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.