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How to Get Started as a Lady Civil War Reenactor

I've been a Civil War reenactor for over 25 years now; it's a lot of fun!

This was taken in Nova, OH, in July 1993. The first reenactment I ever attended in dress. The ballgown was bought at a theater sale for, I think, $15. With me are the gallant lads of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

This was taken in Nova, OH, in July 1993. The first reenactment I ever attended in dress. The ballgown was bought at a theater sale for, I think, $15. With me are the gallant lads of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

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.

The dances are one of the great parts of reenacting. They're called like square dances, so you don't have to worry about knowing the steps ahead of time.

The dances are one of the great parts of reenacting. They're called like square dances, so you don't have to worry about knowing the steps ahead of time.

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!

Me in a red two-piece afternoon dress.

Me in a red two-piece afternoon dress.

My sister Sue in an apple-green afternoon dress. Yes, we're twins.

My sister Sue in an apple-green afternoon dress. Yes, we're twins.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
My sister with some of the great guys of the 7th OVI.

My sister with some of the great guys of the 7th OVI.

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!

My sister made the dress on the left; the dress on the right is the same one shown above, now worn by my friend Joan, who heard me talking about reenacting and wanted to try it out. I have cool friends!

My sister made the dress on the left; the dress on the right is the same one shown above, now worn by my friend Joan, who heard me talking about reenacting and wanted to try it out. I have cool friends!

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.

Me (center) and my two friends Carla and Sara (3rd MI) going to the ball in Jackson, MI in 2003. The dress I'm wearing is an old Gunne Sax prom dress!

Me (center) and my two friends Carla and Sara (3rd MI) going to the ball in Jackson, MI in 2003. The dress I'm wearing is an old Gunne Sax prom dress!

Recommended Reading

This info should get you started in the wonderful world of Civil War reenacting. I also found 60 Civil War-Era Fashion Patterns to be an invaluable resource, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the fashion of the time.

Indoor dances, like this one held in Youngstown OH, encourages ladies to wear fancier ballgowns since there's no fear of getting mud on them!

Indoor dances, like this one held in Youngstown OH, encourages ladies to wear fancier ballgowns since there's no fear of getting mud on them!

Another shot from the Youngstown ball.

Another shot from the Youngstown ball.

Valuable Links for Civilian Civil War Reenacting

© 2009 Sarah Lynn 1863

Comments

Cynthia on January 12, 2014:

Thank you so much! I can't wait to try it out! :)

Sarah Lynn 1863 (author) on January 12, 2014:

Hi Cynthia,

Yes! Those dresses were both made with day dress patterns available commercially. I got them from Abraham's Lady, a sutler's shop in Gettysburg. Here's the website:

http://abrahamslady.com/past_patterns.html

I used the patterns for the full skirt, and the gathered bodice.

Good luck, and enjoy the reenactment! Abraham's Lady sells a lot of reenacting stuff, so look around.

Cynthia on January 12, 2014:

Hi! Is there some way to get the patterns you have for the red or green plaid afternoon dresses? I have got it into my head that I'd like to make a civil war/Victorian/antebellum era dress for fun. and maybe go to the reenactment for the Batlle of Kennesaw Mountain in June. :)

cowboyclyde on February 13, 2012:

I was looking for the person with the reenactors gowns to let me know if they are still available.

RIA on October 14, 2010:

Would you be able to tell me how your sister made them, i want to make some like them.

Lady Swankster on September 02, 2010:

Hi HomespunDress!

This was a great article you put together. I am going to share this with some of the people who stop by my encampment. I also started re-enacting Civil War around 1999. For many years I just dressed up, went to the dances and started to get to know people. I spent most of my time with the confederate cavalry men. I told them I would like to do something other than just dress up. They asked me if I would like to be there cook. So I am the cook for the 1st North Carolina Cavalry.

jean-guy Dugas on July 22, 2010:

love the dresses with the hoop under skirt.

like to reenact as a union soldier deserter and have to be a lady to evate martial law. I think we have some cases in the Us civil war.

Kennesa on November 30, 2009:

Hi HomespunDress!

Thank you for this information! I am going to take a look at these sites!

I am a 14 year old girl, but a friend of mine who reenacts a lot says I could portray a 16 year old. I sort of agree because I have had a lot of people ask how old I am and when I tell them say, "Oh my gosh! I thought you were like 17!

Thanks again1

kay on November 28, 2009:

hi i live all this sort of thing. i am very interested in joining a group. do you know of any in the uk?

HomespunDress on November 11, 2009:

Kennesa:

No age limit, most of the time. If you're a male and wish to do a soldiers impression, you generally have to be 16 or up (because of insurance). Civilians generally don't.

For Soldiers, try www.authentic-campaigner.com

For civilians: www.thesewingacademy.org

Great sites, and they have a lot of stuff to read on there.

Hope this helps!

Kennesa on October 26, 2009:

I would love to reenact, but I don't know if I'm old enough. Is there an age limit?

I've worn a hoop dress and I didn't want to take it off! I think I would really enjoy reenacting.

DarwinsLaureate on July 16, 2009:

Stopping by again to re-rate and to leave a comment this time. ;)

Excellent writing, and beautiful costumes.

History is best understood through acting it out, I've come to find.

Sincerely,

Sharley D

annabell on May 30, 2009:

I am looking for an inexpensive place to buy gear for my husband. any ideas?

ccplrose on February 15, 2009:

Being in a Civil War reenactment as a guest -- I'm the redhead in the pink dress -- was a great experience. Dressing up in a ballgown and dancing the night away with guys in uniform made me feel like a heroine in a romance novel. If you want to visit history (as they say: it's a great place to visit, but you wouldn't necessarily want to live there!), it's worth looking into for yourself and for your family as a way to reconnect with America's past.