Recreating the 72nd New York...
The men of the 72nd NYSV, Company C believe that accurately portraying the personas, sights and sounds of a Federal army camp is as much a part of the reenacting experience as is fighting of the field. When the audience comes to visit our camp, they must feel that they have been transported back in time. It is only then, that our spectators can truly experience the real drama of the Civil War. Our unit strives to make the reenacting experience as real for the participant as it is for the spectator and these accompanying articles are designed to help guide our members towards that end.
The following articles have appeared in The Monitor, the unit newsletter published six times a year.
Experiencing Living History: Living History & the 72nd NYVI Regiment A veteran member offers concrete advice on how to create fun and dynamic camp impressions and transport your modern visitors back to 1863.
Getting rid of FARB the easy way Designed to help the beginner think about his impression and public perceptions.
The Gift... How and why taking a good hit makes the hobby fun and fulfilling for everyone.
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Living History & the 72nd NYVI Regiment
by Jerry Curtis-Walker (Quartermaster Sergeant Seamus OCooney)
When the public walks through our camps, we hear them ask, "Whar's them big ol' cannons?" and "Is that musket for real? "Many a 72nd NY veteran of old campaigns will tell fresh fish at events of battles past, of hills captured, comrades lost, & battle flags won. It would seem, to the uninitiated, that most of our thunder at events is wrapped around the battlefield. Is this really so? I have come to the conclusion that, more important than our battlefield presence and skills whilst in formation on the field, is our ability to give the crowds a thrilling, emotional, and entertaining experience in the form of our Camp Life & Living History! When first I enlisted, back in the misty old days of the 127th NY, I was a green private, and asked the god-like First Sgt whether he reenacted more for the battles or for the Living History... he looked at me as if I were a lunatic [a situation which often plagues me, however that is another story...]. "OF COURSE!", he sputtered, "The battles are the most important reason for reenacting!"
In the five campaign seasons since, though, I have noticed that we have developed much more to offer the public than explosions, smoke, and recycling soldiers on the battlefield. We have learned how to engage the public in camp, face-to-face! We have learned how to grab and to hold their attention with curiosity, pathos, rage, wit, humor, songs, racial tension, boredom portrayed, fresh Army coffee, hard tack stories, and a thousand other situations & emotions that we exhibit in our Living History skits! I have discovered that the public WANTS to be entertained, to be enlightened, and to be challenged! They do not prefer to be passive observers... they WANT to be pulled into the vortex of time travel, almost as much as we do! On the battlefield, we are interesting, but the visitors watching the swirling mass of smoke, color and noise, are mostly left alone to make their own conclusions and interpretations, whilst they stand serenely beyond the safety tape. Often, we have learned from watching their own video taped comments, that they tend to focus on our mistakes and blunders, and that they often will laugh at our clumsy attempts to recycle, or at the fact that thousands of balls flung downfield at a mass of men in line o' battle, yield no casualties. Think back to video tapes you've watched... how often have you noticed that the public snickers, gossips, makes incorrect assumptions, tells unlikely stories, and generally is way off-base?
Most battlefield presentations are, I firmly believe, not much better than watching 21st Century television sets in the comfort of the living room. When we are on the battlefield, the public watches us in a passive and relatively unemotional manner, often supplying their own humorous comments to our battlefield actions. That is why our Living History offerings must bridge the gap! We are, I firmly believe, obligated to give the visiting public a much higher standard of presentation when they are in our camps, following the "TV Show" they've just seen on the field! One of the key distinctions is that the public, during battlefield scenarios, is watching us from a distance, without guidance or Living History interpreters to assist. Admittedly, we do marginally better when we have someone on the P.A. microphone offering an ongoing narrative, however, this too is relatively distant and impersonal, even with the best of our interpreters! In our camps, however, we have the opportunity to take the public's experiences at our events to a much higher level... we have the opportunity to grab them forcefully by the lapels, and to draw them bodily right into the center of the 19th Century!
THE PRIME DIRECTIVE: LIVING HISTORY
The 72nd NY has evolved over the past several years into a fine and well-organized Living History ensemble! We have attracted many skillful, talented and enthusiastic reenactors into the fold, and we are now very capable of spontaneously bursting into a flaming scenario, when the crowds present themselves! Witness the development of our camp life... Paltron's Cook Tent presentation, the musical strains of the Sons o' the Union, cards, newspapers, mail call, the blazing razor of Dieter Lorentzen, Dana Davis' Mail Call, the Racial tension of the Witting Chronicles, and the many skits we've tried and renewed, with endless subtle variations! THIS, I firmly believe, is our Prime Directive, as reenactors!
Battles generally last twice a day for 30 to 45 minutes, and Living History must be offered during all of the other public hours at events! Too many times have I heard the complaint that a public visitor had walked through a camp [though not that of the 72nd, I'd wager] only to see men lounging, talking among themselves, eating and drinking in a non-period manner, or just basically ignoring the public! THIS is a fatal sin for reenactors! If Living History is done continuously and well, the public should be exposed to the "Period" in a quality manner, and throughout their stay in our camps! Ideally, if we are performing our Living History well enough, they should want to stay in our camps, to see how specific situations turn out.
GIVING THE EXPERIENCE OF LIVING HISTORY TO OTHERS
Old timers will often speak wistfully of the "Time Travel" experience that a reenactor might enjoy at an event... I believe that, although those occasional "moments" for us are valuable and to be treasured, we have a much higher responsibility to try to bring those sort of moments to OTHERS! We must help the visiting public [and newer reenactors] to find that moment when the years drop away, and when the year is 1863 when "the issue" remains in doubt... when the people are real, not actors... and when the emotions are high! The greatest advantage that we have, in the presentation of our scenes, is that we can interact face-to-face with the public! We can be direct, emotional, immediate, and personal! We can question their loyalties, flirt, play small pranks, and generally enjoy ourselves while we are entertaining and educating them. We can work our "magic" at distances of a few feet to a few inches! We can touch them, guide them, laugh, cry, rage, and mold their Living History experience, until they BELIEVE that they are in an Infantry camp in the summer of 1863! We can surround them, separate them from their 21st Century friends and their 21st Century notions & historical prejudices, if only for a moment! Now THAT is reenacting!
We have the great advantage of having chosen the ground well for this encounter... we are in our camps, and the anachronisms are few [if the defarb details have done their jobs well]. We can explain & entertain in period speech and with period manners. We can demonstrate our gift to them on a stage that is fully 360 degrees in the round! We can team up to overpower their sense of disbelief. We can hammer away at their skepticism and 21st Century prejudices with all of the tools at our command. We can vary our skits to bring the crowds closer... we can extend the time if we see fresh crowds approaching camp... and we can cut it short if we are losing them. We can give them the gift of the smells of army coffee, frying salt pork and sweaty wool!
PROPS, STAGECRAFT AND THE BACKDROP OF THE COMPANY STREET
Our props are close at hand... our tents, the campfires, coffee pots, and the Company Street are all the backdrops of our period setting. Our newspapers, paper money, food items, shaving gear, the boxes barrels & bottles, checker boards and lanterns, are all props that we can use actively or passively to great advantage. We don't have to be actually handling these items to attract attention from the public, however, when we do, the sense of authenticity grows from viewing static props to one of seeing artifacts being used! That is Living History.
Have you noticed how the public will discretely & timidly peek into our tents, as if they are doing something wrong... we need to encourage their exploration of the camp, by setting up more tents as small period museums, complete with period artifacts, and the articles of daily use [Corporal Russell & Captain Mann offer two such examples]. If a tent is not meant to be explored [one with Farby ice chest, sleeping bags & potato chip wrappers in sight] then, by all means, be sure to tie off the flaps, to discourage breaking the illusion. Better still, develop some way of hiding or doing away with such distractions, so that the Street will have one more museum for the public to explore! If nothing else, consider throwing a canvas tarp or wool blanket over all of the Farb gear piled in a corner of the tent, and then arranging the rest of the tent in an acceptable period manner. If we accomplish these goals, the public may learn a little more, witness something new, explore a mysterious tent, and be entertained a bit better. Every discovery they make is a small wonder... a thrilling bit of information to tell someone else about, or a reason for the person to even consider joining this glorious avocation.
REENACTING PERILS, TRICKS & TRAPS
One of the curses of reenacting is the trap inadvertently laid by the public when they ask, "Isn't that wool suit kinda hot?", or "Is that gun real?", or "Did you really sleep out here last night?" Instead of seeing these innocent questions as problems, we must learn to anticipate them, and to develop standard answers that allow us to remain in period, and to fully preserve the character we are projecting. Think of this as a "stagecraft" technique. You do not have to answer their questions... you are allowed to use the old lawyer's technique called a "non sequitor" response [Latin for: The answer doesn't have to line up with the question!]... For example, in response to the "Isn't that suit hot?" question, consider launching into a tirade about "Them damned officers who can't find their way south to Richmond, and how if'n they'd let ME lead this here man's army, then by gum, this War'd be over lickety split!" We are allowed to ignore questions, or to answer those which we choose to answer. The main point is to remain in character. Another sample response for the "... isn't that suit hot?" question would be for you to immediately ask the questioner, "Hey fellow, you look like a big strapping bold farm lad... why ain't you in uniform?" This will continue to keep him focused in the here and now of 1863, while avoiding his 21st Century question. I do take mild umbrage at reenactors who lose their presence by answering this question with some retort about how the public of 2001 dresses in a scandalous and skimpy manner... ["Why Ma'am, looky how you're dressed... what with all that arm & leg flesh showing... you're downright scandalous!"]. Though this might be briefly funny in the comparison & presentation, consider the fact that this reenactor has just allowed the visitor to drag him back to 2001, and that once the snicker has passed, it will be doubly hard to convince the visitor that he is standing in a meadow in the summer of 1863!
THE GRAND RESPONSIBILITY OF LIVING HISTORY
I believe that, in order for us to deliver to the visiting public the very best Living History presentation possible, we are all equally obligated to become actors! The measure of the mature reenactor is when he or she can remain fully in character for most all of the time that they are in camp with visitors present. Every man-jack of the 72nd must commit fully to trying to stay in the camp before and after battles [when the public is the thickest!], and to remain active and involved in presenting scenarios.
How should a new man get started? Talk about character development with old hands. Ask how they developed their characters. Ask how they chose their names and their background. Consider making up a character, or consider reading up on the list of the original Company C, and doing a little research to flesh out a character for yourselves. You might want to choose someone near to your own age, or from a similar background, or someone who deserted... or who died. You can change choices if you want, but the choosing of a character will help you to present yourself as a better reenactor. Next, be a student of the period. Ask questions and learn about the manners and speech patterns of the period. Learn and use the slang of the time, and simultaneously, do everything you can to discard modern 21st Century speech patterns [I wince when I hear "You Guys..." "What's up?", "Y'know..." and similar comments in front of camp visitors]. In the name of kindness, veterans often do not point out such difficulties to fresh fish, however, if you have the interest in developing a better character, ask one of the veterans, and they'll help you to craft a better character by pointing out ways that you can improve your speech, manners and presentation. Strive to make the next event one in which you will remain in character for longer periods of time. If you can now do 20 minutes before falling out of character, shoot for an hour at the next event. Ask peers to give you feedback on your efforts. Challenge someone else to a contest of "Who can stay in character the longest?" If others have fallen out of character, do not just say "Oh well" and then fall out yourself. Challenge them to pick it back up and to match the greater standard.
DEVELOPING SCENARIOS & SKITS: MISTAKES TO AVOID
As a word of warning, be aware of the possibility that certain scenario ideas might not be appropriate, likely or timely. It's always best to team up with others at first, and to be willing to follow the lead of others as you develop your reenacting skills. An example of this is illustrated by the story of a new recruit who, several seasons ago, was bent on putting on a skit in which some of the cadets were to be playing cards in their tents. The game leads to an argument over cheating, which in turn becomes a wild and outrageous shootout in the middle of the company street with pistolas blazing! Clearly, this was an example of an unlikely, distracting, and inappropriate scenario. Also try to balance skits well. Try not to interfere with another skit while it is ongoing, and try to avoid doing two loud and active skits in the same area at the same time [do one in the street, and the other past the cook's tent]. Give others notice if you are about to begin a large and active skit [fist fight, mail call, Sgt finds a jug o' whiskey in your tent, etc], so that current skits can wind down, and to ease the transition from other activities to yours. We don't want to confuse the visitors, and we do want to appear professional in our flow of the scenarios. It is quite acceptable, and even a goal for us to reach, for there to be many different activities going on at the same time in camp, and for the visitors to walk from one end of the street to the other, seeing a dozen different scenarios being performed, all at the same time... shaving, eating, musket cleaning, polishing brass, playing music, soaking tired and blistered dogs, standing guard duty, playing period pranks, rolling cartridges [if your rolling gear is period], issuing rations from the cook's tent, arguing over the course of the war or the quality of the officers, etc.
HOW TO GET STARTED
Though there have been many articles written in the MONITOR over the years regarding developing characters and scenarios, I feel that it is always informative to once again plow that ground. The following is a short list of some possible skits and scenarios that we have reenacted in the past. Do not be limited by this list. Check with Captain Mann or Lt. Watkins for our Company listing of possible scenarios in the 72nd Skit Book.
First, ask veterans for advice and for assistance in becoming involved. If you are bold by nature, you may want to be shaved, or learn to shave others with a straight razor. There are newspapers to be read aloud to illiterate friends, letters from home to be read aloud or to be written for friends, cards and dice games of chance, money to be exchanged with a local civilian woman or child for fresh eggs, butter, bread or pie, and a hundred others scenes of everyday camp life. If you make arrangements to coordinate with another reenactor ahead of time, you will make your own acting job easier, and you'll enjoy the teamwork aspects of the scenario. When two or more are acting in tandem, the scripted wording becomes more spontaneous and realistic, and the public will see a better show. GET LOUD! Use emotions. Show on your face how you are feeling. Be outraged, angry, humbled, hurt, sad, proud, and blustery! Wave your arms, and use your whole body to transmit your feelings! If a crowd is approaching, pick up the pace and the volume, pick your pardners and watch for an opening to launch the skit!
You may check out props and gear to perform your scenarios from the QM, including a straight razor, soap, towels, mirror, scissors [trim a pardner's beard or mustache], dice, cards, newspapers, coins and paper money, paper and ink pen with ink bottle, brass polish & rags, checkers, spoons & sticks to play music, & lice combs [this one always gets the crowd moaning as you explain the curse of the "greybacks", and how they race on a hot tin plate for prize money, or how to pick them from the seams of your tunic and to flick them into the fire to pop & sizzle]. You may check out a liquor jug, a Tactical Manual to peruse [Hardee's], and empty barrels and boxes to tote about the camp as if you are on an important mission to deliver supplies [this is called "Doing a Hollander!", after an old veteran by that name who was once the best barrel-toter I ever saw!]. You might organize being caught returning to camp with a stolen pie and a jug of brandy [the visitors love seeing men being caught & squirming under the deadly gaze of the 1st Sgt], or serve company punishment details [ball & chained, standing the chains, bucked & gagged, tied to the wheel of a cannon, or standing endless picket details]. Some men have French Post Cards & French Envelopes to "share", and which always cause a stir in the camp. You might be loudly describing some vague physical symptoms with a comrade as the public approaches ["Didn't know a man could eat so many green apples and still live!"] or complain of a severe toothache which you will NOT let the cursed Medical Officers treat, since they'll most likely cut off your arm or leg. Standing Provost to greet the public as they enter the camp is probably our most important duty, since you will be the first to greet visitors, setting the tone for their whole visit. Be enthusiastic. Be friendly or obnoxious, but be memorable! You will be able to steer the crowds toward specific areas to witness skits that have been organized [don't tell them what is in store... just hint at "doings" that they'd best not miss!]
If someone shows interest in camp, sit them down & pour out a tin mug of muddy coffee [first wipe the mug on your dirty britches to clean it!]. Henri Paltron might offer them some salt pork or a bit of hard tack to wash down with the coffee. Try to hook up with others to assist in any recruiting efforts. If someone appears to be interested in actually joining the RACW, remember to remove your cap or kepi as you talk with them. With bare head, you may break out of character whilst having this discussion, and you will also be signaling others of us to come to your assistance in recruiting a possible new man! Once the new man has been passed on to others to carry on recruiting, replace your head gear, return to your character as soon as possible, and continue the Living History impression in camp.
Some period artifacts that we do NOT have, but that an enterprising new man might organize, would be horse shoes & stakes, a primitive period chess set, a period Bible from which to read scripture aloud to believing/scoffing pardners. A related scenario is the "Dear Sarah..." skit, which Corporal Jackson pioneered several years ago [ask him for details... one man is dead and the other reads aloud a letter to Sarah]. Other skits include collecting funds from the men for the Widows & Orphans Fund, praying & laying flowers or reflecting at the "graveyard", gathering gambling debts from last night's game [or avoiding the same], grousing about the officers and the NCO's, talking with comrades about home and hearth and family, bragging & boasting of manly exploits on the field of battle [the men will help out by jeering!], reading the Harper's Gazette, and complaining of them damned Temperance Folks who ruin a good weekend in town.
Clearly, this is not an exhaustive listing. There must be thousands of other possibilities for creative reenactors to develop. One of the joys of reenacting is the generation of creative juices during Living History scenarios. Involve others in your ideas. Swap ideas. Expand and combine previously done ideas. If you need a willing stooge, pardner or half-wit, don't hesitate to ask a veteran, as the ranks are filled with high caliber men who fit this requirement. Improvise, improve on old ideas, and learn from your mistakes. If a phrase or comeback works [that is, brings a laugh or a moan] remember it, use it again, and build upon it! If your scenario ideas develop and catch hold of camp visitors, you'll have experienced the true thrill of reenacting!
Getting Rid of Farb the Easy Way
One of the most often asked questions, and topic of often heated debate among reenactors, centers on what is and isnt FARB. What is authentic and what isnt and what is good enough and what isnt. The question of what is good enough is basic to the whole issue. But to best understand the answer, we must examine what it is were trying to do as Civil War reenactors. In the RACW our stated purpose in our bylaws is to perpetuate public awareness of, and stimulate interest in, the historical significance of the period in United States history termed the War Between the States and commonly called the American Civil War. We do this by portraying the look, talk and actions of Civil War soldiers and war era civilians. It is at this point that the debate occurs: how accurate must our look, talk and actions be, and how accurate do I make my own personal impression and how accurate do I expect my fellows to be?
An often-heard rebuttal to the pressure for more authenticity is, who would know? This response is based in only a limited understanding of the depth of what is attempting to be done by reenacting. Who would know is based on the assumption that the audiences, which come through our camps and watch our battles have only limited or no knowledge of the Civil War, and as such would not appreciate or care about some points of authenticity. Such a belief relies on the overall look of the camps and the battles to convince the viewers as to the realness of the details as unimportant.
Perhaps a better mantra for the reenactor than who would know would be one of who would see? Using this idea to guide your impression, who would see provides a number of advantages and offers a more complete concept of reenacting, avoiding some of the pitfalls associated with who would know. Non-period articles are now hidden from view, not on display with the hope that no one would recognize the error. It must be remembered that when you have a Civil War event, you attract people who are knowledgeable about it and can see FARB material for what it is, unreal. And there is a group of people who will always know if there is FARB about: other reenactors. While many wont say anything, there will be those who do, and while some may blow-off their comments as being over wrought, they owe it to themselves and the hobby to clean up their act. Also the non-period equipment detracts from the overall ambiance of the event which other reenactors may be trying to create. Out of respect for your fellow reenactors and their enjoyment of the hobby, keep yourself in the period with both mind and deed.
The concept of who would see recognizes that there will always be FARB stuff at events, it is unavoidable. But instead of denying our FARB gear, we hide and camouflage it. Some examples of this notion of camouflage are: Wearing your period clothing so your modern undergarments dont show yet often is seen tee shirts sticking up above the top buttons. Keep your non-period gear covered with a period blanket or canvas. If your pants are modern, cover those parts that are the most modern looking (i.e. belt loops and pleats); wear your sack coat at all times to cover this. If youre not wearing a kepi, alter your hat so you dont look like Frank Sinatra or Ben Cartwright. If youre not wearing brogans or proper boots, get some nondescript, black leather shoes without a bunch of laces showing, modern army boots wont fool anybody at any distance but some very plain dress shoes might.
Please remember, this idea of who will see is one not based in Authenticity Nazism, but in good theatrical practice. The theatergoer does not see behind the castle wall, so therefore the backside may be left canvas and wood, while the patron is left to believe it is solid. The theater goer does not get to touch or wear the chain mail armor, so he does not realize its crocheted and painted black and gray, but still believes Mac Beth and his men are preparing for battle. Our audience cannot see under blankets to reveal the sleeping bag beneath or see inside our haversacks to discover our credit cards. We must remember that it its the illusion of the time that we must convey and anything or anyone who falls short in this will detract from his fellow reenactors and the audiences experience.
The following are some rules of thumb to remember regarding the area of FARB stuff.
Not all wire rim glasses are period. Glasses of the Civil War had no nose pads.
Just because it’s wool doesn’t mean its period. Pleated, French army pants are no more period looking than fighting with an AK-47. (Levi’s are even worse!)
Just because it’s not electric doesn’t make it period. At night, let’s try to maintain the feel of the camps by leaving the Coleman lanterns and gas heaters at home.
Look at your unit. At least rise to the level of everyone else in your unit regarding proper gear. Don’t be the last one to step up to the mark.
Check wooden items for lumber grade markings and non-period hardware. Remember that the Phillips head screw was not invented till well after the Civil War.
If you are going to post a notice in camp, hand-write it. Computer printed schedules hanging from company duty boards look bad.
Smokers should find a cigar they like and be sure to pick up their after-hours butts.
Camp chairs are nice, but remember only officers had access to the wagons and a hard campaigning unit would have tossed them out long ago; sit on a box.
by Rick Barram
The sharp-eyed corporal pulled the trigger the instant he heard the command to fire. Wondering if the next command would again be " fire by ranks," he loaded and came to the ready. The enemy, unslowed by his company's last volley was still advancing. "Fire by files, ready, aim, FIRE!," came the order as the rattle of the rapid firing company filled the morning air. "They're still coming, independent fire!" shouted the captain . Every man loaded and primed, the corporal spit powder as he fingered his cap box. He leveled and fired, but with every shot the enemy drew closer, either it was time to charge or withdraw; but no order came. He readied his Enfield for another shot, he leveled, "Good Lord," he thought, "they're here, I can see them, one's looking at me, he sees me aiming at him, this is last instant on earth!" And with that the corporal fired, catching his foe squarely in the chest... the foe staggered at first, spun slightly to the left, dropped his rifle and collapsed. "Nice hit!" thought the corporal...
Such scenes as the one above are played out every time we take the field for a battle scenario. But instead of this being another article about how to take the proper hit, it is about what taking that hit means to the person who shot you. As the battle unfolds, a question each of us must resolve is, when and when not to take a hit. How do we know the exact time we are to go down? Of course the nature of the scenario has something to do with it; winning or losing and such. But what about when you see a foe, he has you clearly in his sights, and he pulls the trigger. Good reenacting dictates that you take some kind of hit, wound or otherwise, but there is something more to it. By taking a hit in this situation, you acknowledge your enemy, the man, his effort, his dedication, and in essence, giving him the gift of your hit.
Certainly not one of us can deny the satisfaction we felt at watching an enemy go down as a direct result of our "shot." But we must keep in mind that that shot did not come without some help from the other side; it takes two to make "Bang! You're dead" happen. So in the shoot and hit of the battle, it is that sense of satisfaction that we give to our fellow reenactor by dying a glorious death, or at least taking a fashionable wound. It is a gift that we give from across the field. Though the hit may be somewhat expected, we turn it into a gift when we have made eye contact with our opponent, it is clear who he is shooting at, and the hit taken could have come from no other source. And in the spirit of it being better to give than to receive, no one can deny the satisfaction we gain when the one who shot us, compliments the hit we took on their behalf. It's a win-win situation!
So with all this said, where does that leave us for the future? I would hope it would leave us all with a better sense of club unity, duty to our fellow reenactor, and a greater willingness to take that hit, even if it is, "just a flesh wound..."
Article based of conversations with Dana Davis, Monte Sidenstricker and Chris Prator
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