Civil War re-enactment a ‘hobby’ to many, a way of life for some

Scott Rader is an avid Civil War re-enactor. Re-enactors run the gamut from moderately extreme to obsessively devoted to authenticity. It’s called “The Hobby,” and Gettysburg is ground zero, attracting thousands of re-enactors every year to live the battle that turned the tide of the war.

The Civil War was the first off-the-rack war.

The Federal Army, wanting to take advantage of industrial manufacturing processes, sorted the typical, mid-19th century American male into four standard sizes. By the time war broke out in 1861, places like the Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia and Brooks Brothers in New York could run off tens of thousands of uniforms in those four sizes.

“Not many modern people fit a standard size. I don’t fit a standard size,” said Scott Rader, who keeps about a dozen different Civil War outfits in his attic in Delanco, N.J. “I buy the standard size and tailor it. Or do what they did: Wear a belt and roll it up.”

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Rader is an avid Civil War re-enactor. He works in information technology, and he has been growing out a scruffy red beard to get ready for Gettysburg. He will be part of the long-awaited 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg next week. The event is expected to attract more than 90,000 spectators over four days, plus about 10,000 re-enactors.

Clothes are a serious business to Civil War re-enactors, a key marker of authenticity.

Devotion to detail

Rader owns a wide variety of uniforms, including eight Federal coats and five Confederate coats, with respective blue and gray trousers, and a variety of hats, haversacks, and guns.

“I prefer to do Federal Army,” said Rader. “I can do any time of war, in any theater.”

In the early battles of the war, many Union soldiers were state militia soldiers, wearing the uniforms of their home state. As clothes deteriorated they would be replaced by federal-issue uniforms. So a serious re-enactor needs a full wardrobe of uniforms to fit in during re-enactments from different states of the war: Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Franklin, etc.

To get those uniforms, you have to go to a sutler, or a peddler of soldier’s equipment. Back in the day, they tended to move with army camps; now they tend to be online. There are a few brick-and-mortar retail stores, like Regimental Quartermaster in Gettysburg, where proprietor George Lomas can set you up with a starter package.

“For a basic $240: a sack coat or shell jacket that’s Union or Confederate, trousers, shirt, socks, and a hat — a forage cap,” said Lomas. “That’s a very, extremely basic package.”

Re-enactors run the gamut from moderately extreme to obsessively devoted to authenticity. In other words, you can’t re-enact while wearing Nikes. So you’ll also have to buy period shoes, or brogans. If you wear eyeglasses, you will need to buy period frames. You’ll want a gun — we’re talking about a war, here — which can run you up to and beyond $1,000. Regimental Quartermaster will even sell you hardtack, a thick, rock-hard biscuit ration in little waxed paper envelopes.

Lomas is quick to open a coat to show the stitching on the lining. Some coats are machine-stitched, some hand-stitched. Union soldiers were more likely to wear machine-made uniforms. In the South, as the war progressed, uniforms became increasingly rag-tag and were made piecemeal, by hand. If you want to portray a Confederate soldier at Petersburg, a late battle, sporting machine-made buttonholes would be an embarrassing error.

“Re-enacting is not just one thing,” said Lomas. “It’s a broad spectrum.”

‘Civil War Disneyland’

The Gettysburg re-enactment, like all re-enactments, will not take place on the historic battlefield, which is a protected National Park. The organizers have rented over 500 acres of farmland just north of Gettysburg to stage their battles.

Gettysburg is what re-enactors call a “mainstream” event, meaning organizers provide emergency medical service, portable toilets, food service, and parking for spectators. Motel rooms are nearby.

“You can do the event and stay in a hotel, and the next day take the kids out to the [historic] battlefield,” said Rader, a father of two. “It’s like Civil War Disneyland.”

The more hard-core re-enactors — campaigners — live for days exactly as the soldiers would have lived, sleeping rough in the woods and eating hardtack. They normally do not attract an audience.

William Coe is a re-enactor who next week will be acting the part of his great-great-uncle, a Confederate soldier in the 21st North Carolina regiment who was killed at Gettysburg. 

“It’s not a hobby,” said Coe, a retired New Jersey correctional officer who last year moved to Gettysburg to immerse himself in the life. “When you spend a third of your annual income, and take all the time you take doing the re-enactments as vacation time, and you’re as crazy as I am to move where you died 150 years ago, it’s more than a hobby.”

“A lot of people get into it because of friends,” said Brian Gesuero, a firefighter from Baltimore who has been re-enacting for 33 years, mostly as a Confederate soldier. “The Confederate army moves better, but it’s all about where you live and what your friends are doing.”

The Confederate army moves better?

“We know how to maneuver on the field,” said Gesuero, serious as a cannon volley as he stood in the middle of the hay farm where the Gettysburg battle will be re-enacted. With his ice-blue stare and moustache, he looks exactly like the Confederate commander he will portray. “If my counterpart [the Union commander] were here to defend himself, he might say something. But he’s not.”

Gesuero’s commitment to The Hobby is somewhat influenced by the 33 years he has already invested in it.

“Let’s be honest — it’s killing me,” he said. “Somebody’s gotta do it.”

Others treat The Hobby with less intensity. 

“It’s fun. That’s why you do it. It’s enhanced camping,” said Rader. “We’re hippies with guns.”

Remember Antietam

Gettysburg is not Rader’s first choice for a battle re-enactment. He prefers Antietam, where his great-great-great-grandfather was wounded.

“Antietam is such a peaceful place,” Rader said. “It’s undisturbed. There’s nothing touristy. There’s no McDonalds, no wax museum. It’s so wonderfully peaceful. And it was such a tragedy, the largest single-day’s loss.”

During re-enactments, Rader has awoken in a forest to ambush an army in a cornfield at dawn. He has heaved an iron cannon into place for an artillery battery. He has marched for hours in the summer sun wearing a woolen uniform. He has charged up hills in full gear.

Re-enacting gives him a sense of why the Civil War progressed the way it did.

“People read in book about Gettysburg and think, ‘Why didn’t the Federal Army, after Gettysburg, just go get them and win the war?'” said Rader. “Because you’re exhausted. You’re tired and hot and your stuff is beat up. I know that. After three days in the sunshine and being pushed around and not being re-supplied, you’re worn out. Human beings have a breaking point. There’s a point you can’t go on anymore.”

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