Some Notes on New Millennium Reenacting

By Jonah Begone

By way of preface, I need to mention that my Civil War reenacting heyday was between late 1982, when I spotted a couple of guys dressed as Civil War soldiers walking though my college campus and thereby got interested in the hobby, and 1997, when I did my last uniformed participation at a Civil War reenactment. That’s fifteen years. I kept of list of all the events I had done; my most active year was 1989. So, for those of you who remember the term, I am essentially a Quasquicentennial  (125th anniversary) Reenactor. After that I got burned out and attended fewer and fewer events. Being the kind of guy who is constantly seeking entertainment (according to Mrs. Begone), between then and now I got involved with bodybuilding, Swiss watches, website development as a hobby, rugby, film noir, online genealogical research, training for and running a marathon and playing the electric bass in a band. I guess Mrs. Begone may have a point.

I came back to reenacting, so to speak, in 2007. (Didja miss me?)

My return was the result of my new pard Spanky (not his real name), a church associate/reenactor, talking up the hobby and getting me back into the wools again. My reintroduction to reenacting was in May, 2007, with the New Market event in the beautiful Valley of Virginia. A nice, safe, 24-hour toe-dip back into it after a decade off. I have also done a larger event (145th Antietam, the so-called “September Storm”) and Cedar Mountain (Virginia) since then. All were fun.

Here are some observations on how things have changed in reenacting:

This hobby is graying! Ten or fifteen years ago the age of the average Civil War reenactor appeared to be about 35. Nowadays it appears the average age has advanced considerably, to about 45-50 or so. For authenticity, this is wildly wrong. If one of us were to be magically transported back to the camp of the Army of the Potomac in 1862, I'm certain we would all exclaim, "But they're just boys!" My suspicions were confirmed in a recent conversation with a friend of mine who has always stayed active in the hobby: for whatever reason, there is a dearth of young people. He's not sure why, but my pard Mal Stylo thinks it’s because the young’uns are out enacting Iraq and Afghanistan. I am certain, however, that youth will discover reenacting the Civil War starting in 2011, with the 150th anniversary of Bull Run. After all, the number 150, like 125, has magic associated with it, what I call “The Rule of Five.” People want to commemorate big things that happened 150 years ago. As for me, geez, I hope I can still scramble up and down hills in 2011, when I'm 55...

What’s with the cigarettes? Back in the Eighties, reenactors usually scorned being seen smoking a Marlboro in the ranks. How farby. At the last couple of events I was at, however, Yanks and Rebs both puffed away with abandon. Staff officers could frequently be seen ambling around in the rear of the ranks with cancer sticks in their mouths. In fact, when I took one photo of a dead Reb with musket-firing Federals in the background, I had to ask him to temporarily hide his cigarette. (Yeah, I know, with my camera this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but you catch my drift.) The impression I get is that those middle-aged guys simply don’t care anymore.

Cleanliness. Porta-potties nowadays come with Purell hand sanitizers. However, I wonder about their use of statistics: "Kills 99.99% of most common germs." "Most" and "common"; so is that, like, 10% of all germs?

No bars out here! (Not the drinking ones – the signal strength ones…) During the last event I did, Antietam in 1997, I took a great photo of a friend using one of those brick-like cell phones in his tent. How novel! Nowadays everyone has a cell phone. Why, I even read a complaint in the Letters to the Editor section of the Camp Chase Gazette about a reenactor responding to a cell phone call while on a firing line! (I can top that, however… at a rugby practice, once, a player stopped just before a play to answer the cell phone going off in his shorts pocket.) I have to admit to making a call or two on my BlackBerry at the most recent event. What was more memorable, however, was my using to confirm my suspicion that the preceding evening had indeed been cold: 41 degrees at 6:15 AM at the New Market event. However, numerical values for that sort of thing might lead to odd conversations: “Oh, yeah? Well, when I woke up at the Sayler’s Creek event the month before it was 32 degrees, so I’m honoring Civil War veterans 22% more than you are!”

Photography. Nowadays, small, high resolution digital cameras are available for camp and battle reenactment photography. In the old days I used to lug a Pentax K1000 in my haversack. It was a pain to use and results varied greatly. At the last event I was at, I borrowed my daughter's small and unobtrusive Nikon Coolpix L4 and kept it in my sack coat pocket; I got some truly stunning photos by slipping it out occasionally for the odd shot. (Two examples: On the march, Federal artillery, Federal camp in the morning.)

I guess I’m in the market for replacement equipment… Leather rots after a few years of disuse. This was confirmed to my mind when my tin cup broke my haversack strap. And my forage cap is taking on the look of something somebody found stored in an attic for 100+ years. Gosh, it’s only been, let’s see… 24 years since I bought it. Oh. I feel like a living, breathing Ramses II, watching things turn to dust and mould all around me. (I’m next.)

Fitness. I am happy to report that, as far as fitness is concerned, reenacting is still not presenting any challenges to me. I suppose I can credit this to twelve very active seasons of rugby and some muscle growth developed during my weightlifting era. Not to mention avoiding cigarettes. (Which is a major fitness indicator in a sport like rugby.)

Global warming. It’s probably because I’m older with more subcutaneous fat, but it sure feels hotter at events than it did a decade ago. While on a halt during a hot day, feeling sweat drip steadily off my face, it dawned on me that as far as dealing with heat is concerned, reenacting is harder than rugby. In rugby on a hot day, at the end of the match everyone bugs out for the bar. In reenacting, one finds shade but is left to deal with the outdoors heat for the remainder of the weekend. My pard Spanky is making strides towards doing something about that, however. He is commendably single-minded about seeking the ideal dark blue wool material for a summer weight forage cap and sack coat. Something that looks authentic, but is cooler to wear. He’s investigating ten ounce wool, but I suspect this hunt will ultimately lead him to a material we use in rugby for jerseys: dry-wick. He may be onto something. With the graying of the hobby, the time may be right for the dry-wick sack coat! And lithium-ion battery technology might make the forage cap with an internal fan a possibility; just the thing for sweating baldpates! All of this may be for naught, however, because I have an important rule with my new period in reenacting: I don't do events in June, July or August!

Reenactment things: One thing hasn’t changed since I left... every reenactment has a distinguishing "thing" associated with it in some way, a saying or a story or some other jibe or joke. These are hilarious while sweltering in camp (the heat affecting the mind, perhaps), but rarely make sense when recounted in the office. At the last event the commander or the sergeant of some company a few streets down from us kept running around camp yelling commands and following them with the word "NOW." In love with his authority, I suppose. So, naturally, I took to yelling "NOW" in a loud imitation of him. "Hey, let's go to the sutlers, NOW!" or, "Let's go get a Coke, NOW!" - that kind of thing. It wasn't long before our company officer began to sardonically issue commands followed by "NOW!" This was all the funnier since I was in what appeared to be an AARP company, and nobody had the least intention of doing anything quickly in the heat.

Drill! Back in the Eighties I was in a regiment in the National Regiment, an organization I am convinced existed mainly to teach company grade officers how to utterly tire and bore men with long periods of drill movements that we rarely, if ever, used on the field. I don’t know what the NR is doing these days, but nowadays it seems that drill sessions are abbreviated. This is wholly in keeping with the AARP companies I see everywhere. In fact, recently, I have seen stack arms performed quickly and efficiently – a movement that seemed to take an unreal amount of time to mentally process and execute back in the Eighties. Perhaps the veteran AARP companies have gotten better at drill, having done it for twenty-odd years?

Sutler selection. In short, it appears that more sutlers are selling a bigger selection of items than before. I saw all sorts of stuff that was commonly unavailable back in the Eighties (like pre-rolled blanks) – and a real boom in Civil War-related media, DVDs and CDs (music and computer games). This is great for the consumer, right? Of course. What isn’t, however, is the present cost of reproduction muskets. Whew. Maybe the high cost of musketry is another reason why youngsters aren’t getting into the hobby.

Overseas manufacture of uniform items. For the usual reasons, my old uniform didn’t fit me anymore when I decided to get back into the hobby. Fortunately, my pard Spanky somehow ended up with a uniform that fit me and not him. My old stuff fit him and not me. So we swapped. I was surprised to see a little label on his trousers: “Made in Pakistan.” Really? That’s interesting. Since I’ve noticed that the uniform items haven’t seemed to have gone up in cost the way the muskets have, I assume that the sutlers may be getting them for less, which perhaps means that they can maintain a profit margin. A good thing for both sutlers and customers.

Note that I am not addressing the question of authenticity of overseas garb at all since I am a total farb.

Diminished expectations. Reenacting, for me, the second time around is certainly a more relaxed affair. As an older man I'm not trying to experience combat or fake myself out that I'm actually in an army. I'm simply enjoying the whole thing as it is, warts and all. I also have nothing to prove to anyone (if I was actually trying to prove anything before, which I don't think was the case). The pressure is off, in other words, and I'm not at all ashamed to admit that I am now in it for the fun, period. I also plan to do fewer events - it is no longer a necessity to make all the events, or even most of them. And the New Style Jonah Begone is a different creature - I'll even talk to a Reb occasionally.