Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tips on a Confederate Officer Impression

As a living historian portraying a Confederate officer can be as challenging as portraying a Confederate enlisted man. With so many choices on the market of what to buy, it’s kind of hard to determine what is authentic without first doing some research. I have seen some really bad officer impressions in my time but at the same time I’ve seen some good officer impressions as well. The newly elected officer needs to ask himself four questions. Where do I start my research for the impression I am doing? What was it that an officer did? What type of uniform was he able to afford and had available to him? What type of uniform should I buy? This article should serve as a guide for those who want to improve their impression or those who were just promoted into an officer’s position such as 2nd Lieutenant through Captain.

The first step to an accurate officers impression is to research your role and time period thoroughly. Study up on what officers did and study the manual for the school of the company. Figure out what their responsibilities were not only for themselves, but to the men they command. An officer is someone who led by authority and someone who had the trust of his men. Field officers such as captains of the company led the men while the lieutenants took care of camp guard, paperwork, pickets and a course officer of the day and if necessary led the company in place of their captain if he was out. Lieutenants also led platoons when they were ordered out by the captain. Then you have staff positions performed on a regimental or battalion level. For these specialty positions, keep in mind your going to be limited on how you can do your job during events.

The second step is to research your impression. Always research your role and impression first before making any purchases. Researching your role can be done by reading the military manuals and also read "Customs of Service for Officers of the Army" which can be downloaded free from Google Books. There are other related manuals that can also be downloaded. Once you have studied the duties, responsibilities and the role of the junior officer, you then need to build an impression. Always research your role and impression first before making any purchases.

A valuable research tool is the “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy” book which can be used to research your impression and other uniform needs. Look at what the average officer wore, not what majors, colonels or generals wore. While choosing a uniform it is important to keep in mind the pay rate of the officer position that you are portraying and the time period. For example you should not buy a uniform that exceeds the rate of pay that the officer you are portraying would have received. Another resource to help you determine what type of uniform to purchase would be photographs of officers from the state you are portraying. Once you find an officer that is wearing a uniform that you like, ask yourself what is it he is wearing, do I see any trim, what type of buttons is he wearing and what is his uniform made of? Remember too, that the Confederate officer had to buy his uniform and accouterments as a private purchase.

Your officer's uniform should consist of a well made frock coat and or shell jacket that was tailor made from a higher quality material. I have two field jackets that I use. My first jacket is made from wool and features nine Virginia local seal buttons. The jacket is padded with cotton batting in the front and has three copper colored braid bars sewn onto the collar instead of the patches. The inside of the jacket is made from black polished cotton. The second jacket I have is a non-depot jacket in brown jeans-cloth trimmed in dark blue flannel wool. It features three bars made from non-metallic gold 1/8 inch tape. It also features a slash pocket on the front left breast and is padded with cotton batting.

As an officer it is best to have an authentic frock coat for formal occasions. When wearing a frock coat it should be for dress details and worn with a sash. My frock coat is a Confederate regulation coat that is made from wool broadcloth that is Richmond grey in color and it has Austrian knots on the sleeves signifying my rank. It also has a cream colored collar and cuffs as seen in the “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy”. This frock coat has Virginia local seal buttons on it which are also found in the “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy”. The rank is sewn onto it using 1/4 inch wide dull gold colored lace.

Rank devices for lieutenants and captains should be made from braid or a non metallic brass or subdued colored lace that is about 1/4 of an inch wide sewn onto the collar. When jackets were made for the officer, most of the time braid and lace were used as rank devices however, many of them were sewn onto the collar during the construction of the jacket. As you look through “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy”, you’ll notice that the majority of the rank devices are not patches sewn onto the jacket like what is commonly seen on reproduction jackets. It is advisable to avoid the usage of these patches as much as possible. If anything, just use the lace or braid and remember, you can always go without wearing rank on your collar. This practice was done during the Civil War.

Trousers are something that many people never research. Many mainstream re-enactors who are voted into their position just buy an officer's jacket and forget about the trousers. Looking at photographs you see that many officers wore trousers with tape running down the leg in black or blue, while many others wore pants with cord or piping that extended down the leg. Studying photographs of officers, you will also notice that many had standard depot style trousers that were neatly hand sewn and tailor made.

Headgear is a must for the officer. I would invest money into a high quality made officer’s kepi rather than buying a cheaply made one that you will see for sale at some of the sutlers in Gettysburg for a price of $25.00. A good quality officer’s kepi will run you about $150.00. Study the photographs and examples of officer kepis as seen in the “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy”. For mid to late war, a standard enlisted kepi or slouch hat is appropriate.

After you have determined what type of uniform would be appropriate for your impression you can move on to the other necessary accouterments. Study photographs for details such as if he is wearing a sword belt. See what type of buckle he is wearing. Get yourself a quality sword belt and not just a standard cavalry belt. Study the sword as well. There are not many authentic sword makers out there, so you will have to purchase wisely. After purchasing your officers sword it is a good idea to defarb all modern marks off of it and polish it well. Remember that your sword represents your rank. You’ll want to keep it clean and in good shape.
An officers haversack is another good investment to make in developing your impression. This is what an officer would carry his personal papers, notebooks and pencils in as well as morning reports and such. It is also a good idea to keep one or two extra revolver rounds in the haversack. There are a few good haversack makers out there, just be sure to research where to buy.

When purchasing a side arm the main thing to keep in mind that they were used by officers for protection only in hand to hand combat. Your job as an officer was lead men, not shoot at the enemy. Do not fall into a common pitfall of carrying more than one sidearm. Also keep in mind that you do not need to purchase a cartridge box or cap box. Remember if you need extra ammunition, you’ll have it packed in your officer’s haversack.

If you are portraying an officer on campaign it is advisable that you wear a knapsack or a blanket roll with your entire personal items stored in there. Although extremely accurate, this is rarely depicted at mainstream events unless it is by a company of campaigners. As an officer, it is highly unadvisable to purchase a wall tent, as this is inaccurate for your officers impression. Even in the Federal Army, where troops were better equipped, a captain was issued two shelter halves while the lieutenant was issued one shelter half. Junior officers on campaign would march with their men and sleep with their men unless prior arrangements were made.

Footwear for a lieutenant or a captain should consist of brogans and not fancy, knee high, cheaply made officer boots that you would normally see a colonel or a general wearing. This is not only inaccurate, it is over portrayed with junior officers. There is nothing wrong with wearing Jefferson Booties since you are a line officer. As an officer, you marched with your men on foot and very seldom would you have ridden a horse.

One last tidbit of advice I will give is please do not follow the trends of everyone around you. If you see someone wearing something that you like, ask them the history of it before running out to purchase one just like it. And in return, if people ask you questions about your impression, you’ll have the answers for them just by doing the research. Remember, your research is what makes this hobby educational for spectators.

Tweaking Your Civil War Accouterments Kit

I know that several reenactors don’t worry about the very small details of their kits such as the tool pouch of the cartridge box or filling the haversack will actual period correct rations. I am not going to bash the reenactor, but rather, I want to help them improve their impressions more or less for when they do living histories. The smallest detail can have a long lasting impression on the public when you deal with them on a day to day basis. I have seen those, who when asked, “What is that bag that hangs over your shoulder?” reply “This is my haversack.” The spectator or event participant will typically then ask, “What is it used for?" The reenactor just holding up the haversack, then replies, “It was used to carry food and small personal items.” The person asking, not completely satisfied, then just walks away. The reenactor feels satisfied as to his answer, feeling that the spectator or event participant was adequately dealt with, but couldn't you have done more? What could have been done differently to enhance the visitors experience?

When conducting living histories, the haversack can be a powerful teaching tool, especially if you have your period correct rations inside. When ever I go out in the public eye, my haversack is always packed for such an occasion. My haversack is packed with poke bags that contain rice, various dried beans, coffee, hardtack, fruits and vegetables that are in season and salt pork for the overnight stay. Small glass bottles that are period correct are good for carrying various spices such as salt, or molasses. I also carry my spoon, fork and knife combo kit inside and people really enjoy it when they come up and ask me, “What is the bag over your shoulder and what is it used for?” Within a few minutes, I am able to go through and show them what hardtack looked like, my poke bags of coffee beans and rice and then I show them my spoon, fork and knife combo kit. This is such an inexpensive investment and it really does make an impression with the public. Taking the time to go through what is carried in a haversack also opens the door to other educational discussions with your participant. You may get into a conversation about how hardtack was made and what it tastes like. The possibilities are endless and the public leaves with a better appreciation for your average soldier of the Civil War.

Another thing that the public loves to see is the cookware and the mess itself. One thing to make sure is, if you present any of the tinware you have, make sure it’s made out of tin. Tin was a cheap metal and could easily be made into canteens, cups, coffeepots, plates and cans. I know that tinware today is a bit expensive, but it’s well worth the investment. When doing a living history, there is nothing in the world that makes a group more interested than seeing you pull out coffee beans from your haversack and grind them up either by using your bayonet or by placing the coffee beans on a hard surface like a rock and using another rock or the butt of your musket to break them up and then place them into your coffeepot. Coffee is something that most people can relate to in their daily routine. Again, very basic stuff has a long, everlasting impact on the public.

The cartridge box is also a very powerful teaching tool. When doing living histories, I have my cartridge box packed with forty dummy rounds placed in my cartridge box tins and I have my tool pouch filled with the correct tools that were needed to keep the rifled musket operational. I have a spare nipple cone, one wiper, one combination wrench and one bullet extractor. People love this, especially when you screw on the wiper onto the end of your ramrod and slide it down the musket. People are blown away by the smallest details that you present to them when the opportunity knocks. Between the haversack full of rations and a cartridge box full of dummy rounds, packed with tools, you can keep the conversation interesting and memorable for the participants. One interesting thing that I have found in interacting with the public through these interpretive tools is that most people still think that Civil War soldiers loaded their muskets by measuring out powder and dumping that into the barrel and then placing a patch and ramming the bullet next. By interacting with them and engaging them in the program, I can also use this educational time to dispell common myths and misconceptions such as that.

You can achieve a higher standard when you research and all of the sources can be found online, but in the end it is up to you to take the extra steps in tweaking your Civil War impression. Reenactments are one thing and the reenactor really doesn't deal with the public, but at a living history, you and your unit should be doing all you can to ensure that the living history you are at is as educational and family friendly for the public and to make learning fun for those who are asking the questions. If you work at a historical site that relates to the Civil War and you want to start a program, this would be a great idea for you to use as part of your interpretive training.