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Pull the wool over your thighs

What it takes to be a Civil War re-enactor

What it takes to be a Civil War re-enactor

June 06, 2004|By ANDREA ROWLAND

So, you want to be a Civil War re-enactor? Don't forget your haversack.

"A lot of people don't know how to get into re-enacting," said Ron Benedict of Hagerstown, a 23-year re-enacting veteran who founded the 6th Maryland Volunteer Infantry Regiment Inc., Company H. Benedict serves as a Union major.

Benedict and fellow re-enactors Preston "Toby" Law and Dennis Easterday, both of near Smithsburg, provided some tips for individuals who want to become Civil War soldier re-enactors but aren't sure how to begin. Law - a competitive black-powder shooter whose Confederate re-enacting affiliations include memberships in the 21st Georgia Infantry Regiment and 3rd Alabama Volunteer Infantry, North-South Skirmish Association - gave advice to would-be re-enactors in his 2003 book, "Cheer for the Bonnie Blue Flag! A Reenactor Story: The 21st Georgia Infantry Regiment, CSA." Longtime Confederate re-enactor Easterday participates in re-enactments with different units, made an appearance as part of the 8th Virginia Infantry during the filming of Pickett's Charge in the movie "Gettysburg," and organizes the annual battle re-enactment at the Smithsburg Pride Days celebration.

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All three men suggested re-enactor wannabes first attend a Civil War re-enactment to get a flavor for the hobby and make contacts.

"If you see a group of re-enactors, they're usually anxious to have somebody new come aboard," Easterday said. "They'll tell you anything you want to know - including how much it costs." Plan for about $1,000 to get started, the veteran re-enactors said.

It's also a good idea to do some research on such reputable Web sites as www.reenactors.com or www.cwreenactors.com, Benedict said. He said beginners don't have to know a great deal about the Civil War to start re-enacting, in part because "newbies" will start at the rank of private - following the directions of their commanding officers.

"You keep your ears open and you will learn," Benedict said.

Most privates don't even have to make the difficult decision to die. While firearm failure is an unexpected way to go down in battle, the time to die might be orchestrated by commanding officers or decided by random drawing, Benedict said. He said re-enactors sometimes draw colored paper from a haversack to determine if they will survive a hit, be wounded or killed. Officers might tap their charges on the shoulder to let them know their time has come. That happened to Benedict, who had strayed from his unit at the massive re-enactment commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, before he made it to the fence during Pickett's Charge.

"I'm still looking for that guy," he said.

When you're ready to take the re-enacting plunge, here's how to go about it:

-- Choose a side, either Union or Confederate. "Usually someone will have an ancestor ... and so they get an interest in the Civil War through that ancestor," said Law, whose great-grandfather, two great-uncles and two great-great-grandfathers fought for the Confederacy in Alabama regiments.

-- Find a unit. You might want to pick a unit that's close to home, or one in which friends are members. Or maybe you'll choose a unit based upon one in which a relative served during the Civil War, or a unit that impressed you at a re-enactment. Different units will have varying uniform requirements, Benedict said. Authenticity is stressed, Law added.

"Some hard-core re-enactors will even go so far as to have different uniforms for different times in the war," he said. A select few re-enactors, whom Benedict calls the "fanatics," even urinate on their uniform's buttons to make them look aged.

"I know somebody who went out and bought a new uniform and buried it in the ground for a month or so - so it would look good," he said. "You don't have to do that. It's going to age anyway. Besides, soldiers did get new uniforms."

"If you go to a few re-enactments and sleep on the ground and get rained on, it doesn't take long for your uniform to look worn," Law added.

n Acquire gear based upon unit requirements. Gear is available through sutlers who peddle their wares at re-enactments, in catalogues, Civil-War-related magazines and on Web sites such as www.sutler.net. Equipment also might be purchased on the e-Bay Internet auction site, Benedict said.

"You can go cheaper if you know where to go," said Easterday, who advised seeking used equipment from sutlers and clothing from thrift and vintage shops or costume stores. Sutlers also will make clothing based upon the buyer's specifications, and "sometimes they'll do it without charging you an arm and a leg," he said.

Regardless of unit, a re-enactor will need:

Cartridge box, a leather box that hangs on the right hip to hold cartridges.

Haversack, a canvas "purse" in which re-enactors can store personal items.

Cap box, a leather box used to store percussion caps for pistols and muskets.

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