How to Get Started as a Lady Civil War Reenactor
How I Got Involved in Civil War Reenactment
I've always been something of a Civil War geek. I'd seen Civil War reenactors in movies like Glory and North and South, but I always thought reenacting was something you had to go to school for (or at least have some sort of prior experience in) before you could participate.
In 1993 I found out how wrong I was. During a trip to Gettysburg, PA, my sister and I came across some reenactors 'camped' outside the Civil War Wax Museum.
After chatting with them, I discovered that all you needed to be a reenactor is a passion for the Civil War and a local group to join. I picked up a copy of the Camp Chase Gazette on the same trip. A calendar of nationwide reenacting events was listed in the back, and one of the events was very close to where I lived at the time.
The rest, as they say, is history. Da-bum-bum.
You Can Do Civil War Reenactment Affordably
Now, in 1993 (much like today), I had no money. A low budget need not discourage you. If you're intrigued by life as a civilian lady Civil War reenactor, let me assure you that you can do it on the cheap and that it's a great way to meet guys!
A Girl's Guide to Getting Started Reenacting
So, what do you need to get started? Here's a list, nonscientific, just based on my own personal experience:
- The first thing you need to do is find out if there's a reenacting unit in your area. In 1993 the internet didn't exist, so I had to hunt around a little, but lucky you! These days finding a unit is just a mouse click away. Try Googling "Civil War reenacting [your city]" and see what pops up.
- Once you've found a unit, find out whether or not they accept civilians. Some units don't; the ones that do are usually called "family units." The quality of civilian participation varies also; in some units, the women primarily just cook and clean, while others have active civilian roles as members of the "Sanitary Commission" (sort of like the Red Cross), women's rights advocates, and other impressions. The unit I joined only had a few civilians, but we built the civilian contingent from the ground up. Our group even included a few guys who wanted to reenact but didn't want to be soldiers.
- Once you've found a unit and a suitable role, you'll need a wardrobe. Fortunately, this can be done very cheaply. You don't have to worry initially about being hyper-authentic; all you really need is one nice white long-sleeved blouse, a wide floor-length skirt in an era-appropriate pattern (you can't go wrong with plaid) and a ballgown.
Some Costuming Advice
Now, when I started reenacting I couldn't sew worth a darn. I quickly learned that making a Civil War-era skirt was very easy. It consists of seven A-shaped pieces of fabric sewn together and hemmed. You can find an 1860s gored skirt pattern on eBay. Trust me, you will use this pattern a lot. It's also handy for making Halloween costumes!
Thrift Shops Are the Beginner's Friend
As far as a ballgown goes, let me just say this: the thrift shop is your friend! When you've been reenacting for a while, you can concentrate on being 100% "authentic" with your clothes, but to start out just go to your local thrift shops and look in the prom gown section. There you'll likely find at least one dress that will work for a ballgown. It should be made of satin or silk, have short puffy sleeves (no sleeveless dresses), and have a skirt that's wide enough to fit over your hoop.
Ah, yes, the hoop! The mainstay of any reenactor's wardrobe. What goes under your clothes is as important as any dress or blouse, and many serious ladies spend $$$ on authentic undergarments. But never fear, when you're starting out you can do what I did: I found a pair of white clamdiggers, trimmed them in lace, and used them for pantalets (long undershorts, you probably glimpsed them in Gone With the Wind); and bought a plastic-boned hoopskirt from a bridal shop for about $50.
The hoop width for the Civil War era was about 6–8' in circumference, so make sure your hoop can go that wide. The individual hoops, or "bones,"' in the skirt are usually adjustable.
Valuable Links for Civilian Civil War Reenacting
- Abraham\'s Lady - Civil War era clothing & accessories
Civil War era clothing & accessories, including dress and bonnet patterns - very EZ to use!! Take it from someone who does NOT sew!!
- Getting Started in Civil War Reenacting How To
A helpful link to learning the "lingo".
- Civil War Homepage
A link to the annual Civil War muster in Jackson, Michigan. The largest CW reenactment in the western United States.
- "Who Wore What"
A fantastic resource book for anyone wanting to learn more about an authentic 1860s look.
© 2009 Sarah Lynn 1863