Saturday, August 27, 2016

Open Project: Decoding Civil War Telegrams

Want to be a history detective?  A collection of over 15,900 telegrams and codebook pages containing messages to President Lincoln, known as the Thomas T. Eckert Papers, have been digitized by Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in one of the most massive and ambitious archival projects for the Civil War. You can participate in this effort by helping to decipher them on this Zooniverse project website. It walks you through the entire process and the interactive interface is easy to use.

Cursive handwriting is not being taught to kids in schools anymore, so future generations may be unable to read anything before the age of printers! That's a scary thought. (My own handwriting in grade school was heinously bad, so in a way I can understand their decision). It's important that we start rewriting historical documents now or history could be lost forever.

Here's an example below that I just transcribed. No one has read this message in 153 years. If you are good at reading calligraphy and would like to help with this open crowd-sourced project, you can either create a free account and discuss in the forum, or you can work anonymously. Your efforts will help historians and researchers better understand how battles unfolded by providing access to an untapped resource for field intelligence!

New York City July 13, 1863
For Col Jas B Fry Prov.Marshal
"A mob estimated at from ten to thirty thousand men has assailed & destroyed the office of the Provost Marshal for the ninth district. The guard was completely routed & many injured. Gen'l (Abbott?) has ordered into the city all available forces but they will not exceed five hundred men of all kinds not more than two hundred regulars. The mob threaten destruction of all Gov't offices. I have sent all the enrollment papers to Governors Island. The demonstration is extremely dangerous. I respectfully suggest that a force sufficient to quell the mob be immediately sent to me as nearly all the effective militia Reg'ts are absent & those remaining here cannot be relied upon. Col. Nugent is now at the scene of the disturbance. Signed Samuel B Glassey, Deputy

Friday, August 12, 2016

Our National Anthem's Tune Started as a British Drinking Song

How many modern Americans know the original song the "Star-Spangled Banner" was based on? Francis Scott Key wrote his moving poem after watching the siege of Fort McHenry in 1814, at his joy of seeing the flag still flying over the fort.  The tune he stole for it, though, had origins less noble than you might imagine.

It was originally called "To Anachreon in Heaven," dedicated to an ancient Greek erotic poet who was particularly fond of feasts dedicated to Bacchus and their accompanying "wine & wenches", and was a popular British drinking song the colonists brought to America.

Hum along to the tune of this song and you will find it mighty familiar.

Words: Ralph Tomlinson
Tune: John Stafford Smith, 1771 (?)

The song was written for the Anacreontic Society, probably around 1771. The tune was was once thought to have been written by Dr Thomas Arnold, but is now thought to have been written "collectively" by members of the society, led by John Stafford Smith (who now usually gets the credit). The society met every two weeks to get drunk, sing songs and to indulge in some debauchery. Anacreon himself was a Greek poet from about 570 BC who was noted for his erotic poetry (in the Anacreontic style that he established) and his drinking songs.

source: words changed slightly over the years but this is the well researched, cross-referenced version from the Wiki article:

To Anacreon in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That he their Inspirer and Patron would be;
When this answer arriv'd from the Jolly Old Grecian
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
"no longer be mute,
"I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
"And, besides I'll instruct you, like me, to intwine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."
The news through Olympus immediately flew;
When Old Thunder pretended to give himself Airs.
"If these Mortals are suffer'd their Scheme to pursue,
"The Devil a Goddess will stay above Stairs.
"Hark! already they cry,
"In transports of Joy,
"Away to the Sons of Anacreon we'll fly,[31]
"And there, with good Fellows, we'll learn to intwine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine.
"The Yellow-Hair'd God and his nine fusty Maids,
"From Helicon's banks will incontinent flee,[32]
"Idalia will boast but of tenantless Shades,
"And the bi-forked Hill a mere Desart will be
"My Thunder no fear on't,
"Shall soon do it's Errand,
"And dam'me! I'll swinge the Ringleaders, I warrant.
"I'll trim the young Dogs, for thus daring to twine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."
Apollo rose up, and said, "Pry'thee ne'er quarrel,
"Good King of the Gods, with my Vot'ries below:
"Your Thunder is useless"—then shewing his Laurel,
Cry'd "Sic evitabile fulmen,[33] you know!
"Then over each head
"My Laurels I'll spread;
"So my Sons from your Crackers no Mischief shall dread,
"Whilst snug in their Club-Room, they jovially twine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."
Next Momus got up with his risible Phiz,
And swore with Apollo he'd chearfully join—
"The full Tide of Harmony still shall be his,
"But the Song, and the Catch, and the Laugh shall be mine.
"Then, Jove, be not jealous
"Of these honest fellows."
Cry'd Jove, "We relent, since the Truth you now tell us;
"And swear by Old Styx, that they long shall intwine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."
Ye Sons of Anacreon, then join Hand in Hand;
Preserve Unanimity, Friendship, and Love!
'Tis your's to support what's so happily plann'd;
You've the sanction of Gods, and the Fiat of Jove.
While thus we agree,
Our Toast let it be.
May our Club flourish happy, united, and free!
And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine.

In an early scene of Turn: Washington's Spies you can see a bunch of British officers merrymaking and singing this song. I thought it was interesting to hear our nation's most recognizable tune sung by men of a foreign army with words unfamiliar to Americans.

The practice of stealing the melody from a popular song to write new lyrics was very common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of the hundreds of marching songs written during the Civil War, a large chunk of them were set to the same tune that everybody knew. ("The Ants Go Marching" is a more recent version of the one that seemed to be most frequently used) 

This has continued today, if you consider the entire foundation of Weird Al Yankovic's music career. And, as juvenile an example as this is...the Barney the Dinosaur theme song is based off "Yankee Doodle," a tune which is now almost 250 years old.

Art imitates art. Always.

Monday, August 8, 2016

I am still alive...

I must apologize how this page has been so dead for months. I have actually not gone to a single battle since April; my civil war adventures have been put on hiatus while I focus on doing World War II reenactments. (I bought a rifle this year and finally started to participate instead of watching from the sidelines). In July I started volunteer work & interpretation at Fort Delaware, and I've been doing that about 3 to 4 days a week. 

 Fort Delaware is on Pea Patch Island, in the middle of the river between Delaware and New Jersey. It was built as a river defense fort, but never used as such and instead served as a prison from 1861-1864 for Confederate soldiers. Many rebels captured during the battle of Gettysburg were incarcerated here, including General Pettigrew, after his defeat at Pickett's Charge. All told about 20,000 people stayed on the island, and over 2,000 of the prisoners died, mostly of disease rather than failed escapes. (These were light compared to the death toll at Andersonville). 

Most of what I do at the fort is give equipment and weapons talks in the ordnance supply room when I'm not acting as a prison guard.

Sorry, but no pictures. All the interpreters do first-person impressions of 1864 and we have to stay in character, so only the public has the photo opportunity. This weekend will be a POW event at the fort, with more reenactors in attendance to act as prisoners. The event has been well advertized so hopefully it will draw some crowds. 

I don't know when the next battle reenactment I can attend will be. Maybe not until next season. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Gloomy Gus soldier

"...There were a few men in every organization who engaged in no pastimes and joined in no social intercourse. These men were irreproachable as soldiers, it may have been, doing without grumbling everything that was expected of them in the line of military or fatigue duty, but they seemed shut up within an impenetrable shell, and would lie on their blankets silent while all others joined in the social round; or, perhaps, would get up and go out of the tent as if its lively social atmosphere was uncongenial, and walk up and down the parade or company street alone. Should you address them, they would answer pleasantly, but in mono-syllables; and if the conversation was continued, it must be done in the same way. They could not be drawn out. They would cook by themselves, eat by themselves, camp by themselves on the march, --in fact, keep by themselves at all times as much as possible.  Guard duty was the one occupation which seemed most suited to their natures, for it provided them with the exclusiveness and comparative solitude that their peculiar mental condition craved."
 John D. Billings, Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life, 1887

I think the entire first year of reenacting I hardly spoke to anybody. And I loved the overnight sentry duty.  Most nights in camp I could be found sitting alone at 4:00 in the morning in front of a blazing fire, leaning against my rifle with the glow from orange embers reflected in my eyes, doing what war veterans call the "ten thousand yard stare"...brooding, silent and mysterious.  

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Battle of Neshaminy

The Battle of Neshaminy was fought over the course of three brutally cold spring days in April 1994. What began as a small skirmish over a parking violation erupted into a full scale engagement between three 10-man Brigades of New Jersey Confederates and an entire Federal division of 50 angry Northeast Philadelphians.

Some of the fiercest fighting occurred in the vicinity of the mulched area where the swing sets now stand by the picnic pavilion. The much sought-after strategic rally point known as the "Port-of-Pottay" changed hands over thirty times during the course of the two and a half day battle. There was a lull in the fighting in the afternoon on the First Day, when the 2:00 battle was called off on account of some light drizzle. The men dug entrenchments and huddled together under rubber blankets for protection from the prolonged bombardment which lasted until nightfall.

A solitary drinking fountain on a concrete pedestal marks the exact spot where a Union Lieutenant Colonel named Bob twisted his ankle while picking up a dropped ice cream cone. His wound was treated by a veterinarian named Barbara, who had an Ace bandage and some Neosporin in her fanny pack, which saved the man's leg from being amputated. He was rushed to a nearby doctor's office and nursed back to health. It was the most severe casualty of the fighting on the Second Day, for which he later received the Congressional Red Badge of Courage.

It ended with a formal surrender and mutual cease-fire on Sunday evening, as both sides remembered they had to go to work on Monday. It was decided that in future reenactments of this historic battle, the Federal encampment would be located as far away from the Port of Pottay as possible, while the Confederate encampment would be directly next to it, as postwar reparations for the humiliating Confederate defeat suffered just two weeks earlier at the Battle of the Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot.

 Please give us one weekend of your time each year, and join us on this preserved and protected historic battlefield, to pay respects to these brave men in blue and gray who shed their sweat and selflessly laid their admission tickets on the registration picnic table of freedom.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Don't study it, live it!

"I learned far more about the Civil War in just four short years of reenacting than I did in sixteen years of reading about it in school textbooks. History books can't tell us what a wool uniform feels like in July, what rough leather shoes feel like after a long march in the mud, the weight of a rifle in your hands, to sit on a horse and feel the raw muscle power between your heavy a knapsack is, what gunpowder smells like; the beating of drums in your chest, or what a cannon firing a one-pound powder charge actually sounds (and feels) like.

Reading about abstract numbers of casualties and dates, or 'General Lee's division did this while General Meade's division did that and lost xx,xxx men with x,xxx wounded' is so far removed from reality that the average person will never understand it. You want to know what it was like? Go out and live it for a few days.

Those dry, snobby academics who say living historians are idiots, that history should be buried in the ground and forgotten, or entombed in the rotting pages of old memoirs on dusty bookshelves, are the reason why the people of today are so disconnected from their past. When was the last time you saw a kid reading a paper book instead of staring into a screen? They have really short attention spans. They want something to interact with, something to engage the senses. 150 years ago or a 1500 years ago, to them it doesn't matter without an experience. They'll never understand or respect what their ancestors struggled through without a chance to taste, hear, touch, smell, see - and experience- some of it for themselves."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Beer & Pretzels in the 1860's: An Authentic American Treat

Anybody who drinks beer likes it with pretzels, right?  Beer and pretzels are just made for each other. Well I have good news for you Civil War pards out there: There are two authentic brands of beer and pretzels that were around in the 1860's still being sold today.

Yuengling is America's oldest traditional brewing company. It was founded in 1829. I have heard stories that Yuengling Traditional Lager was the beer of choice among Union soldiers. (See, it even has an eagle on the label and everything!) It was particularly enjoyed by the Germans and Irishmen of the Delaware Infantry regiments, and no doubt by many other groups of fighting men.

I mean, just look at the label for Yuengling. It screams "Union Forever" doesn't it? You don't get any more Yankee than a beer with a big eagle on every bottle. It was brewed right here in Pennsylvania, too.  It doesn't get any more authentic than this.

Here is an interesting article about a Yuengling brewery from the period. (Source:

In the 1860s, James River Brewery Could Roll Out the Barrels of Brews Down by the River

Brewery Tunnel. Beer ad. Nineteenth Century cooler: The image on the left is one of the James River Steam Brewery tunnels opening onto the James River stands idle and is filled with water that has seeped in. The image on the right is an ad for David Yuengling's beer.
Rocketts Landing on the James River right at the Richmond/Henrico line has undergone a number of transitions. The area's development began with a ferry service operated by Robert Rocketts in 1730, for transporting goods. Through the nineteenth century it housed a number of industrial enterprises like the Richmond Cedar Works, whose building still stands with its identifying sign repainted on the building after its conversion to condominiums. Besides upscale condominiums, the 20-block mixed use Village at Rocketts Landing has become the site of swimming facilities, walking trails, restaurants and boat docks. But there is also a crumbling remnant of its industrial past waiting to be brought back├ó€“the site, or at least what is left of the site, of the James River Steam Brewery.
In 1866, David Yuengling, Jr., son of the founder of "America's Oldest Brewery," established the brewery at 912 East Main Street near what was then Wharf Street. Its location seemed well suited for the enterprise because river boats could tie up at the brewery's dock and trains could stop along the railroad to load the beer from the vaulted tunnels that served to keep the brew cool in the days before refrigeration. 

The operation seemed to be rather successful, and in 1867, the Richmond Whig indicated that it produced 400 barrels (12,400 gallons) per day. And many enjoyed their share of the 400 barrels, as Alexandria's Daily State Journal of September 15, 1873, reported: "Alois Rick, the well known pavier, has returned from the Vienna exposition and resumed operations in the line of his profession. He says the Vienna beer is not as good as Yuengling's Richmond article." However, Yuengling found the endeavor disappointing and sold the operation to the Richmond Cedar Works in 1878.
According to the April 3, 1883, Staunton Spectator, Yuengling complained, "We make the best beer in the world in the United States. . . After the war I went to Richmond, Va., and put $500,000 in a brewery, and came back without a dollar, and by hard labor have made another in New York - the farmers of Virginia forced their taxes upon the manufacturer, making me pay eighty-five cents a barrel on my beer and admitting distant bring beer from New York and Baltimore at less than they would carry it twenty miles out of Richmond for me. The brewery is there yet, idle, and no brewer has been successful in the south. They won't drink beer."

Brewery ruins. Beer ruins.
A fire destroyed the building in 1891, and the cellars have stood vacant since then. There are four vaulted tunnels - the largest of which is ten to seventeen feet wide and 146 feet long - and water seeps into them flooding the floor. The state's Department of Historic Resources board voted to add the remnants of the brewery to the Virginia Landmarks Register and nominate it to the federal list to protect historic and archaeological resources. Possible plans for the cellars involve the developer's hope to convert them to a restaurant - a use that almost brings the tunnels' lives full circle.

Brewery location. The ad shows the layout and location of David Yuengling, Jr's James River Steam Brewery.

On to pretzels.  I was walking by a catered luncheon at work today and someone offered me a small snack bag of Tom Sturgis Artisan pretzels. I had never had this particular brand of pretzels before. The info on the package jumped out at me:

Apparently, Sturgis made the first family-owned pretzel factory in America. In 1861, no less. Seeing the "150th Anniversary" logo in the corner, I decided to hop online and do some research. Check out this blurb from the Sturgis company website:

The tasty baked snack food that we know as the pretzel had its origin in southern Europe about 610 AD. The first pretzels were soft pretzels. These dough treats were given to the children as rewards for learning their prayers. The familiar shape of a twisted pretzel represents arms crossed over the chest in prayer. Pretiola (as they were called back then) means "little rewards" in Latin.

Eventually soft pretzels came to America via Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The first American commercial pretzel bakery was founded by Julius Sturgis in Lititz, PA in 1861. At that time, the crispy (hard) pretzel was developed by Julius.

Julius Sturgis died in 1897, but his descendants continued the pretzel baking tradition. In 1946 Marriott D. "Tom" Sturgis, grandson of Julius, founded the Tom Sturgis Pretzel Company after spending years learning pretzel baking from family members. In time Marriott’s son, Tom joined the company and now Tom’s son, Bruce has taken a place at Tom Sturgis Pretzels. Five generations of pretzel baking has made the Sturgis family the "First Family of Pretzels."

Pretzels were originally made by hand from start to finish. As technology progressed, parts of the procedure were mechanized. Through all these changes (from hand twisting at a top speed of 40 pretzels per minute to extrusion of thousands of pretzels per minute) pretzels remain a favorite, healthy snack food for young and old.

Although pretzel machinery has changed a great deal over the years, Tom Sturgis Pretzels still bakes some of our pretzels on a soapstone hearth surface which produces the highest quality pretzels available.

And to think I was being "farby" by sneaking pretzels out of my haversack at Civil War events!  Pretzels were a well known food in the 1860's, and it's not hard to imagine some ladies baking some homemade ones to send to the starving troops. They do make a great snack. No refrigeration needed, They are a nice dry food to mix with peanuts (keep a little dessicant bag in there and they stay dry too), they are salty to help replenish what you lose in sweat, something to munch on while on the march, and they go great with your authentic Yuengling Civil War beer.  Tell your friends!

Also, a great non-perishable snack idea at Civil War reenactments is a sack of peanuts (don't remove the shells)  "Goober peas" as they were called were a staple in just about any Confederate soldier's haversack, and they would take them wherever they could get them. They were so famous, in fact, that the men even wrote a marching song about them.

Sitting by the roadside on a summer's day
Chatting with my mess-mates, passing time away
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees
Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas.
Peas, peas, peas, peas
Eating goober peas
Goodness, how delicious,
Eating goober peas.
Verse 2
When a horse-man passes, the soldiers have a rule
To cry out their loudest, "Mister, here's your mule!"
But another custom, enchanting-er than these
Is wearing out your grinders, eating goober peas.
Verse 3
Just before the battle, the General hears a row
He says "The Yanks are coming, I hear their rifles now."
He turns around in wonder, and what d'ya think he sees?
The Georgia Militia, eating goober peas.

Verse 4
I think my song has lasted almost long enough.
The subject's interesting, but the rhymes are mighty tough.
I wish the war was over, so free from rags and fleas
We'd kiss our wives and sweethearts, and gobble goober peas.


**Note: There sat the Georgia Militia, is reported in contemporary accounts as underlying the battle of Griswoldville where they fought fiercely.
"The Tennessee Militia" is sung instead in some versions.)

Beer, goober peas and pretzels....the stuff of life. You can't go wrong!

Fun Fact: The color guard of our battalion has a Yuengling flag which they like to display in front of their tent in camp, but only on Saturday nights when the Colonel isn't around.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Tips for New Civil War Reenactors (Soldiers Only)

In response to some postings on civilian reenactor blogs about things people would like to tell new recruits,  I decided to make one for people who are taking up this grand old hobby for the first time and wish to do a military impression.

(**Author's note:  I am really inclined to think "hobby" is a rather belittling term and sort of an understatement, given what we do is more like an alternative lifestyle that, for some, borders on a mildly disturbing obsession)

 Just like starting your first day at a new job, many rookie reenactors going out for the first time will feel overwhelmed, and in some cases intimidated, by the flood of new information to take in and things to learn, as well as the 'peer pressure' to look, dress and act like everyone else.

I know when I started in 2011, I was very nervous and awkward at my first few events.  My borrowed uniform and clothes felt scratchy and seemed made to fit a gorilla, I couldn't stop sweating from overexertion.  I was anxious about looking sharp, and trying not to mess up during a drill or be seen doing something out of character in view of the public.  I was very self conscious about all my movements, whether my suspenders were on backwards and if my hat was on straight, if my shoes were tied, trying to stay hydrated without having to go to the privy too much and have to strip off all my gear, and so on and so on...

There was also the fear of being labeled a "farb" as my impression was incomplete or not expensive enough.  And as if all that wasn't overwhelming, on top of all that I was worried about if I brought enough food to last the weekend, was my gunpowder dry, whether I would be able to sleep or not, being too cold or too hot, what if I get hurt or injured in an accident... what if I had not planned for some contingency...   And then I was afraid of looking 'weak' in front of the older hardened veterans, many of them ex-military,  because I was obviously not in shape and might have trouble keeping up with those gritty Vietnam jungle commandos.  I remember most of my first year as being very awkward and unsure of myself.

But as time went on, and I went to more events and started to make some friends, I felt more comfortable.  I was less self-conscious, my uniform somehow started to fit better and the wool didn't bother me as much, and my 'pards' helped me out with a lot of advice gained from years of experience.

 Since I became a reenactor, I think I have matured beyond my years and become a different person.  Not only wiser, but tougher, stronger and more resourceful in rough situations.

So for the benefit of people who are relatively new to this adventure of being a living historian,  I plan to make this post into a compiled list of 'tips' or 'tricks' for the greenhorns among us.   Some of these things I learned myself the hard way, others were taught to me by seasoned veterans with 20-30 years of experience.   Anyone who reads this journal may feel free to add some of their own advice by leaving comments as well.  This is by no means an exhaustive list either, it will be a perpetual work in progress.  And they are numbered for the purposes of looking like an official list, but are actually in no particular order.  Obvious stuff first.  So here goes!


1. Don't be shy.  The best way to join a reenacting group is...walk up and talk to someone at an event!  Most reenactors like to talk to the public.  Express your interest in joining, and ask to speak to their commanding officer (the guy who barks orders and dresses differently).  Ask for a business card or a website link where you can sign up, find out where most of the group is from, and when their next event is.   Fill out an online registration form to get your name on the mailing list, and pay your dues on time by check.  (Checks leave paper trails and help them keep track of who pays their dues on time)

Then go to their first annual company meeting (usually in mid-February)  and learn about the scheduled events for the year.  This is also a good time to introduce yourself to the group and meet the people you will be 'serving' with.  Don't feel afraid to speak up and ask questions, which in fact leads to my first important point:


3.  TRY BEFORE YOU BUY.  Borrow gear first!  Don't buy anything until you go out a few times and see if you like what we do.  It's not for everybody.  And putting together an impression will drain your bank account way faster than you realize, because in the words of Robbins Diamonds, your equipment can cost "As little as $400 or as high as the stars"  There is virtually no limit to how much some people are willing to spend for this hobby.  Be reasonable and buy only essential gear first.  Ask around for sutlers that have the best bang for your buck.  And sign up to an online forum like, you will see lots of used gear going up for sale by people who are getting rid of extra gear or leaving the hobby.  Get a second opinion from an experienced person before you buy an expensive item, to avoid the sting of buyer's remorse.

3. The first things you should look into getting (but also among the most expensive) are a pair of shoes and a rifle.  These are the hardest things to borrow.  Good shoes can cost up to $200 for custom sizes, and the price of rifles has skyrocketed in the last 15-20 years.  A 3-band Enfield used to be 300-400 and now they are up to 650-800 dollars.  Hard learned advice: Get a good job before you try to be a reenactor.  This is volunteering that costs you money.  Not all groups have trailers full of loaner gear to be lent out.  In the case of my new group, I had to borrow an old rifle from the Captain of the group who hardly ever used it.  After the first year, you should really have as much of your kit together as possible.

 4. There is a proper time and place for jokes and sarcasm, and that is around the campfire.  Don't do it through email or online forums.  Reenactors use these things as communication tools for delivering important information and RSVP'ing for events.  Nine times out of ten somebody will misunderstand your humor and take offense to it.  Remember the same thing read in writing, and said out loud in the right context, can mean two entirely different things.  Take my word for it and just don't do it unless you've been with the group for a long time and everyone knows you very well.  Rub the wrong person the wrong way enough times and you could get thrown out of the group.

5. Rule for new recruits: 
"Mouth Shut, Ears Open"  If you are very new to all this and don't know much about the time period you portray,  you are better off listening than speaking.  Listen to the older guys, and you will learn lots.  Pay attention to the way they address the spectators.  Pay attention to orders given you by officers and learn them well, because someday you may be promoted in rank or become an officer, and be expected to give those same orders.  A US Navy training manual from 1940 said it best.  "Know your job.  Know the job ahead of yours." Also remember the things you say and do while in uniform reflects not only on you, but on the men above and below you, your company, your battalion, your regiment, your division and the entire US Army!

6. Do your homework.
  Read Hardtack & Coffee if you are on the Union side, and read a book like Co. Aytch if you are on the Confederate side.  These books were written and published in the 19th century by veterans who lived through the actual war.  Who better to learn from than those who know it best, the ones who were there!  If you have a question about the particulars of camp or army life in the 1860's, these books are your Holy Bible and have most, if not all, the answers you need.  But in general, most reenactors read lots of books.  If you do want to bring a book to read in camp, make sure it is one that dates from the period.  But don't take out your family's priceless heirloom Bible or an antique book.  The first time it gets left in the rain or you spill coffee on it, you have ruined a museum piece.  There are reproductions of contemporary literature that you can buy.


7.  Double tie your shoelaces. 
The leather laces on our shoes come loose and untied very easily, and you will look down 5 minutes after you tied them and say  "Darn, I swore I just tied those." It also looks mighty bad if soldiers are standing at attention and suddenly one drops to his knees to tie up a bootlace. Just double or even triple tie them.  Trust me.

8. The canteen goes on last.  When putting on your leathers and accouterments, the cartridge box sling should go underneath the waist belt, to prevent it getting away from you on the run.  And you will quickly realize why the canteen goes on last, over everything else. Shorten the belts and slings so that they are just long enough to fit under the waist belt.   The haversack is best carried not on the hip, but almost at the side under the arm.  This will prevent it banging against your leg when you march.  You may want to shorten the canteen strap by putting a knot in it as well.  You really don't want this stuff swinging around.

9. Keep the shirt and coat collar flat and the top buttoned up. 
Reenactors will tell you that nobody in the Civil War ever walked around with their coats unbuttoned, but we know from photograph evidence that this isn't true.  If it was hot sitting around in camp, men weren't too dumb to unbutton their heavy wool overcoats.  Just be sure to button up for drill time, parades and anything involving spectators. 

10. DON'T LOCK YOUR KNEES.  When you stand at attention, your knees should be slightly bent.  Keeping your knees straight and locked actually induces a little-known condition in which the circulation to your lower legs and feet gets cut off after a few minutes, resulting in your collapse.  Anyone in the military can tell you this.

11. Salute with palm of the hand open.  The flat-handed karate chop salute is a 20th century anachronism.  The open palm of your right hand should face the officer and the tip of your fingers should point to your eyebrow.  This is how it was done from about the time of the American Revolution to the Span-Am War.  It was meant to show your hand was empty and you had no weapon in your right hand, therefore it was a gesture of peace.

12. Keep the cap/hat/kepi/Hardee hat on when in the ranks.  It looks more "military."  (Tip: carefully pulling out the stitching on the leather strap across the brim allows you to use it as a chinstrap. This was originally called a "Stampede strap" and it was intended for just such a purpose, to prevent the hat from blowing off while running.  There is evidence to show that soldiers did this.)  Tipping your hat was not the proper way to address a lady.  Removing your hat and showing it to her was far more gentlemanly.  Ladies will applaud you for doing it because most reenactors don't.  It shows good manners.  All women during the 19th century were to be treated like a princess.  Do not remove your hat while in the ranks unless you are listening to Taps or the National Anthem.

13. When wearing the knapsack and blanket roll as a kit, put the shoulder straps through the blanket roll straps.  It will keep the knapsack higher up on your back, and the weight of the blanket won't pull the backpack away from you.  I've seen reenactors use bits of rope, shoelace or even 1x2 blocks of wood to help support the pack, but this technique works better than all those other methods.  It also reduces strain on the strap anchors where they meet in the middle, because it diverts the load bearing to either side.  Wearing the knapsack became much more comfortable after an old veteran showed me this.  I will include a sketch to demonstrate what it should look like.

14.  Civil War soldiers carried their muskets with muzzle up
when loaded.  This 21st century way of carrying your gun with muzzle angled down at the ground is not only farby, it's dumb.  The powder would run out of the barrel on to the ground. This should be a no-brainer but I've seen people do it.


15. Everybody helps everybody set up and take down their tents.  This is a common courtesy. Reenactors help each other. If someone has a lot of gear to unload from a truck, go over and help them out.  Don't just sit by the fire and watch other people work.  Everyone will thank you for this.  The rule in my first group used to be nobody drives away until the camp is completely broken down and everything is loaded into vehicles.  Leaving an event early, especially without telling anyone, is generally frowned upon. Because that is implying you don't want to help anyone but yourself.

16. Get in the habit of saluting an officer whenever you see one and calling him "sir".  This is really only for the public's benefit, obviously you don't need to salute every officer all the time when no public is around.  But it's a military thing to do and shows the proper respect for your superiors.  Officers with shoulder straps get saluted only, not non-commissioned officers such as sergeants. I have been admonished at WWII reenactments for saluting noncoms. Generally, we salute officers on our side and not on the other side.  Confederates aren't even required to remove their hats or salute when the Federal flag passes in a parade.

17. BRING LOTS OF WATER.  Always bring more water than you think you'll need.  Most big reenactments have water tanks or trucks where you can fill up your canteen, but these will be empty by Sunday's battle, almost guaranteed.  Reenactors have said that they will sweat off a pound or two during the summer; this is not an exaggeration.

18. Ask before you sit.  Generally, it is common courtesy to ask if a seat belongs to somebody before you sit down in it.  If you don't bring your own furniture to an event, sit on the ground unless you ask first.

19. Stay out of other people's tents.  A tent is a person's home for the weekend.  They keep things hidden in their tent they do not want the public to see.  If an officer asks you to bring him something from his tent, do as ordered.  But otherwise keep to your own tent.

20. If
camping near cavalry or artillery, don't feed, pet or bother the horses. And for the love of all that's holy, stay away from the cannons.  Cavalry and Artillery reenactors spend about 10 times what you do on their equipment, and hauling it to and from events.  Be respectful of them and don't touch their stuff.  Also horses that are tied up to ropes are tied up for a reason, especially if a battle is going on.  They might be newly purchased or young horses that spook at sounds of battle. Don't make any sudden movements to spook them and don't frighten them.  And cannons are just downright dangerous.

21. Straw is what you sleep on.  Hay is food for horses.  Learn the difference.  Taking hay away from horses to use for bedding is frowned upon.  Straw always looks dead and feels dry, hay might be greenish in color.

22. Put together a repair kit.  Civil War reenacting gear is made of leather, and leather is prone to break sometimes.  I recommend putting together a basic repair kit that you keep in the same place as your rifle cleaning kit.

My repair kit is a simple cloth bag with lots of things in it to tie stuff together.  Bits of string, a small coil of rope, twine and an extra pair of leather shoelaces.  A bit of shoelace can secure a brass plate from falling off, tie together two broken pieces of leather, repair a musket sling or secure just about anything.  I also recommend taking an awl with you to punch a hole in the leather so you can thread the bit of shoelace  (an awl is a screwdriver handle with a pointy spike instead of a screwdriver tip)  I also have a tool meant for sewing leather with a very thick needle to stab through it.  This is the tool It's also handy as an awl.  Also take some kind of superglue to repair shoes. If your shoes are cheap, your sole could split apart when dirt gets worked in between the layers.  Mine did.

23. Cut up old cotton male undershirts to use for gun cleaning patches. Cut squares about 2 inches x 2 inches and no bigger.  Cleaning patches aren't expensive, but it's another thing you don't have to buy. Same for rounds.  Rolling and filling your own cartridges is labor intensive but cheaper.

If you want a container to keep your bottle of oil, repair kit, tools, gunpowder and musket cleaning kit in, refer to The DIY Ammo Box Post. This is a neat, sturdy box that you can leave out in the open near your tent and you don't have to hide. You can also buy these from some woodworkers near Gettysburg, but they vary in quality.

24.  It makes sense to have two rubber blankets.  If you have a dog tent, the extra rubber blanket is invaluable.  You normally sleep on your rubber blanket, but when it rains and your tent leaks, what do you do? Throw it over the tent. And then you have no ground cover.  The extra rubber blanket can keep you more dry, and it can also seal one end of your dog tent. Tie the grommets of one side together with your extra shoelaces.  During windy rainstormy weather, the following setup with two rubber blankets seems to work the best for keeping you dry:

I first saw Sergeant John Martin of the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves set up his tent this way. But I'm pretty sure he wasn't the first ever to do it.

25. Another use for shoelaces:  Keeping your dog tent from blowing over.  What inevitably happens to dog tents is if they aren't pitched solidly, they fall down.  This happens when the uprights and the crosspiece aren't secure.  Tie the shoelaces around the crosspiece where it rests in the crook of the uprights, and thread it through the buttonhole.  Tie them tightly, and your tent will stay up.

--"A good canteen tip to add...soak the outside of the canteen when you fill it, it helps keep the water cool, and adding a leather canteen strap is a cheap addition and sharpens the impression."  -from Rob Riley, reenactor since 1988.   Leather canteen straps last longer, don't get dirty as easily, and can take much more punishment than the cheap cotton ones that come with the canteen.

"You may want to wear earplugs during the battle. Of course, earplugs were not around during that time but, as I understand, hearing loss is irreparable. Earplugs are a great idea, especially if the guy next to you fires a double load of powder. Look in your local drugstore for the clear putty-like earplugs or the spiral ones that go inside the ear canal, these will be the least noticeable." --Reenactor Bryan Cheeseboro.  Please, stay away from the cheap hot pink or neon orange foam ones. They will just fall out of your ears anyway.

"I have not done it yet but I say if it's a very hot event, take off the jacket and fight in your shirtsleeves. I was in a debate on Facebook about whether or not soldiers fought without their coats in very hot weather. I don't know for certain but thanks to modern heating and cooling, we are not under the same conditions people were in 150 years ago. To go from wearing t-shirts, shorts and sandals one day and then a wool uniform the next is a big change for the body."  --Reenactor Bryan Cheeseboro


26. Pour water down the front of your shirt.  I found this cools me down faster than anything else.

27. Don't be a hero.  At events such as the 150th First Manassas where temps soared to 110 degrees, people were dropping out of the ranks right and left.  DO NOT just decide to "tough it out" if you think you can't go into battle.  You will get hurt. If you are tired and your mouth feels dry, your skin turns red, or you feel dizzy or faint, tell somebody and get out of the sun.  If you were sweating a lot and suddenly stop sweating,  you are about to experience heatstroke and could be severely dehydrated.

28. Much as heat escapes through the top of your head, coolness enters through it. Putting a tin cup of cold water to your forehead or putting a chunk of ice in your hat will cool you very rapidly, as blood in your brain gets pumped down through your body.


29.  Sleep near the fire and sleep with your clothes on.  You may think it's warmer inside your tent, but canvas tents actually trap moisture as condensation from your breath and make you freeze.  The best way to keep toasty is use the "Reenactor Taco"  Put your coat and your great coat on, cover your head with a wool knit cap and put on gloves, then get into your blanket.  Fold the blanket lengthwise in half, then fold yourself in the blanket like a taco, so all the layers are keeping you warm. Face the fire with the open side of the taco.  For Fredericksburg and the really cold events, you may want to look into getting a subzero sleeping bag.  US Army surplus ones from the Vietnam era are relatively cheap.  They have a quick release zipper so you can get out of them easily.  Don't freeze because "It's what the soldiers did" You could be dead the next morning.  It's happened to people before. 

30. Keep the fire burning all night and don't let it go out. Find a volunteer to sleep near and tend to the fire.  If nobody volunteers, then every time you get up to leave your tent during the night to go use the privy, throw a log onto the fire.  Have everyone do this and it will blaze all night.  Few things are more miserable than trying to light with numb fingers on cold, damp wood before you are able to cook your breakfast.


Reenacting is a dangerous hobby in that we fire loose powder charges out of muzzle-loading muskets, and if you follow these important safety rules everything should be fine. But never forget, the firearms we use are weapons of war, were built and designed to shoot and kill people. Safety cannot be emphasized  enough.  

1. Guns are tools for destroying living things. Nothing more, nothing less. They don't kill people by themselves, but in unsafe hands they are deadly. Treat them with respect and with utmost caution.

2. Always elevate at 45 degrees when within 50 yards of the "enemy". There is no reason to aim directly at anybody. If cartridges are loaded improperly or foreign objects are in the barrel they will become deadly projectiles.

3. NEVER EVER EVER EVER draw your ramrod on the field. A ramrod left in a barrel and fired out of a gun will kill someone. At 900 feet per second with 60 grains of powder charge behind it, a three foot long piece of steel at close range will go right through just about anything, be it trees, houses or people. At some events they will even make us remove our ramrod and leave it in camp.
If you are seen drawing a ramrod in battle you can be forcibly removed from an event.


Double loading was a common mistake of inexperienced soldiers in the real Civil War. There were jammed muskets found on battlefields with up to eight cartridges stuffed in the barrel. If you pour more than the regulatory 60 grains of powder and shoot it, at the very least you'll damage your hearing, and at worst your gun could explode, burning or disfiguring you and anyone else around you. Don't do it, it's not funny. Sometimes people want to load 80 grains for a bigger bang in parades, but it really isn't worth the risk of injury.

It's easy in the chaos of a firefight to forget if you're loaded. If you're afraid of loading more than once, Just remember this simple rule: when in doubt, pour it out. Point your gun at the ground and let the powder spill out on the grass. Grind it in with your shoe if you're worried about fire hazard, and the moisture in the dirt will render it useless.

5. Don't ram paper in battle. It can start fires because burning bits of ash will shoot out and drift to the ground.

6. If you see smoke coming out of the hole in your percussion cone, there could be a small fire inside the barrel. Keep the muzzle of the gun pointed skyward and just wait for the smoke to stop. Don't reload if you see smoke, pouring more powder down a barrel with burning embers in it is a 'sure fire' way to lose a hand. don't recap until all the smoke is gone.

7. If you are ordered to "ground arms", lay your rifle gently on the ground with lock plate and hammer facing UP. this will keep ground moisture out of the lock assembly.

...and above all, remember we are here to recreate the life of a soldier, not the death of one.
Realism only goes so far.  If everybody was 100% authentic, we'd all be dead by Sunday. 

When I think of more, I'll write more.  I welcome comments!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Reenacting Ribbons Made into Medals

All of the important 150th Anniversary Civil War reenactments gave out a ribbon with a medallion to every soldier, by popular request of the participants as a souvenir. Most of these were meant to be worn around the neck. Since I personally don't think I'll ever want to wear them in that fashion, I got the idea of cutting off the ribbons to make military-style medals to pin on my uniform... So I can impress the ladies at the ball. If you like this idea, pass it along!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Please be considerate of the public...

Disclaimer: if this article offends you, please move on.

One of my pet peeves at reenactments is when those of us in camp tend to huddle in tight groups around a fire, rudely ignoring others and talking about things that have nothing to do with our reason for being there. Especially when the public is around. If there are spectators milling around in the camp and peeking inside our tents, we should be talking to them and answering questions, because that is supposed to be our job.  Without the public interest in what we do, the parks and historic sites won't have the funds to keep hosting events.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that we are there for them.

I was at a living history-battle back in September last year (at an undisclosed historic site) and was particularly annoyed, because the reenactors who were there seemed to be ignoring everyone who tried to approach them. These soldiers (who will remain nameless) were in a circle, drinking Bud Light from aluminum cans, smoking modern cigarettes, and seemed to be enjoying themselves. But their conversation topics were completely irrelevant and out of place for the 1860's.  Topics ranged from gun control, racist remarks, homophobia and the war in disparaging remarks about a heavy-set woman who had made an unfortunate wardrobe choice that day, and was walking around in shorts and a tank top that exposed a little too much skin (I should also mention it was very hot out that day) trying to keep up with her two very young kids who were getting into everything.

Not only did this irritate and annoy me, I found it disgusting. Not the woman, the reenactors.  I wanted to go around the circle and smack the lot of them in the face, one by one.

First off, don't ignore the people who want to learn from us. Second, get those modern things out of sight when the public's around. Third, don't mock people behind their backs. It's low.  And finally, I really wish we could keep modern politics & current events out of reenacting. I don't drive 150 miles to listen to you guys argue like teenagers about the same junk I see in my Facebook news feed.

If you want something to bicker about over the campfire, make it about the Republican debates for Lincoln vs. Hamlin or Lincoln vs Douglas. Express your concern that the whole entire Union army is doomed because McClellan's such a turd and General Burnside doesn't look any better. Reminisce about life back home, make up some funny stories.

If you want to discuss economics, then it better be 1860s agrarian economics or I don't want to hear it. 

Instead of going on and on about war in the Middle East, maybe we should discuss Western expansion, and how the fight against the Indians is going.

If you want to talk celebrities, discuss John Wilkes Booth's stage career and what a great \ terrible actor you think he is.

We shouldn't hear ANY mention of texting, Facebook, Twitter, E-mail et cetera.

Instead, think about how homesick the soldiers were. Talk about how Annie back at the tobacco farm hasn't answered any of your letters since the old horse died, Jimmy has tuberculosis and you're afraid he won't survive the winter since the doctor skipped town and ran away with the shoemaker's wife.

This isn't hard to do...just read some books, do some research and be creative people!

And PLEASE, pay attention to the public and show them the same respect you want them to show you.