I feel like I have traveled back in time. I didn’t have a time machine, and I couldn’t quite escape the shackles of the modern world, but I stepped back at least in spirit when I spent the day with Union troops of the 3rd Infantry Regiment. Kitted out as a soldier of the Army of the Potomac during the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville, I wore the uniform of the day, but what I’ll remember most, or at least my feet will, are the shoes, called brogans. Civil War soldiers on both sides wore these all-leather boots, which are recreated in exacting detail using the same materials and processes from the 19th century.
Many of the re-enactors at the event claimed their brogans were the most comfortable pair of shoes they owned. One even said his shoes were 20 years old, and he just got them resoled as they wore out.
My feet thought differently, but I only had mine on for a couple hours at that point and was just getting started.
One interesting tip I picked up was that you had to get your brogans soaking wet while you were wearing them, so they could be broken in properly. This same advice was given to me in my first unit about combat boots. This led me to wonder what else veterans within the 3rd Inf. Regt, thought was similar.
The only things that Dave Hull, a former infantryman who portrayed a soldier in the 3rd Inf. Regt., sees as different in re-enacting are the weapons and the uniforms.
“Everything else is the same,” he said. “Hurry up and wait, hump over here, hump over there, fire a few rounds, clean your weapon, do some details.”
While tactics have changed over the years the behavior of Soldiers remains the same, explained Darrell Cochran, a re-enactor who portrayed a Union soldier with the 3rd Infantry Regiment and served 20 years in today’s Army.
“Soldiers … are always looking out for their own comfort. Anything that they can get by with under their first sergeant’s radar, so to speak, they’ll do it. Soldiers back then did the same thing,” he said.
Soldiers in the Army of the Potomac slept in canvas tents, called “dog tents,” and it is a design that the Army still uses in the form of shelter halves. The food is prepared over the fire, and Paul Stier, who portrayed the first sergeant of Company K, 3rd Inf. Regt. and 20-year Army veteran, said, the quality of your food depends on the quality of your cooks. Although today’s meals come from a dining facility, they still depend on the quality of the cooks for a good meal.
First formation is held at the crack of dawn as Reveille plays, and the first sergeant gets accountability, so he can report the number of soldiers present to the battalion sergeant major.
One of the things that Steir has seen that attracts veterans is the military structure and chain of command. The big difference is that if you don’t like a unit, you can leave and find a new one. Not so much when you raise you hand to join today’s military.
Finding the right unit to get into re-enacting is important, and you should find a unit that focuses on your background or interest, Steir said. For example, if a person has an Irish or German ancestry, he might want to find a unit that was historically all Irish or German.
“Because (my unit) portrays regular Army, we tend to get more of the veterans who are from (other states), … because they are in northern Virginia, and they want to do federal, … they tend to gravitate to the regulars,” Steir said.
One of the key decisions for choosing a unit is whether you want it to be family fun or just a chance to be out with the guys.
For Cochran, he said it seemed like a great father-son activity, which they started when his son was eight. Thirty-one years later they are both in the same unit.
Another aspect that Steir recommends is looking at how the unit can support you. The hobby is expensive. From the hat on my head to the brogans on my feet and everything in between, the only thing I was wearing that was made by modern means were my boxers. The total cost of the uniform was more than $350 and that was on the low end. Muskets can cost $1,000 or more. Often, units will have items on hand to help new re-enactors get started until they can purchase all of their own equipment.
There is a lot of excitement on the battlefield as cannons roar, commanders yell orders, bugles calls provide communication between companies and the constant chatter of musket fire fill the battlefield.
“Believe it or not, you do get your adrenaline flowing. I’m sure not as much as the real guys, knowing that yes you will be at work on Monday, but it gives you an idea of what these guys put up and what their chances of survival,” said Dan Tucker, who portrayed a 3rd Inf. Regt. soldier, and served in the Army Reserve and National Guard.
He said he visited Gettysburg National Military Park, and as he read the rolls of the names of troops for units formed in 1861, he saw how bad the attrition rate of the army was in 1863.
“When they formed companies, they were 100 men strong. I was counting 30-40 men per company and they had only been at war for two years. You’re talking about 60 percent attrition in two years,” he explained.
Hull said he felt that it would be a good expenditure of time for anyone to get into re-enacting.
“You have a chance to look at history with a different perspective that you don’t get with a textbook or reading online or watching a movie.”
Carrie Schlepp, a recent graduate of the University of Mary Washington, started re-enacting after joining the university’s Civil War re-enacting club in her freshman year.
“I was like ‘OK this sounds really cool.’ I was into theater in high school, and I’m a huge history nerd, so I was like ‘I’ll go talk to this kid,’” she said. “I started coming out to meetings and went to one event and was hooked.”
There are a wide variety of roles for people to choose from, running the gambit of soldier, musician or civilian, but no matter their persona, it’s re-enactors love of history that draws them in. “We’re just normal people who enjoy history, Schlepp said. “This is just the way we get out and have fun with our friends. “
“Honestly, I think the biggest misconception is that you have to be super hardcore to do this,” she explained. “Anyone can do reenacting. It’s not something where you have to be super into the Civil War or super into wearing funny clothes. You can make this anything you want.”
Editor’s note: This year marks the 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Chancellorsville http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2013/05/chaff-before-the-wind-re-enactors-breath-life-into-civil-war-battle/ and the Battle of Gettysburg http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2013/07/remembering-the-battle-of-gettysburg/.