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How to Become a Re-Enactor

John Miller

You want to become a re-enactor, but you donít know who to ask, where to go, or where to obtain your period kit.  The first thing you will need to do is pick an era in which you are interested.  There are events of all sorts dealing with many types of time periods ranging from French and Indian War to present day.  Once you go to an event of a time period that interests you.  Events are a good source to find all the basic answers you are in search of.  In this article I will give you some ideals of what is expected from the person that is interested in becoming a re-enactor.

The French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812 are going to be one of the most expensive investments you make.  German World War One and World War Two are also going to be a very expensive investment because of the cost for period uniforms.  Mexican War, Civil War, and the Indian Wars are usually the cheapest investments and the most enjoyable eras to re-enact.

What does the average re-enactor do?  He or she will portray those who lived in a time period they choose be part of.  Many units participate in what is called living histories.  This is where the unit talks to the public and answers questions that the public may have.  They explain the battles their unit participated in and the equipment that they wore.  Tourist love seeing the weapons being fired off in a company manner and also seeing the men going over the School of the Soldier.  That means youíll have to learn what is called the manual of arms.  Every re-enactor will tell you no matter what time period you wish to portray, you will have to learn this manual which includes School of the Soldier, Firing details, and Battalion and Company tactics.  If you do not have time to read these manuals there are several videos you can watch that go over exactly what is expected of the average private.

Re-enactments are the best source that both re-enactors and spectators benefit from.  Spectators witness the battle tactics, how armies maneuvered, formations of battle, and encampments.  They see how soldiers lived in another time period.  Re-enactors benefit by actually living the scenes that spectators see and witness for themselves, and what it was like for those they portray. 

My family and I have been re-enacting for seven years and it has been the greatest hobby we have ever participated.  I have re-enacted the Civil War starting with Stuarts Horse Artillery for two years, the 9th Virginia Dismounted Cavalry, and now I am the commanding officer of the 22nd Virginia Infantry Regiment.  I started out as a private until I was promoted to Corporal in the Artillery until the unit disbanded.  I re-enlisted trying dismounted cavalry and became a private.  I served in that unit for about a year, when I found out that dismounted Cavalry was not for me. I formed the 22nd Virginia Infantry with a group of friends and I was promoted to Sergeant in 1999.  The year of 2000, I was again promoted to 2nd Lieutenant, and 2001, promoted to Captain and finally I was promoted to Major in command of a battalion of about 75 to 100 men.  I also enjoy doing a period correct first hand impression talking about the life of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, and the life of Colonel George S. Patton, commander of the 22nd Virginia Infantry.

I participate in events with my Prussian friends who observe the Civil War.  The group Iím associated with is known as the Prussian Observer Officer Corp.  As an Imperial Prussian Officer my duties are simple. I over see the battles, writing notes on the tactics used by Confederate and Union forces. The hardest part of the hobby is I am currently learning to speak German to better my impression.   

They wear a period correct uniform that is a 1840/1860 model.   My Waffenfrock tunic is dark blue in color with a red collar and red cuffs.  My have cuffs have a rectangle patch that are piped in blue with a three button row.  The front on my tunic and the rear that is called a skirt is also piped in red.  My shoulder straps are white with a under layer of red wool.  My trousers are a bluish black color and are piped in red along the sides. You could ware the Picklehaube helmet that is black with brass fittings and with the eagle plate on the front and a spike on top.  You can also wear what is called a  'Feldmutze' (field cap), which is more comfortable.  This was an alternative wear in dark blue with a red band and also piping on the crown.  

When out on the field fighting for the Confederacy, my uniform has the Irish Harp representing my Irish heritage and I also wear the 1813 version of the Iron Cross representing my German heritage.  My unit and I will translate commands in the German Language, and we also had adopted the European Manual of Arms for the Enfield rifle to better our impressions. 

I also participate in living histories of Post World War Two Germany at air shows and History meets the Arts in Gettysburg.  I have a first hand impression consisting of an East German Artillery officer and a Border Guard NCO.  My kit includes two dress uniforms, three set of BDUís and field equipment.  I also have first hand impression of a West German Artillery enlistee and my kit includes one set of summer BDUís and a set of Winter BDUís that are made from wool. 

After talking to many of my Civil War re-enacting friends, I soon found out that they also participate in World War One and Two re-enactments. I am gathering my equipment for a World War Two British officer impression of the Royal Engineers.  I am also gathering information on another impression of a Swedish soldier.  These uniforms are original and you can usually buy them really cheap. You can obtain a German 8mm Mauser or a 303 British Enfield for under one hundred dollars.  If you chose to be an American Infantry soldier the uniforms are reasonably price, however if your infantry weapon is a M1 Grand then your investment will cost between 700 to 900 dollars.  Even the World War one and Two German uniforms are very expensive costing on average between 300 to 400 dollars.  It depends on how much you want to spend and how accurate you want your impression to be. 

No matter what period you want to re-enact, it is a very physical, and very dangerous hobby. Re-enactors use real guns that fire real powder.  One must be in good shape during the hot summer months.  The uniforms re-enactors wear, are made of wool or jean cloth.  If you have a medical condition, you should come to the events prepared.  Because of the dangers in re-enacting, many units offer insurance for 10 to 20 dollars a year.  This covers everything while you are away from home incase of injuries.

Never buy anything up front and research your impression first. Every unit has regulations on what the enlisted man wore.  I can tell you that even the re-enactment sponsors have their own regulations as to what can be worn out on the field. Re-enacting is a hobby that is not cheap, but it is one of the most challenging and rewarding hobbies you will ever participate in. You can do any impression of history that you want.  From the days of the French and Indian War up until believe it or not Desert Strom.  Many veterans will come out and talk to the re-enactors telling their stories of WW2 till present.  I have seen Veterans from the Vietnam era re-living their stories wearing their uniforms with a complete kit that includes M-16 Rifle and camping supplies.

I will use Civil War re-enacting as an example of what a family or even oneself could expect.  The average Civil War re-enactor will pay in the ballpark of $850 to $1500.00 for a period correct uniform and accessories. That includes the uniform, canteen, leatherwear and your rifle.  However, this does not include your tent if you wish to have one and other items of comfort.  Now I'm not saying you need to get all this stuff at once, many units will allow you to borrow  items, but its always a good idea not to do this for a long period of time.  Many units give a period of one year for the new enlistee to obtain the basic things he or she needs.

A three-hour trip is considered a short excursion to a re-enactment.  I participated in events that are four to six hours away.  This depends on where you are located and how far you will want to travel.  An average re-enactment season is March through December with one to two events scheduled each month. 

You may have a family that you want to participate, and you donít know what they can do.  Most units allow and welcome family participation. Families can participate in activities such as pan throwing, baseball, and even shopping at the Sutlers.  Believe me, this is an excellent way of spending time with your love ones.  When re-enacting Civil War history, there is no modern facilities that can intrude in your time away from home, unless you bring a cell phone or something else in this category.  Families will discover how time flies and how relaxing just sitting around a campfire can be.  

Children are encouraged to come out to the events, and most units try to give them the hands on learning of what the Civil War was about. It's a good history lesson that public schools do not teach. There's always something for the children to do. Most kids play with the toys of the days of old and are quite content to watch the other soldiers walk by. You'll soon find out that children love being outdoors and doing things with other children. Re-enacting teaches children a way of life that is forgotten, and they have a different view of history. Re-enacting is a way of life and most re-enactors will tell you it's an experience children of any age will not soon forget

Women played an active role in the Civil War. They supported their beloved as they went off to war trying to maintain a home life the best that they could.  Many times not only doing their part as mistress of the house but also playing their role as head of the household. This is why it is important for women to also play an active role in Civil War re-enacting. Every re-enactment has scheduled events planned just for the ladies of the blue and the gray. Ladiesí Tea, Period Crafts, Southern Belle Pageants, Parades, Quilt and Art show to name a few.

Where can you go to purchase the items you need?  Almost every re-enactment event will have what is called a ďSutler RowĒ.  There you will find everything you need to start and complete your impression.  The Internet is a very good source to find items and accessories that you will need.  The best advice I can give you is to wait and talk to a group that you feel comfortable with especially one that is local to you.  The unit itself will guild and help you to obtain the items for your kit.  They will give you a list of sutlers they recommend and where they are located if they are in a reasonable driving distance. 

Before you buy and your not sure if re-enacting is for you, may I suggest you try an event first.  Maybe Civil War re-enacting is not for you, but you like what you see in another time period at least this way you didnít spend a huge amount of money on your uniform for a time period you may not enjoy.  You will have to research the time period of your choice and make your decision based upon the facts you have come up with.  Re-enacting is a big investment but one Iím sure youíll enjoy. 

Read other articles by John Miller