The Truths Of Being A Civil War Reenactor

The Truths Of Being A Civil War Reenactor

I can't remember, was I born in 1995 or 1840?

Usually when people first meet me, I don't really mind telling them about myself and things that I enjoy. However, there's usually a fact about me that I don't exactly lead with, and that's my beloved hobby. That's something I'll usually save for... eh... some other time. Usually people will stumble across it on their own as they go back through my Facebook or something. I'm not really embarrassed about my hobby, it's just a bit difficult to explain.

To condense it all, I really enjoy leaving all electricity and modern technology behind, wearing wool clothing in the summer heat, being strapped down with 35 pounds of gear and a 10-pound rifle, marching several miles a day in all my gear, speaking with a strange old-fashioned vocabulary, subsisting off meat that has spent a month in a barrel of salt and crackers with the consistency of a rock, and sleeping outside in the rain. Seriously, it's a passion.

I am a Civil War reenactor.

Nope, that is not a dusty old image from 150 years ago that is specially preserved in a photographic collection in the Library of Congress - that's me in the summer 2014. I do everything I can to get every detail as close as possible to what you would have seen in an original soldier of the North or South all those years ago. I style my hair and facial hair in ways that were popular with men in the 1860s - and conveniently enough are still kind of popular today. All my clothing was reproduced from original artifacts - the people who make all the clothing basically do it as a second job, they're that good at it. I read letters and diaries from the time period to help me replicate how these guys talked, joked, and viewed things. I won't lie, it can be a lot of work and a lot of money, but I positively love it.

Why reenact?

If I had a dime for every time I've been asked this question... Explaining why I reenact is tough for me. There's a lot that goes into it, and a lot that keeps me doing it, but I've got three big motivators.

1. I just love history

Everybody's got that one thing that they can look at and say, "That's my sh*t, man. That's my thing." My thing is - and always has been - history. I've loved it since I was a kid. History became my passion because I learned early that our heritage is part of all of us and everything around us. For instance, I've connected my beloved university's history to what I do. A lot of early Penn Staters joined the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers and fought through the war. The picture above is me at their monument at the Gettysburg Battlefield, at the very spot where many of them laid down their lives.

Everyone in the past had a story, just like us. They had a home and people they loved, just like us. They laughed, cried, celebrated, mourned, got pissed off, had bad days, had things they were stressed about, had favorite ways to relax after a long day of work... just like us. The only difference is that we live in different circumstances.

I think about that all the time, and I want to learn the stories of these people. That's why history became one of my majors at Penn State. After writing a historical thesis the length of a small book, I'll shortly be getting my history degree with honors.

My love of history has branched out from just mid-nineteenth century America, and every now and then I'll start into a kick about some new topic (lately its been the Roman Republic). But the Civil War Era is what I'm best at, and what I feel the most emotionally attached to.

2. Reenacting has given me so many great friends and memories

(Yes, that's me in the center - it was fall of 2012, and it was one of the last times I wouldn't have a beard.)

This hobby has connected me to the coolest people, and they're from all different walks of life. I've stood shoulder to shoulder with punk rockers, pastors, bankers, construction workers, real-life combat veterans, movie producers, frat boys, people with Ph.D.s, you name it. We come from across the country - sometimes from across oceans - and from all different places on the political spectrum. When we get to the reenactment (what we call an "event"), all those differences go aside. For a weekend, we all have a release from the world of today, and we can escape into another life.

Now, don't get me wrong, we're just playing soldier here. But there's something about being in tough situations with folks that makes you really bond to them. We all have stories that we share a part of. My buddy Chase (the guy on the right in the picture) and I will always remember marching 17 miles in the blazing sun for 8 hours, walking across the Potomac River, and finally collapsing at the edge of a cornfield when we joined in an effort to recreate Confederate soldiers marching to the Battle of Antietam. Some of us will remember sitting in a dark forest last summer, telling ghost stories in the pitch black night while we sat on reserve on sentry duty and tried to pick out the sounds of Confederate footsteps from the croaking of bullfrogs.

I've made so many memories with these guys. Some of them are inside jokes, like the way the words "buttered carrots" can make us cringe and roll on the ground laughing. Some of them are moments that make me get goosebumps and say, "Wow, that actually happened," like very early one September morning in 2012 when a couple thousand of us watched the smoke from our rifles blot out the rising sun (which you can watch in the video below).



3. I want to commemorate our nation's greatest tragedy and teach people the lessons of our past

If there's something I want to make very clear, it's this - I hope to God I will never understand the things a Civil War soldier experienced. They saw their brothers, sons, or fathers cut down next to them on smoky battlefields. They watched their best friends waste away and die from disease. They felt pain, sorrow, and misery.

My own ancestor, Private Jeremiah Stailey served in the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, and he felt those things. When the war began, he was so excited to march off to war that he lied about his age to enlist - he had only just turned 16. He was wounded in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 - the bloodiest single day in American history. He was captured at the Battle of Wilderness a year and a half later, and was sent to the infamous prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. He almost starved to death in Andersonville, and when he came out, he was a walking skeleton. It ruined him. He went home and married, but he only lived another ten years or so. The man died in his early 30s.

I don't want to glorify war, killing, and death. This is where the deeper part of my soul comes into this hobby. There are some reenactors out there who just don't do it right. When they reenact a battle or something for the public, they make it into something like a carnival sideshow. I don't believe in that. Not all reenactors are exactly the same. Some just do it casually and don't really think about the bigger picture of what we're doing. My friends and I aren't those sorts of guys. Yeah, we have fun doing this. But there's a hell of a lot more to it.

See that picture? That's real. Those are real Americans. Dead and left out on the battlefield for days in the rain and sun. They were someone's husband, boyfriend, brother, son, or daddy. But no more. That's the truth of history.

I'm sorry if that's an unpleasant picture to look at, but that's why I do this. In the end, I don't give a damn about cool uniforms, fun times, and hanging with buddies. That doesn't matter compared to this.

I reenact to teach people what those men lived through, and to teach people what those men died for.

I don't participate in a whole lot of battle reenactments anymore. They can be really impressive and can help you get a sense of what a battle in the Civil War was like. But the thing is, we will never know. We'll never know what it's like to sob over your best friend's corpse after he died in your arms behind the firing line. We'll never know how it feels to march a mile over open ground, knowing that staring you dead in the face are thousands of rifles and cannons that will fire at any minute and wipe out you and your friends. We'll never know the horrific feeling soldiers wrote about when they spent the night next to a battlefield from earlier that day, and they were kept awake all night by the screaming and moaning of the wounded left out in the field. I hope we will never know what that is like.

Instead of battle reenactments, I prefer to do what we call living histories. In a living history, we'll set up camp somewhere and just show the daily life of these soldiers to members of the public. We'll do these at national parks or different historical sites, and anyone can come visit us free of charge. We'll do some drill, maybe do a firing demonstration, things like that. But the part I think is most important is just standing face-to-face with the public and just talking about what these men endured. Sometimes we'll speak in "first-person" and act like we actually are Civil War soldiers - this lets people get to interact firsthand with these men (kids especially love this).

But other times, we'll just talk normally. We'll be honest about who we are in real life. If someone asks, I'll tell them I'm a 22-year-old student at Penn State University, and I'll tell them why I do this stuff. I tell them why I'm so emotionally attached to this conflict and the men who fought it - because it's a part of me and my own heritage. I help them connect to it too, and soon they feel attached to it too.

The Civil War isn't always easy to talk about. It's something that's very much still apart of our country's passions.The controversies of that war are still with us today. Look for instance at the recent debates over the Confederate battle flag. There are questions remaining from the Civil War that we're still trying to answer.

Here's my view of it though:

Our Civil War was a national tragedy. Brother fought brother - at times, literally. Whole towns had their young men wiped out or limping home maimed for life. Some families lost everything in that war. There were a hell of a lot of widows and a hell of a lot of orphans. 750,000 people died in that war. That was 2% of the American population then. Can you imagine if 2% of our population died today? For four years, America's fields, rivers, towns, and streams ran red with the blood of Americans who should have lived in peace and brotherhood with each other.

But great good came from this tragedy. An entire race of people who were enslaved, abused, tortured, murdered, and traded like livestock were set free. From the fires of this war, African-Americans took their freedom and rose like a phoenix as citizens. America proved that democracy could survive, and that this nation would persevere. But this all is still relevant.

Racism is still alive in this country (that's right, I said it). Americans are becoming more and more divided by hatred and anger. People are forgetting the blood that was shed to keep this nation alive.

That's why I do this.

I do this so we may never make the same mistakes that we did over 150 years ago. I reenact to teach people what that war was like and how terrible it was. I reenact so that, in the immortal words of Lincoln, "these dead shall not have died in vain." That's how I honor the men in blue and gray who laid down their lives. That's why I do all this crazy stuff. Don't get me wrong, from a distance, this hobby looks weird. But beneath the surface, there is a deep and heartfelt purpose.

Popular Right Now

15 Little Ways To Keep Yourself Healthy

Stop overlooking your self-health.

Sometimes, you wake up and decide that you want to change your daily routine. If you're like me, you usually want some big drastic change to occur overnight. Normally, I say, "Hi, Gods above? Me again. I'd like better grades, a lot of money and...."

However, the odds of me waking up to straight A's and hundreds covering me like a blanket are slim to none. That doesn't mean that I can't make little changes here and there to keep myself happy and healthy, and you can too.

Here is a list of little ways to keep yourself happy:

1. Moisturize.

No, I'm not joking, and no, this isn't always common sense to people. Your skin could really become dry (especially in the cold!) quickly without you even realizing! This would make for flaky skin and red patches. Also, if you're a make-up wearer like me, washing your face and then moisturizing makes you feel refreshed.

2. Take care of under your eyes.

Trust me on this one. Rubbing your eyes, taking off mascara, or just little things could be harsh on your under eye area. I used to have horrible reactions under my eyes and they would swell shut. Now, I use Cetaphil to keep them from getting dry. I also LOVE this cooling water stick by Milk Cosmetics.

3. Brush your teeth twice a day.

Let me be more specific on this one, because I know everyone knows to brush their teeth. However, I just recently got this toothpaste powder from Lush and it's amazing. You wet your toothbrush and dip into the powder, and then brush. I wanted to try the product because everyone was saying that it was a good whitener. I'm not too fond of the taste, so after brushing with the powder I go back in with a regular mint toothpaste. After only a few days of that routine, I've already noticed a difference!

4. Keep up with your grades.

Listen, I know we like to pretend that school IS NOT a thing, but it is. A lot of the times if you fall behind or forget what you're doing, you don't check on your scores. It's so important to pay close attention to the grades entered online versus the paper you get back. You never know if the grades don't match or if you feel like you deserve a different grade, it'll give you opportunity to discuss with the professor!

5. DO NOT sleep with makeup on.

Yes, parties that go until 3 AM make it hard to remember to remove your makeup. Sometimes we are caught up in stress, fatigue, or plans and overlook the makeup wipes right next to our mirrors. Sleeping with makeup on can clog your pores and increase wrinkling. Plus, who likes waking up looking like a raccoon?

6. Clean your makeup brushes.

If you're like me with makeup, then you're no MUA. A lot of the time, we overlook cleaning off our brushes when we're in a rush. However, it's so important. Your face is very sensitive, and anything as slight as old makeup being on your brush can give you a reaction. There are so many brush cleaners out there that are easy to use. I personally use brush wipes, and they work great! My brushes get clean, stay oil-free, and dry quickly.

7. Go outside.

Take a walk, ride a bike, go to a beautiful park. All of these things and more will keep your body moving, while also improving your mental health as well. You will be at ease and feeling great!

8. Write down your dreams.

This one may not be for everyone, but I do this all the time. Whether it's a bad dream, awesome dream, or one I've had before, I love writing down my dreams. Sometimes, I dream of a memory I've had, or something out of my dream comes true. It's so cool when you recognize somewhere, and remember that you've dreamt about it before! The mind is truly a beautiful thing.

9. Eat three meals a day.

Almost all of the time, all of us will miss at least one meal. Whether we do it purposely or not, this is not healthy! About a month and a half ago, I went on a cruise. My family and I ate three meals a day at around the same time each day. I felt wonderful and always just the right amount of full. After leaving the cruise and going back to rushing around and skipping meals, my body was a complete mess. I would be starving at 12 AM and then miss breakfast. Eating three meals a day even if it's something small will make you feel awesome.

10. Drink water.

Don't worry, I used to fight everyone on this too. "Water has no taste, I don't want to drink that!!!" I would always have dry and chapped lips, and I felt tired. Until I had visible signs of dehydration, I wouldn't drink more than half a bottle of water every few days. Now, I drink up to three (I know you're supposed to have four or more. I'm getting there) bottles a day, and it's really helped me. I feel more energized and can put on lipstick without looking like someone diced up my bottom lip. Water is SO important, don't forget that!

11. Scrub your lips.

This one might sound girly, but let's be honest here, my boyfriend loves when I use sugar scrub on his lips. (Sorry, babe) I personally use Jeffree Star Cosmetics lip scrub in 'Watermelon Gum'. It's an awesome flavor, and it really makes my lips feel amazing. Like I said, even my boyfriend likes (mostly eating) it! It's sugar scrub, so you can lick it off with no harm done to yourself. I've also used Lush's 'Mint Julep' scrub. They both work amazing!

12. Stress less.

Stressing might as well be a large part of everyone's diet since we all do it so much. Try to stress less by facing problems differently, working things out, or doing things you love to take your mind off of the issue. Draw, write, or sing. Do whatever makes your heart happy!

13. Vacation when you can.

Everyone needs a little getaway. Whenever you get the money, the ticket, or the opportunity, take it . Not only does vacationing get you away for a while, but you will get to see beautiful things and also have amazing memories to carry on for a lifetime.

14. Take vitamins!

Not much explanation needed for this one. A daily multivitamin and Vitamin C tablet never hurt anyone. While everyone else is in bed with the flu, you'll be bouncing around happily.

15. Just breathe.

Take a second to relax, clear your mind, and breathe deeply.


Wow, I'm so inspired by this list I want to make a part two! No, but seriously, please stop and try at least two of these things today. I promise you it'll help. Always keep smiling! :)

Cover Image Credit: Newscult

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

Look Forward To The Next Day In Your Life, There Are Beautiful Things Ahead

Because every day is a blessing.

Looking back on growing up, and looking forward to family vacations or spending a day with a close friend that you haven't seen for a while was always something I looked forward to when I was younger. For many of my friends, sometimes "family vacations" weren't a thing, and looking forward to anything meant a disaster... in their terms.

So, as fortunate as I was to grow up with amazing, successful parents, I didn't just see the bigger picture at a young age, I saw the beauty and felt the adrenaline rush on how a small simple plan or hangout can make yourself automatically driven, feel and want to get through the week.

Which clicked in my mind... that we humans live for purpose. Whatever that purpose may be, we search for it, we guess it, we do a test and trial period for what makes us tick and what makes us expand our happiness throughout our life and as we get older, we tend to look back on good or bad memories and reflect sometimes on a certain memory that can make you feel a rush of different emotions.

The beautiful thing is to always remember, even when you're having an awful day or awful week, is that you have the power to think and feel different within a split second.

The beauty of life is everywhere, and we are just figures in this huge board game of life. Motivating yourself, and having the mental strength to go on about your day. Every day is a full-blown accomplishment.

Not many people have the self-discipline to really push themselves out there in this world, in this life.

With so much distraction, insecurities, opinions, and such a diverse range of humans, we all tend to compare and tend to wonder why and what is my purpose in this world?

We are "matter," we are a range of atoms, and we are a living species that gets so much crap for being on social media, on our phone, tablets, answering a call, checking an e-mail. Everything is run on technology, so our minds are constantly consumed. Consumed not just by technology, but our own thoughts, our opinions of ourselves that eat us alive at night and our accomplishments that help us rest easy, every day.

You are made to be here.

We are only human. Looking forward to small things you have planned for your night or even huge plans. They always keep us guessing and mark our next chess move for life. Motivation has become the key element for a successful future, and a complete game changer for the people who follow a simple routine and are not feeling as much love as they should.

I started to set goals, and whip out a planner to organize my week-to-week schedule. I write everything I will accomplish at an exact time and place and the best part to checking off as your day goes by is that you see the end result (leaning towards the end of a day), which could be a hot bath with your favorite bath bomb, Netflix movie marathon for an hour, or reading a favorite book you read when you were little. We don't need one another or co-dependency to feel loved every day.

We don't need someone who will reply at our fingertips via text, and we certainly don't need a special "vice" to make us feel accomplished and successful as we are just learning how the world works. Through our own eyes and own fingertips. So look beyond, and push to keep moving forward, because you're the only one in charge of what kind of ending you pick for your story at the end of your life to tell others. There is beauty everywhere, just take a look and love the sky, love your own piece of the world you are in now.

Everything changes, and we will too, but our hearts will forever stay the same, and feel the same.

Cover Image Credit: Photo by Krista McPhee on Unsplash

Related Content

Facebook Comments