Civil War Top 100

Civil War Reenacting

o you consider yourself a student of the American Civil War? Have you ever felt a desire to somehow travel back in time, or tried to imagine what it would be like to actually be there and experience it all first-hand?

If your answer is "yes," then you already have the most important trait of a good reenactor. Now, you simply need to acquire the proper uniform and equipment, learn the drill, and immerse yourself in living the life of a common soldier. All of these are attainable for a modest investment of time and money.

Civil War living historians offer many reasons for doing what they do; reasons nearly as numerous as the 40,000 Americans who participate in reenactments. Many pursue that elusive moment of psuedo time travel when:

  • Blinded by drifting clouds of gunsmoke and deafened by the thunder of cannon, they suddenly catch a glimpse of the enemy's line ahead, rifles aimed and ready, and suddenly feel genuine alarm.

  • The column of fours they are marching in extends not only 50 yards in front of them, but 300 yards behind; just like the other column that is marching parallel to theirs.

  • Reveille at 5:00 a.m. and that first sip of oily campfire coffee from a tarnished tin cup are events they anticipate and savor rather than dread and curse.

Others take pleasure in the brief respite provided by an atmosphere free of laptops and smart phones; of nights when the only light available comes from the living glow of campfires and candles instead of a hi-def TV screen. They enjoy the unique camaraderie found at the end of the company street.

A good reenactor is much more than a weekend warrior dressed in a properly made wool uniform and loaded down with all kinds of equipment, sweating it out in 90 degree heat surrounded by hundreds of others similarly attired. A good reenactor has a mysterious longing to come as close to possible to the experiences, feelings, joys and sorrows of those who served in Civil War armies.

What is lovingly referred to as the hobby appeals to the amateur historian in all of us, for there is no better way to study and appreciate history than to live it. But just as important is the task of keeping this history alive for others rather than allowing it to be consigned to the dusty shelves of libraries. Reenactors bring Civil War times back to life at three major types of events:

  • Battle Reenactments are scripted recreations of actual Civil War engagements and normally open to admission-paying spectators. The positions and movements of Union and Confederate troops mirror, as much as numbers and terrain allow, the original battles. Since they are taken from history, outcomes are known in advance, but opposing commanders meet before the first shots are fired to coordinate movements. Still, there is always an element of uncertainty; communication under fire is difficult and orders can be misunderstood. Reenactments can vary greatly in size, with New England events typically drawing between 100 and 500 soldiers, and larger national events attracting thousands.

  • Living History Events such as encampments, parades and school programs can seem rather mundane and are sometimes referred to as "Civil War petting zoos," but offer great opportunities to share knowledge and skills with people who might otherwise not understand or appreciate the sacrifices that volunteer soldiers endured for their country. Living history events also help units recruit new members and raise money for historic preservation. In fact, marches to raise money for efforts to protect Civil War battlefields from development are an increasing focus of many living historians.

  • Tacticals are unscripted battles, generally not open to spectators, that challenge reenactors to use their training to outwit the opposing army. The objective is to maneuver for position or achieve some stated goal. On a larger scale, with several hundred soldiers involved, there can be considerable uncertainty and excitement as units seek to take bridges, ford streams under fire, or slip around enemy flanks in dense woods. Tacticals separate the best-drilled companies and battalions from the rest.

Fair warning: reenacting is addictive and will change your life. You will begin to read history from an entirely different perspective; that of the private soldier who has shouldered a rifle and slept on the ground.

At its worst, Civil War reenacting can be just about the most uncomfortable activity imaginable. Yet you will find yourself anticipating the next event as you travel home from the one you just attended. You will come to enjoy the pungent aroma of wet wool, and, if you are willing to let it happen, experience some of the magic of time travel that living history offers. It only gets better with each passing year.

One thing upon which most reenactors agree is that ultimately, the Civil War was the baptism of one nation by the blood of two. Without the tragedy of this conflict, there would be no United States, nor any of what this great nation has since come to stand for. God Save the Union!

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