Monday, July 20, 2009
How I Became A Civil War Era Reenactor
I get asked every-so-often how and why did my family and I get involved in Civil War reenacting.
Here's our story...
For years I have enjoyed visiting historical reenactments, seeing the participants wearing period clothing and living as if they were from the past. I envied those folks that were able to assume the role of a person from another era, and I would think about it quite a bit after returning home. But, I had always felt it was an exclusive club - that a plain Joe like me could not just join. It would nag at me each time I would visit an event: because of my love of history (And How Long Have YOU Been Into History?) I really wanted to be a part of this group of people! Part of the problem was my job - my occupation at that time was in retail and that meant my weekends were spent at work. This did not give me much of an opportunity to pursue reenacting.
After years of living the retail life, I wised up and found a new job - one that allowed me to have my weekends free. It was that year (1996) that my family and I visited the Dickens Festival up in Holly. What a great time we had, seeing street actors dressed up in Dickensian clothing, bringing the characters from Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" to life before my eyes. Now, you have to understand that "A Christmas Carol" is my favorite book and movie, and my wife, Patty, and I had planned to have a Dickens Christmas party one day. It never happened. What did happen was the following year I contacted the entertainment director of the Dickens Festival and joined the troupe. Initially I sold raffle tickets, then a chestnut vendor, and finally I got a small part in the play as a charity man asking Scrooge for a donation.
My wife joined me that first year...she hated it! Absolutely found it not to be to her liking. She did not like being in the cold, she did not like the tight scheduling of events, and she did not like conversing with the public as an actress.
But, luckily for me, she never tried to prevent me from my participation. And, eventually, my two older children also took part, one as a vendor and a singer, the other as Tiny Tim. They, like me, enjoyed it immensely.
So, on the weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas we donned our Dickensian costumes (for they really were costumes purchased at a costume shop) and found a niche we never knew we had. We had great fun speaking in our pseudo British accent, joking with the patrons and the other Dickens characters.
The trouble was, it only lasted through the Christmas season, and I found myself thinking about the Festival throughout the year and would even throw on the costume here and there when no one was home. It was clear to me that one month of pretending I was from the past was not enough - I wanted more.
At the 1999 Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village on Memorial Weekend I inquired on how I could participate in such a cool activity. The unit I spoke to (which shall remain nameless here) was friendly enough and explained how easy it was to join, which my eldest son and I did (my wife was uncertain at the time). They told us of an event coming up that we could attend with them. After explaining that I didn't have clothing as authentic as their's - that mine was a velcro costume from a costume shop - I was told that it would be OK, to come along anyhow.
Unfortunately, at this event, we were shunned.
We must've had the plague or something.
No one spoke to us. No one explained to us anything about reenacting; what we were doing wrong or right.
Until we were leaving the grounds. Then - and only then - did a period-dressed gentleman speak with us to tell us how great a time Civil War reenacting was and that he hoped we'd return.
My son and I were miserable and we both agreed that if this was the way people that reenacted were, then we wanted nothing to do with them.
Who needs 'em!
I had joined the East Detroit Historical Society the same year I joined the Dickens Festival and helped to create programs for our schoolhouse, one of which included me putting on my costume and act as an 1872 superintendent to the schoolchildren that visited. That was fun and it helped a bit during the off season. And, I would, at times, convince my wife to don her costume and play along with me here and there for the different historical society events we put on. Sadly, it usually ended with her saying something to the effect of, "It was OK but once was enough."
However, the fact that she was willing to dress 19th century (we didn't know about "farby" yet!) had always made me feel that there was some interest in this sort of thing for her. But, my question was...how do I get her to willingly reenact more often?
Of course, the memory of my experience with a real reenactor unit was very fresh in my mind, and I knew that had my wife experienced what I did, she would never even consider reenacting ever.
Enter an East Detroit Historical Society living history luncheon held in the fall of 2003, where Patty and I portrayed the famed above mentioned author, Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine. Yes, my wife willingly agreed to do this (!?!). As I researched information on the author and his wife I inadvertently discovered period clothing sites. Since my sister-in-law's sister was a seamstress, we ordered period correct (circa 1840) clothing patterns for her dress and for my shirt. The rest of what we wore was still costume.
Patty also learned as much as she could about Catherine Dickens so she could answer questions should any arise. However, at the garden party, the majority of the inquiries were not about Catherine Dickens the author's wife, but of the period dress my wife was wearing. That seemed to spark a bit of an interest and, after the four-hour luncheon had ended, Patty remained in her dress for a couple hours after.
Jump up eight months into the future, to Memorial Weekend 2004. I had convinced Patty to dress up, once again, in a "period" dress I found that I thought looked a bit more accurate to the 1860's and attend the Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village. This ensemble now included a hoop skirt of which she had never worn. (Looking at the dress now, it was far from accurate but better than the Dickens Festival costume).
Being the brave soul she is (and given the fact that she loves me very much) she ventured into uncharted territory. It helped that our friend, Lynn, who collects original garments and enjoys dressing period, came along with us.
Patty had a blast! She really did!
It was on this weekend that I met a few members of the 21st Michigan Civil War reenacting unit - a group I had only conversed with through e-mail due to their participation in a living history festival that our historical society was putting on later that summer. I immediately felt a friendliness that was not present with the other unit. They even invited us to stay for the evening ball! We could not because my mother was ill in the hospital and we had to be home early, but just the idea that we were invited stuck with us.
It was then that I started on the "Let's join a Civil War unit" plea with Patty replying "No, I really don't want to - I like doing it how we've been," etc., etc. I told her I'd really like to give it a try and that it would be a great thing for us to do as a family - every trick I could think of.
She still shook her head no.
So I mentioned to my two oldest sons about joining the 21st Michigan, Robbie did not hesitate to respond with a resounding "Yes!" Tom, the oldest, responded with "Will I get to fire a musket?" When I answered in the affirmative, his response was a very un-Victorian "Cool!"
Yesssss!!! Now to work on my wife.
In early July, our historical society put on a living history festival called Erin-Halfway Days. Patty wore her Catherine Dickens dress and spent the day crocheting, while I wore an eBay purchased ca 1900 jacket with my Dickens shirt and pants. We all got to see first hand the 21st Michigan in action.
I wanted to join so bad! That evening, after my wife had left, I spoke with a few of the female members and they agreed that it was a great family hobby. I knew Patty would enjoy it if she gave it a chance. But, I vowed to myself that I would not join unless my family joined with me.
Finally, I just confronted her.
"OK, Patty, here's the deal: you give it a try for three - just three - events. Why three? Because you cannot make a decision based on one or two events. The first may be good. The second not so good. The third one could be the tie-breaker.
That was my plea.
She agreed. But, she had many questions: Did she have to play a role? What will she do all day at an event? What do we do with our youngest two children, especially Miles, who was autistic and didn't like loud noises, much less musket fire? And there were many more questions that I could not answer. So I told her to come to the drills that Tom and I planned to attend and maybe she could meet some of the women in the unit who could help her along.
She came and I was ecstatic that she did. A couple of the women showed and made my wife feel totally comfortable, answering all of her questions openly and honestly. So much so, in fact, that we spoke positively of our joining the whole 35 minute ride home. Patty actually showed signs of being excited about portraying a Civil War era woman!
Now, the real test would take place - we would attend our first reenactment, taking place at Historic Fort Wayne in July of 2004. One of the female members rode to the fort with us, which helped to calm our nerves a bit. It also helped that we left our kids at home this first time out.
The day was a complete success! Patty had more fun and was more relaxed than I had seen her in quite a while, crocheting and talking with the other members of the unit. We even had our photograph taken with an old glass-plate camera - the only picture of us taken at our very first event.
All the way home, after we returned home, and into the following days all conversations seemed to be about Civil War reenacting.
"All right!" I thought. "One event down, two more to go!"
Our second event was a big one - the Jackson event, the largest in the midwest. The whole family (sans Miles) came along this time. If you have ever attended large events, then you know what Jackson is like. Virtually every Michigan unit, as well as some from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and even Canada, show up. Wall to wall reenactors - we had never seen anything like it. And, since Tom had received the OK from the drill masters, he was able to enter into battle.
Our heads were spinning!
Once again, the long drive home was filled with conversation of the day's events - all very positive. And Patty was on a Civil War "high" for weeks following.
Even though there was no need for a third event, we more than willingly attended a living history festival in Wyandotte that September, this time bringing Miles. Although he cringed when the military fired their muskets for the public, even he enjoyed himself! And when Patty realized this would be the last event of the season, she was, in her words, "bummed."
The original three event test was now complete and it passed with flying colors.
That first winter I decided to remain a civilian - much to the chagrin of a few of the military fellows - and studied period clothing intently, finding historians on line and speaking with and learning from them. By the time the first event of 2005 rolled around, we were ready!
Since that time, my family and I have immersed ourselves into 1860's living, applying much of what we learn from the past to our present day living.
In the spring of 2005 we joined a second reenacting - actually, a living history - group, the civilian only Michigan Soldiers Aid Society (MSAS), a group which thrives on and strives for authenticity and accuracy. This wonderful group of social historians have taught me so very much about everyday life of the Civil War era, and I apply what I have learned to each reenactment I attend. In fact, of late, I have been participating more often with the MSAS than in past years and have been able to apply a 1st person living history to my personna due to this.
Due to the large civilian contingency of the 21st Michigan, I have been elected four years in a row as 'Civilian Coordinator' for the unit, where we are always working to improve our impressions, clothing, and speech.
Because of our involvement in reenacting, we have met some of the finest people one could ever meet and are proud to call them our friends. We have a like-mindedness like I've never experienced - a connection like no other. It's hard to explain.
And we continue to meet more and more...
Since becoming a reenactor/living historian, I can now live out my dream/fantasy of time-traveling to the mid-19th century pretty much as often as I'd like.
And be with the finest folk on God's green earth.
It just doesn't get any better.