Those who are familiar with living history events hosted by museums or parks may not be surprised to see a few men walking around in Union or Confederate uniforms, toting their knapsacks/haversacks and sitting around meager campfires with dog tents pitched in the background. These living history reenactors are passionate about really getting into the mindset of the Civil War soldier, donning contemporary replicas of their clothing and demonstrating artillery or musket drills to the public. Many are eager to share what they’ve learned with the curious visitor, and rejoice in the recruitment of more likeminded history buffs into the reenactment world.
Outside of public living history demos, these reenactors also participate in more authentic events, where they do their utmost to mimic soldier life on a campaign. These diehard reenactors, for a few days, live the life of a Civil War soldier – short of real combat. I had the pleasure of befriending one of these passionate reenactors and he was gracious enough to share about the campaigning and reenacting experience of marching as the soldiers had.
Iowa native Mark Hidlebaugh has shared his knowledge of the life of the common soldier through participating in living history programs and giving presentations for more than 40 years. A lifelong student of the Civil War, his idea of a perfect vacation is visiting and studying Civil War battlefields with his wife, Shelby. He has also umpired Little League baseball and softball as well as volunteered his time coaching Special Olympics basketball
SB: How long have you been involved in Civil War reenacting and what inspired you to get involved?
MH: Since 1983. I have always had a love for history…most notably Civil War history. By chance I ran across a reenactment while attending a town summer festival. It was like all the years of reading now became tangible and I was afforded a chance to live it.
SB: What does the typical reenactment event look like for you? What sort of events do you regularly attend or prefer to attend?
MH: The events I have attended throughout the decades have varied and cover all the imaginable spectrum of possibilities. Some are city park events, more commonly called mainstream events, where there is a higher priority on socializing instead of authenticity.
At the opposite end are the events that are as true to life as we can get in the modern world. These authentic events require strict adherence to uniforms, drill, and all aspects of a soldier’s life. These are often held without spectators and present the chance to “live the life.”
In between, there are a few events that are mainstream that do offer a few glimpses of the authentic side. Over the years, I have organized a number of these events where I included some of the authentic elements ranging from ration issues to guard mount to morning/evening parades. I have tried to meet the needs for all reenactors at these events whether they are mainstream or authentic.
I prefer to attend the more authentic events so I am surrounded by people of like mindset.
SB: How accurate do you attempt to get with your interpretation of a Civil War soldier? Does everyone aspire to the same authenticity?
MH: I go to great pains to portray a Civil War soldier as accurately as I can. This means no modern amenities such as cell phones, watches, modern food, etc.
Just as in any hobby, there are different levels. Some reenactors may dress like soldiers, but do not camp, eat, drill, or talk like the common soldier. Thus, they are not going the extra mile to show the true sacrifices that Civil War soldiers made. The uniforms they wear are not constructed in the correct manner or of the correct materials. This does not imply that they are not good people and good historians. Some have never been instructed in the proper uniforms while others may have financial reasons for being unable to afford the higher-end uniforms and gear.
We can NEVER even come close to the true horrors of Civil War combat, but those of us on the more authentic side can at the very least show the other 99% of a soldier’s life by wearing the proper uniforms, marching long miles carrying all the gear, and performing all the duties of a soldier
SB: I’d imagine for those big campaigns that involve marching or camping in extreme conditions, you face challenges that real soldiers may have faced during the Civil War. Can you give us a few examples?
MH: The larger campaigns on the authentic side offer the challenge not unlike those faced by the boys of 1861
- Economy of weight: deciding what you will have. Those of us on the authentic side carry everything we will use on our backs. So a reenactor needs to decide what he can live without. The soldiers that marched off to war in ‘61 came to their first camp with everything but the kitchen sink. They soon learned after the first few miles into a march that they didn’t need most of the items they left civilian life with. There are diaries, letters, and countless books that describe the roads littered with countless items that a few miles ago were deemed essential that quickly became just a burden.
- Food: We are issued military rations at authentic events. Even when I attend other events, I still carry appropriate rations. Some fellows prepare and eat all their food right away and then wait for the next issue. The best way to carry your food is in your stomach. So, one has to decide to eat the rations now or later.
- Conditioning: People in the 19th century were of a much hardier stock than we are today. They were used to long hours of labor in the heat and cold. Today, we live, drive, and work in climate-controlled settings…at least a lot of us do. So as reenactors, we must keep fit and active in order to carry the gear and walk those long miles. That struggle is something the reenactors who don’t attend the more authentic events never get to experience. It is not easy, but at the end of the day, it gives a living historian a good feeling to know that he can experience 99% of soldier life, with the remaining 1% being combat.
- Camping: Learning how to set up a period correct shelter is the hardest lesson to learn, but the most rewarding. We had to learn just as they did. The manuals of the time offered guidance, but the best method is to talk to those who went before you, reading letters from the real soldiers, and simply trial and error
SB: What are some of the best and worst elements of campaigning for you?
MH: I don’t look at it like the best or worst. I relish the extremes of rain, heat, or cold. Of course, it is not fun, but I enjoy the personal challenge of being able to toe the line and make it through. The hardest part is blocking out of your mind the fact that I only have to endure the elements for a few days. The boys of ‘61 had no way of knowing how long they would have to endure the conditions.
SB: What is your favorite memory (that you can share with us) about campaigning?
MH: In over forty years, there are too many to mention. In short, it is the small personal encounters that stand out the most: playing pranks, sharing a pipe, giving my blanket to someone who is cold, and the simple time of staring into the campfire.
SB: After a campaign, do you feel a little closer to the memory of the soldiers you aim to interpret?
MH: To be honest, at the end of a campaign, I honestly don’t feel closer. To explain, after a campaign, I am going back to my car, home, and job. Those boys were going home to unknown circumstances. The time I feel closest is DURING the campaign because it is there that I can focus on simply getting through the next mile just as they did. After the campaign, I am focused on getting home to catch a few hours of sleep before work the next day.
SB: Anything else you’d like to share about campaigning with our readership?
MH: Campaigning is the closest that we will ever be able to come to experiencing the sacrifices the soldiers made for their state and country. There is no way we will ever be able to understand the extreme level of devotion they possessed, but we can hope to merely attain a greater appreciation of it. I know that I will meet those boys in the next life and I want to be able to look them in the eye and hope for their approval in that I did them true honor by preserving their memory.