“It is something great and greatening to cherish an ideal; to act in the light of truth that is far-away and far above; to set aside the near advantage, the momentary pleasure; the snatching of seeming good to self; and to act for remoter ends, for higher good, and for interests other than our own.”
― Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
It is with this spirit of serving the greater good through historical education that thousands of men, women, and children participate in Civil War reenactments each year. But the major underlying question to many curious about reenactment is simply: How does one get involved to participate in the first place? This question may function as deterrent alone; the average person may assume they “aren’t the right fit”, or aren’t knowledgeable enough on Civil War history. Obligation to one’s occupation, family commitments, or personal finances may further solidify their hesitation. “I can’t” or “I couldn’t” are common phrases of justification in not pursuing how to get involved with reenactment.
But you’ve made it this far, to the 88th New York Company B Volunteer Infantry website. What one can infer is that we are a well organized, functioning Civil War reenactment group that is active in both the community and interstate historical events. What isn’t as inferable is in regards to who the people behind the uniforms are. Spanning decades of reenactment experience to just a few months, our unit’s members are from all kinds of trade backgrounds and walks of life. Many of us have families, juggling a full schedule be it with work or with school. But despite all this, at the end of the day we can all agree on one thing: You can do it too, and you’re just the right person for Civil War reenactment!
“So you’d like to join’ us in the 88th NY Co. B? Then you’d best be gettin’ yourself a uniform then, lad!”
Equipment needed in reenactment can range from essentials to exorbitant, and everything in between. As a new recruit, purchasing the essentials should be prioritized above all else. Once situated and outfitted, one can feel free to pursue non-essentials, oddities, and “haversack stuffers” (conversation pieces) at their leisure. Let’s get started:
(R) Signifies Required Items
- The Federal Soldier’s Uniform
(R) Kepi/Forage Cap: The Kepi or Forage Cap is the required head cover for the federal uniform in the Eastern Theatre of operations during the Civil War. Although our Western Theatre brethren often wear Hardee Hats, the “Slouch Hat”, and other rugged frontier headgear, the Army of the Potomac takes pride in donning a sharp blue Kepi or Forage Cap. The choice between the two Potomac hats is yours- just know that the Forage Cap has notably more volume and can double as a small basket, as it was historically used by troops to “forage” for berries, nuts, eggs, and other wild edibles while on the march. Upon receiving membership with the 88th NY Co. B recruits are issued corps badges and brass regimental numbers for their headwear free of charge. Also, for many events the 88th NY uniquely wears sprigs of boxwood in their kepi straps. This is in remembrance of when the Irish Brigade’s banner was so shot up and torn after the Battle of Antietam that the troops wore the green boxwood as unit identifiers to both represent the color of Ireland and remind them of the old country.
(R) Sack Coat/Shell Jacket: The Sack Coat or Shell Jacket are the two preferred mainstays of the federal uniform. Both served as a blessing and a curse throughout the war due to its wool fabric; while summers were at times unbearable, spring and fall were comfortable with just the coat/jacket alone. Any reenactor who has done battle in the rain will also tell you wool coats/jackets are extremely effective in retaining your body heat even during a cold downpour. The choice between the two types varies on your personal preferences- The durable Sack Coat is longer and more loose in cut; helpful in movement during battle. The Shell Jacket is cut shorter in length and is slightly more fitting; it sports more buttons and often has informal epaulettes. In the early war, the New York State Shell Jacket was the preferred choice of uniform, but as the war dragged on, the cheaper more economical Sack Coat became the norm. Either choice is acceptable for our unit.
(R) Muslin Shirt: Muslin shirts are the bare-bones of a period uniform, being worn for all occasions be it in camp, in battle, or during formal occasions. Essentially, it is a basic short-collared shirt with a button v-neck and cuffs. Shirts come in all colors and designs, and again it is up to you to determine which one is right. Keep in mind however that the plain white muslin shirt was the standard of the time and you’ll find most reenactors have one.
(R) Light Blue Infantry Trousers: Trousers were the standard pants worn by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Light blue became the color norm for state volunteers, unlike their US Army regular predecessors’ dark blue. Perhaps the most mentionable thing about period trousers is that modern day pant sizes do not translate to measurements of the 1860′s. Typically, one will need to order 2-4 pant sizes larger than they typically would at a modern store. Beyond that, additional tailored adjustments to let out fabric may be required. Ordering online is commonly done, but to avoid much of the guess-and-check process (and perhaps returns/exchanges), purchasing trousers in person at a reenactment to try them on is a good word of advice.
(R) Suspenders: Button suspenders, typically made of canvas, keep the trousers up at hip-level.
(R) Brogans (Shoes): Brogans kept the bulk of the Union Army on its feet and on the move. These seemingly primitive leather wood-soled ankle-height shoes were the only things that separated a soldier from making it to his next campsite versus risk of infection, tetanus, or rolled ankles. Because of this, soldiers would often take the newer shoes of the dead first and foremost over any of their other possessions. The modern reenactor typically stays true to the tradition of a hard day’s march in brogans (with gel insoles added, perhaps). With some mileage, brogans become comfortable footwear you can almost sleep in. Sizes typically stay true to modern measurements and run wider with the square toe models.
Vest: Although not required, the “uniform” vest is a nice extra layer to wear while in camp without the sack coat during the spring or with the sack coat over it during colder events. While not an official uniform item, soldiers often bought vests with their $13 monthly pay or brought them from home. The vest ultimately became one of the most popular pieces of clothing during the conflict as a result.
Wool Gloves: For the cold weather events, wool gloves come in handy!
Great Coat: The Great Coat was a large sky-blue winter coat used by most troops (or those who didn’t throw it away to conserve marching weight). Although many devout reenactors have one in their wardrobe, they are expensive accessories that may not be on the top of a greenhorn’s want-list (as there are very few if any sub-freezing events per year. Even at some of the coldest events a sack coat, scarf, gloves, vest, and long underwear can do the job a Great Coat can.
“Camp Hats”: A fun reenactment tradition, “Camp Hats” can be in reference to any period-correct hat (the more outrageous the better!) that reenactors collect over the years. These hats are typically worn in camp after-hours while talking around the campfire. Most sutlers carry everything from sleeping caps to Glengarry’s and more.
- Pouches, Bags, Belts, and other Worn Equipment (aka “Leathers”)
(R) Belt: A standard black belt is the norm for most reenactment units portraying Federal soldiers. The 88th NY is unique in respects to belts because New York State had special belt buckles sporting the letters “SNY”. While it is acceptable to use the more common “US” buckle, “SNY” is preferred.
(R) Cap Pouch: This seemingly insignificant leather pouch is a critical part of a soldier’s equipment. It was used to hold up to 100 percussion caps, the small 4-winged devices used to ignite the powder charges in the weapon’s barrel. After placing a cap on the “nipple” of the weapon, the hammer would be cocked back manually and then released with force down on the cap after the trigger was pulled. These caps were so important that the interior of the cap pouch even had animal fur lining it to keep the caps inside in the event that a soldier fell down or tripped. Overall, caps make the difference in a battle between “boom” and “click”.
(R) Cartridge Box (with Sling, Breastplate, and Box plate): The leather cartridge box is basically a small arsenal where black powder cartridges are housed. Complete with a special sling for the shoulder, the cartridge box sits on the right hip within easy reach for reloading. The box itself is divided into two “tins” or sections in which a soldier stands up rounds on top and stores extras in reserves below. Much like it was historically, reenactors rarely burn more than 30-40 rounds per single engagement. The box plate is a brass oval that is mounted on the cartridge box cover. Much like the belt, “SNY” is the 88th NY specific choice for lettering, although again the standard “US” is acceptable. Finally, the breastplate is a circular brass disc with an American eagle on it that sits along the button-line on the cartridge box strap.
(R) Canteen: The canteen is, many times, the most important piece of gear any reenactor could buy. Liability wise, it goes beyond being essential. The more you drink the better; with heat stroke being a very real concern during hot events, hydration is key to having a healthy and fun event. A round, dark-blue canteen is the standard. For the die-hards tin is the material of choice, for others stainless steel may seem a less rust-prone option.
Haversack: Despite not being officially required to wear into the field, you’ll find the haversack is another near-essential bit of gear. Essentially a satchel, the haversack was utilized by troops to carry their personal belongings that wouldn’t otherwise fit in their backpacks (if they even had backpacks). Modern reenactors find them handy to stow their mess kit (silverware), rifle tools/cleaning kits, and even extra ammunition while on the move.
(R) 3-Band Rifle-Musket: Perhaps the single largest purchase a greenhorn reenactor makes, the rifle-musket is a critical piece in event participation. Often times, reenactors will have more than one weapon available to borrow and for this reason the 88th NY Co. B allows new members up to one year to commit to the purchase of their own. In doing so, the buyer must decide which standard-issue rifle-musket to choose.
1853 Enfield: The ’53 Enfield is in many ways the unofficial workhorse of modern reenactors both Union and Confederate. The Enfield was imported to America from England during the Civil War and used by both sides. With its well tested design and easy learning curve, the Enfield makes an outstanding weapon for beginners. Notorious for functioning well and rarely misfiring, anyone would agree “reliability” is a word synonymous with Enfield. It also has a blued barrel, preventing rapid rust build-up. Many reenactors also enjoy the fact the ’53 is a bit shorter and lighter than other models, making it easy to wield and carry.
1861 Springfield: The ’61 Springfield is an all-American design that was widely used by Federal troops during the Civil war. For the die-hard American gun enthusiast this is a must have, but Enfield owners would be quick to point out the Springfield misfires a bit more often than its English counterpart. Regardless, this robust and durable weapon packs a punch on the field and will serve any reenactor well.
1842 Springfield: The Irish Brigade was additionally unique compared to other units of the Army of the Potomac due to its use of the near-derelict 1842 Springfield smoothbore muskets. The Irish were made famous through their use of buck-and-ball shot (a .69 caliber musket ball with a few smaller balls), which produced a shotgun effect at close-range. Although the ’42 is in many respects the historically accurate choice of weaponry, few reenactors carry replicas of this antique model.
(R) Bayonet (with Scabbard and Frog): Although the sun had set on the age of the bayonet as a secondary combat weapon, it was still an important component of the Civil War arsenal. More times than not however it was used in a utilitarian fashion instead of warfare. Examples include everything from stacking arms in a tepee formation to a candleholder at night. The bayonet was sheathed in a scabbard, which was then set in a belt attachment piece called a frog. The 88th NY Co. B has on occasion conducted bayonet drills on burlap sacks to train reenactors in this forgotten art of the Napoleonic Age.
Sling: Contrary to common belief, most formal marching during the Civil War was done without the rifle-musket slung over a soldier’s shoulder. Because of this, some reenactors don’t have a sling at all and it is not required. Many do have them anyway, useful in carrying the 10lb weapon on long marches or just walking around camp.
- Mess Kit and Assorted Misc. Items (aka “Haversack Stuffers”)
Plate: Tin or stainless steel, plates come in a number of different sizes and shapes. Some prefer the pie pan to other more traditional plates to double as a bowl. Ordered online, plates can come pre-stamped with the “US” letters.
Fork, Knife, and Spoon (with Muslin bag): A basic silverware set is a great thing to get right away. It includes period versions of the utensils we use today, except the fork is 3-pronged rather than the modern 4-pronged.
Cup: Tin or stainless steel, all sizes and shapes available. Some prefer wider cups which can double as a bowl for soup, beans, or stew.
Gun Wrench/Nipple Wrench: Good tool(s) to have when cleaning or repairing a rifle-musket.
Nipplepic: Imperative for the occasional misfire, the nipplepic is a metal wire-stick that can break off cap residue or powder buildup to keep your weapon firing effectively.
Housewife and Sewing Kit: If a reenactor ever said they’ve never had a button pop off a uniform, they’d be telling a whale of a tale. Don’t be disheartened if a button or two falls off at your first event- it has and will happen. Invest in a period sewing kit (aka housewife) complete with needles, strong thread, and a few spare buttons that match the pewter and brass ones throughout your uniform. Safety pins are also a must for this kit to be complete.
Lanterns and Candles: Looking for an authentic glow rather than a flashlight? Small lanterns can prove useful at night around camp so you’re not tripping over a log on the way to the latrine.
Journal and Stationary: For those who wish to write down their thoughts after a long day of reenacting.
Other?: There are a million other different accoutrements available as “haversack stuffers” including shaving kits, books, manuals, coins, tools, spare parts, cooking ware, photographs, etc.
- Tents and Camping (aka “Tentage”)
A-Frame: The A-frame tent, despite being typically reserved for officers during the Civil War is the norm for even enlisted reenactors today. Boasting a spacious stand-up interior and extra protection from the elements, the A-frame is a more expensive but worthwhile investment. Additional purchases of 2×4 and 2×2 tent post sections from your local lumber yard required.
Shelter “Dog” Tent: A night in the “Dog” tent could earn you your “man card”. Unless you also purchase the side flaps, this tent offers little protection from the elements. On the other hand, the “Dog” is an outstanding option for warm summer nights or dry spring/fall weekend events. Tent poles can be made out of tree limbs or from lumber. This is the most authentic tent style for the “common man” enlisted soldier; each man would carry one half of the shelter tent and then set up camp by buttoning together another half with a friend (you knew didn’t snore).
Gum Blanket/Tent Floor: A tarred gum blanket or two and a tent floor come in handy to keep you dry when sleeping on the ground in your tent. Gum Blankets can also double as ponchos in the rain.
Tent Stakes: Tent Stakes keep your tent from blowing away or falling down. Most all online sutlers sell period-correct ones.
“Campaigning it”: “Campaigning it” is a fancy way for reenactors to say “I’m not bringing a tent”. During the Civil War, soldiers would often times lose their shelter halves or dump it to save marching weight. As a result, many spent the duration of the war sleeping under impromptu shelters, ponchos, or low pine trees. For a reenactor, this can be fun to pack light during nice weather, but in the rain is a different story.