GREENHORN TURNING BLUE (Part 1)
(Or Life as a new recruit in the ACWS)
You've found the ACWS web site and this is your first visit. You've never been part of a re-enactment society, but you're curious, thinking perhaps that this looks interesting, might be fun, perhaps a little daunting? You may be asking yourself what exactly does it involve, what it is really like? I've just joined the society, in July 2002, and I thought it might be useful if I share my experiences. I'll be as honest as I can, so you'll know what you're letting yourself in for! Hopefully this will be the first of a few articles charting my new life as a re-enactor!
My husband Greg and I have had a long time interest in America of old, in particular the Wild West. But it is Greg that is interested in the American Civil War. For me it's been no more than a cursory glance up from a book whilst Greg watches Gettysburg or Glory for the umpteenth time. I've learnt to nod with interest when he tries to enlighten me on the various characters, battles and events that took place on such and such a date! (We even have an American Civil War calendar which lists what happened on what day in what year! I think I'll get a puppy calendar next year) So you see I'm not an American Civil war buff at all. But you know I'm excited I've joined the society.
Greg and I couldn't make it to the event which took place just outside York, where we live. Instead we went the day before just to get some information. We'd only planned to go for an hour. In the end we were invited for supper and stayed for six hours.
Our first contact was Phil and Jayne Olden of the West Point ASA store. They patiently answered our questions and offered some good advice and showed us around their store. Other members drifted in and out of the store. It was here I met Linda Birtwell. She was very enthusiastic and turned out to be a soldier. So yes women can fight on the battlefield, (I kept calling it the pitch for the first few weeks!) She took me to meet her Sergeant Major, Tom Reed, of the 2nd Wisconsin. He had such enthusiasm for the society, as did his partner Michelle. We were hooked. Even though we couldn't stay to see the 'show', we were in Edinburgh that weekend, we sent off our applications immediately.
Later Tom invited Greg and me up a couple of weeks after we joined to do some drill practice. His wife, Michelle, kindly offered to lend me a dress for my first event. Greg was apprehensive on the drive up, it was twenty years (I'm being kind here) since he last took orders. I had to remind him since we've been together for 18 years he's being taking orders every day! The only difference is Tom will be a lot, and I mean a lot, louder.
Any of the regiments are pleased to have new recruits. They go out of their way to ensure that the greenhorns safely find their feet. I was extremely impressed with everyone we met on our first visit. At one point Greg was sent to find Tom for supper but was waylaid talking to someone from the 19th Indiana. Within minutes he was invited to go to their 'street' for a coffee and to "bring the missus". Even one lost confederate, who wandered into the Union camp (easy mistake as the flags weren't yet up) stayed for a chat before going back 'south'.
Although it's cheap to join the society, it can be expensive getting your equipment together. I have worried about that. Being Yorkshire born and bred I wasn't prepared to spend too much too soon. Greg on the other hand was up for a spending spree. Temperance prevailed. But, and it's a big BUT it needn't be expensive to start with. All regiments will lend you equipment to start with, such as tents and uniforms and muskets. You just build up gradually. I've discovered the joys of car boot sales and second hand shops.
You can buy a starter uniform kit from Phil and Jayne's Sutlers Store for around £90. This will include Sack coat, trousers and Kepi (a hat). There are a lot of people in the ACWS who are on limited means, but look very authentic in their outfits that they've built up over time. People on camp may sell parts of uniform / equipment so you can buy second hand. If you're a woman who doesn't want to fight, again you can buy patterns to make your own outfits, or buy second hand, or look at second hand shops to convert clothing. I managed to buy a jacket for 50p to convert to a dressy jacket for evening wear!
Some take the re-enactment more seriously than others, and aim to be as authentic as possible. Don't let this put you off. When you first join you're not expected to have all the right equipment. However if you really want 'to be' the nineteenth century this is the society to join.
If you can't decide whether to join the Blues (Union/Yankees) or the Greys (Confederates/Rebs) my advice is, do you look better in blue or grey? That's how we decided, grey does nothing for Greg. Seriously you can join whichever unit interests you, my advice is have a look at each regiment's website and see which takes your fancy. If you have no preference, the secretary will assign you to a regiment. Either way it'll be fun whichever side you join!
Greg is happy being a private (though I'm sure he has aspirations) I'm not sure what role I want to play. I'm going to go to a few events first and see what happens. I may be a medic or a field nurse, may be a lady of leisure. Suggestions were made that as women I could be a lady of the night. Mmmm. It's up to you what you want to do, I'm not rushing into anything yet.
The first main event for Greg and myself will be Tynemouth in August. I'm nervous. I've never been camping before. The idea of spending three nights in an A-frame canvas tent is a little unsettling. I'm the type of woman who likes her facilities en-suite if you get my drift. Thankfully I don't need to worry, Portaloos are provided (I can put my shovel back in the shed then). However the thought washing in cold water, and not having a shower each morning, I can see myself checking into the local B&B, better still the pub. I'm beginning to feel like Margot out of The Good Life, pass the marigolds. My friend and camping guru, choked with laughter when I told her I was going camping. Thankfully she's given me lots of advice. Apparently you can have 21st century gizmos inside your tent (phew, I can take my electric toothbrush), but when you're out on 'display' it's a no-no. Thankfully I can still enjoy my wine, just in a tin cup - not a wine glass!
The ACWS in words of one syllable? Fun, hard work, and more fun. I aim to muck in with the troops and hopefully learn a lot about nineteenth-century life and about myself. In the words of that great philosopher, Paddington Bear, "Life is like a marmalade sandwich. You only get out of it what you put in". So until my next report, full of gory details of our first event, excuse me I need to stock up on jars of marmalade!
Supplied by Paula Mountain-Agar, Non-com. 2nd Wisconsin
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, December 2002