duty.

Duties of a Private, Part 4

Guard Mount: We can do it!

The amount of ritual involved in guard mount can be mind-boggling. If you want to get right down into the details, by all means get Dom Dal Bello’s “Instructions for Guards and Pickets.” It spells it out right down to distances involved in the guard mounting parade. Highly recommended, lots of citations and diagrams.  Here’s a link.

(Featured photo, above:  The 114th Pennsylvania,  the Army of the Potomac headquarters regiment in April 1864, goes through a full parade of the guard company. The photographer caught them at the moment the officer and noncoms are moving past the sergeant major  to face the adjutant, at which time they will be assigned positions in the 60-man guard company at the rear.) The music is massed at the company’s right flank.)

At our events we are as short on time as an army on the move, even though our camps are heavy. So I’m going to address the principles behind the guard mounting process and isolate the most important features, as an army on the move did.

Original guard mount involved a formal parade, with a band or massed field music, much like the parade we do each morning at events.  Why the pomp and circumstance? First, to make sure those going on guard are ready — full marching order, functional weapons, healthy.  Second, to assemble a functional guard company from men sent from all the companies in the regiment. Third, to make sure the guard company rank and file are in the presence of the only men from whom they will take orders while on the guard company:  Battalion (or brigade) commander, officer of the day, guard company commander. Fourth, to impress upon the men that the somewhat boring role as guard or picket is extremely important.

Here’s the process:  Musician’s call, 30 minutes before guard mount; Assembly of the Guard, 15 minutes before the guard mount; at guard mount, Adjutant’s Call is beaten.  At Assembly of the Guard, the men assigned to guard duty form on their company parade grounds and are inspected by their first sergeant.  They, along with extra men known as supernumeraries, are marched to the guard assembly point by the first sergeant, who places them on the line, in two ranks, while he is facing the sergeant major, who is on the right front of what will be the guard company. He reports the company and number of men and supernumeraries, and falls in behind his men to await the guard company inspection.  Each incoming squad falls in on the left of the preceding squad.  If there are corporals assigned to guard duty, they form a third rank, in the file closer position. The supernumeraries are behind them, in case they are needed to replace a man found wanting.

All this is under the eye of the adjutant, who is front and center and facing the company.

When all are present and formed up, the sergeant major — who has been eyeballing the men as they arrive and probably spotting problems of preparedness — marches up to the adjutant and reports that the men for guard duty are present – he turns it over to the adjutant.  The adjutant commands “FRONT,” at which time the officer of the guard, and the noncoms, march up to face the adjutant (as in the featured photo, above). He then places them as they would be placed in an infantry company — this is the “default” formation if the company must pull out of the guard posts and become the advance guard for the unexpectedly  moving regiment, or if it must rally and then fight.

The next step is inspection of the weapons by the guard company commander. The company is then presented to the officer of the day, who is also facing the company.

Another photo of the 114th Pennsylvania, showing the music on the guard company’s right, the sergeants about to be presented to the top brass, and the adjutant, officer of the day and probably the colonel facing the guard. One of the purposes of guard mount was to show the sentinels, literally, the officers to whom they should respond during their tour on guard duty. Between new men, sick officers, and rotation of officer of the day, it was no guarantee that a man would even recognize his colonel without this step. It also impressed on the men the importance of what they were doing.

Optional for us at this point is the trooping of the music in front of the guard company, just as for morning or evening parade. Optional for us, also, is marching the company in review before the officer of the day and the colonel. In lieu of the review, it would be a smart adjutant who brought the officer of the day and the colonel down close to the company, put the company commander with them, facing the company, and spelled out that these are the only three officers the members of the guard may take orders from.  We don’t do this often enough to be sure everyone realizes this, that the guard company is now an eleventh company within the battalion and a special tool of the battalion.

The guard is then marched off to the guard post, its operation headquarters for the duration of the tour of guard duty, and sentinels are positioned.

How many in the guard?

This is part of a guard detail, at the guard headquarters at Fort Corcoran December 1865, the 107th United States Colored Troops. In addition to the perfect form on parade rest, take a good look at their faces if you want to see some real attitude. 🙂 There are colorized versions of this out there on the Web, their faces are much more noticeable.

This is based on the number of guard positions the higher command wishes to deploy.  For our normal event camp purposes, since we do not need a fighting reserve and will not be doing this for more than a few hours, we need three times as many privates as there are sentinel postings.  Six posts, for instance, equals 18 rank and file, plus three corporals and one sergeant and one officer. The guard company will be divided administratively into three “shifts” of six privates and one corporal; the corporal is the supervisor.  The general rule is one third on actual sentinel duty, one third under arms and ready to be deployed for various tasks at the guard headquarters, and one third without arms and resting, at the guard headquarters.

Next week:  Positioning the guard; orders given to the guard.

Next year:  A history heavy event, “To the Front: the Last Days of Carolina”. 



Duties of a private, Part 3

Duties in garrison and camp

Do you aspire to be a “thoroughly instructed” Civil War soldier? If so, August V. Kautz, author of “Customs of Service for Noncommissioned Officers and Soldiers,” suggests you familiarize  yourself with all the duties expected of you in camp and garrison.

Kautz’s books were not official manuals. They were private enterprise – advice on how to be a good soldier, intended for the hundreds of thousands of volunteers coming into the Union army from civilian life. There was a presumption on Kautz’s part that these fellows would wish to do well and, if ambitious, advance. And they’d pay money to learn how.

We’ll explore camp and garrison duties and see how living historians might incorporate some of them into weekends.   By all means read Kautz for yourself — I’m stripping it of its original flavor and texture here, to get it down to things we can either do or at least talk knowledgably about to those who visit our events.

First, Kautz says, “be there.”  For everything, including roll calls and drill. In other words, just show up.

Duties are categorized and come around in a cycle and they are prioritized. Number one is guard duty, number two is working parties and number three is “daily duty.”  The first sergeant of your unit keeps track of these details, and assignments for the next day are usually revealed at retreat roll call.

Fatigue detail

This is fatigue duty on steroids. These soldiers are standing in Dutch Gap canal, dug by the Union army to bypass strong Confederate fortifications on the James River east of Richmond, Va. Next time the first sergeant suggests you dig the fire pit deep enough to make it actually effective as a cooking pit, remember this photo and just shut up. It could be a lot worse. This canal, by the way, is now the main channel of the river.

We’re going to leave guard duty until next week, because it’s relatively complicated.  Fatigue duty is not. It is simply the various tasks that need to be undertaken to keep the unit functional, and it’s as applicable to a reenacting unit as it was to a company in 1863. During the war, fatigue duty might involve building trenches, building roads, improving the grounds, etc.  We aren’t going to do much of that at any event, and my own experience is that there are any number of reenactors who really don’t know how to use a shovel. We do, however, have tents to put up and company kitchens to organize, and there’s no reason that can’t be our version of fatigue. It involves a detail of men with a specific assignment, supervised by either an officer or noncommissioned officer.

We could also consider a foraging scenario as a fatigue detail, and it would be one of the exceptions to the rule that fatigue is usually done while not under arms. There can be some interaction with the civilians, here.   Pre-arranged, unless you want a frying pan across the forehead….

Wonderfully enough for some occasions, a fatigue detail experiencing “more than ordinary” fatigue or exposure is entitled to one gill of whisky per man.

Daily duty

We’ll have some trouble with this as reenactors, but it’s important, for our own edification and for living history purposes, to understand what was meant by the term historically.

Daily duty involves an ongoing duty that excuses the soldier from ordinary company duties but does not involve additional pay.  That included, in our time period, company cooks, tailors, clerks, orderlies (not the first sergeant kind). We generally don’t follow that line of reasoning at events, for the simple reason that

muskets are at a premium. Everyone multi-tasks.

For knowledge purposes, there are two other “wrinkles”.

Extra duty

This is a continuous assignment (ten days or more) in the quartermaster, commissary, ordnance, or some other department. Historically extra duty got you extra pay. The job descriptions were mechanic, laborer, teamster, etc.

Detached service

Detached service could involve assignment to build boat frames. We’d call these pontoons; they called them “blanket boats,” a wooden frame around which a large rubber blanket was stretched.

Any duty that takes a soldier away from his company. As we’ll see next week, guard detail is “detached service.”

Blanket boats individually weren’t much, but lashed together they could support considerable weight.

Some of this can be used to enliven the morning report, which, as  you can see, has provision for extra duty, detached duty and daily duty.

Next week, we’ll have some details of mounting a camp guard.  That actually has some modern application now that people are leaving “devices” here and there.



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:

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. 🙂