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Start to Improve Your Civil War Impression Today

by Steve Bennett

It is the goal of every living historian to improve their impression. To capture the very essence of a Civil War solider is something all living historians should strive towards, not only to add to the authenticity of the event but also to the authenticity of our units and presentations to the public. However, in today's busy bustling society, many living historians can not seem to find the time or in some cases, the money, to work at improving our Civil War impressions. However, to believe that it takes tons of money and time to improve one's own impression is a myth that is far too common among living historians. By taking several small steps and actions, one can greatly improve their impression in very little time. Start improving your impression today:

Be More Generic

A major key to living history impressions today, particularly in the Civil War, has to do with how generic one's impression is. Basically in layman's terms, this means that many units and living historians today make their impressions far too specific. By making one's impression more common, to represent the common soldier, is to greatly improve the impression. Lose corps badges, and excess brass. Documents point out that brass indicating infantry, artillery, and cavalry were not standard issue, and had to be purchased separately by troops. So, the more generic the look, the better. By representing the common solider (unless a specific situation calls for something different) you will greatly improve your impression.

Wear Your Kit and Wear it Right

Another major facet to improving impression regards kit. After going to many reenactments, one finds that far too many living historians wear their gear wrong. The most common mistake seems to be people wearing their gear too low. In the 1860s troops (and most people in general) wore their pants and belts higher than is common now. To prove this, try marching any distance with your kit hanging low around your waist. Ouch! Do that, and you quickly realize soldiers must have wore their accoutrements high. Also, try and carry all of your kit. This means haversack, bedroll, backpack, tin cup, cartridge box, etc. Soldiers commonly went straight out of the march and deployed straight into battle, so there was not any major setting up of camps to leave their possessions at. Finally, don't overload yourself with gear. Period reports talk a lot about seeing all sorts of items (both issue and personal) scattered all over the roads after the pass of a marching army. Try and make your impression indicate some hard campaigning, which most troops both North and South did prior to battle.

Get the Right Stuff

Keep in mind when buying your equipment some things to look out for. By learning about sewing and shoes, you can keep a good eye out for what is quality fair and what isn't. Consider learning how to make your own uniform! You never know. In any case, some obvious ways to craft a good impression are to stick to one hundred percent natural materials, particularly wool and cotton. Certain thing like button holes should definitely be hand sewn, not machine sewn! You can get instructions on how to do this practically anywhere now, so no excuses! For buttons, buckles, etc, make sure you don't use stainless steel. Remember, when in doubt, get issue. Many soldiers did not have the luxury of home made or supplementary items (with a few exceptions in the personal belongings department of course, always nice to have some 19th Century toys...) This rule can be bent a little more for Confederate living historians however, whose possessions could usually be a mix of issue and homemade. When in doubt, research! This may sound like a huge, arduous process, but if you search out a few good period pictures you can easily craft your impression to be more authentic.


Weapons should also be appropriate for your unit. Unless you have a specific unit impression (Mississippi comes to mind) stick to three-band rifles and remember to authenticate them! This means break out the 'ole sandpaper and varnish and remove the plastic coating that "new" weapons come with. Remember to finish the musket correctly, and of course, modern markings and plates should be replaced with historically correct ones. Your weapon will probably turn out to be the most expensive part of your kit, and one of the most important. This area is crucial in order to improve your Civil War impression.


Finally, there are some things one can do personally that will greatly improve the authenticity of any Civil War impression. Firstly, lose weight. This will benefit you in the long term health wise, and it will also make you look more authentic. Most Civil War soldiers were light compared to today's society, but of course, this option of your impression is completely personal. Secondly, keep the hair short. Lice and grime was quite an issue throughout the Civil War, so soldiers in the ranks were forced to keep their hair short to prevent contracting the lice. If your portraying a Southern soldier, you might want to consider making your haircut somewhat dishevelled. Again, this area of your impression depends greatly on how seriously you take the Civil War! Beards are acceptable in a large range of variety and styles, so depending on the time of the year the event your attending is, your unit, and your preference, consider growing a "campaign" beard. Make sure it's authentic by finding a first source in the form of original pictures. Make sure things like modern watches, cigarettes, anything plastic out of your impression completely, or at the very least, hidden away in your haversack. Not everyone will take this to the extreme, and in the end is really a matter of preference. If you wish to carry some modern comforts with you, just don't hang wear them for all to see!

In Conclusion

These are only a few general suggestions you can use to improve your Civil War impression. This truly is only the tip of the iceberg of information on improving authenticity published today. To improve your impression in all living history areas, just remember two things. One, use common sense. If you follow your gut and try and imitate the pictures, you should turn out alright. Time and experience will allow you to craft your impression to good degrees the longer you stay in Living History. Finally, remember to have fun. This is, after all, not an occupation (though some of us wish it could be, but alas...) So go out there, read up at your library, and enjoy yourself. See you in the field!!!

-- Copyright 2001 by Steven Bennett

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