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Basic Guidelines

The Confederate Soldier Impression; A Guideline for the New Recruit

A Confederate soldier impression is one of the most rewarding and challenging impressions one can do. With so many different uniform options depending on theatre, equipment accouterments and personal items out there on the market and it can be very frustrating to the green hand of the hobby. This is why researching your impression first is essential before making any purchases. No matter what time period one decides to portray, it takes time, money and effort to put the general kit together. By working hard and doing several hours of research, you can achieve your goal of historical authenticity.

Civil War re-enacting is one of those hobbies where your rewards come from what you put into it. The more research you do and the better educated you are, the better your impression is and that provides you with a better opportunity to properly educate the public. The same would apply for any time period. It is very discouraging to see the majority of mainstream re-enactors, as well as green hands that are getting into the hobby buying stuff they do not need or is made incorrectly. Instead, they purchase the items because they liked it or they thought it was correct without doing the proper research first, this is where the new recruit gets into trouble. There are several great resources out there that are devoted to historical accuracy. Keep in mind that in this hobby in order to educate the public, you must first educate yourself.

One term that a new recruit will hear is the word "Farb". What does that mean? Farb is the term that is given to someone who doesn’t do their research on the authenticity of their impression or cuts corners. For example, the term "farb" could apply to a person who wears East German jackboots instead of artillery boots, modern dress pants instead of period correct trousers, or someone who purchased something that is not correct for the impression they are portraying. It can be a person who has the wrong style jacket when the unit they are with calls for a certain issue or someone who doesn’t take all the necessary steps to be as authentic as they should. Believe me, I’ve seen this first hand. There are literally hundreds of resources one can use to research their impression such as photographs, letters and books that describe uniforms. Another avenue of valuable research is the “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy” to research your impression and other uniform needs. This will give you a clue as to how it was made, where it was worn and when it was used. Find photographs of Confederate soldiers, study the photo and ask yourself how I can look like that. Remember, research is non-stop, every year new resources arise and uniforms and equipment should always reflect any significant findings.

One of the worst impressions I have ever seen was a teenager re-enacting with a Mississippi unit. His uniform consisted of a modern day light tan slouch hat with a purple wool hat cord, a greenish shell jacket with Virginia buttons, Federal sky blue trousers and knee high officer boots with the trousers tucked into the boots. This is what I call farby. This person had never bothered to study what the average Mississippian wore and never invested time into researching his impression. It never hit him that he was being laughed at by others around him including members of his own unit. However, all of the blame does not lie on the individual, the unit is at fault here as well because they should have been working with this person in order to better his impression.

I would like to explain a few things that the new recruit to the hobby should do in order to help with or improve his impression. The first rule of thumb should be this: What you pay for is what you get. The worst part is when you buy an item and you find out later you can’t use it because it’s not authentic or it's cheaply made. That’s why I can’t stress this enough, do your research first. The best thing for the newcomer to do first is to find a unit. Each unit has a set of guidelines or what is known as "Authenticity Standards" of what the enlistee can and cannot wear. For example, you don’t want to buy a frock coat if the unit you are joining requires a Richmond Depot jacket. And you don’t want to buy a North Carolina sack coat, if the unit guidelines state you need a Columbus Depot.

Another thing I would like to explain to a new recruit is the fact that most mainstream units choose a generic mid war time period to portray. While this is a great base uniform to have, the down fall is that when they set up their guidelines for an 1863 impression it leaves out 1861 and 1862 as well as perhaps 1865. I have witnessed this with New Market. Men take to the field wearing frock coats or Richmond Depots Type I's when they should be wearing a Richmond Depot Type II or even a Richmond Depot Type III jacket. This is what happens when you set your guidelines for one certain time period, it can leave you going to events that might require something other than 1863 uniform requirements.

Several reputable units do have a strict uniform standard that tells you everything you need and what time period it is to be used for. For example: early war impression, one would acquire a Commutation Jacket, Richmond Type I or a frock coat. Mid war impression that same unit would require you to purchase a Richmond Depot Type II jacket, late war requirements would be a Richmond Type III or maybe even a Peter Tait jacket. These requirements are spelled out in which order you need to acquire them from uniforms to equipment. Many of these units tell you not to buy anything up front without seeking the advice from a veteran of that particular unit. When this happens, it makes getting into this hobby easy and fun. However there are several units whose standards are not so simple and leave too much room for guessing.

When you decide what impression you want and what fits your unit guidelines, you need to go to quality sutlers that sell quality goods. For example, when I decided to do a first hand impression of one of my ancestors who had served in the artillery in the Army of Northern Virginia, the first thing I did was read about the unit’s history. I then studied photographs of the uniforms and read all of the descriptions that I could find. After my research was done, then I went on my search to find the quality and authentically correct items I needed. Studying where to buy period correct items is a must.

The rest of this article is just an example that is based on the average soldier serving in the Army of Northern Virginia. This article should serve as just a guideline only. I too was a new recruit and have been with a few units that just hand you a list and say go shopping. No examples were ever given to me about jackets or trousers and what to look for in quality items. I had to research that aspect first. It's been over a decade since I first came into this hobby. As a result, my impression has continued to evolve reflecting what I have learned and applying that knowledge to my own uniform standards.

Jackets are the first thing people see when you are dressed in uniform. Remember, most Confederate jackets were hand stitched. Most jackets of the period were made from Jeans-cloth, Cotton-Jeans, Satinette and Cassimere. Wool would be another option, however with wool in short supply, it was cheaper to make jeans-cloth uniforms, so therefore jeans-cloth was much more common. Jeans-cloth is a cotton and wool mixture and it required less wool and was more durable than satinette. Jeans-cloth was also used for everyday work clothes for civilians during the Civil War time period. Mid to later in the war, British Army Cloth and English Kersey garments were commonly issued to Confederate troops in Lee’s Army.

Buttons are the next thing people see. Make sure you have the proper buttons on the jacket. State seals are good for an early war impression, but many of the jackets had wooden buttons, Block (I, C or A) buttons, and some even had Federal eagle buttons. Coin buttons are very sharp to have on a jacket as well. One of my jackets I wear has copper coin buttons sewn to it.

The Richmond Depot jacket was commonly issued to troops in the Army of Northern Virginia. There are a few alternatives you may wish to pick up after your primary jacket is bought if your unit is portraying a non-Virginia soldier. The North Carolina shell jacket or a Georgia jacket would be my number two choice. People often don't realize that other states issued clothing to non-state troops. If you are doing an early war impression I would strive for a frock coat or a Richmond type I jacket.

For a mid war impression I would pick up a Richmond Depot Type II jacket. The Richmond Depot Jackets were made from a six-piece body, two-piece sleeve pattern and featured nine buttons with shoulder straps and occasionally belt loops. During the middle of the war this style jacket was issued plain, meaning that no colored tape was applied, however the soldier could decide to apply the tape himself in the field. Another thing you can do to improve your Richmond Depot Type II Jacket is to simply add black or dark blue tape to the collar and cuffs. This will give you an early to mid war appearance. The stitching doesn't have to be perfect. Sometimes soldiers cut off the epaulets giving the Richmond Type II jacket the look of what would become the Richmond Depot Type III jacket. Later on in the war, the Richmond Type III jacket became common issue. The important thing to remember is that Richmond Depot Type III jackets were made from English Kersey in the bluish-gray color. Very rarely did you see a Richmond Depot Type III jacket made from gray wool or jeans-cloth.

Another option you have would be a simple jeans-cloth, wool or satinette shell jacket. These jackets were known as the cloth saving jacket. Private tailors, women and other contracted businesses, easily made them. These jackets are very similar to the Richmond Depot jackets in appearance. Most of these jackets were accepted as commutation, meaning that the Confederate government reimbursed the soldier or state issued that issued them. These jackets often feature trim such as tape or solid colors on the collar and cuffs. The button pattern could have featured any style of buttons in a six to eight pattern front. Or you may want to pick up a four-button coat in what many refer to as the sack coat. This is more of a generic look for a Confederate soldier, with that in mind, some units still require the enlistee to buy his Richmond Depot jacket first. Research your jacket options using the “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy”.

I know when you arrive in Gettysburg to make your long awaited and researched purchase, you’ll be tempted to buy the so-called "Fresh Fish Package" to save a few bucks. The set includes a sack coat, vest, trousers and a shirt. Before you buy it just remember that many units don’t allow sack coats. It sounds like a great deal, but double check your unit’s guidelines before you buy and keep in mind that most sack coats that are sold as part of these packages are made incorrectly. Another problem with the “Fresh Fish Package” from mainstream sutlers is the fact that in the long run you are not saving as much as you think. It’s always harder to see uniforms being sold separately and then you see the whole kit for $400.00 and think “wow what a deal” when really its not. If anything you’re saving about $10.00 to $20.00. That right there should tell you something. Don’t let the sutler sell you something that doesn’t look right to you or doesn’t meet your unit’s authenticity guidelines. You and your unit know what is appropriate and what’s not, so be sure to ask questions. Most quality sutlers often have resources that they will be glad to share with you in order to help you to establish your impression and will not sell you something that you do not need. If they do, then shame on them.

If you can’t afford to buy an authentic jacket for $250.00 versus an incorrect jacket for $100.00, there is a cheaper route to go. Most quality sutlers online sell kits for under $100.00. These kits include fabric that is precut to your size along with detailed instructions with photographs, buttons, wax for your thread and thread. The only down fall to this is that you have to hand sew it together. Most people know someone who can sew in their family. These jackets can take about one to two weeks to construct. When the product is finished you have yourself a real nice authentic jacket and the appreciation of knowing what people did in order to clothe their soldiers.

Waistcoats or a military vest as some call it was a non-issued item, but rather a private purchase. So this should be up to the unit you are with to say if you need it or not. If you don’t need it right away, then save yourself the money and use it for something else that you do need.

Shirts are one of your basic needs. There are many different types of material used to make shirts. You have cotton, linen and wool flannel to name a few. Your plain wool flannel shirts are more for your military impression. Other patterns and colors are more for your civilian type. Many units let you decide on what kind of shirt you want. Wood or bone buttons look great on shirts and are appropriate as well.

Trousers are pretty simple. You have the standard military depot or civilian styles. The buttons should be made of wood or bone. The military type of trousers you have determines which depot system in the south issued them. Two most common types of trousers you see in re-enacting determine how they are closed in the back. Some have two straps that are adjusted by a single buckle, while the others have two holes with a piece of leather or twine to tie the back closed. Some trousers have none of these features. One thing to remember when wearing your trousers is the fact that if you look at the photographs of soldiers, you’ll notice that the men in those days wore their trousers at their natural waist or for a lack of better words up to their belly button. Most units recommend that you buy the Depot Type trousers, not Federal issue sky-blue wool trousers. The Confederate Depots made sky-blue trousers from their own pattern that is totally different than the Federal issue and often produced them using English Kersey. Another avenue you can use is the civilian style trouser. Remember trousers, just like jackets are made from various materials such as jeans-cloth, satinette, and also cotton.

Choosing your headgear is the next decision you will need to make. The most common headwear is a kepi or a slouch hat, but again check with your unit’s guidelines before you make your purchase. Different types of kepis include the forage kepi that is very baggy on top and the standard French style kepi. Again, study the photographs. If you buy a slouch hat, remember that you don’t want just a regular style cowboy hat. Be sure that the slouch hat you are buying is a period correct civilian style in the right color, lined and constructed with the correct material. Remember, your headgear is going to be another main feature of your uniform that other re-enactors will see and it could become your trademark.

One of your most essential items is your canteen; you cannot take to the field without one. Most units will allow any type of canteen as long as it is period correct. Some choices you have are the wooden drum, CSA tin drum, the Federal model 1858 smooth side canteen, or “bulls eye” Federal canteen. Smooth side canteens need to be lined on the outside with jeans-cloth material. Wooden drum canteens were often replaced in the Civil War for the Federal canteen, until the depots in the South started to make canteens made of tin. Tin was a cheaper material and any tinsmith could produce these canteens in mass quantities. Canteen straps should be cut low and hang just touching your left elbow. This was done for comfort on the march. The strap should be made of cotton. When purchasing a canteen, remove the chain that attaches the cork and replace it with hemp twine.

A haversack is a very handy item to have. In the Confederate Army the plain white cotton cloth haversack was very commonly worn, however there were painted black haversacks that were issued to the soldiers. The straps are usually 40 inches long and should be worn at your belt line with the top just touching you left elbow. Haversacks are for carrying food such as meat, beans, apples, vegetables and other food items.

Knapsacks are a vital item to have as well. Many styles of knapsacks are on the market such as the Federal style soft knapsack, the Kibbler,the English import and the Isaac & Campbell to name a few. Knapsacks were used to carry all of your non-essential items. The knapsack is where you should keep your shelter half if you captured one from the Federal army or blanket, gum-blanket, two towels, two handkerchiefs, two pair of socks, an extra shirt, under drawers, tin plate and eating utensils. Also any small personal items should be carried in your knapsack such as a housewife (sewing kit that contains beeswax, needles, thread, scissors and patches), hygiene items such as tooth brushes, tooth powder, razor for shaving, extra hemp rope, journal with a pencil and a Bible. A nice alternative to the knapsack is the blanket roll, where you can roll all of your personal items in the blanket roll, tie the ends together and sling it across your back. Your tin or copper cup can be transported by tying it to the shoulder strap of your knapsack or blanket roll. Most units allow you to concentrate on the major purchases first before buying knapsack stuffers.

Footwear for the re-enactor is pretty basic. You have your choice between brogans, civilian style work boots or boots. Brogans are more acceptable for the average infantryman impression. The popular brogan to buy is the Jefferson brogan. There are a few English styles out there and they should work out as well with your impression. Boots are more for artillery, cavalry and officer impressions. It depends on your impression as to what type of boot you will need. Remember, if you have a pair of boots; make sure your trousers are worn outside of the boot instead of being tucked inside. This is a common misconception that your trousers should be tucked inside the boots. This did occur, however there are very few photographs to support that this was common practice during the Civil War. The soles can be sewn on or pegged. During testimonies in 1861, Congress asked private contractors in congressional hearings why their pegged soled brogans were falling apart at a much quicker rate than those sewn together.

Socks are another standard item you must have. There are a few good sutlers that sell period correct cotton socks for the summer months, but beware of those socks made of wool. Many mainstream sutlers sell the same style of wool socks that are at Wal-mart in the sporting goods department and try to pass them off as authentic. One thing you do not want to happen is to sit down and decide to cross your legs and have a bright white modern day cotton sock showing.

The equipment you need to complete your impression is fairly simple but very important. You need an infantry belt, buckle, cap box, scabbard for your bayonet and a cartridge box. Just make sure your cartridge box matches the caliber of the rifle you want to buy and it comes with the proper cartridge tins that are needed for your rounds. Cartridge boxes are worn two ways. The first way is having the cartridge box suspended by a cartridge box sling or a belt, as some would call it. The other option is to wear it attached to your belt. One idea that is not often portrayed in re-enacting is English Army items, such as a leather belt with the two-piece snake buckle and other English accouterments. Both the Union and the Confederate bought large amounts of English items. Painted cloth items are another idea one might want to consider, as they tend to be a little cheaper to purchase, as well as very easy to make.

There is a major misconception in mainstream re-enacting concerning cartridge boxes. Most re-enactors do not find it necessary to match the type of cartridge box with the caliber of the gun. For example, using a 69 caliber cartridge box for use with a 58 caliber musket. Most of the time, you were issued everything that was required to fire your musket including a matching cartridge box in the caliber of your musket. Another important thing that is missing in the mainstream is the use of cartridge box tins. I have inspected so many cartridge boxes and more than half are just filled with cartridges, no tins and the tool pouch on the cartridge box is always empty. The tool pouch was used to carry your combination tool for your musket, wiper (worm), bullet puller as well as your tompion when its not plugged into the end of your muzzle. Another valuable tool is your nipple (cone) pick. Your cap box should have sheep wool located inside. Keep you nipple pick located in there for easy access.

Leather belts are simple, but the buckle can be tricky. Many units prefer the enlistee to buy a roller or a framed buckle that is already sewn to the belt rather than purchasing the CS oval, CSA rectangle or state seal detachable type buckles. There are several styles of belts one can pick from, but there are two main leather belt options one can buy. Early war type belts have what is called a keeper sewn to the end of the belt, and mid to late war issued belts didn't have the leather keeper attached and were finished in two ways. The first is known as buff, which has a rough finish, and the other was smooth. Most re-enactors will buy the later issue belts. Colors for the most part are brown or black. Brown is the natural color that was finished in oil rather than dyed black.

Your rifle will be your major purchase for Civil War re-enacting. The most important point of buying a rifle is to make sure that it is a three-band rifle. The re-enacting officials have decided that two-band muskets are unsafe to fire in close shoulder-to-shoulder firing from the rear rank and it is against all event regulations to have one in the ranks. Some of the choices of muskets you have consist of the Richmond, Enfield, Springfield and Harper’s Ferry models to pick from. Once you have decided on a rifle, you’ll need a bayonet for the gun. The best thing for the new recruit is to buy your rifle and bayonet together, because you need to find a bayonet that fits your rifle barrel the best. Most bayonets do not fit to your gun when you purchase them. That's because when bayonets are made, the company uses a one-size bit to hone out the socket. The rifle barrel is a few thousandths of an inch smaller at the top of the barrel and gradually gets a few thousandths of an inch bigger as you work your way back to the first band of the gun, so it is best to purchase a bayonet that is a little bit smaller than the end of your rifle barrel. You will have to take a half moon file or a sanding wheel on a drill to the socket of your bayonet and file it down until it fits your gun.

Some other important things to remember is that if the unit you are joining fought with the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, that army had its own set of standards of what could be issued as far as uniforms. They were what you called a "Uniformed Army". Even their flags had to be the same throughout the Army. If you are joining a unit that fought in the Army of South Western Virginia or the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, they had their own standards that would not be accepted in the Army of Northern Virginia. The same goes for the other armies in the Confederacy.

When it comes down to it, you need to do your research first in order to start your impression. Even after you have established your impression, it is something that you should continually try to improve and don’t follow the mainstream trends. One flaw can be damaging to your impression and your units reputation. Be sure to talk with the unit historian or commander on what you can and cannot have. I’ve talked to many new recruits from other units that spent a considerable amount of money on items that they could not use because they were not historically correct for that unit. Another valuable tool you will need to have is a good attitude. Remember, when you are in this hobby you are representing actual soldiers and units from the Civil War and you need to portray yourself as such. You are educating the public about the events and people of that time period so you want your impression to be as accurate as possible in order to correctly educate the public.