Top Ten FAQs of Civil War Reenacting

Is that a real fire? Is that a real gun? ARE YOU HOT IN THOSE CLOTHES?

Amy Colleen
Jun 23, 2020 · 10 min read
Wetplate tintype by Victorian Photography Studio.

What’s Civil War reenacting really like?

Is it all Gone With the Wind cosplay and meaningless droning about dates of battles and watching grown men charge each other with smoking weapons on national park grounds?

Some of it, yeah.

Some of it, not so much.

I’ve been involved in American Civil War reenacting since 2013. In that time, I’ve attended battle reenactments, participated in living history programs at historic houses, camped outside museums, and marched in parades. One of my favorite aspects of this hobby is the interaction I have with visitors to these events and the opportunity to answer their questions. Though every person who comes to a museum or battlefield brings their own unique perspective, I’ve noticed a pattern of typical questions over the years.

Some are wackier than others.

Photo: Rob Skeel

The type of reenacting that I do is confined mostly to the “living history” scenario. I do my best to recreate a small snapshot of daily life in the 1860’s for the curious. Since I portray a lower-middle-class, working woman of the Victorian era, I don’t participate actively in battle events, but I demonstrate sewing techniques, basic campfire cooking, and will often show parts of my husband’s “kit” in order to talk about the average enlisted soldier (while he’s off drilling or talking to other visitors). I don’t often participate in “immersion” events (days or weekends in which reenactors and living historians get together to completely immerse themselves in the chosen time period, often in a historic location, and take on first-person characters that they will portray for each other during the entire time), since I prefer the one-on-one interaction and opportunity for public education that comes with public events.

I usually portray a young woman who was previously employed as a seamstress and is now married to a Union soldier. We are members of a reenacting unit which portrays a real Pennsylvania regiment that fought at Gettysburg. This offers lots of opportunities to do events in Gettysburg! I am a non-professional seamstress and make all my own clothing for these events, which is often the focal point of my discussions with visitors. Everyone wants to know what ladies of the time period were really wearing, and what all the layers look like. I’m afraid I disappoint those who came in search of Scarlett O’Hara, but the majority of the people I speak with are interested, teachable, and keen to learn a little more about a time period they may have only briefly studied in history class.

These are the ten questions that I hear most frequently.

Photo: Jill Gormley. Dressed in our “Sunday best” for a Memorial Day parade.

Though I didn’t really organize these questions in order of “heard most” to “heard least,” this is definitely one of the most popular. It used to rattle me. What does it look like I’m doing — fixing an airplane? I’m drying dishes, for Pete’s sake. But once I realized that this was really just a stand-in for “I’m curious about this whole setup, but I’m not really sure how to go about starting a conversation with you,” it got easier to answer.

When a kid asks this, I often step outside my comfort zone and reply in first-person. (Somehow, this is much easier to do with children than with adults.) I talk about how I’m making supper for hungry soldiers and invite them to take a peek at the stew inside the cast-iron kettle over the fire, or I show them the pocket I’m stitching onto an apron and ask them what they might carry in an apron pocket. If they express interest in military accessories which might be lying on a blanket nearby, or a display of photos and artifacts at the table where I’m sitting, I’ll invite them to touch when appropriate and ask for their opinion on what an object might be before launching into an explanation.

If an adult is asking, I tend to frame the answer in the form of, “I’m doing such-and-such, which is representative of the way that women would have done this during the Civil War,” and follow up with open-ended questions that will pave the way for further conversation. Many people are unsure how to continue a conversation or to ask questions when surrounded by unfamiliar objects and people, and taking the lead in conversation helps to warm them to the topic. Asking where a visitor is from can lead a dialogue about how travel has changed since the 1860’s, for example.

The answer depends on the season. I often lead with “Sometimes,” or “No more than you are in yours,” if the person seems to be just asking as a joke. (Because, of course, any person in more than a tank top and shorts in THIS heat is going to be hot!)

This, however, is a question that often is just a stepping stone for asking about clothing in general. What people wore a century and a half ago is one of the most intriguing aspects of a living history presentation — styles have changed, but everyone still wears clothes, making them a point of relevance to which we can all relate. Therefore, I like to answer this by giving a brief rundown of the layers that I’m wearing and the function each one serves, pausing to explain that natural fibers do help to keep the skin cooler than synthetic ones, due to sweat evaporation and the body’s natural cooling processes. At some events, I’m able to bring spare articles of clothing that I can let visitors see and handle, which tends to take away some of the mystery surrounding corsets — more on that below— and hoopskirts.

If the person asking is truly interested, this topic is one on which I could speak and answer questions for hours, so it often leads to a much longer discussion. Many people want to know how frequently clothes would have been changed, what was used to guard against body odor in the days before deodorant, how laundry was done, whether everything worn was hand-sewn, and why soldiers wore coats of heavy wool even during battles. (Wool is naturally flame-retardant, a necessity in the days of muskets that could shoot a column of fire more than five feet long!)

I can indeed! Some people express shock that I’m even wearing a corset, since they may have just seen me stoking a fire or lifting a heavy pot full of dishwater, but this is a great opportunity to bust some myths about supportive Victorian undergarments. Explaining that my corset serves as a foundation garment that offers bust support and back support for my heavy layers of clothing, not for pinching my waist into unrealistic proportions, can raise a few eyebrows. Hollywood has a lot to answer for, but luckily I have a lot of primary sources to back up my explanation of a corset’s functionality.

When I point out to visitors that people who wear a back brace do not find their breathing impeded, this often helps with understanding how a corset functions, feels, and fits. My lungs aren’t squished, and though what I’m wearing is certainly more restrictive than a loose T-shirt, it is actually quite comfortable for a long day and provides better bust support and automatic back-straightening than any bra ever could.

Yes and no… sort of? This question is generally directed at my husband, since I don’t carry a reproduction weapon, but I’ve answered it many a time myself. The guns we use for drilling and demonstrations are real guns: exact replicas of mid-19th-century firearms. Yes, they do function correctly and can fire bullets, and no, they are NOT toys! They are never loaded in camp (no exceptions) and cannot be handled or fired by visitors.

Are they “authentic”? If this question means “is it an original piece that existed during the Civil War and was fired in battle,” then no. The only pieces that fit that description are in museums or private collections these days. But if the question means “does this piece look like and operate in the same way as a gun from the Civil War,” then yes.

And it’s heavier than it looks — ten to twelve pounds, five feet long! Not too bad when you’re just hefting it in your hand, but pretty exhausting if you were carrying it on a 20-mile march.

We do! Most of the time, anyway. This is a teachable moment because it offers an opportunity to explain how soldiers would have camped together, but a quick reminder that women would usually not have stayed overnight in the camps. (More on that below.) Many people have questions about the waterproof capabilities of canvas tents, how these would have been packed and carried, and how many men could fit in a tent. Our modern concepts of personal space are definitely challenged by the army efficiency of the 1860’s (four men to a small A-frame tent of approximately 30 square feet, for example).

For practicality’s sake, and sometimes as an attempt to capture more authenticity in the experience, my husband and I usually do camp overnight when we are at multi-day events. However, many older reenactors choose to take advantage of local motels rather than sleep on the damp grass in a wool blanket, and I can’t say I blame them.

Technically this is two questions, but I treat them as one because the second always comes on the heels of the first. There are only a few legitimate functions that a woman could have served in an army camp: an officer’s wife who might have stayed with him in nicer lodging than the enlisted men’s tents that we are showing, a laundress who would have been an official employee on the payroll, or the local wife of an enlisted man making a temporary and brief visit. In general, women of any respectable reputation did not stay in the army camps, nor were “camp followers” a common occurrence.

Women did serve in large numbers as nurses in hospitals, but again, would not have had a likely presence in a camp. Their duties were carried out in the large army hospitals in the cities. Or, in the case of the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, women also tended the sick and injured in makeshift hospitals in local barns and schools. If the fighting came to them, they stepped in to help, but for the most part (with a few notable exceptions such as Marie Tepe, a vivandiere who did indeed travel alongside the 114th Pennsylvania) women were not present on the front lines of battle.

This one can be a loaded question, depending on who is asking. As aforementioned, I participate mostly in events in Pennsylvania, a solidly Union state where one of the turning-point battles of the war was fought. The number of visitors at said events who harbor a secret or not-so-secret sympathy with the Confederacy, whether accompanied by an actual Southern heritage or not, is a little baffling.

But the incentive for this question is varied. Some visitors are truly just curious and have not differentiated the blue Federal (Union) uniforms worn by the men in our camp from the gray and butternut attire of the Confederate side, or have not noticed the 35-star American flag hanging prominently in our camp.

Others are a little more hostile, and are spoiling for an argument if they can get us to say something uncomplimentary about the South. I try to handle this one as tactfully as possible, explaining that we portray a Union Pennsylvania regiment that fought for the North, and that the majority of Pennsylvanians supported the Federal cause during the war, usually citing the issue of slavery. If the issue is pressed, I have a wealth of primary sources to back up the claim that yes, indeed, the war was ultimately about slavery, and I am not terribly interested in hearing about how your great-great-grandpappy was just in it to protect his states’ rights.

Usually, people are fairly civil in this conversation, but every so often you get a neo-Confederate outlier who wants to tell you that slavery wasn’t so terrible, Abraham Lincoln was a tyrannical crook, and modern “political correctness” has rewritten history to make the poor victimized South look bad. There isn’t much that can be said offhand to dissuade this type (suggesting that they read the actual original Articles of Secession never ends well). Reverting to a first-person bewilderment, in the character of a woman from the 1860’s who has no idea who is going to win the war in the end, usually serves to end the conversation. And if that fails, I usually pretend that some element of dinner is burning.

That… isn’t a question.

But if you’re really and truly interested, nothing would make me happier than to give you some pointers and tips on getting involved!

Yes.

Another query that seems inane but is acting on behalf of other, unasked questions. Usually, what the inquirer really wants to know is what the fire is to be used for, whether that is real food that is being cooked, how people started fires in the days before safety matches and grill lighters, and whether whatever is simmering in the pot is available for taste-testing. (It is not.) So I try to steer this question into those channels instead, while assuring listeners that this is indeed a real fire, and no, they should not allow their precious munchkins to toddle near it unsupervised.

Still not a question.

Wrong war.

Are you okay?

The Victorian Lady’s Column

History, fashion, and modern education on women in the 19th century.

Amy Colleen

Written by

Historical costumer, fifty-cent-word purveyor, aspiring humorist, and Oxford comma fan. History, books, & musings of a new mom. Twitter: @sewistwrites

The Victorian Lady’s Column

Exploring all things related to women’s lives in the 19th century, through literature, history, and educational fun.

Amy Colleen

Written by

Historical costumer, fifty-cent-word purveyor, aspiring humorist, and Oxford comma fan. History, books, & musings of a new mom. Twitter: @sewistwrites

The Victorian Lady’s Column

Exploring all things related to women’s lives in the 19th century, through literature, history, and educational fun.

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