Elements of Reenacting

What do camp fire smoke, sweaty wool, gunpowder, wet canvas, freezing cold, fainting heat, and the great outdoors all have in common? Well, if you are a living historian, they are all things you experience and love.

Yes, love.


Photo credit: Robert Carswell. Nash Farms Battlefield 2015-Atlanta Campaign


Some call us crazy, some call us impassioned, some say we live in the past (you think? ;D), some say that we can’t let go, and some say a whole lot of other things which shall not be repeated by a lady such as myself. Something special happens when one decides to become a living historian. We sign up for days of hardship, nights where one cannot get warm, heat that puts grown men down, marching in Brogans until our feet feel as though they will fall off, and days without running water, plumbing, or electricity. Yet, we thrive on it. We can’t get enough of it, and when there is an extended time between events, we miss it.

Kaitlyn, CSA at Old Clinton 2016

Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

We have a saying when someone comes to take part in an event and leaves with the passion coursing through their veins and a gleam shining in their eyes, that “they have been bitten.” At times we teasingly warn them that if not treated, it becomes a full-blown illness from which they cannot recover. My company teases me that I came in already “bitten,” and in a way, it was true. It had been slowly festering in me since my childhood with my first doses of living history, particularly with the War Between the States. Once I took the field at my first event as a reenactor, it was like a second dose. By that second event, there was no chance. I was hooked! It had bitten me so well that not only did I know it, but my company and reenactors from other companies could tell as well! Smells, and other sensory triggers that were once less than desirable, such as sweaty wool, now smell wonderful to me. Recently I drove by a location where they were clearing land and burning a pile of wood. That smoke wafted in through the air vents in my car with the fresh air, and all I could think about was being in the field with my company.


Photo Credit: Les Patton. Occupation of Sandersville.

These weekends are not only about the events, and the fun we have, they are about so much more. There is a brotherhood among many in the reenacting world, particularly among certain groups. There is a family bond for others, like those in my company. I have friends across company lines, and many of them are quite close. I talk to some of them weekly, if not several times a week! But we also realize we are there for a purpose. We don’t just go out there to play soldier or hang out with our friends, we go to honor those who went before us. We go to honor those who fought, sacrificed, and died- on both sides.


Photo Credit: Les Patton

My reason for being there is many-fold. First, I LOVE the history. I have been studying about it diligently for more than a decade and a half! Once that interest started, I have never fully been able to get over it. I have read, studied, explored, visited museums and battlefields, just because I love it. However, for me there is a special niche within the history that particularly holds my heart, and that is medicine. So many of the changes within the medical profession can be traced back to the War Between the States, whether surgically, women becoming nurses, the formation of an Ambulance corps, the skill of triage, creation of dog tags and so much more, all have their roots in the WBTS.


Second, depending on the event, I portray either a nurse, or medical corps. While I love nursing and think of these women I portray nearly like sisters, I find that I prefer being medical corps for many reasons. First of all, I get to be near the action. I hear the shouted commands, feel the concussion of the artillery, and I get a nose full of the smoke from the black powder as a volley is fired. I get to be in the thick of it, you might say. Being part of our medical response team, it also means that I am close to our guys if anything happens for real, and it certainly has! I am close enough I can monitor them and watch over them along with my fellow nurse, Lisa. But we are also there adding another layer to the event which was not present regularly, until the last year or so, and that is representing the wounds of battle and their care. Sure, guys would get “shot” and fall, and you would see many men “dead” on the field, but now we get to show the audience one small taste of what that carnage may have been like. Now they see guys go down and bandages applied with blood staining them, checking wounds, getting some men back on the line, and some drug to the rear. Some of our guys are good actors and will be screaming and writhing when they get hit and while we are treating them. We hear reports of audience members talking of how real it makes everything seem. All of a sudden, they aren’t watching a performance, it’s as though the guys really are shot and down. Suddenly the war seems just a little bit more real, and that makes it worth it!

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Surgery after battle and out of chloroform. Photo credit: Sheila Chasteen.

So how do all the smells I listed at the beginning apply? The campfire smoke means camp with your second family. It means evening time without the rush, sitting around the fire telling stories, trying to stay warm, or sharing our latest research so that everyone can learn from each other. It means food full of flavor, coming off the open fire and having a delightful meal.


Photo from Chuck Harris

Sweaty wool reminds us of marching, suffering under the heat, and a brotherhood brought about by mutual sacrifice and sometimes misery. It means living in our ancestor’s footsteps for a few days, and getting a very small taste of what it was like for them and all they suffered during this second War of Independence.

Chuck Loading rounds-Shelby edits

Photo Credit: Shannon Herron, edits by Shelby Chasteen.

Gunpowder means battle and fighting a common foe. It means adrenaline, fear, ire, and passion all rolled into one. It means trying to do justice to our ancestors in how they fought and who they fought, as well as how they died. It means dealing with the carnage of war in a safe place, where the buddy you just shot will get up once the battle is over, whereas our ancestors were at times fighting and killing their own flesh and blood.


Photo Credit: Les Patton

Wet canvas means days of camping in all kinds of weather. Rain, snow, heat, and glorious weather have all played upon those surfaces. It means a few days getting back to the basics and back to nature. It means a few days disconnected from the 21st century and its technology and being able to slow down, take a breath, and really live again.


Nash Farm Battlefield-Battle of LoveJoy Reenactment 2016

Freezing cold, fainting heat, and the great outdoors – well, that just means reenacting! Would I do it again? Absolutely. Every chance I can, whether through lectures, living histories, or reenactments. But as we must still hold down jobs and life in the 21st century, I am grateful for the chance to time travel several times a year, to spend time living before the era of technology, spending time with my second family, and getting back to the basics and one of the topics I truly love. Until my next event, I will have to remember the memories that are brought on by the smell of burning brush, or the black powder smell after fireworks are fired, or smelling the well-used (and full of odors) uniform coat that sits in my office even as I write this. Until then, I wish my reenactment family many blessings. To all of you, my readers, I hope I have inspired a passion for the history of this nation all the way back to its founding, and a gratefulness for all our ancestors- who sacrificed and died for their beliefs. To those who came before and fought this terrible war, both Federal and Confederate, I hope to continue to honor you well.


Being on the Battlefield

A common question I am asked is, “What is it like to be on the battlefield?” It’s a really good question, but not one that is easily answered. The answer varies depending on the battle, one’s position, and one’s rank.


For the basic enlisted soldier, the majority of their focus is on listening to the orders of their officers and NCOs and following them. Making sure they use their training and execute their orders well.


For Corporals, their job is to ensure safety, to maintain and dress the line, and complete whatever order the NCOs or officers give. They may have a squad of men assigned to them for whom they are responsible to oversee and lead.


Photo credit: Kellie Banks

Sergeants are responsible for holding the line, keeping the soldiers where they are supposed to be in the line, and are an alignment point for the line.


1st Sergeants maintain the stability, safety, and structure of the unit. They make sure everyone has what they need (a Sergeant or Corporal may do this for the men assigned under them as well). They watch what the Captain or Major are doing and make sure they have what they need, as well as trying to anticipate any needs or upcoming commands to be ready for them.


Photo Credit: Kellie Banks

Officers- roles of officers change with every rank. Captains are over Companies, Majors and Lt. Colonels are wing commanders. The Colonel commands the battalion. The officers read the enemy. They see what is coming and try to counter it. They have to think on their feet and command men, knowing the consequences of their commands – whether right or wrong. There is a certain pressure on them, because the lives of the men under them are completely in their hands.


Medical- Medical varies based on which role we are playing. A head surgeon or battalion surgeon is usually in the general hospital or the rear field hospital. A field surgeon may be on the field, but will be behind the line of battle, not on it (you hope. I have had the line of battle shift on me and end up right in the middle of the fighting). Vivandieres would also be behind the line of battle, but may be on the battlefield tending the wounded. Nurses would be in the hospitals, with a few exceptions, such as if one were portraying Clara Barton or Annie Etheridge, both of whom did take the to battlefield behind battle lines (these ladies were Union). Our job is to check the wounded, get them stable and back on the line, or to the hospital to the rear.


Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

For all of us, we learn and manage to navigate the terrain for each event, adjusting what we are doing to make sure orders are carried out correctly and we still stay safe. Everyone still feels the concussion of the cannon fire, quickly learning what to look for, and when to cover one’s ear for protection. We all quickly learn the sound of a musket volley, or fire by file and make minute adjustments as needed. The smell of gunpowder fills our noses, sounds fill our ears, and at times, senses start to overload if a lot is happening at once. It is easy to become lost in the moment, to truly be living in the battle with all the chaos, fighting, enemy movements, or hand-to-hand combat. There is excitement of the unknown, the horror of seeing fellow comrades fall.

Carrying the wounded-Shannon Herron

Photo Credit: Shannon Herron

When the first shots are fired, adrenaline kicks in. Our response varies based on our role and whether we are giving or taking orders. Some of us are more seasoned, so the musket fire does not affect us as much. Some are military veterans and the musket fire puts them back in the zone with which they are so familiar. For me, it depends on which role I’m playing. If I’m a soldier or medical corps, I’m ready for battle. I’m thinking both offense and defense. If I’m in a civilian role, it is a very different response. I know that army is coming, and I know they are up to no good. It means we need to hide our valuables, our food, our children, and if possible ourselves. The Yankees love to come in, steal our supplies and manhandle the women, who usually have no defense until the Confederate army arrives, most particularly when we are reenacting the battles in Sherman’s march to the sea.


Photo Credit: CR Studios BW Atlanta

As a soldier, there is a particular moment when the enemy begins advancing. You watch them, you study their movements and see what they are going to do, and as enlisted, you pray your officers will give the order for you to fight, and an order that won’t get you “killed.” When they enemy advances toward you and there have been no orders for your line to advance, you can feel the anxiety building. There is an instinct in all of us to want to fight back. Some feel our breathing speed up, some get a knot in their stomach, or sweaty hands. These feelings are intensified when we are facing an opposing line of reenactors we don’t know. We don’t know how they were trained, we don’t know what they can, or will do. There’s an added level of tension there because not only do the officers have to try to read the opponent and properly counter them, but on a more basic level, we realize there is a much more likely chance of someone getting hurt. When we fight and train together often, we begin to trust each other. We know what they know and they know us. We know what they are capable of, and that we all work hard to keep each other safe on the battlefield. When we have an unknown opponent, it is much more like fighting the war itself. We know they aren’t out to kill us (unlike the actual war), but we know there is a higher risk of someone getting hurt.


When our officers get fired up, and begin to fight an aggressive battle, that’s when it starts getting fun! There will be lots of movement, much more determination than a predictable battle. They move men back and forth, the opposing line trying to find a weak spot to breach the line. The musket volleys and artillery fire encourage the adrenaline and our resolve. We listen over the din of battle, we taste the sulfuric grains of black powder in our mouth as we rapidly tear open cartridges and load as fast as we can. The smell of smoke fills our nostrils as the cannon blasts wrack our bodies. The gunpowder hangs in the air like a blanket, cloaking some of the movements of our enemy. Thoughts run through our heads even as we execute the commands: Are you going to run out of ammunition before they are stopped? Are you going to die today?


Photo credit: Rebecca Partin

I’ve had a few heart-dropping moments when instances felt very real for me on the battlefield. My first was a moment fighting the battle for Atlanta, over a year into my reenacting experience. I had been in multiple battles and multiple roles by that time. During this battle, we were making our final assault on the Federal line, pushing them back hard. I was medical corps and thus on the field behind the line of battle. I had knelt down to tend one of the “wounded” when the lines clashed and moved right in front of me. As the lines collided, one Yankee private broke through the line and came right for me! As medical corps, I am considered a non-combatant, and therefore unarmed. I had no way to defend myself, and was on my knees tending a wounded soldier. I saw the Yankee private coming toward me, and in that instant, I knew I was done! If he got to me, there was nothing I could do. My heart jumped into my throat and my breathing increased all in one second. I tried to find a way to oppose him, but while he was just feet away and before I could get to my feet, one of my brothers in arms took him to the ground in epic style. I quickly looked to him, nodded my thanks, and went back to my duties with a big sigh and deep breath.


The second of these events was at our most recent reenactment. The battle had been going for some time, and I had been dispatched to the Confederate right flank. We were losing men as casualties, and I was checking them. With a yell and a charge, the Federals attacked our position. The lines quickly clashed, and the Federals were busting through in places before our men could shore up the line. One of the Federal officers (who is a friend of mine and fights fiercely) broke through the line with part of his company just feet from my position. All the emotions and the thoughts of that first experience came rushing back as this time many men broke through the line. I thought, “Boys, stop them or we are done!” Thankfully, our boys in gray came in before I was taken prisoner or killed.


Photo Credit: Shelia Chasteen

Other reenactors have stories upon stories to tell. Many nights we it around the fire and tell these stories to each other. If you have the opportunity, sit and talk with a reenactor and ask what it’s like. If it’s during an event, we will tell you in the first person of the character we are portraying. If it is outside an event, we will tell you about reenacting, the history, the art, and the skill of what we do. We love to share our passion with anyone who will listen or wants to learn, and we are always learning from each other!


I hope this blog has given you a little taste of what it’s like to be on the battlefield during the battle, with all the sights, smells, emotions, and experiences that comes with it! If you are near the middle Georgia region this weekend, be sure to stop in at Old Clinton in Gray, GA! They will be reenacting the battle of Sunshine farms, and the Battle of Griswoldville (part of Sherman’s march to the sea)!


Getting Into Character

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.


Photo Credit: Heidi Edge

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.


Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

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.


Photo Credit: Sheila Chasteen

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).


Photo Credit: Les Patton

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.


Photo Credit: Sherry Knight Frazier

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!!!


Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

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!)


Photo Credit: 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.


Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

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.


Photo Credit: Rebecca Partin

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.”


Photo Credit: Les Patton

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.


Photo Credit: Les Patton, Editing credit: Shelby Chasteen

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!


Photo Credit: Becky Maddox

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/


“You look so pretty!”

“Oh my gosh I want a dress like that!”

“Aren’t you hot?”

“How does your dress stay out like that?”

All of these are statements and questions we get as civilian reenactors representing middle to upper class women. While the dress looks very pretty, what most people don’t realize is that the secret is what is underneath.

During the Victorian era in the United States, a woman usually had on five to nine under pinnings. That’s five to nine layers UNDER the dress! I specify the location being here in the United States because in England, the ladies could be wearing far more, with layers and layers of petticoats as well as layers of skirts piled on. So, I’m going to let you in on the secrets. Gentlemen, you can step away here if you so desire. 😉

  1. The Chemise

This is a cotton layer which goes against the skin. It is usually cap sleeved or no sleeved with just straps, and ends somewhere between the lady’s hips and thighs in length. There may be detailing and trim around the neckline which will be scooped for comfort and to hide under the gowns. It is usually made of a thin cotton for comfort and breathing. It also adds comfort by providing a layer between the lady and the corset into which she is about to be laced, also allowing for some wicking of heat and moisture from her within the confines of the corset.


Lacing up the corset with chemise underneath. Photo shared by the corsetier, Larissa Boiwka. Miss James has her hair in rag curls.

  1. The Corset

These are not a thing of the past, at least not in the reenacting and living history world! The corsets are a mainstay of a woman’s wardrobe, whether one is in hoops, or a work dress with just a corded petticoat. These were the choice long before bras came to be. In addition to their obvious function, they helped a lady maintain her figure, provided the structure and shaping under her dress, and as I have found out through experiencing this at events, it helps distribute the weight of her hoops and skirts as she goes throughout her day. It is made of a thick fabric, boning which runs in strips from top to bottom providing the shaping and support, metal closures in the front, lacing to close, tighten and secure it in the back, and of course, special stitching and trim. No one may see it but the lady, her husband, and/or the woman who helps her dress, but it is nice to have that touch of femininity there, as you can see by these pictures shared by the corsetiere who created the corset for Hannah James on Mercy Street.


Shared by corsetiere Larissa Boiwka.

  1. The Corset Cover

This is another layer which went on top of the corset, made of either cotton or flannel (depending on the weather), but most often cotton. It would fit over the chemise and corset and was usually buttoned closed, generally coming down to the waist or top of the hips. This was to smooth the lines of the corset so they didn’t show through the dress, to prevent the corset from showing through a top such as a Garibaldi blouse, and ease how things fit rather than the corset rubbing against the dress all day.

  1. Pantaloons

We will leave the top for a moment and talk about the bottom half.

Pantaloons were loose pants made of thin cotton or of flannel material, which would be tied at the waist. They could be complete or crotchless in the back for ease of use in the outhouse or chamber pot. They would come down to the knee, calf or the ankle and either socks or stockings would be worn underneath. Trim or lace would usually adorn the bottom edge or bottom portion of the leg.

  1. The Cage or Hoop

A hoop is made of a material similar to boning, or metal bands which can be fastened with clips to hold them in place. This allows them to be adjusted to the size needed for a woman’s skirts. Hoops come in four to seven bone sizes, and their use varies depending on the size and weight of a woman’s skirts. For instance, a ball gown with many details and layers would be much heavier, and perhaps wider than her day dresses and would need a six to seven-bone hoop, whereas a day dress or tea dress would only require a 4-bone hoop.Cages can fit in this rule, or have many more rows. Cages are made where the hoop bands are fixed in place, and straps hold each hoop at its desired height and distance from the next. It is held in place by each strap attaching to a waistband, which the woman places around her waist and fastens it, usually with a button. A hoop skirt is usually a hoop which is made with the wires running through the fabric of a petticoat and is held up by the petticoat waistband. Today’s bridal hoops will give you an idea of the look.


Shared by Larissa Boiwka

  1. Under petticoat

Seeing as how the cage is only metal bands, held together with straps connected to a waist band, we have to preserve the lady’s dignity and modesty, so a smaller petticoat is worn underneath the cage to cover her. Particularly in case something devastating should happen, such as if she fell on her face and the contents under her skirt are exposed. (Oh my!) It would be made of cotton, linen, flannel, or even wool! Again, this would vary depending on the weather and climate.

  1. Over petticoat

Just as it sounds, the over petticoat goes on top of the hoop. This helps smooth everything over the bones of the hoop and give a nice appearance once the dress is added. For the hoop where bones are encased in the petticoat, this step would not necessarily be needed, as they are already in a petticoat. These petticoats could also be made of cotton, flannel, or wool as was needed for the temperature and climate. It might be detailed with tucks, or embroidery for femininity, or have flounces around the bottom to add bulk and hold out the skirt even more.

7a. Corded petticoat

If the lady were wearing an everyday or work dress, as we like to call it, she would not need a cage/hoop. In this case she would wear a corded petticoat. Corded petticoats are literally petticoats with cotton cords sewn into them in layers around the bottom and working their way up the petticoat. The size of the cords can range from fine to large, and can range from five to one hundred rows! The average is five to twenty rows, with larger cording used for the lesser number of rows, and the finer cording used for more rows. This cording causes the petticoat to stand out, thus holding the lady’s skirt out without her getting tangled in her skirts or having to wear a cage. In the reenactment world, we find this particularly helpful while we are cooking over the open fire, as we do not want to catch our skirts and cages on fire!

Corded petticoat

(Photo credit: etsy)

  1. Socks and stockings.

These are just as they sound. They could be made of many different materials and thicknesses, ranging from silk to wool. They would be worn under the pantaloons and of course, inside her shoes.

  1. Under sleeves.

If a lady were wearing a tea dress with pagoda sleeves, sometimes called bell sleeves, it would be inappropriate for her to show her wrists and forearms during the day time. Therefore she would wear under sleeves, which are worn over the arm within the bell sleeve. They are applied from the wrist to over the elbow and buttoned into place. They can be as plain as a simple buttoned cuff, or edged with ruffles or detailing. Not only do they add to the look of the dress, but they help her protect and maintain her fair complexion!


  1. Accessories.

No woman’s dressing is complete without the accessories. She would not go out without her collar if it is not part of the dress. Usually these were of cotton, silk, or whatever the dress was made of. However, due to the fact that they would have to be removed and cleaned well at each laundering and then sewn back in place, many women chose to go with crocheted or stitched collars which would be completely detachable and held in place by a broach. Also, no proper woman would be caught without her gloves, for it was entirely inappropriate for a woman to touch a man who was not her husband or relative with an ungloved hand. These gloves could vary from plain to detailed with trim, special fancy stitching, or be made of crocheted yarn. Depending on the dress and style, a lady might have removable or custom cuffs on her dress. Then there are also the details such as her fan, reticule, jewelry, bonnet, parasol, shoes, cloaks, capes, hair accessories, bonnets, and much more!

Hopefully now you can understand why it is MUCH easier for a woman in this era to dress with help, and why it generally takes a woman wearing hoops 45 minutes or more to dress! (I’ve done it in 15, but it was rush!).

So, the next time you see a lady in hoops, you now know that she has on between 6-9 layers, plus accessories besides her dress!

When people ask if we are hot, the answer is probably going to be yes, or in the winter we might be absolutely freezing!

“How does your dress stay out?” With a cage and lots of layers!

“How do you look so beautiful in it?” Well… we’ll just say thank you. Right ladies?


The Blossoming of a Nurse

WARNING: Spoilers!


In last week’s episode of Mercy Street entitled “Southern Mercy” (S2E4), I noticed something unique that happened to Miss Green. No, I’m not talking about finding out that her sister is a spy, I’m not talking about the kiss, I’m not even talking about when she had the courage to stand atop a wall while everyone else was pinned down by Confederate musket fire. It was near the end, and somewhat subtle. I wonder if you noticed it?


All photos in this blog from Mercy Street belong to PBS. No copyright infringement intended.

Miss Green and the Chaplain have successfully brought in wagons full of wounded Federal soldiers after the second battle of Manassas (Bull Run). After speaking briefly to the Chaplain, she turns, armed with a canteen full of water and a towel, and begins tending the wounded, not just focusing on the soldier in front of her, but directing the care of others.


If you watched the episode, you know her mother walked out of the hospital at just that moment, witnessing it. But in the actions that her mother saw as surrender and betrayal, I witnessed the blooming of a nurse.

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For those of you who haven’t watched the show, it follows the events of Mansion House Hospital in Virginia. Though the town was Southern and truly Confederate, the Federals had captured the city, and the hotel, which had been transformed into the Union Hospital. Miss Emma Green, oldest daughter of the Greens who owned the hotel, visits the hospital in Episode 1 and sees that the Confederate POW patients are not receiving the proper care and have no one nursing them. She asks permission to become their nurse. Throughout season one and into season two, we have seen Miss Green learn the basics of nursing, and be placed in a few harrowing situations for someone as innocent as the sheltered daughter of Southern high class business man– such as being made to assist with an amputation (S1E3). But as the Confederate wounded have dwindled, she has remained, and now nurses across the hospital, still focusing on the Confederate soldiers most of all.

She is no longer squeamish.


She has learned many skills along the way.

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But at the moment witnessed by her mother, she became a nurse. Not a woman who was helping with the nursing duties, but a nurse. Piles of wounded men sat before her, bleeding, in pain, and desperate. Suddenly, she no longer saw their uniforms. She jumped in, caring for the soldier before her, and overseeing the care of others, pulling in help, checking on the soldiers around her, instructing others how to help them. It was no longer “They’re Yankee, I’m Confederate,” or even “They are the enemy.” Now, they were just men in need of her help. She kept her head, her stomach, and her focus, providing the care that was needed. She kept the panic, the confusion of previous events, and the constant pressure of an overwhelming amount of need at bay as she worked. This is the making of a true nurse. She would have been in good company.


Many of the nurses whose names have been remembered from the War Between the States nursed soldiers on both sides. Some did not, only nursing the boys from their army, but many soon began to realize that, in this state these soldiers were wounded men first, and Union or Confederate second.

Kate Cumming started nursing after the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, and would continue to nurse throughout the south, particularly in Georgia, until the end of the war. She served as both nurse and matron, and would become one of the first professional female nurses in American History. She wrote in her journal on April 13, 1862:

“Quite a number of bunks arrived today, and we are having the most severely wounded placed on them… A doctor requested me to go downstairs and see if there was a bunk with a Federal upon it, and if so to have him taken off, as he had a badly wounded man that needed one. I went and asked Mrs. Royal, from Mobile, whom I had heard talk very bitterly. She knew of one, but would not tell me where it was. Her true woman’s nature showed itself, in spite of her dislike. Seeing an enemy wounded and helpless is a different thing from seeing him in health and in power. The first time I saw one in this condition every feeling of enmity vanished at once. I was curious to find out who the Federal was, and, as Mrs. R would not tell me, I went in search of him. I found him with but little trouble; went to the men who were upon the bunks, and asked them where they were from. One, quite a youth, with a childish face, told me that he was from Illinois. I knew in a moment that he was the one. I asked him about his mother, and why he had ever left her. Tears filled his eyes, and his lips quivered so that he was unable to speak. I was deeply moved myself, spoke a few words of comfort, and left him. I would not have had him give up his bunk for the world. Poor child! There will be a terrible day of reckoning for those who sent you on your errand, and who are the cause of desolating so many hearts and homes.”

Kate was not unique in this way, though she may have seemed so to those not in the midst of the carnage. Somehow, in disasters and war, all pretenses are stripped away, and we are only left with our faith, and our humanity. Many lose this, and become as monsters. Others cling to it, and we see them change a little piece of the world for the better.


A bigger name than Kate Cumming is Clara Barton. Though she was attached to the Army of the Potomac, she was known by all to nurse fallen soldiers on both sides of the war. She said she didn’t see (or care) about the color of the boy’s uniform, only that he was wounded and needed help. She responded to any and all wounded she could reach, and was one of the few nurses who would respond to the battleground triaging and caring for the wounded as soon as the battles were over, as well as nursing and assisting the surgeons in the field hospitals. Yes, she did even help with amputations. In her poem “The Women Who Went to the Field,” she gives us a picture of what these men endured:

“…That the place for the women was in their own homes,

There to patiently wait until victory comes.

But later, it chanced, just how no one knew,

That the lines slipped a bit, and some ‘gan to crowd through;

And they went, – where did they go? – Ah; where did they not?

Show us the battle, – the field, – or the spot

Where the groans of the wounded rang out on the air

That her ear caught it not, and her hand was not there,

Who wiped the death sweat from the cold, clammy brow,

And sent home the message; – “‘T is well with him now”?

Who watched in the tents, whilst the fever fires burned,

And the pain-tossing limbs in agony turned,

And wet the parched tongue, calmed delirium’s strife

Till the dying lips murmured, ” My Mother,” ” My Wife”!

And who were they all? – They were many, my men:

Their record was kept by no tabular pen:

They exist in traditions from father to son. …”

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Kate and Clara are by no means the only ones, but simply used here as an example of them all. There were many others who saw beyond the color of the person’s uniform, or the color of their skin, and took care of the man underneath. As Doctor Foster stated in Season one, “They ALL bleed red!”

So on that note, we will say thank you to every woman who became a nurse, to every doctor who mended the broken, to every person who saw beyond the color barrier and through to the person, to every woman who paved the way for professional women nurses, and to every person who never forgot that God created all men equal, and that He loved each and every one enough to send His Son to die in their place so that they might be restored to Him, and live with Him for eternity, we say thank you.

And to all our nurses throughout time, we thank you!


If you have enjoyed this blog and the topic, be sure to keep your eyes open for an upcoming article! (Hint hint!)


[Housekeeping note: I am by no means endorsing “Mercy Street.” In fact, there are some things included in the show that I literally have to fast forward and cannot watch as a Christian, and I do so. However, I will say that the medical parts of the show thus far have been quite accurate, and I can tell that they have worked closely with their medical and medical historian advisors. As a medical historian myself, for that I am grateful. In the event that you chose to watch the show, please keep these notes in mind and then make your own decision.]

Note to my readers

Dear faithful readers,

I want you all to know how much it means to me, knowing I get to touch your lives in one small way; and how much I love getting your notes, shares, and posts both here and on Facebook! ❤

I hope you will bear with me a little this week. It seems due to some scheduling issues, getting another article to my publisher (be sure to pick up the Citizens’ Companion, Camp Chase Gazette, and Civil War Courier–they are wonderful War Between the States Publications to which I contribute), and several recent speaking engagements on Medicine during the War Between the States-the next one being tomorrow- it seems there will be a slight delay in getting this months blog online. I hope that you will bear with me and look for the blog when it is posted a little later. As always, I hope it is something you will enjoy and/or find educational. Something I have well learned is that we never stop learning, or at least, we never should.

I hope you all have a fine, God-inspired day down here in Dixie, and yes, the same to my few readers up North!


~The Southern Belle 😉


One of the things I have come to love as a living historian, is the opportunity to present and lecture. Thanks to a series of events that only God could have orchestrated, in 2015 I attended a talk at our local SCV meeting about Civil War anesthesia and the medical service on both sides of the war. At that gathering I met the program chair, and after a few minutes of talking, he invited me to speak to the SCV the coming year. I took him up on the offer. He asked me to speak on a very narrow topic of the war-Confederate women in nursing. This meant that I had to hone my studies and fill in gaps in the research I had been gathering for years, for I had focused on a much wider area. Eighteen books later, I had a significant amount of information for that lecture and another I was building. In between my invitation and time to speak, I continued to attend meetings and learn from others. At one of these meetings on a very dark stormy night, while walking around in an air cast with a torn leg (yes, I went reenacting on that leg too, I was just limited to camp), I met the guest speaker of the meeting that month-Lt. Col. Shelor, history professor at Georgia Military College. After a short talk, we exchanged emails, and he then asked me to speak for his class. This was the foundation for the second lecture I was building, as well as a good friendship!

April 2016 came, and it was time to present at the SCV. I came in period attire, and had a few of the ladies from my company attend – also dressed in period clothing. A 30-minute slot turned into 45 minutes with all the questions at the end. My nervousness at ensuring I had the proper resources and references sited disappeared as I received a standing ovation and I realized I was on to something. You can see the video of the presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwBM2aKocas&t=229s


A few weeks later, I found myself standing in front of a history class at Georgia Military College and watched from the front of the room as these military cadets and community members soaked up the information I was presenting. I have had the blessing of lecturing for their history classes every quarter since!


This opened the doors for me to go into other schools – elementary, middle, and high schools – and to receive other lecturing opportunities. Most often, I do it in period dress, and bring instruments and supplies with me in order to make the information real to those attending. I most recently lectured at a middle school, and the children’s eyes grew large as they came in the room and saw my bloody bandages on the table! Of course, they had to ask if the blood was real 😉


Presenting before 48, fifth-graders!


There are many reasons I love presenting and lecturing on the War Between the States. First, I get to share my passions with others, and hopefully spark their interest in the subjects that captivate me. Every event I attend, whether as a speaker, living historian, or reenactor, people stop and ask to take my picture in period clothing. I always say yes, because, if I can spark even one person’s interest in our era, or the people of the time, then I have made an impact.

Second, I get to have a hand in sharing the true, unadulterated history with adults and students alike. So much of our history has been rewritten, as the saying goes, “History is written by the victors.” But when I can present what was said by those who were living through the war, who were writing down what was happening, why, and how it was affecting them, or their thoughts on it, I feel I am able to give a much more accurate representation of our forefathers. My goal is always to present them as they were, with the thoughts and motivations they themselves expressed. We cannot fully understand what happened, how it affected people, or the reasons why, if we do not read and examine what they actually said.


With one of my former professors from undergrad. He came to hear me speak to his local SCV meeting.

Third, my passions fall in a niche covered by very few people. I focus primarily on the medicine during the War Between the States. Because of my medical background here in the 21st century, I am able to assimilate the information, and then present it in a way the average person can understand, while at the same time connecting what was done then, and why, to the medicine of today.


Fourth- I LOVE making history come alive. I hear so many people say, “I hate history, it’s so boring.” It saddens me when I hear that, because I think, “No one ever made history come alive to them.” That was something my parents really ensured during our formative school years. We did field trips, dressed in the clothes of the time, played in mom’s hoops, cooked over open fires, made dishes from Colonial America to around the world, and learned many of the skills of former eras. I did not realize at the time my hands were working, and my mind being filled with new experiences and information, what a treasure I was receiving. All of these things turned me into a history NUT!


I found this in a Confederate cemetery in Madison, GA.

In high school I bought a whole batch of out of print books on medical men throughout history including William Harvey, Daniel Hale Williams, Edward Trudeau, Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur, and many more. I would write report after report on these men, what they discovered, and how. Even so, I never seemed to get too far away from the War Between the States. Florence Nightingale books sat on my bookshelf (an English nurse known for changing the face of British military medicine and establishing women as nurses during the Franco Prussian War, while serving at Balaclava Hospital in Scutari), but so did those of Clara Barton, Annie Etheridge, and Mother Bickerdyke.


Kate Cumming, Confederate nurse 1862-1865

As I studied, I realized that the advancements in medicine were morphing from a crawl during ancient times through the 1700s, to an explosion in the 1800s and particularly the 1860s! The necessities of war created extreme difficulties for the medical staff, but also provided great opportunities. When supplies ran out and the wounded just kept coming, they had to find new ways to treat them, and thus new medicines and treatment methods were born. As they realized the horrible toll the war was having on the men of each nation both physically and economically (we were divided countries at the time, though not widely acknowledged by the Union), then the thought was given to whether there were options other than amputation for damaged bones, and excision was discovered. Now, the majority of the time, amputation was required due to the type and extent of the bone damage because of the weaponry of the time. But by the end of the war, the surgeons had established the validity of excision –removing the damaged part of the bone and putting the ends back together so it could grow as one again, leaving the soldier with a shorter leg or arm, but one that worked- and by the end of the war, the method had been proven valid and would be included in surgical textbooks.


Anesthesia had been discovered in 1842 in the little town of Jefferson, GA, but at the beginning of the war, there were still numerous anesthesia related deaths. However, as the war progressed and the surgeons and medical staff learned the medication, the complications, and the warning signs of overdose, the fatality for anesthesia overdose had dropped to nearly zero. These are just a few of the changes in medicine due to the war!

Fifth- I like getting people to think. Seeing the students’ eyes well in surprise, their faces grimace with the thought of what the average soldier endured, or see their eyes start to gleam as pieces fall into place, and seeing the internal light bulb go on as their interest is sparked, makes all the time and energy worth it! If I can help just one person per event see the world in a different light, and understand our history in the true form as stated by those who lived it, then it is more than worth it!


Explaining to the girls about ladies clothing from the 1860s and what made my “princess dress” stand out, as they called it!


She was so excited she had to run back and give me a hug before they left!

I look forward to my upcoming speaking engagements, to meeting so many new people, and continuing to bless others with the passion the Lord has given me for history, and medicine during the War Between the States.

The Pain of Leaving

The call sounded, drums beating in the background, men pulling on uniforms and leather as fast as their fingers would allow. NCOs started shouting as feet hurried by and muskets were brought to arms. The enemy had been spotted and a battle was imminent.

A scout had ridden into camp a short time before with a report. The enemy was just a few miles away, and their number was larger than ours. They would be coming down the nearby road and they planned to destroy the bridges we needed to get our artillery and supplies across if we were going to continue the push toward the North. With the report received, moments later the Colonel gave orders and the camp became alive with activity, like someone had kicked over an anthill.


Photo credit: David Brooker

The last of the men ran for the line as the flap to the officer’s wall tent was thrown back, and my sweetheart stepped out. He came around the tents to the fly, pulling on his coat and buttoning each brass button as he prepared for battle.

“This is goodbye. I may not see you after this.”

He buttoned the last button and tied his crimson sash around his waist, securing his sword belt on top. Then he stepped forward and wrapped me in a hug. Not too tight, nor too long, but one that lingered even as he pulled away. Stepping back, he looked at me with eyes deeply full of expression. Love, pain, and uncertainty all crowded together there. I knew he wondered if he would make it off the field alive or ever see me again. With one more long look at me, he turned toward the battlefield and his men.

I took two steps after him and stopped. I could not follow him, though I wanted to. I had to urge him forward. “Stay alive, you hear! Stop those Yankees, and do us proud!” I called after him. With a slight hesitation in his step, a quick look over his shoulder, and an almost unnoticeable nod to me, he was gone.

I stood there for a moment as emotions reeled through me. I knew what I had seen in his eyes. I wanted him to come back, to walk back off that battlefield after the dust had settled and right back into my arms. I wanted him to avoid the battle that may very well claim his life and come back to me now, but his men needed him to lead them. I was also proud of him for fighting- fighting to rid our land of the leeches known as the Union Army, fighting for our freedom, fighting… for me. My heart willed him forward as my mind screamed for him to come back. My stomach rolled as fear nearly consumed me, rising more as the last column of soldiers disappeared from view.

Soft, but strong arms enveloped me. “Have faith, Dearie. Never lose faith.” I rested my head against Martha’s cheek as the other camp followers joined us, also willing their men forward, knowing that some of our number might be widows by nightfall.

Martha gently stroked my hair. “Be strong, Dearie, and pray. The Lord may see fit to return him to you.”

I held Martha tight. I didn’t know if I could do this. After losing everything to a Yankee raid, my parents killed and our home looted and burned to the ground at their hand. Then surviving the journey to find him, and finally getting approval to be a camp follower due to Martha generously sharing her tent and taking responsibility for me, an unwed woman in camp. I couldn’t lose him now. He and Martha were all I had left in the world. Well, and the other women I guess. Dear Martha. She had become like a mother to me these last hard weeks. Now, with my head resting against her cheek, her soft but sure arms around me, I knew I had a decision to make. I had to decide if I was in this for good; if I could survive watching him go into battle after battle. He had a job to do, and so did I.

“Lord, encamp your angels around him. Train his arms for battle and his fingers for war. Give him wisdom and bring him home to me.”

“Amen,” the other women murmured around me.

I didn’t know how I would do it, but I suddenly knew I was in this fight until the end. Whether that was doing laundry and cooking, nursing, or becoming his wife as we had planned. I would be there as long as my man lived. I straightened, turned toward Martha and looked her in the eye. With a soft and trembling smile, she wiped the tears from my eyes. “You are going to make it, Dearie.”

I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight. “Yes, I will,” I whispered in her ear. “Thank you.”

She pulled away and held me at arms length, studying me for a moment. “Well then, shall we make preparations for their return?” I knew she was asking me to step out in faith as she had done month after month of this war, watching her son walk into the fray time and again until she lost him, and then staying to take care of “the rest of my boys.”

I looked into the compassionate eyes of this dear woman and nodded. Taking her hand, we walked into the camp.


Night fell, and campfires blazed. The battle was over, but with it came the influx of tired, hungry men, discouraged men, and of course, the wounded. It had been a costly victory. Around the corner stood the hospital tent, the doctors working ferociously to save the wounded. I couldn’t bring myself to enter it, to see the blood and the mangled bodies altered by surgery. But I couldn’t leave them suffering either. Martha and I had made broth during the battle. With pails laden full of the life-giving fluid, I walked between the wounded, gently holding my ladle to each man I passed. Some drank thirstily. Some choked it down. Others were too weak to swallow. I prayed they could be helped. Dipper after dipper of broth was offered until my legs trembled and my back ached fiercely. So many of our men were down, but thankfully, I hadn’t found him among them…yet. The campfires cast eerie shadows all around, at times, making men appear as ghosts.

A shadow approached me, but it appeared like all the others, just shadows passing in the night. Then it stopped. “Darlin’?”

I froze. That was his voice! I looked around quickly, praying he wasn’t among the wounded and I had missed him. My eyes settled on the shadow near me. He stepped into the light and I cried for joy. He was filthy, covered in dirt and gunpowder, the acrid acidic smell clinging to him. Sweat had run tracks of flesh tone through the dark shades that covered his skin. But he was alive!

Escaped hair hung in my face, I was completely disheveled, and tears slid down my face as my whole body trembled in relief. There was so much I wanted to say, but could not get the words out as my knees began to shake. He stepped forward and took hold of my arms, keeping me on my feet. My eyes brimmed with tears I could not contain. His face was blotchy in black and brown tones, but to me, he never looked more handsome. I touched the side of his face and smiled. I saw things haunting him behind his eyes, but I was so glad he was there. Suddenly, he took full possession of me, wrapping his arms around me and kissing me as he never had before. In that moment, I knew the very instant we were allowed to get married, I would say, “I do.” He was in this for the long haul, and so was I. Whatever it took to rid our land of those horrible Yankees and to keep him going, I would support. With a look to Martha, standing amongst the wounded with a gentle smile on her face, I laid my head on his shoulder, and stood, united with the man who held my heart.


Though this story is purely a work of my imagination, it was inspired out of a set of questions. “What did the women feel when their men left for war? How did it affect them? What was the emotional toll on these women? How did the family members among the camp followers respond after watching their men walk into battle after battle? We know of many women-wives, daughters, and sweethearts, who followed the army during the war, particularly during the first half of the war. Though there were other camp followers, including sutlers, the nurses from the Sanitary Commission or Christian Commission on the Union side, nurses and nuns on both sides, Vivandières – such as Annie B. Etheridge on the Union side, and Sarah Taylor or Lucy Ann Cox on the Confederate side, women of ill-repute, laundresses and more. I have chosen to focus on the wives and sweethearts and a small part of what they went through.

When most people think about the War Between the States, they think about the battles, the generals, the bloodshed, slavery, or the wounded. I find that many times, the home front, and the sacrifices of the family are forgotten. As we enter this month where we cherish our family time and family memories, let us not forget all that these women sacrificed in their fight for freedom.

Building the Uniform Shirt

Being the chameleon of our unit, as I like to call myself, means that I have to learn many details of many roles. It is something I thoroughly enjoy! But that also means that I have to learn the dress of each role, and since I am personally building my kit, that also means I also have to learn how to make it.


After successfully tackling my tea dress, altering my hoops, and making a petticoat from scratch, it was time to change my focus. Now I had to start building my kit for medical corps/soldier. I knew I would eventually have to purchase my own uniform, as I was currently borrowing one. So I started with the uniform shirt.


Being a small-framed woman portraying a man comes with lots of challenges. First of all, all the uniforms and shirts are too big for me! So now I had to figure out how to make one according to the 1860s patterns which would fit me, and still be large enough that I could hide the curves of my feminine form.


I’ll go ahead and confess that this journey was a lot harder and more involved than it should have been. I have spent plenty of times shaking my head (and sometimes muttering along the way), laughing at myself, drinking extra cups of tea, and many late nights up, or multitasking to complete this project!

I had finally found a fabric and buttons I loved that were the right color scheme for me, from a sutler at the battle of Olustee. It’s surprisingly difficult to find the right colors for a winter coloring skin tone in homespun or period correct cloth. I had found a plaid with a true red and a taupe, instead of yellow-brown, background. It had a gentle pewter stripe in the plaid. The sutler had genuine pewter buttons that worked beautifully with it. I purchased them and tucked them away in my gear until I could get to them.




Since I am building my kit and doing these events on a shoestring budget, I didn’t buy my own pattern, but borrowed one with muslins from a friend. Weelllllll, here’s the thing: The pattern was from the 1860s-where they expected you to already understand how to sew with those patterns and have the basic skills of the time, so there is a lot they do not tell you, unlike patterns of the 20th century.


The first picture is supposed to be the layout and show you the body is one piece, but cut after multiple folds!

Secondly, the muslins she had included were cut down to her husband’s size, and then cut down from there to her son’s size, and I was trying to figure out which piece was which over the phone! Talk about some head-scratching and comedic moments!



A very good friend of mine owns her own costume shop and does lots of historic clothing (shout out to Mary!). She came over one day while I was drafting my pattern off the various pieces, and she reminded me that while I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m a woman, I am still very curvy and that means I had to take those curves into account in cutting the pattern the right size. Whew! What a lifesaver!


Thinking I had about figured everything out, had added just a bit of ease in the hem for my hips (thankfully that would be hidden in my uniform trousers), pinned everything where the patterns would completely match, I started cutting. Feeling quite pleased with myself that now the shirt was finally underway, I began pinning the pieces together, only to realize with horror that I had flipped the pattern and put the seam down the center of the shirt and not the side seam! It was time for another cup of tea…

After a walk, a prayer, and the tea, I picked up the pieces and stared figuring out how I was going to fix this mess. Thank the good LORD I had made sure the pattern matched when I cut it out. I realized that since the pattern was a clear plaid, I could match the pattern and hopefully no one would notice (except, of course, now I’m spilling the beans on myself!). After several hours of careful folding, aligning, and pinning, I warily stitched the first seam. It worked!!! Even I could barely tell it had been matched and patched. On to the next side. This one did have to be adjusted due to some shifting during the stitching, but with a few more moments of ripping out, repining and re-sewing, it passed inspection as well.

Realizing that my mistake had been assuming the curve for the neck had been for armholes (they didn’t do that in the 1860s apparently), I had to recheck every other piece. I realized that the body of the shirt was supposed to be cut out as ONE PIECE! Oh no… Well, a few more adjustments and the shoulders came together. I finally put that piece aside and turned my attention to the other pieces. Needless to say, I did NOT want to see the body of that shirt for a day or two!


The next logical step seemed to be the sleeves. Again, since I am a small woman, I had to do adjustments on the sleeves both in size and length. The original sleeves were huge on me! With some careful adjustments, triple checked this time, I cut out the sleeves. I got the length correct! But for some reason the sleeves still seemed to swallow me. I took about an inch and a half off both sides at the seam edge of the sleeves and they fit more smoothly to the size of my arm. I would later find out that it had been right to begin with and wish I had left it alone! The extra space in the sleeves keeps it from clinging to you, and gives more air room, and a cooling factor to the shirt. Since I would trial my shirt for the first time at the Alma living history weekend when it was 93 degrees with a heat index of 103 and very high humidity, I sure was wishing I had that room in my sleeves!


I went through a lot of this elixir!

Gusset in place (this is a diamond shaped piece inserted at the top of the sleeve seam to give more room), and sleeves seamed, I placed them on the shirt body. I was starting to feel a little better about the project. It was actually starting to look like a shirt.


Next, I turned to the collar. Thankfully, the collar, which had been for the son, was the right size for me. Cutting it out with nearly matching patterns, I was able to quickly stitch the two sides of the collar together. But before I could put it in place, I had to attach the plackets to the opening of the shirt. Due to my mistake earlier, I already had a clean, straight line for the opening. All I had done was leave the seam open a little bit and we were ready to go! I had stopped by my friend’s house on a trip nearby and had her look at my fiasco, and then look at the plackets with me. I did not want any more problems! After struggling with it for a while, we figured out what they wanted and I was able to go home and produce it. Once I played with it, I realized that it was actually quite easy. The pieces for the plackets incase the seam of the opening, and provide a place for the buttons and button holes, allowing the shirt to close all the way. Once each side was in place and securely stitched down, I could turn my attention to the collar.



By this time I was heading to Florida for a week-long school and I knew I was going to need the shirt shortly after that, so pattern, pieces, and a small sewing kit went with me. On a few evenings after class I sat in my hotel room and stitched away. I was so thankful I was familiar with and skilled at hand stitching, because I used it!


The pattern stated the collar began and ended at the plackets in the front, the back being slightly pleated if need be to gather the fullness. As I worked from the ends toward the back to adjust in the fullness, I realized with a sinking heart, that the neck hole was too big for me. I had to pleat the fabric all around the back of the collar, adjusting and readjusting it several times until it was tolerable. But what I realized as I tried it on with the collar stitched in place, was that by doing so, I had caused the back of the neck to be bulky, and with the extra pleating, it had shortened the back of the shirt. I didn’t have time to change it at that time, nor the extra fabric while I was out of town, so I turned to the cuffs.


Thankfully, I had correctly figured out the right size for my cuffs, as those pieces are not included with the pattern! One was just supposed to “know” what size they were and cut out the rectangle to that size. A little playing and finagling, and I figured it out right. Now, sitting in my hotel room, I hand stitched the cuffs into place, leaving a little ‘V’ opening between the bottom of the cuff and the seam of the sleeve so there was room to roll up my sleeves. Seams of the cuff openings and the hem were rolled and stitched closed. Three buttons down the front and one on each sleeve and I almost had a shirt!


I finished my school in Florida and drove back to Georgia and almost straight to the Battle of Resaca. After a few snafus, I arrived to camp early Sunday morning. Waiting for the guys to get back from morning parade, I stitched like crazy trying to complete buttonholes. After church there was a medical demonstration, and while standing outside the tent listening to the presentation, I continued to stitch the buttonholes one loop at a time. I didn’t quite finish it in time, but I had made progress.


Just two weeks later we were heading to Alma. In the few nights before leaving I stayed up until ungodly hours throwing the last buttonholes and details in the shirt, trying to make sure it was ready for the weekend, knowing I was going to need it.


Once down at Alma and in the blistering, heat-exhaustion weather, I realized my many mistakes: the sleeves were too small, the collar was not right with the bulkiness from as much as it had needed to be pleated, I had not left the opening at the cuffs large enough to truly roll up my sleeves. I was STUCK. My wonderful company was very patient with me as I lifted collars, played with sleeves and saw how all of their shirts were constructed; getting all the information I needed to fix my near-fiasco.


Can you tell how hot it was? This was in the shade under the fly!


Drilling in the heat before battle.


Due to frustration and a very large workload, I took several weeks off from the shirt. It sat patiently waiting for me to come back to it. So, once the frustration had burned off, and the workload had slightly diminished, I picked up the shirt, tore the majority of the collar off and once again started matching the pattern, this time on the back side of the neck. I matched all the patterns, cut a second piece for the inside to encapsulate the raw edges, and stitched it in place, carefully checking that the patterns remained matched. Once I knew they were, I cut the excess off, and figured out the new curve for the neckline-the one that fit me.


Matching patterns

Once that was in place, the collar quickly and easily went back in place-even stitching by hand! I also opened the seam at the wrists farther, so that there was enough room to roll up the sleeves and have mobility. I timidly put the shirt on once again to see the results of my work. For the first time in the process, the shirt FIT RIGHT! Oh how happy I was! It was just in time too, for I threw the now-finished shirt in my bag, finished packing and headed to the next reenactment, which was starting our Fall Campaign. Boy did it get a trial by fire that weekend! Two battles, multiple medical emergencies, weather so hot men were going down for real, field hospital medical demonstration, and then breaking camp in the pouring rain. I was happy to see how well it held up, and will proudly be wearing it at our next major reenactment!




Thankfully, with all the problems I had with the creation of this shirt, I now know this pattern inside and out! You might be wondering if I will ever make this pattern again. The answer is yes. First of all, once I knew everything was right, I drafted a new pattern with all the RIGHT sizes, appropriate markings and notes so that I don’t repeat this fiasco a second time. Also, now that I know the problems, I can avoid them, and suspect that I could build another fairly quickly, or as quickly as one can go while stitching by hand.


I hope you all have enjoyed this blog and all the trouble I got myself into! If you want to see the infamous shirt, be sure to come to one of our reenactments! Should you ever want to make one, be sure that if I can, even with all my 20th century sewing knowledge and all my fiascos, you can too. Especially now that you know what NOT to do! 😉


I would like to give a very special thank you to Lt. Col. Edward Shelor and the faculty and staff at Georgia Military College for inviting me to speak to several classes about Medicine during the War Between the States.

And a special thank you to the cadets and students of the American History class for being such an attentive and interactive class, and for making me feel so welcome!img_1459img_1461img_1453img_1454