Authentic or Just Think You Are: Authenticity vs. Our Perceptions of Authenticity

Authentic or Just Think You Are:
Authenticity vs. Our Perceptions of Authenticity

by Jeff Sherry

As a longtime reenactor, going on 15 years now, and a member of the Ninth's Advisory Panel, for what it's worth, it has been a habit of mine to research my uniforms and equipment to insure that I could be as "authentic" as possible. Perhaps this comes from doing the War of 1812 where all of our clothing is custom made as there are no sutlers making the stuff. Like many fresh fish, I often bought what some "veteran" in the unit told me to buy, thinking it must be well researched or they wouldn't be wearing it, right? At first I was pleased with my choices, hey, I looked like everyone else in my unit! I soon found myself replacing this stuff with better made and better researched items. I then noticed I started to stand out. Was I uncomfortable with this? At first, yes. Then I came to the realization that I was very confident in my research and that I stood out for a reason. The reason was the sutlers I bought all that other junk from wouldn't know an authentic fatigue blouse or forage cap or canteen cover if it introduced itself to them. My favorite argument used by these thieves is "contract variation!" Stop and think about that one. Yes, the Federal Government contracted out uniforms and equipage but these had to pass inspection and meet the standards of the U.S. arsenal that did the contracting. But, I digress.

A recent article in Camp Chase Gazette on "Hardcore Reenacting" describes my penchant for research and never being totally pleased with my impression as indeed being "hardcore." Wow, I don't even urinate on my buttons, not on purpose anyway. I don't really want to contract lice just to experience it and I don't knowingly eat meat with maggots in it. Then just what is "hardcore" and what is "authentic"? The article came to the conclusion that constant research into uniforms and equipment, drill, and first person and battlefield impression are what makes a "hardcore" or "authentic." To do this, first research original items of clothing and equipment. Then research new sutlers and suppliers for new and more authentic articles of clothing and gear. If you thought there were a lot of sutlers at mega-events, there are dozens and dozens of small suppliers out there making really good stuff that you'll never see at a mega-event. Many don't even advertise.

So, what do we have to do to be authentic? Wear the best clothing available, know the drill inside and out, know your unit's history and the history of the war, and act like a Civil War soldier so you can talk intelligently to the public and other reenactors.

Now, finally, to my title-"Authenticity vs. Our Perceptions of Authenticity." A recent camp fire conversation made me wonder about what some reenactors think is authentic. Do you think long hair and long beards are authentic? Do you think really short hair is authentic? Do you wear a frock coat instead of a fatigue blouse because you think the blouse looks sloppy and the frock looks more "military" or because you think you "look better" in a frock coat? Ask yourself this question? Whose idea of "military or sloppy"? are you using? A 20th century spit and polish U.S. Army notion of sloppy or a 19th century version. If you examine photographs of Civil War soldiers, officers and enlisted alike, you will see a wide variety of frocks, blouses, and shell jackets that look down right sloppy by our standards. That's not the point! The point is they wore them and they often wore them in a sloppy way! They thought it looked good!

How about your cap or hat? I once read an article by "Dirty Billy Wickham," the hat maker, in which he said he hated to see a reenactor and his lady walk into his tent to buy a hat because the lady invariably picked out a hat that her partner "looked good" in but which bore no resemblance whatsoever to a correct hat for that army or that unit. Did you like Longstreet's hat in Gettysburg? Tom Berenger looked cool in it, but historically it was a lousy hat! Do you wear your hat pulled down over your eyes like Clint Eastwood because you saw a photograph of a Civil War soldier wearing his hat like that? I doubt it. Did you buy your forage cap because you liked the way the crown "falls forward just right"? Do you roll the visor on your forage cap like a modern baseball cap because you saw a photograph of a Civil War soldier wearing his that way? I defy anyone to show me a photograph of a Civil War soldier or an original forage cap with a rolled visor. To begin with, the leather used in originals and good repros won't roll like that and secondly, more often than not, if the visor isn't flat, it was pushed up in front. Do you think you look good like that? I doubt it, but real Civil War soldiers thought they did. Would you roll up your trouser legs for a photograph? They did! Look at photographs taken in camp or in the field, not a photographer's studio. They rolled them up to keep them out of the dirt and mud and because they probably were too long!

What looks good to us today and what makes an authentic impression should not be dictated by 20th century military standards. We really aren't doing this to "soldier" are we? We are supposed to be "reenacting" the Civil War, not some 20th century war. It is about time every member of the unit looked hard at their own physical impression, i.e. clothing, caps and hats, and equipage. Start by getting rid of the $20.00 forage caps and the purple fatigue blouses that have shrunk up on you and shorten up your haversacks, canteens, learn the drill inside and out and start acting and looking like a Civil War soldier. We can all improve. Let's all work on it.

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July 1998