Why have I scanned this article and put it on this site? Simply because I like it. It gives an interesting look into what Civil War reenacting was like during the 1961-1965 Centennial, and adds some insight to the origin of the term "farb." (But the complete story is here.) Enjoy. - Jonah
Reenacting: A Retrospective
Reenacting: A Retrospective
by Harry Roach
(as printed in the July 1986 Camp Chase Gazette)
This July marks the 125th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run -- First Manassas to the Southrons. To commemorate the event, the largest authentic battle reenactment ever held on the North American continent is scheduled for July 19th and 20th near Centreville, Virginia. Approximately five thousand Living History buffs from across the nation (and a few from as far away as Australia) will struggle once again for possession of the batteries on Henry House Hill. I will be one of them. For me, the event will be a 25th anniversary of sorts, because I participated in the reenactment held at Bull Run in 1961 to kick off the Civil War Centennial celebration.
It was my first event. I was 16 years old and crazy with excitement. The temperature was over 100 degrees but I didn't notice. I was running, shooting, yelling, and I was having the time of my life.
I'm still running, shooting and yelling, but a lot more slowly now. I'm 41 and I've been in more reenactments than I can remember. This year seems like a good time to sit back and reminisce about what reenacting was like in 1961, to look at the changes over the years, and to pass on a few observations. This is, of course, just one man's view, not an authoritative "History of Reenacting."
The 1961 event was held on the actual battlefield--the National Park Service had not yet closed its doors to battle reenactments. The equestrian stature of Stonewall was covered with camouflage netting to hide it from the cameras. Stuffed dummies were scattered around the hill as "casualties." And about 2,500 troops were ready to do battle. Some were military academy cadets. Some were Virginia National Guardsmen wearing gray work clothes and carrying M-1 rifles. But the majority came from the ranks of the North-South Skirmish Association. The NSSA was a target shooting organization that used Civil War weapons and wore uniforms resembling to some degree those of the Civil War. It had started as a small outfit in the early 1950's, but by the time of the Civil War Centennial it had grown to around 3,000 members. It is still going strong today, with a home range near Winchester, Virginia.
99.99% of the participants at the 1961 Bull Run would be considered "farbs" by today's standards. The uniforms looked good only from a distance. I was in the NSSA's 150th Pennsylvania Infantry, and we considered ourselves hot stuff because we actually had blue wool coats. They were original five-button blouses from the Indian War period, but they looked better than the work shirts most units seemed to have. For trousers we wore light blue Sears work pants. Any shoes were OK as long as they were black: combat boots, engineers, Wellingtons, oxfords, you name it.
The only outfit that was genuinely authentic was the 2nd North Carolina, led by the late George Gorman. They had hand-made wool trousers and jackets, and no two uniforms looked alike, which we thought was pretty bizarre. About that time, George started using the term "farbie" to describe inauthentic garb. When asked what the word meant, George responded: Far be it from me to criticize inauthentic uniforms!" George died in 1981 at the age of forty-five; by my reckoning he should get the credit for being the first "authentic" reenactor. [Well, one of the firsts... The very first might well be Gerry Rolph. - Jonah]
If our uniforms were awful, our weapons and accouterments were authentic. They had to be, because they were originals. Nobody was retailing repro gear back then. In 1960 I bought an original M1864 Springfield for $85. A mint-condition cartridge box was $20. And there was plenty of that stuff around. We carried it into battle and generally banged it up. Nobody gave it a second thought.
We did not camp authentically. The only canvas tents to be seen were WW2 surplus. Our camp was away from the battlefield, out of sight of the spectators. And there were spectators--50,000 came to see the battle. A few of them died, from heat stroke and heart attacks and bee stings. It was hot!
The reenactment was scripted and it followed fairly closely to the original fight for the Union batteries on Henry House Hill. On Friday we had a walkthrough rehearsal. On Saturday and again on Sunday the battle was fought. We did no complicated maneuvering, because nobody knew Civil War drill. Before coming out of the woods we formed a line of battle and stayed that way through the whole fight, only moving forward and back. I can still hear the drums and smell the powder. I don't remember many of the details. I was having too much fun.
The year following Bull Run was another big reenactment, this time on the Bloody Lane section of the Antietam battlefield. Uniforms had improved slightly but not much. I was impressed to see the 3rd U.S. Regulars in frock coats and Hardee hats.
The next year, 1963, saw battles at Hanover Courthouse and Gettysburg. At Hanover, in a big open field, Union cavalry decided to charge through our skirmish line to get at some Rebs who had formed a hollow square. We skirmishers were standing about 12 feet apart and the John Waynes were galloping toward the intervals, all except one clown who had lost control of his horse and was coming directly at me. He was sawing on the reins, so the horse was running sideways with his flank; turned toward me. There was nowhere- to run, nowhere to hide. I was scared s---less. Suddenly the cinch strap broke, the rider spun around under the horse and fell to the ground, whereupon the horse jumped up and down on him a few times and then ran off in the other direction. I cheered! And I still cheer whenever I see a rider thrown. Infantrymen have never liked cavalry, and I know why.
About this time I dropped out of the NSSA and went away to college for four years, followed by another four years in the Air Force, including one in Nam.
When I got back, I rejoined the NSSA, but things had changed. I'd go to the National matches, and notice all these guys in great uniforms hanging around the Sutler area. Many of them were not in the NSSA but came to the Nationals merely to buy gear. Terry Daley and Carl Couch were there, buying up "SNY" buckles for a new unit called the Duryea Zouaves. Their uniforms were fantastic! And there was another crowd calling themselves "General Sherman's Bodyguard." They were dirty and scuzzy and looked like real veterans. Eventually they became "Sherman's Bummers," one of the leading authentic units on the East Coast during the 1970's.
I hung on in the NSSA until the big reenactment at Gettysburg in 1976. After seeing Thomas's Mudsills and Cleburne's Command doing battalion wheels, I gave up target shooting altogether for the joys of reenacting. By the end of the year I had brogans, wool pants, and a frock coat, and was referring to others as farbs. I was authentic. Or so I thought.
What is authentic? Do wool uniforms, three-banders, and repro tents make one authentic? Not necessarily.
In the late 1970's I was unmarried, so I went to a dozen events a year, ate hardtack, and slept under a shelter half. It was as close as I've come to living like a Civil War soldier.
In 1981 I got married, and my wife entered the hobby with a great deal of enthusiasm. She enjoys Living History, and I enjoy her company, so now we sleep in a larger A-tent and we have slowly accumulated enough camp gear to fill half a wagon: clutch oven, folding stools, wood boxes and barrels to hold food, cook gear and several changes of costume. Our first child was born last year, so we'll be needing another box for gear soon. The same thing was happening to the folks around us, and this is reflected in the great increase in activities scheduled for ladies at events. Women, and by extension, children, have become much more visible in the Living History scene.
The unit that I joined in 1978, the 4th Texas Infantry, has a history which is perhaps typical of many reenacting units. It started out in the early 1970's with a bunch of young guys, all single, all wild, all hard-core. Ten years later, some of them were no longer around, but many had married and their wives were now active members of the regiment. Today you might call the 4th Texas a "family" unit. Though most of the new recruits are young single guys, the core consists of older guys with families.
Many units do not survive this transition from youth to maturity. Members drift away because of unit politics, job transfers, and the money problems chronic to young families. Other units disintegrate when some of its members switch from Civil War reenacting to other time periods such as WW1 -- this was the fate of Sherman's Bummers.
The units that do survive, like the 4th Texas, find themselves encamped with wall tents, Sibleys, piles of camp gear, and herds of children. Each item in the camp may be entirely authentic, but the overall picture is not.
What's the solution? For some, it means separating the men and women. In the 5th New York, for instance, the troops stay in shelter halves while the women sleep outside the camp perimeter in wall tents. One Pennsylvania unit barred families completely; they even barred one male recruit because he was too fat to look like an authentic soldier. It was a very hard-core unit. Eventually the unit broke up as its members grew older and got married; it did not survive the transition. For the 4th Texas, it means doing one or two "stag" events a year, where we take no tents and carry all gear on our backs in a true campaign impression. We consider ourselves as having the best of both worlds. Others would disagree.
The fact is, we can be truly authentic for only a brief period in our lives. The vast majority of Civil War soldiers were single young men, between 18 and 22 years of age. Any reenactors over that age are, statistically, inauthentic.
So where do we go from here? We continue to reenact, of course, as long as we can. Some older reenactors, bored with infantry impressions or unable to keep up, switch to civilian or staff impressions such as surgeon, signal corps, sutler, etc.
The hobby as a whole seems to be allowing more leeway in impressions. Specialties such as surgeon are encouraged, and more allowances are made for unusual uniforms. Ten years ago one had to wear wool and only wool. Now that research has shown that other fabrics were common, we are beginning to see more cotton and linen in the Rebel ranks. Blue jean material, if cut and sewn properly, is perfectly acceptable for Confederates. And don't forget the "Beatle" boots. Reenacting has come a long way, and so have I.
At the 1961 Bull Run battle, my unit (150th Pennsylvania) was part of Sherman's Brigade on the Union left. In 1986, my unit (4th Texas) will also be in Sherman's Brigade because we are galvanizing as the 2nd Wisconsin, a Yank unit that wore gray in the original battle. Somehow I have come full circle.
I can still hear the drums and smell the powder. Through the haze I see a National Guardsman, zigzagging like a running back, firing his M-1 from the hip as fast as he can pull the trigger. Yet, it was a farb fest, but it was great. It was my first event. I was sixteen and crazy with excitement...