Saturday, April 29, 2006

Cool group site of the week

This week's cool group site is the 26th NC Infantry Web site. It may not be laden with pretty graphics, but it's a goldmine of information. This group is one that I pulled a brief stint with in the mid-eighties. Have some great memories with the guys in this group, especially of the 125 Manassas and Shiloh events. I can daresay that the 26th has done the best job documenting their subject regiment of any active reenacting group today. My hat's off to you guys - keep up the great work.

Friday, April 28, 2006

All for fun

Looking through my old WW2 reenacting photos, I'm reminded that some of my best memories weren't on the reenacting field, but rather, off of it. Nothing is truer than with WW2 reenacting. Compared with CW reenacting, WW2 tended to have more fluid action, and was therefore more physical. You didn't keep battle lines, but you formed up in your squad or platoon. And you kept on moving. And moving... and moving. Needless to say, you were tired afterwards and needed a way to blow off the rest of your steam.

The Battle of the Bulge reenactment at Fort Indiantown Gap, PA was the best place to get tired and blow off some steam. Mitchell's Tavern holds a special place in my heart as the best time I wasn't expecting to have. The resulting affair was known to the Old Hickory Association as the "Battle of Mitchell's Tavern". Here's an except from a small narrative, filled in by memory:

A few of the guys and myself were settling down after a grueling day on the field. The Germans got the best of us all day long, and we just wanted to grab a couple of cold frostys and call it a day. But it wasn't to be this night.

The affair started out with one of our guys getting some stars in his eyes for the dame pictured here on the left. She had a silky voice that beckoned a weary soldier to listen.... intently. Swept in the moment, he didn't notice that disaster was lurking nearby. In the form of some big lunk from the 1st Special Service Force, or otherwise known as The Devil's Brigade.

Thinking that a regular infantryman was an easy mark, the brute horned in on our guy's action, with both his ham-sized hands! But the fellow from the ill-named Devil's Brigade had a fight on his hands, as witnessed by the photo on the left. The band kept playing, and singer seemed impressed by something.

The brute and our guy tussed about, and fisticuffs were thrown, but before someone was able to call the MPs, it seemed that the apple of these guys affection fled somewhere else.

Where to you might ask? Take a guess.

Officers always get the luck!

Happenings like at Mitchell's Tavern don't happen all the time, but when they do, they tend to be memory-makers. So if you happen wander into a place like Mitchell's Tavern, raise a glass for the boys in the 30th Division, or to any regular Joe that has lost a dame because of the polish on a officer's uniform!

Interesting CW reenacting blogs and blog posts of the week

Some blogs and blog posts that are worthwhile reading:
Are You Embarassed b...
Re-enacting, Little Wars, and other good news.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

My favorite Sutler of the week

This week's favorite sutler call-out goes to Ben Tart Reproductions. Ben probably has one of the best reputations for authenticity in the hobby, and for that matter, one of the best sutler reps period. I have a shell jacket made from his material, and a shirt that he made. Both are simply outstanding. Ben is also one of the few sutlers that I would buy via the tent. That's how I got my shirt!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

To a lost pard

In reenacting, you meet friends. They're not your typical friends. They're the ones who stay with you for a long time, if not for a lifetime. Tom Kirkland was one those friends.

We met in '86 when we both had the idea of founding a Federal-only reenacting group in East Tennessee. This was a novel idea at the time. I worked with group in Mountain City, TN, and he had a group in Johnson City. We put the two together and formed the 8th Tennessee, US. It still exists to this day.

Tom, me and a few friends, notably Mark Lawson and Phil Bishop, had some great times at Tipton Haynes Farm and Bentonville. We put on the blue and the magic flowed. It was fun, and one of the high-water marks in my reenacting career.

Every spring, I get to thinking about Tom. In March of '88 we went to Bentonville, and had a blast. Afterwards, I had to step out the hobby to attend to family concerns. It was the last time I saw my friend.

I stepped back into the hobby in '92, starting with a visit to Trade Days, in Trade, TN. I found out the 8th TN set up for a living history, so I asked around for Tom. I remember the look on their faces, and then they told me that Tom had taken his own life a couple months before. I remember it clearly. It hurt then, and I still think about it from time to time. But I also think about the fun times, especially when I go to events these days.

Here's to you, pard.

The outer limits of authenticity

In my rant about Selma and its trouble, I threw much disgust at the farbs who were abandoning the event because of stricter uniform guidelines. As anyone can guess by now, I advocate authenticity in reenacting.

I think any authentic movement within CW reenacting does the hobby the most good. It separates the enthusiast from the people who jump on the next exciting thing, only to leave it soon after. Authenticity is a frontier that a "hobbist" reenactor explores. It's constant improvement and a learning experience. It provides the hobby longevity by providing ongoing interest.

I possess an uncommon insight into different eras of reenacting. I started reenacting in 1982, in the midst of onr of the first authentic movements in the hobby. The goal at that time was to *look* authentic by getting rid of the uniform trim, better leather goods, defarbing rifles, paying attention to correct drill, and having an authentic-looking camp. C&D Jarnagin ruled this era, and was the vendor of choice with most reenators, although there were doubts about the material accuracy of what they sold. That's the time I was really into the hobby and into the "hardcore" movement.

In the late eighties, I stepped out the hobby for awhile, but four years later in the early nineties, I was back for a season. The first authentic movement seemed to have died out, replaced by the second, which seemed to empathsize uniforms made of correct materials, dyed with correct dyes, and an eye to the small details. During this time, "hardcore" became a word of derision, and the hobby grew almost exponentially with events hosting thousands of reenactors. Authenticity was the realm of the real hobbist, with "mainstream" reenacting making its rise among the people jumping on the bandwagon.

Currently, I'm seeing what I consider the third authentic movement. Events in themselves are becoming more authentic, achieving what reenactors only dreamed of twenty years ago.

Now, I wonder, are we reaching the outer limits of acceptable authencity? Have all the frontiers of authenticity been reached or at least probed? You know, the point just before you either start shooting live rounds or eating rancid food to get dysentery to reach the ultimate authentic goal? OK, I admit that to be a bit toungue 'n cheek, but the point is made.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

No Retreat from Destiny

Seems that another Civil War movie - "No Retreat from Destiny" has been released, but straight to DVD. It's directed by Kevin Hersherger - same guy that did "Wicked Spring". Although I roasted the dickens out of "Wicked Spring", I have admit I'm softening up for another watching. Maybe I'll will be in the mood to be open-minded to this effort too.

Hopefully it won't be another "Assault on the Senses", aka "Gods and Generals".

CW links of the week

Here are some reenacting links for this week:
Civil War hobbyists rough it at Lambert Castle
'Battle' cancellation a boost for others
Re-enactors simulate Civil War
SVSU kicks off finals week with a bang
150th Anniversary of Battle to be Commemerated
Battle of Lewisburg Reenactment Features Lantern Tour on May 20
Civil War reenactor in Iraq
Fifth-graders re-enacting Civil War for community

Other reenacting headlines:
Battle of San Jacinto celebrated
Kosciuszko Uprising, AP photos 1, 2
Patriot's Day, AP photos 1, 2, 3
San Francisco Earthquake, AP photos 1, 2, 3

Monday, April 24, 2006

Makes my eyes water in pain

I was taking a look at the Navy Arms site, and jeeez! Their repros are more than a pretty penny these days. I don't remember their muskets being so expensive, but then again, they seem to have been the most accurate on the market. Nearly a grand for a musket. I'm glad arms can be gotten for much cheaper. But I did love Navy Arms products in the good 'ole days. Still miss my '63 Springfield.

What I'm currently listening to

"Forgotten Times Forgotten Music" is a polished effort by Martin Liebschner, Jr. and has many of my favorite songs. Although I wouldn't consider most of the tunes entirely "lost", the lyrics are definitely period to the Civil War era. It makes a great way to get into the groove of an event. My favorite is "Dan Tucker".

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Cool group site of the week

Cool group site of the week goes to the 9th Texas Infantry. It's probably one of the best reenactor group sites out there. Very nice layout and everything is easy to access. Not too many bells and whistles, but some nice artwork. And on top of that, the 9th Texas is a bang-up group to reenact with too!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

I've come to a decision

I write on two blogs, this one, and another called "War Moovies". As of today, I'm moving my occaisional war movie commentary to this blog. But, I ask that you link to my former site to see what movies I have watched in the past.

Living history on the USS North Carolina

Some bros from my early days of CW and later WW2 reenacting do an on-going living history onboard the USS North Carolina. The program is called Battleship Alive, and they've done some impressive preservation work with this grand 'ole Dame of the sea. Their next gig is April 28-29, 2006 - next weekend. BTW - I would love this graphic as my computer background.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Example of a great event Web site

Here's a Web site that beckons me to go to the event. This is what I think compelling should look like. 'Ole Rosey beckons me.

Battle of Wyse Fork - review and critique

In my experiences as a reenactor, there are events that are great, that are awful, and that have potential to become better. The Battle of Wyse Fork event is one of those that can become better.

Admittedly, I do have a soft spot in my heart for reenacting events held in my home state. I can see the positives and potential in almost every event, no matter how good or bad it is. Happily, Wyse Fork wasn't one I have to stretch to find the potential. It's definitely there.

I do have confessions to make before I launch into this R&C. My first is that I didn't push myself to prepare for this event. I showed up on Saturday morning with as much of my kit as I could throw together. Then I borrowed most all of my uniform to do Federal. My other confession is that instead of toughing it out in camp, I joined "Hampton" 's Legion, and stayed at a hotel (a nice Hampton!) at my wife's urging near the site. In retrospect, I denied myself some pleasure of preparing for a decent effort on the part of the event sponsors. But then again, I didn't regret the hotel!

The Battle of Wyse Fork historically was a holding action in the late Carolinas Campaign. The main generals were Braxton Bragg and Jacob Cox. Actually, Wyse Fork is a part of the Civil War most people don't really know about, and holds a good deal of interest for me. The reenactment used two historical battle events as scenarios; the capture of the 15th Connecticut and Hoke's flank attack on the Federal left.

When I first began compiling information about this Wyse Fork, it was wholly through the event Web site, which was simple and to the point. It could have been dressed up better, but I do like it when I don't have to crawl all over a site in order to find the information I need the most. Other than dressing up the site, I would have loved to have seen a detailed description of the event scenarios and suggestions on how to appropriately uniform and kit up. Those two things would have helped set the tone and feel of the event for me.

I was impressed on the help the event received from local law enforcement, Boy Scouts and volunteers. I was able to get on to the grounds quickly and without problem. As some reenactors can attest, getting settled is the first big hurdle to many events. I only had to ask a couple bros where my unit was camped and I was there.

As with many events, this one had some considerable waits for action, but Saturday morning did work to my favor, since I came in around 10ish. I was able to settle in about an hour. Some of our guys have taken up the habit of playing baseball. Being that most of us are old farts, the guys that played seemed to come out of the game less healthy than they went in.

The battles on both Saturday and Sunday, while well-trooped, needed a little work in the realm of realism. The rather large crowd seemed to enjoy, but it's these type battles that make me wonder whether we're doing is a service to anyone. This is definitely not a cut on the event sponsors, but as reenactors, a needed point to ponder. Incidently, this battle helped raise money and awareness for the Wyse Fork battlefield park, so at least some very important preservation funding will come of this event. As a note, Wyse Fork is on the CWPT list as an at-risk battlefield.

I won't go too much into the battles, other than to say that Federals were doomed from the beginning in both scenarios. The only body of Feds were trapped between Confederate artillery on one side, and the Confederate infantry and cavalry on the other. Federal slaughter is always a crowd pleaser in the South. But in talking with some people, namely those souls who were Federals, there were a few things that could have been done better.

OK, I posed a couple of questions earlier - 1) are we doing a service to anyone with this type of event? 2) What could have been done better?

I honestly feel that events like Wyse Fork are a double-edged sword. On one hand, the event does raise money and awareness for a distressed battlefield, which makes subsequent fund raising easier, or at least more legitimate. But on the other hand, you're also selling your soul by not real telling the truth about the battle as a whole, catering to the lowest common denominator reenactor-wise, and feeding some people's "the South shall rise again" fantasies to raise the money.

Strategically speaking, selling your soul is giving the event a very limited shelf life, thus limiting potential to raise preservation money in the long run. Ultimately, noone is doing themselves any favors by catering to the crowds or to all reenactors at large. The event will eventually fold, and keeping the battlefield preserved will become more difficult. People will only know the event by the guns and cannon going off, the yankees falling, and the Confederates winning the day. They won't know the historical relevance of the battle, or who even won. Then you're back to square one, fending off developers who want the land, because people won't rally behind a cause they don't understand. You can do these reeactment things at the local park, right?

As I ranted posted in my Selma reflections, to keep an event going, you need to look at the quality aspect long before the event is even held. What groups will be serious about the event and deliver the authenticity and numbers needed? What kind of scenarios will be compelling to the reenactors, but still look convincing and exciting to the crowd? Those questions need to asked and then acted on.

OK, what would make Wyse Fork a more worthy and long-lived event?

First and foremost, attention to the event and the history surrounding it. Make the scenarios compelling to the participants. Rather than making set piece battles that look the same, do a rolling scenario and give commanders objectives to take within the context of the battle's history. The truth is that there's not enough of Wyse Fork to do an accurate blow-by-blow, so there's no reason to make the battle set-piece. The extemporaneous nature of the event would make it compelling for reenactors, and would lend to believeability for the spectator. The unpredictable nature of the action would keep the event fresh for at least two or three years.

Next, take care what reenactors you invite. Cast aside political ties. You're doing this for the preservation of the site and the your event, not to invite every Tom, Dick and Harry that you feel you have to invite because of unit politics. The first units that should be edited through are the artillery. Truthfully, one or two pieces would have been sufficient for the event. Eliminate those units who insist on bring the mountain howitzers, Cohorn mortars, or the 3/4 scale guns. They have no place in any reenactment, let alone any demo, fair or barbeque. Bear in mind, impression-wise, artillery seems to be the weakest link.

Publish guidelines to the invited reenactors about what they should look like uniform- and kit-wise for the time period. Don't over do it, but make sure people know what they need to look like. Include cheap and easy tips for a better impression. Use civilians as much as possible in any role that fits the event. Make sure that everyone has access to a high-level history of the battle, and what part of the battle that is being recreated. This way, everyone knows what their part is in the bigger picture.

Educate and market to the spectators. Make sure they know what this event is for, what relevance it has, and what the reenactors are doing. Do a one-page flyer that illustrates the battle and what part the reenactment covers. They're the ones you want to support your preservation efforts, so get the spectators behind you as much as possible. Convert them.

I can offer no guarantees if the above is implemented for the next Wyse's Fork that it would draw more people. I do think it would make the event more interesting for everybody, and just maybe give it a few more years of play time.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Interesting CW reenacting blogs and blog posts of the week

Some blogs and blog posts that are worthwhile reading:
Mike's Civil War Musings
Fort Sumter and Civil War Resources: Getting Started in Civil War Reenacting
A super tribute to a great guy....
Civil War Reenactment
A Quick Guide to Reenacting History
For God, Family and Republic
My favorite time of year is almost here!!
Civil War Reenactors in Photos

My favorite Sutler of the week

This week's favorite sutler call-out goes to Village Tinsmithing Works, aka Village Tinsmith. They're one of the most handy sutlers I've come across in a long while. They always have interesting and useful stuff onhand. One of the few sutlers I'll actually buy stuff from out of the tent.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Reenacting on the social side

Here is an enlightening blog post on reenacting the more mundane aspects of a Civil War soldier's life. Taken from "making a military historian".

Current rumor: Musket Cap shortage?

It seems that word is going around that Dynamit Nobel is either going out of business, or getting out the musket cap business. Either way, if the rumor were true, it would be a blow to the hobby. RWS caps are the best caps for the money.

So far, nothing is posted on their Web site, so maybe this rumor can die on the vine and we all can enjoy Dynamit Nobel's products for some time to come.

UPDATE 4/20: Posted a query on the Camp Chase messageboards, and the consensus so far is that no one has heard this rumor, and if it's true, it's a non-issue for the present time.
UPDATE 4/24: It looks like that there are two RWS scenarios floating around. 1) RWS is going to cease production of musket caps and 2) RWS is being bought out, but will continue manufacture. No solid information though. Info via Camp Chase messageborads.

What I'm reading now

When I went offline last October, I dropped everything, including my reenacting/historical reading. When I last blogged, I was reading "Past Into Present". It's a great book, but my heart wasn't into reading it after I went offline. I haven't picked it up since, but I do intend to read it when the wind fully comes back into my reenacting sails.

I have picked another book, "Ashe County's Civil War", which has some good promise. Then again, it's in my favorite Civil War subject field - the war in the southern Appalachians, particularly in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Ashe county is close to home for me, so the information in the book is near and dear to my heart. Let's see if it passes muster.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Night They Drove Old Selma Down

There are few things that get me fired up about CW reenacting more than farbs whinin' about how an event has become too good for them. What really pisses me is when the whinin' makes national news. I caught such a gem on the LA Times online site. It's one thing to whine in a hobby publication, but to whine to clueless newspapers whose stories get picked up by other, bigger, and more clueless newspapers is an unforgivable shame on the part of the whiners.

The story states the problem a couple paragraphs down:

Almost 141 years after a ragtag Confederate army struggled to defend Selma against Union forces, historical reenactors have canceled this year's Battle of Selma.

Like their Confederate forebears, the reenactors lacked manpower.

Fewer than 200 reenactors had registered for this month's battle — a far cry from the 2,000 who took part in 1995, the battle's 130th anniversary.

As a reenactor, that would be my clarion call to rally around a battleground event. But read on...

Changing demographics in a city that was a flashpoint in the civil rights movement as well as the Civil War, and competing visions of just how authentic a battlefield reenactment should be — even the high cost of gasoline — are cited as factors in the declining interest.

OK, Selma has changing priorities, and maybe interest in things Civil War have been pushed to the back-burner or the focus in Selma's history has changed altogether. The story even seems to hint that maybe some African-Americans may not be too hot on the idea of a Civil War battle reenactment in their back yard. If you're a dedicated reenactor, gas prices are always a consideration. OK, we have the usual problems that can be eliminated or at least abated with creative thought and positive action.

But the real kicker of the story is actually this: and competing visions of just how authentic a battlefield reenactment should be. This is when the real story about the Battle of Selma event comes out.

Although organizers attributed the cancellation of the Battle of Selma to a national decline in Civil War reenactments, many Alabama reenactors said they stopped attending because it had become too elitist.

Bingo. The farbs quit showing up after they didn't want couldn't meet uniform requirements. This really illustrates where this hobby isn't going in some reenactor circles. Especially in the deeeeep South.

"The stitch-counters had taken over," he said. "If you didn't have what they considered to be the sufficient authentic kit, they looked down their noses at you."

The purist reenactors — called stitch-counters because of their insistence that buttonholes be hand-sewn and have a historically accurate thread count — have become more vocal in their quest for strict authenticity.

Stitch-counters? This term has always been farb-speak code for "authentic". No one, repeat no one, really cares about the fine details on a uniform that doesn't belong to them. As long as your uniform, arms, and kit look reasonably authentic, no one is going to say too much, if anything at all. You'll mix into the crowd. You'll pass the six foot rule. No problemo. That is, unless your uniform is obviously unauthentic. That's the real story that doesn't see the light of day. Witness the following paragraph:

Throughout the 1990s, the Selma battle commander imposed stricter standards on reenactors — making the event invitation-only and upping the requirements for authentic garb. Cowboy hats, sunglasses and modern-day combat boots were no longer welcome. Confederate reenactors are now asked not to wear sky-blue wool trousers, but the more historically authentic butternut-colored wool and cotton jean cloth.

Jeeez, Sherlock, did they wear Cowboy hats, sunglasses and modern-day combat boots in the Civil War? Oh my God! They want me to actually look like a Confederate soldier?! What is the world coming to?

The stitch and buttonhole issues aren't huge, but they do underscore the larger question - why do you reenact?

If you reenact to teach people or yourself about the life Civil War soldier, what he looked like, and come close as possible to an accurate representation of such a person, then stitches and button holes go along with having the right kind of uniform, kit and weapon. That's what the hobby has always been about.

But if you're a farb, then education, knowledge and authencity be damned. Uniform specs are only a pesky requirement to get into an event to burn some powder, have some good after-battle eats, sometimes get drunk, and camp out. Unfortunately, the viewing public sees too much of this and not enough of the authenticity.

When the Selma event sponsors decided to allow the farbs in from the get-go, and picked quantity over quality, they wrote the event's eventual death warrant. Most of the good reenactors probably permanently shunned the event after the first year, allowing the farbs to take over completely. No amount of specs adjusting can bring good reenactors and groups back to an event that has been overrun.

The newstory seems to indicate when the event tried to be more authentic, more factual, more of a service to the audience who watched it, the farbs quit coming, too. My guess is that the reenactors who were left were a core of authentic reenactors who tried to turn the event around in the first place.

Town businessmen originally conceived of the battle as an event that would revive Selma's depressed economy. The town, which is on a bluff overlooking the Alabama River, was reeling from the demise of manufacturing and the migration of many residents to other towns.

Lauri Cothran, executive director of the bureau, said that the cancellation of the Battle of Selma was regrettable but that it would not badly harm the town's burgeoning tourism industry.

"It's not the death knell to tourism in Selma, Ala.," she said. "The history of Selma is here whether [or not] reenactors have reenactments."

Another peeve of mine - reenactments primarily designed as a boost to local business. It's a hobby, dammit, and not a community cash cow. Event and reenactors first, community perks last. Although Lauri Cothran doesn't seem too hip on reenactments, she does have a point. History doesn't pick up and leave. There can be a Battle of Selma event, but the event hosts need to strike the $$ signs from their eyes and be serious about designing a compelling event for good reenactors. That's what makes the event quality and worth going to. In turn, positive buzz is generated, and more reenactors become interested in the event the next time it's held. Simple marketing. Quality sells. The community then gets the golden egg.

Good reenactors aren't suckers, for the most part. They can be likened to choosey customers, and will do the events that interest them the most. That's why the trend these days is to not to host battles every single year. Good reenactors wait and plan to go to the great events. If you want good reenactors, then put on good events that reflect the preparation effort put forth - care about who you're inviting. McDowell, Corinth and Perryville are events that haven't lowered their standards, but yet have large amounts of reenactors. The wise event planner would see what makes those events so successful.

Hammonds, the man who two decades ago came up with the idea, hopes reenactors will begin to renegotiate battlefield rules.

"It's fine to be authentic," he said. "But the Battle of Selma is not about buttonholes."

Translated as: It's fine to be authentic, just as long as it doesn't eat into my bottom line.

Reenactor beware.


More insights and letters about the Selma event:
What if there was a war and nobody came?

CW links of the week

Here are some reenacting links for this week:
Visit another century
Man seeks to bring vintage baseball to N.C.
Texas military history is alive and well at Camp Mabry
The past comes alive
Living history
Amid Changing Times, Selma Has Lost a Civil War Battle
142nd Anniversary Battle Of New Market Reenactment Slated May 20-21

Other reenacting headlines:
Re-enactments mark war’s anniversary
Early-risers do battle in Lexington
They're costumed to repeat history

Wacky reenacting headline of the Month:
Parent wages battle over war re-enactment

Ack! I've been away for awhile!

OK, I admit to being MIA since, gulp, October to attend to personal business outside my favorite hobby. But I'm back, baby!