Camp Chase Gazette

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How $2,000 will properly outfit a new reb reenactor

Posted on Tuesday, March 1, 2016 at 7:15 am

Outfitted reenactorEvery new reenactor faces a hefty investment, at least $2,000, to purchase the essentials he will need to camp and “fight” in weekend reenactments. Based on what I’ve learned through twenty years of experience, if I was new to the hobby, and on a tight budget, intent on outfitting myself as a Confederate infantryman, here are the choices I’d make to clothe, equip, and arm myself from head to toe.

When I first wrote this list for the Alamo Rifles Telegraph, my home outfit’s newsletter, I included recommended vendors for each item. I’m omitting that information here in the spirit of not stepping on the toes of any suppliers who advertise in the Camp Chase Gazette, but aren’t on my list.

A couple of comments about vendors and sutlers: It is definitely a “Buyer Beware” world out there in regards to those who make their living as suppliers to the Civil War reenacting hobby. Like in every field of retail marketing, they work under conflicting pressures to sell their goods at competitive prices, and to sell goods of a reasonable quality.

The good news is that there is no Wal-Mart or Amazon reenacting mega-store for our hobby suppliers to compete against. The bad news is that some reenacting vendors have established supply connections in Pakistan, India, Mexico, and other countries. These are countries where daily wages are far less than American wages and raw goods like leather and cloth are cheaper and often of questionable quality. Overseas low labor costs and shoddy raw material result in reenacting wares that are either poorly made, or made of subpar materials, or both, but are cheap to purchase, compared to buying the same item made in the USA.

The presence of these low-cost foreign-made goods in vendor tents at reenactments presents a dilemma for new reenactors, who are usually on a tight budget, and need a long list of stuff to get fully outfitted and equipped. It is very tempting to simply buy the least expensive version of an item that you can find on a given day.

My advice is to personally ask the sutler where each item is made. Don’t ask in general where he buys wholesale, pick up a belt or a shirt or jacket, stand in front of the guy, look him in the eye, and ask about that particular item. Then listen to his answer. If he is vague, or sidesteps without giving you a direct answer, don’t buy it. One of the best things we can do to support our uniquely American hobby is to buy American-made products whenever we can.

There are a few exceptions like buying reproduction muskets, none of which are now being made in the USA. But American firms are making every other item we use, and they depend on us to stay in business, so let’s support them.

There are at least a couple of dozen general-store sutlers who set up large tents at reenactments to peddle their goods to reenactors. There are at least two or three well-known general-store sutlers who only sell their wares at their brick-and-mortar stores and online, never attending reenactments.

There are another couple of dozen sutlers who specialize in only one type of product: Hats, clothing, leather goods and shoes. Some of these specialists attend events and some don’t. Buying online from these vendors is easy, and every one of them I’ve ever contacted by phone has been polite, eager, and happy to discuss their products.

The only issue with buying online or by phone is the risk of an item being out of stock or custom -made causing a long delivery time. Here, I say, just get over it, and order a couple of months before you really need something.

I am leaving a price next to each item. These reflect the most recent lowest price I’ve found for an American-made version of decent quality for each item.

Hat: Medium crown bowler- black, dark brown, or tan – $125. A hat is a key item to a good Confederate impression, and not a place to cut corners. I urge buying a slouch hat-that is a hat with a brim- and not a kepi, for your first Rebel hat. Kepis don’t keep the sun and rain off your head like a slouch hat does.

If you are at a reenactment and one of the hat vendors is there, great for you. Try on several different styles and colors, looking in the mirror and at your pards for their opinions. Then spend the money on a well-made, well-fitting hat. Insist on a leather sweatband and a cloth crown lining inside, a wide ribbon band around the outside of the crown, and narrow ribbon band around the edge of the brim. Don’t buy a derby, as they weren’t popular until the 1880’s. I own several reenacting hats from three different high-quality reenacting hatters. I can affirm that a good hat from any of them will last you through at least ten years of reenacting.

One warning: If you order online and measure your head, fudge a little to be sure the hat is not too tight. My favorite slouch hat, bought in 1999, came too big. I kept a folded circle of newspaper inside the sweat band for several years until repeated rainstorms at reenactments finally shrunk the hat enough to fit nicely without the newspaper padding, and I still wear it. You can’t do that if a hat is snug from the beginning.

Jacket: Civilian Sack Coat, gray or brown jean wool – $160.  Soldiers in every corner of the Confederacy wore clothing from home, including non-military sack coats. A sack coat is as generic Confederate as you can get. Look at the period photos of Confederate POW’s and see how many are wearing a civilian sack coat. You’ll see lots of them. A bonus to a civilian sack coat is the outside pockets most of them have. Military jackets and coats don’t have those handy pockets. I keep an extra arsenal pack of paper cartridges in one pocket and a handkerchief in the other, both for easy access during the battles.

There are options at about the same price if you want a theater-specific jacket. To portray a typical private in General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, get a Richmond Depot jacket in gray or brown with shoulder epaulettes. If you want to look like a private with an issued uniform in the Army of Tennessee, get a jeanwool Columbus Depot jacket with blue cuffs and collar.

I’m not suggesting a frock coat as a first coat for two reasons: They cost more, and they are hot in the summer. You can’t really wear a frock coat into battle with only the top button buttoned like you can a civilian sack or short military jacket. The design of the coat’s skirt demands the coat be buttoned all down the chest and stomach. With all those buttons done up, your torso is denied any fresh air. Down here in Texas and all along the Gulf Coast, that matters.

Trousers: Gray or brown jean wool-$120. I like mule-ear pockets for easy access to stuff. And I prefer jean or jeanwool trousers rather than all-wool material because a blended material is cooler and still authentic.

If you buy online and can’t try on the trousers, you might consider buying up one size. It’s OK to have loose trousers. We’re after a different kind of fashion statement than we are when we wear tight modern jeans. Men in the 1860’s wore their trousers up over their belly-buttons. Again, look at the period photos of Civil War soldiers in camp or on work details where you can see the top of their trousers. Besides, few soldiers had the big bellies many of us sport, and even if you are now a flat-bellied young reenactor who jogs five miles a day, with time your waist line will expand. We all eat too well. Also, most reenacting trousers have back-buckles or ties to draw up the waist line since Civil War soldiers wore suspenders, not belts. Again, think towards at least ten years of wear without having to buy a bigger size.

Shirt: Pick one off a rack of your favorite sutler – $40. Banded collar or fold-down collar, either one is right, but be sure it’s a pull-over with three or four buttons down the placket. Plain white, simple checks, plaids, stripes, and calico are all popular these days and all are correct.

Suspenders: Striped mattress ticking or tapestry cloth – $30. The key point with suspenders is to know that they were not issued as part of a uniform, so the real soldiers mostly wore what they brought from home.

Some suspenders come as two separate pieces, with only one front button. Some come sewn together at the back where they cross, with two front button holes per side on leather tabs. I’ve tried a lot of different suspenders and my favorites are two separate pieces, length-adjustable in the front with a buckle, only one button on the front, and made of wide tapestry material. Many suspenders roll up on my shoulders, so the ample width and the thick material is nice to keep them flat. My suspenders with a rolled leather tab, with two leather button holes on each side, have consistently had problems with the leather tabs. After a hundred reenactments of trial and error, I’ve decided simpler is better.

Socks: Two pair tightly knit wool w/thin undersocks – $30. I’m an old scoutmaster and backpacker. I pamper my feet and understand that Civil War brogans do not fit like modern outdoor boots. I always wear a thin pair of modern sock liners under a pair of tightly knit wool socks, whether the wool socks were bought from a modern outdoor store or a good Civil War sutler. That thin pair of sock liners prevents any heel slippage from causing blisters. That’s really important. Ditto for wearing tightly knit outer socks. Loosely knitted socks promote blisters.

The extra pair of socks isn’t essential for a weekend, but is a good idea when the weather is cold and wet. I also carry a package of mole skin in my haversack to put on hot spots before they become blisters. (Actually, I give away the mole skin since with my thin-thick two-pair habit I don’t get blisters, even on long hot marches. Honest.)

Shoes: Sewn sole US brogans black    w/heel plate – $210. Shoes are like hats, you should splurge and buy good ones. I’ve had three brands of brogans, all acceptable, and all cost more than the Mexican-made versions that many general-store sutlers sell at reenactments. I was once at a reenactment with a friend who lives on a really tight budget. Over my objection, he paid $80 for a pair of brogans at a reenactment because he needed them that weekend. The shoes came apart in camp that night. Thankfully, the sutler replaced them with another pair, but my pard still wound up with a cheap pair of shoes that didn’t last as near as long as he needed them to.

Without recommending a vendor, I’d mail order my shoes, buying from a supplier who requires you to send him a paper of the traced outline of each of your feet. That said, brogans are somewhat forgiving with their wide toes, so getting a decent fit isn’t as difficult as with narrow toed modern shoes. The other two pair of brogans I’ve bought by mail, without the foot outline, fit well enough not to cause problems. But I was taking a chance to save some dollars.

Also, pay to have heel plates screwed onto your new shoes. Leather heels wear out incredibly fast without the metal horseshoe plates. They are worth every extra dime they cost.

Accoutrement Set: Roller buckle or Georgia-frame russet belt, bayonet scabbard, cap box & cartridge box – $310.  This is where most new reenactors wind up paying far less by knowingly or unknowingly buying Pakistani-made leather products. Please, don’t do that. If a cartridge box is $40, look at the wide stitching and the stiff feel of the leather. It ain’t close to what a good American-made cartridge box looks like. Same for the belt leather. Asian water-buffalo leather is not the same as American cattle leather. It may not be really bad, but it’s not as supple and not accurate, and buying Pakistani leather goods doesn’t support our American suppliers. Go a step up when shopping for your leathers.

After years of back and forth, I prefer to wear my cartridge box on my belt, not on a shoulder strap. That way I can slide the box around to my back while marching, and bring it around front while firing and digging out cartridges. And to a new guy, no shoulder strap means one less item to buy.

It’s worth noting that as the war progressed and metal products became harder to make or receive through the blockade, Confederate depot suppliers of cartridge boxes stopped including the buckles needed to attach the box to a shoulder strap. Like with jacket trim and frock coats, cutting costs of production overrode sticking to the prescribed pre-war design.

Musket and Bayonet:  ArmiSport 1842 Smoothbore 69 cal. – $890 including bayonet. I know it’s about $50 less to buy an Enfield reproduction musket. But I recommend an 1842 Springfield smoothbore reproduction for three reasons: First, Model 1853 Enfields were imported English weapons and the reproductions are over-represented in our hobby. Second, many Confederate regiments were armed with smoothbore muskets through all four years of the war. Third, those who study such things, like Craig Berry, attest that the 1842 Springfield smoothbore is the best “out of the box” reproduction musket readily available to Civil War reenactors. Stack those three points together and that’s good enough for me. It’s also a much more dependable weapon than are the 1861 reproduction Springfield 57 caliber rifled muskets. And I admit it, an 1842 69-caliber musket loaded with 80 or 90 grains of black powder makes a BIG Bang, which is a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, our hobby standards have never included that men in the same reenacting company arm themselves with the same type of musket. So, in almost every company on a reenacting battlefield, some (usually, most) reenactors will be firing Enfields, some will carry Springfield 1861 models, and some will stick out with the extra-long Springfield 1842 reproductions. Not at all accurate, but that’s the way weapon self-selection has sifted out over the fifty years of our hobby’s development.

Canteen: US Smooth side stainless steel w/ jean wool cover – $50. A Confederate issue tin drum canteen sells for a bit less, but they are smaller and thereby hold less water. Having enough water in your canteen on a hot spring or summer day is important. So, for the sake of personal safety to not dehydrate, I carry a “captured” Yankee canteen, with a cloth cover to help keep the water from turning shower-hot in the sun.

Haversack: White canvas – $20. Lots of inexpensive choices on this one. It’s hard to go wrong.

Gum Blanket: White canvas on one side, black rubber on the other. Grommets on the corners – $50. Some makers don’t have a good formula for the rubber coating, so ask your pards for a recommendation

When you sleep on the ground, any time of year, it’s best to have a gum blanket under you, with the rubber side down against the moist ground. That said, a second rubber blanket on top of your wool blanket goes a long, long way to keep you warm and dry all night.

I swear by gum blankets, as did the real Civil War soldiers. There is a great Confederate diary entry from a Texas office in Granbury’s Brigade of an episode just north of Atlanta in May of 1864. The Rebs had just held off a Federal attack at Pickett’s Mill. When Granbury sent out scouts afterwards, they came on two wagon load sized piles of unissued gum blankets. It was a treasure find, even in May in Georgia.

Wool Blanket: Brown, gray, tan, striped, solid – $50. Again, lots of choices. Pure wool is preferred, but most modern woolen mills use a wool-synthetic thread blend to keep the price down.

Tin Boiler: with hinged lid and wire handle – $30. This is a key item for cooking and for boiling coffee and heating musket-cleaning water. But an old un-ribbed tin can, if you can find one, with a wire handle attached at home, will work too, and be authentic.

Tin Cup: $12.

Fry Pan:  Pressed Steel small – $10. Thin pressed steel doesn’t cook as well as cast iron, but it’s light weight and what the soldiers carried and will fry bacon and pork chops to an edible standard. These little fry pans are probably where the term “blackened” meat came from.

Poke Sacks:  3 to fit in haversack – $5 for each. Where else are you going to put your haversack peanuts, rice, hardtack or biscuits?

Handkerchief: Plaid, calico – $4. A must-have accessory for wiping sweat, grabbing hot frying pan handles or to tie around a blazing hot musket barrel during a long battle.

I’ve omitted a lot of things a second-year reenactor will probably want. Things like a knapsack, a dog tent or an A-frame tent. Maybe a second gum blanket or second wool blanket, and on and on.

But from my eighteen years as a Civil War infantry reenactor, that’s my tried-and-true start-up list for a mid-war Reb.  Now, if I could just lose my gut, refresh my knees, and turn my hair brown again, I’d be an authentic southern fire-breather.

For more “McBride Musings” about the Civil War, please check out my website at “McBridesCivilWarNovels@blogspot.com. Or to peek inside any of my novels, please take a look on Amazon. The titles are Whittled Away, Tangled Honor: 1862, and Redeeming Honor: 1863.

-By Phillip McBride