Your Right To Privacy!

By Jonah Begone With Miles B. Marching

Look at practically any of the actual Civil War battles that were fought in the Eastern and Western theater, and you'll find that the most common (sometimes overwhelmingly common) thing about them is the number of Federal privates present. Wouldn't it be refreshing (as well as authentic) to have reenactments where the Federals outnumber the Confederates, and the ratio of privates to officers and NCOs is vaguely something like it actually was? Yet this is generally not the case. Why?

I can't pretend to explain why being a Confederate is so popular. Dyed in-the wool Union partisan that I am, it's heresy. I may have an explanation for the rank disparity, though: it is natural for reenactors to want rank. For most people, rank confers self esteem, and a sense of having "made it." For example, an NCO rank is more of a status symbol than a private’s rank, an officer rank more of a status symbol than an NCO rank, etc.

This mode of thinking is mainly the result of having civilians play at being in the military, or in the quasi-military role that the reenactment provides. Sometimes this has unfortunate results. At the ACWCC 125th anniversary Antietam event, for instance, one unit fielded a Captain, a First Lieutenant, a Second Lieutenant, a First Sergeant, a Corporal, a Sutler and about five Privates, two or three of whom belonged to a different, out-of state (but associated) regiment. Pretty much defines the term "top heavy," doesn't it?

Let me introduce you to some thoughts I’ve been kicking around in my head and chatting about with my goode friend Miles B. Marching for the past year or so. For lack of anything more descriptive, we call it:

The Jonah Begone/Miles B. Marching Rank Doctrine

1. In order for an event to have any semblance of authenticity, there must be more Federal privates present than Confederate (this is correct for most reenactments), and an appropriate number of privates per NCO and officer. A deviation from this will make the general appearance of the unit border on the farb. Consider, if you will, the sight of a company of about 35 men with 5 or 6 file closers, trotting along behind and shouting such pleasantries as "Quiet in the Ranks!", "Cover Down!" and "Alignment is to the Right!" It's bad enough when the youthful, mouthy privates in the ranks are yelling this, but having half a dozen NCOs available to do it too is downright obnoxious! Not only does this make the whole unit look and sound silly and amateurish, it is an enormous pain to those of us that do the useful work of carrying muskets and delivering fire at the enemy.

2. Despite the way some reenactment NCOs and officers treat you, there is honor and dignity in portraying the impression of a Civil War Federal private, the man that gets the lion's share of the credit for preserving our Union. Don't forget this and don't allow anyone else to forget it, either. The rank of private is not some default rank you got because you haven't been made (or assumed) some NCO or officer rank— It is an impression in and of itself, and one that needs to be worked at. Personally, I am much more concerned with who's handling black powder around me than with who's in command of the company, and it is for this reason I am very picky about who I'll call my comrade in-arms. An unsafe, unskilled private can do more physical damage than any number of NCOs or officers (they can only do damage to morale).

3. The essential component of any reenactment is the musketman. Every other impression basically supports it in some capacity, and those who diverge from that impression do so without full enjoyment of combat style events. You don't believe me? Ask the guy in charge of a regiment, company, army or event. Generally, what I hear is that while there is satisfaction in command, a lot of the time they'd just as soon simply participate, thank you. Unfortunately for them, some of these people get to be so competent that they get drafted for leadership positions despite the fact that they arrived at the event hopefully dressed in a private's faded coat of blue! Take note: it's all downhill from there— once you're typecast, your role in reenactments is set for life!

4. It really doesn't matter who's in charge of the event, your reenactment group or the company your group got thrown in with for the weekend. What is important is the group of privates that forms the backbone of your particular unit; partly because that group is responsible for the impression your unit gives to other people and partly because it is from that group that you'll make your best friends. I am very interested in keeping reenactment privates made up of the best possible men in the hobby.

5. Any NCO or officer that has any claim on the title is responsible. A real NCO or officer is willing to sleep out in the cold and the wet with the men. They not only have equipment sufficient for themselves, but to lend to the new guys that come to them for guidance. They have enough experience with the older guys in the group to gain their support - essential for efficient leadership. They don't eat if their men don't eat. If one of their men is out of caps, powder, water, fire wood or practically anything else, it's their responsibility to get it, or make the men get it. Yes, it's a pain, but that's what's involved (or should be what's involved, even in a reenactment sense). Before anyone becomes an NCO or an officer, they had better consider these things and more.

6. A good reenactment NCO or officer is accessible. This is an uncommon trait, and one that is more frequently taught in corporate style management courses than in military practice. But we're dealing with civilians in reenactments, most with no prior military experience, and there's no way that a democratically-minded American citizen is going to stand for inaccessibility and a closed mind on the part of another civilian, just because he assumes a mantle of authority. Saying, "My door is always open" or "Any time you want to take over, you can!" sounds empty or like a challenge. A real leader asks: "How do you feel about it" or, "What do you think?"

The gist of this article is that if you are a Civil War reenactment private, be sure of what you want and know what is required if you desire a higher rank. Many people do not live up to their aspirations. Leave the ranks and trade in your musket for a sword if you must, but remember: the respect you lose may be your own!