Reenacting the American Civil War in Great Britain


By an English correspondent



Interest in the minor internal struggle over in the Colonies did not end with the resolution of the Trent Affair. There is a large re-enactment scene in the United Kingdom too, and I’ve just spent my first summer getting involved with it. I don't know if the following matches your experiences, or indeed those of my comrades, but here's a brief look at what reenacting the American Civil War is like on this side of the Atlantic.


Most re-enactors are members of umbrella organizations who organize events, provide black powder, insurance, and such like. The two largest are the American Civil War Society and the Southern Skirmish Association.  Before you Yanks raise your muskets to your shoulder, I think the latter’s name relates to its membership generally hailing from the south of England as opposed to south of the Mason-Dixon line.


These two bodies are composed of individual regiments, most of whom are either Union or Confederate but with some such as the artillerymen who swing both ways. As ever, we Unionmen are outnumbered by the Secesh, but I guess that’s an occupational hazard. There are some smaller, more hardcore groups, but I don’t know much about them. (One hardcore has threatened to press me into grey one day, so I’d best be on my guard if our paths cross again.) Altogether, the combined membership of ACWS and Soskan is probably under one thousand. We cannot even attempt to match the scale of the mega-events that take place in the U.S., although after seeing my friends’ photos from the recent Gettysburg event I’m itching to make the next one.


My introduction to re-enacting began at a Victorian fort on the South coast.  One of the prime attractions was a mock trench that had been constructed using part of the fort’s defenses; we were using the set as part of a skit about Petersburg, which also included a medical display and the firing of a mortar. A short video was made there which can be found here. Thankfully, I have yet to locate myself amidst the dark blue hordes.


I’ve spent much of the season attending events at country shows or on the grounds of large stately homes. These fairs mean we get a large audience but we have to fight against the constant din of fairground organs. A pard and I were passing one en-route to admire some steam engines and the thing started playing “Dixie.” Oh well.


The main problem with such shows is that the size of the battlefield varies depending on the venue, affecting what can be done. We have to use what spaces we can. Watching one group practice skirmish drill in a field that was being used as a car park is a sight I won't forget in a hurry.


For me, the highlight of the year was a massive three-day multi-period event. My organization had a large turnout, and the battlefield was large enough for an excellent display. I'm convinced that I was momentarily scared when I saw some Confederates appear from some woods in the distance. Moreover, it was an excellent opportunity to see other periods re-enacted, although I felt somewhat underdressed sitting in the beer tent in the evening wearing a sack coat in comparison to other uniforms being worn in there. Sadly, I completely failed to attract the attention of a couple of Regency ladies who'd been passing my table all night but then a poor Union private such as myself stands no chance against the elegant tailoring of the World War II SS reenactors.


There are a number of British suppliers of re-enacting kit, and their stuff tends to be of a very high standard. People also order from abroad or pick stuff up when they're over in the States. The most awkward piece of equipment to obtain is, of course, the musket.  Until I acquired my license from the local police, which involved a formal interview to prove to the bobbies that I was not insane, I could only handle replicas or deactivated weapons. Now, standing for long periods at shoulder arms with a musket is uncomfortable at the best of times, but when the barrel is stuffed with metal (or is it concrete?), it really starts to hurt.  Of course, muzzle-loaders require powder, so I also had to get an explosives form. I know people who have not been able to fire at events because one form came back approved long before the other did. Sadly, until such time as I move out of my current rented room I can’t own a gun myself as I have nowhere to put the locked cabinet requested by my local constabulary. I never thought I’d become a fan of the U.S. Constitutional Second Amendment, but it’s an awful lot of red tape just to burn through forty cartridges in an itchy uniform. The cannons, by the way, are slightly smaller than they should be so we can class them as “shotguns” and save a lot of paperwork.


So, why am I interested in the events of a far-off land 150 years ago? Around 60,000 Brits fought in the war, along with 100,000 of our Irish brethren. We armed both sides, built and manned Rebel ships, and suffered the consequences of the blockade during the Lancashire Cotton Famine and the response of the working people of Manchester. But more importantly, I think the conflict still matters in a way which the English Civil War doesn't. Arguments about Crown and Parliament were settled by the time of the 1689 Revolution and the deposing of James II. The 17th Century is too distant, and the issues at stake feel archaic.


The American Civil War is comparatively recent, and its aftershocks have been felt throughout the 20th Century, most notably in the field of the civil rights. People like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are heroes over here, too. Lincoln himself watches over Parliament Square. For good or ill, it was the war that shaped the contemporary United States of America. Besides, if I had to re-enact the English Civil War, I couldn't choose between the distinction described in Sellar and Yeatman’s “1066 And All That” between the “right but repulsive” and the “wrong but romantic” categories.


And I hate pikestaffs.



Disclaimer: Nothing in the above represents the views of any of the organizations mentioned. 

For photos from American Civil War reenacting in Great Britain, click here and here.

From the same author: Boy Scouts With Muskets.