War re-enacters strive for authenticity in games

By Jack M. Willis
Journal Correspondent

There is a group of very dedicated professionals across the United States that people very seldom give thought to, until they attend a celebration of a famous battle sight re-enactment in their area. For the most part, most of the mock battles are a carbon copy of the original significant battle, whether it was during the Revolutionary War or the War of Northern Aggression.

My first encounter with a re-enactment demonstration was at Harrisonburg, Louisiana in the late 80's. My wife and I were thinking about leasing a food vending trailer, actually a Funnel Cake dispensary, and the owner wanted to show us all that was entailed in working a re-enactment or one of the festival celebrations so numerous in our great state.

We had set up the trailer across the street from the Catahoula Parish courthouse on Saturday and vended food all afternoon and well into the night during the street dance. We then tore everything down about midnight and moved about a mile up on high promontory which had been the original site of Fort Beauregard during the Civil War, and presented a magnificent view of the Ouachita River. We got bedded down about 2:30 in the morning, had the awning closed down, and my wife and her lady friend and I were trying to grab a nap in the close confines of what could only graphically be described as a kitchen on wheels.

It was just breaking daylight when I was awakened by the clip-clop of horses' hooves. Wondering just what was going on, I opened the door at the end of the scullery and peered out at the misty morning with the sun striving to burn through a river-induced blue haze. What should I behold but a big gray horse ridden by what was obviously a Confederate officer resplendent in his gray uniform to match his horse, resplendent with a gold belt sash and a John Mosby-type hat, topped off with a huge red plume.

Sitting side-saddle behind the officer was this lovely brunette Southern belle who had her lace-clad arms wrapped lovingly around the Rebel officer, with her head laid up against his back. It could have actually been a vivid portrayal of a scene from little over 140-years earlier.

Come to find out they were riding on further down the road from where we were camped, to where a bivouac of Confederate re-enactors had actually camped in period wedge tents the night before.

It wasn't long until the contingent of play-like Confederates found out we cooked and served funnel cakes and set up a clamor for us to prepare them this new type of breakfast fare. They might have been dressed in period clothing, and had period equipment and arms, but at this particular point in time they weren't the least bit interested in period food.

We fired up the hot oil, and I mixed up a pan of batter and soon we were selling those funnel cake like hot cakes. I noticed that most of the customers were males and a lot of them sported a collegiate ring of some sort, denoting they had graduated from a school of higher learning. Noticing the elaborate uniform worn by guy, who said he was a computer data analyst, I asked the innocent question, "I guess it cost a good bit to be a full time re-enactor? "He replied, "H*** yes! You had better have a good job, or sell dope or something, because all of this essential apparel and hardware cost a brindle ton of money!"

In a couple of hours the Rebs and Yanks clashed in a simulation of one of the battles actually fought on majestic Fort Hill, as its referred to by the local gentry, and upon the first blast from the Rebs' cannon, the discharge was accompanied by a brilliant, blue smoke ring about 15 inches in diameter.

But re-enacting a Civil War battle means much more than putting on the appropriate uniform and just pretending. It is near-total immersion into the scenario of that point in time. When going to, and carrying out a re-enactment, re-enactors dress in period clothing (including period undergarments), eat period food, carry period weapons and equipment, even sing period songs and listen to period music.

Some of the clothing they wear is purchased from sutlers (commercial suppliers who set up shop near re-enactments). All clothes, whether purchased or hand-made must be authentic to the era, right down to the thread. On some CSA uniforms, the lack of real buttons were noticeably conspicuous, because during the Civil War most were imported from England or France, with the Federal blockades stopping the import of sundries and notions. Ingenious Southerners still made the customary button holes, but used square patches of stiff leather in lieu of the familiar button.

Some re-enactors choose to have both a complete Confederate uniform and a Union one also, so as to be able to fill in as replacements when not enough re-enactors show up to stage an engagement.

Some of the uniform components and hardware for a Union infantryman from New York would probably consist of the following: Musket: Model 1861(3 band w/Musket sling or russet color-State Jacket and four-button sack coat-Pants: Standard Federal issue, sky-blue foot style-Shirt: Personal choice but must be period styled-Shoes: Military Brogans, black color-Socks: Gray wool-Canteen: Smooth side, sky-blue color- Belt: Black Waist belt w/ US buckle- Bayonet: Standard with scabbard & frog as appropriate for rifle- Hunting horn-Tent:6'x8'x9 wedge tent.

If you're a re-enactor say from Texas, the rules dictate that you must have a gray Confederate Shell jacket w/ nine buttons, a wooden spoon, and Enfield 1853 three-band .58 caliber musket, and a two-inch belt, black with a Texas or serpentine buckle.

One problem that re-enactors face is that they have to have a trusty firearm that is as safe as possible to the one firing it, and to other re-enactors around them. The muzzles of all firearms, when fired, must be elevated to minimize danger to other re-enactors. To make provision that the period rifles, which are composites of wood and metal, are safe to fire, there are some re-enactors that serve as Wood Doctors.

One of the things that can go awry as a result of the purchase of an older weapon, is the repair work that generally goes along with it. The gun's first owner would have used it for killing his own foot or shooting at an enemy, hence, it would have been cleaned, oiled and well-kept. But, the next generational owner would have kept it more or less for sentimental reasons, or to put it on display. Invariably, somewhere down the line, the firearm would have been neglected or misused in some way. A child might stuff some foreign object down the barrel, or the vent hole, rendering it totally useless. A heavy patina would accumulate on the metal and stay, since many new owners value the original aging of the weapon. This habit of good intent only serves to develop rust when the wall-hanger isn't oiled periodically.

This is where Patrick Martin of Lafayette comes to the forefront. Not only does he thoroughly clean the metal parts, but he repairs another aspect of the weapon--the wood. Martin is a dedicated Civil War re-enactor with the 19th Louisiana Infantry for the last six years. Patrick's specialty is repairing the damaged wood on the older weapons belonging to, and used by members of his group.

One re-enactment, which should interest readers who are Civil War devotees, is the annual Battle of Pleasant Hill, which recreates the largest engagement that occurred west of the Mississippi River. It is held on the weekend that falls closest to April 8-9 which is when the original battle took place. One unique aspect of this particular re-enactment is that it usually has well over 700 participants, but takes place on the same hallowed ground where the original conflict was fought. The number of spectators this year is expected to exceed 10,000 in number.