One part of reenacting is becoming the person we are representing. Some may think this is easy, but it is not always. We are representing people from a completely different time and culture from ours, as well as a nation at war. Friends and relatives were either fighting beside each other, or against each other. Motivations were as varied as the people in the ranks.
To truly reenact the war, we have to have reenactors in nearly every category: Confederate and Federal from infantry, cavalry, and artillery, medical corps, civilians, merchants, chaplain, and more. Each of these areas requires a different character, and a certain mindset and responses.
There are lots of ways we learn about our characters, and how to portray them. For most of us, we are always reading, whether journals, letters, autobiographies, manuals, or records – any primary document that will help us understand the events, what the participants had, how it impacted them, their thoughts, responses, and more. We look at personal accounts of the role we are playing and try to understand what they went through. My friends who portray solders study them, the military, the orders and rule of camp, the command structure, what they would have done, how they lived in camp, what they did between battles, what their duties would be (and are) depending on their rank, how they interacted with civilians, and more.
Those portraying civilians study what it was like whether they were in town or following the army. Were they an army wife, mother, or child? Were they married to enlisted man or an officer? What point in the war are we portraying? How long would we have been blockaded here in the South, or are they portraying a Union wife with very little affect of the war on their way of living?
Those of us who portray doctors and nurses study the life and journals of those who were there. We study the medical procedures of the time, what they had to work with, what was known and unknown during the war, and what was changing. This could become important depending on whether you are portraying Federal or Confederate, and what part of the war is being lived. Some procedures did not exist at the beginning of the war, but were becoming commonplace by the end.
Everything changes when we get into camp. There we are living out of what we bring and can throw together with other reenactors. We are affected by the elements, and at times, by lack. We live in tents and have to warm ourselves by the fire. Life in the 21st century ceases to be in many ways. Once we put on the uniform, things change even more. You move differently, you feel different, you respond differently. I have friends who will be Confederates at one event and I’ll walk up, hug them, shoot the breeze with them, and at the next event when they are Federal, they are the enemy! We will call each other names, raid each other’s supplies, give them a wide birth, and of course shoot at each other! There was one event in 2016 where we had to split up part of our company, and some of us had to fight for the North. My Colonel, of whom I think very highly, had to galvanize. I was in gray, and as he was pulling his blue coat on, I told him, “I’m going to really not like you for about an hour, Sir.” That statement was very true, for I shot him three times on the field! (Thank goodness we are only using black powder).
I have friends who portray some of the best darn Yankees I have met. Trust me, my ire certainly rises seeing them across the field, and I do NOT want to mess with certain ones in camp when they are in Federal blue. There are others I want to rile beyond words! For one of my friends in particular, there is a certain je ne sais quoi about him when he takes the field in Blue or in Butternut – and it’s different depending on which role he is portraying. I once asked him why he played Yankee, and why he was such an absolute rapscallion when he did. I love the answer he gave, and I will try to do it justice here: “Because I have to represent who they were, and the brutality they brought down here. If I don’t, then I do an injustice to my family, and our ancestors who fought them, and I can’t do that.” He does a very good job at it, almost maniacally at times! When he is in Butternut (Confederate), I have seen him stand tall in the face of a Yankee onslaught. He is not easily moved or impressed by their tactics, always wanting to counter them and take them down, even under fire.
My beloved Captain is a little different. He loves the South, though he does have to galvanize occasionally. He is the constant Southern officer, runs a tight camp, shows respect to his fellow officers and those who outrank him, is a good leader to the rest of us (though to be truthful, Stephanie runs the camp). He loves our history and our heritage, and wants to see it portrayed well. He is calm and level headed at all times, which is good because we have some hot-tempered ones in the bunch! He’s very inviting to all, and encourages those who are interested to come to an event and see if this is for them. I would not be a living historian on a battlefield were it not for Stephanie’s invitation to come talk to them, and his invitation to join the 53rd GA for an event. Oh how immensely glad I am he offered!!!
Our member, J.R., is a filmmaker and is making a documentary about what it was like for the more than 400 women who disguised their sex and fought as men, and what it is like to portray them. That is her role in our company and on the field. She fights, marches, drills, and performs her role in camp just like the men. She is honoring those women, about whom few people are even aware. (Shout out to Reenactress Documentary!)
Mindset is everything. For some, the mindset starts before we get to the event. Some watch Civil War films such as “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals,” “Shenandoah,” or “Field of Lost Shoes.” Some listen to music from the war, performed by some of the historic bands such as “The Unreconstructed,” or the “97th Regimental String Band.” Many of our men are military veterans. They tell me they go back into military mode mentally. They know we are about to face an enemy and their training, both from the real military and our training as soldiers of the War Between the States, kicks in, just at a lower level than when they were in combat. Others have been reenacting so long that it has become second nature! For these, once they are in uniform and it’s time for action, they are in character.
For most of us, things change even more when we go on the battlefield. For those who have been reenacting decades, they think not just about the battle, which by now is like second nature, they are also always thinking about the safety of the men and horses, as well as putting on a good show for our audience. Many of those portraying Federal troops go from relaxed, to cocky, troublemaking good-for-nothings (and I mean this in the nicest way possible, guys), to fierce, aggressive fighters on the battlefield. There are a few in particular I look for when we are opposing them, because I know the most ferocious fight will come from their part of the field. All compassion is gone, only a determined enemy there to wipe out the South. For many of our Georgia reenactments, and depending on the battle we are recreating, some of the Federals decide to fight like they were under W. T. Sherman and his ruthless band of soldiers.
For the Confederates, particularly at the reenactments here in the deep South, we are constantly in mind of the fact that this war was fought on OUR soil against our homes and families. We know when the Federals come through and man-handle the women, and raid the buildings (yes that is part of some of the reenactments- I’ve experienced it!), those were our women, homes, and lives destroyed. There is the feeling of the home guard, the last stand between victory and annihilation, and the last hope of keeping the Federals at bay. At times, there is desperation, at times anger, and at times, the intensity of “you will only get through over my dead body.”
For me, I become a mixture of modern times and the 19th century. My job as medical corps is to truly monitor our men and make sure everyone is okay, and that is real job in itself! But I also watch and act with those who are “wounded” by the battle, or get wounds of war, such as this last event where a guy “lost his leg” from a cannon shot. I jump in to determine if they are alive, dress the wounds, and see if I can get them back on the line or if they have to be moved toward the rear and medical care. My mindset is always on how to treat their wound with what I have, and what could have been done on the field, verses having to be performed in an actual hospital.
We act in ways we hope is both accurate and honoring to those who lived it. We set our mindset on the way the person we are portraying, or our ancestor, would have thought and felt. We strive to do our job well, whatever that role may be. We feel a great responsibility to make sure we tell the REAL story to the audience, and give the public some small taste of the real war, in all the unadulterated facts. Most of all, it is our passion that makes us who we are. Our passion for our history, our passion for honoring those who lived it, our passion for reenacting!
I hope this gives you a small look into the world of reenactors and all that we do. We are not simply people play-acting and shooting guns and cannons. There are many historians in our midst, and a love and connection to the history and to each other, which runs deeply through all of us.
*Please be sure to check out our photographers and the Reenactress Documentary! You can find them on Facebook, and you can find Reenactress Documentary here: https://www.facebook.com/reenactress/app/216201571807288/