“Host it, and They Still May Not Come”
Provincial Reenacting in the Heart of Texas
by: Phil McBride - Company K, 6th Texas Infantry
We Texas reenactors certainly hold up our Civil War heritage as proudly. We fiercely cling to the auras of Terry’s Texas Rangers, Hood’s Texas Brigade-Lee’s “Grenadier Guard,” and Pat Cleburne’s stands at Missionary Ridge and Ringgold Gap. Lee’s muttered words, “My Texans always move them,” resound like the Eleventh Commandment in our collective provincial consciousness. It shouldn’t be too surprising, that even though Texas is still a Civil War “border state,” there is a lot of reenacting activity.
Like all reenactors west of the Mississippi, we are accustomed to long weary drives once a year to participate in national, or even regional, reenactments. To fill the void between these trips eastward, a number of small, what I call “provincial,” reenactments are hosted around the state by different units. By my count there were at least six reenactments scheduled within Texas’ borders during 2000, and I expect I’m overlooking one or two. It would seem to be a great situation for reenactors. But I’m not so sure, since most of the “provincial reenactments” attract just enough infantry to barely field opposing forces. Usually no more than two infantry battalions per army are present, with each battalion numbering less than 75 rifles. Often we take the field on Sunday with only one or two company-size battalions comprising the infantry of each side. There does always to be an adequate number of cavalry, and a growing number of cannon, at events. In fact, at Bellmead last May there were no less than 16 artillery pieces on the field, a number which was far too great, contrasted to the two federal infantry battalions, which jointly fielded no more than 110 rifles.
It would seem a reasonable assumption that most, if not all, of these small reenactments would like to grow to be mid-size reenactments.. Yet, most events seem to remain about the same size year after year. Like the mom-and-pop stores in the strip shopping centers, a few events fade away each year, as they realize growth isn’t automatic but rising costs and hassles are. Luckily for the hobby, new events with fresh optimism and fresh sponsors often take their place on the calendar.
The rule of thirds may well be a big factor in keeping Texas provincial events small. Our company and the battalion as a whole can seem to rely on about 1/3 of our members showing up for most in-state events. Ironically, out-of-state regional or national events draw closer to ½ of our paper strength, regardless of the long drives required.
From my perspective in the ranks, I can’t say for sure that it is unit competition and turf wars which are blocking growth of the established events, but I suspect that’s a part of it. It is clear that some of the new events each year are obviously scheduled as alternatives to existing events. Whatever the causes, Texas reenacting units are afforded a choice of reenactments from March through November, but all suffer from a shortage of a key ingredient, infantry.
Perhaps the correspondents in a recent Camp Chase Gazette article had the answer to our less than Texas-size events when they suggested a five year cycle for events. While some of us older reenactors might well forget our names in five years, maybe a three year or even every other year cycle is what we need to motivate higher attendance at our provincial affairs.
Having said all of that, I’m still real glad that I can dress up several times a year and spend a full weekend being a Civil War soldier, within a four drive of home. To New Englanders and other Easterners who are accustomed to living in tall buildings with no yards, but lots of stairs, a short four hour drive may seem a dubious benefit, but with the long miles between hamlets in our great state, it’s a real plus.
Since, the small provincial events do comprise the bulk of opportunities to reenact, what are they like? We all already know the answers to that, but here’s some observations anyway.
First of all, they are personal. We line up with and against many of the same units, with the same officers, and even recognizable NCO’s and privates, time after time. It’s getting to be a hoot to holler profanities at remembered individual opponents in the heat of battle. This familiarity among the players reminds me of being in a touring Victorian-era acting company. The audiences change, but not the cast or the play.
Ahh, the play. Yes, they are much more the same than different. It must be a challenge to script much variety into “battles” between two infantry battalions and supporting cavalry and artillery, on a tightly bordered field in front of a line of spectators. Some events are doing a good job of creating a degree of individualization with preset pyrotechnics, prepared trenches and fortifications like Weatherford last October, morning
tacticals, and attempts at flank marches or combined arms battles on the march. But those efforts are still the exception to lining up, marching to and fro, and burning lots of powder. Even the opportunity to move out ahead of the battalion and skirmish by company is rare, since battalions are often too small to detach any meaningful number of rifles as skirmishers.
The camps. I think I’m seeing more dog tents and more men sleeping on ponchos under the stars. Rain notwithstanding, I believe more and more of us are realizing how much easier, and authentic, it is to camp light. Ice chests are seemingly less in use, and wooden furniture is slowly giving way to folding canvas camp stools, at least. A-frame tents and cots are still common, but are not the ubiquitous comforts they were even two years ago. None of these observations apply to artillery units, which must show up at mid-week about the same time as the sutlers in order to set up their often extravagant tent quarters. The cavalry camps are better, but I don’t see much evidence of a spreading desire to live out of the saddlebags for the weekend. Vehicles continue to plague small event campsites. Horse trailers, cannon trailers, and the cars and pick-ups of the infantry who have not embraced knapsack based camping still dominate the scenery.
The sutlers. I’m a confessed and unrepentant shopper at reenactments. I truly enjoy sweating my way through the row of sutler tents at every event, usually two or three times. It’s just nice to touch and handle all that silly expensive stuff you know you don’t need and can’t afford. On the bright side, a few items, like shirts, have conspicuously changed in just a couple of years, from a preponderance of calico and loud stripe prints trimmed in white collars and cuffs, to more muted period checked patterns. Cheap generic and out-of-period hats still fill a few shelves in every tent, and boxes of kepis still are a sutler mainstay, but a few vendors are beginning to appear at even our small events with more respectable civilian slouch hats to choose from. I know I really shouldn’t buy my accoutrements or uniform jacket or trousers from these guys, but I do see them as a facet of our hobby that is more positive than not. I mean how else are you going to morph from gray to blue when the colonel says you’re galvanizing in four hours cause most of the damyankees went home when the rain started? And where else are you going to buy percussion caps on a Sunday morning when you’ve just discovered that Saturday’s dramatic death fall and crawl to the shade resulted in an upturned and empty cap pouch?
The freebies. We generally get either a cooked meal on Saturday night, and/or rations to cook. A few times we’ve also gotten pre-made cartridges, bundled in arsenal packs. Hard to beat that, even with free food, since making cartridges is such a chore it likely drives away more green reenactors than does the price of the rifle itself.
Entertainment. Usually a dance with some live period musicians is offered on Saturday evening. Sometimes raffles add to the crowd. I won a green ladies hat at Plantation Liendo, much to the amusement of my non-reenacting wife. Roundball games are growing in popularity, as are payroll scenarios, and spectator-pleasing court martials for real or perceived crimes. Yet, for all the scheduled attempts at doing living history activities during the day, most of us still seem to spend most of our ample time between battles sitting around the company street shooting the breeze. Maybe it’s just too hot in Texas to get real involved in organized stuff during siesta time.
About mid-afternoon on Sunday, after the battle, we slog back to the car, and pile our stuff into the back. If it has not rained and we’re not stuck in a soggy pasture, we crank up the AC past the redline, slide the new regimental string band tape into the player, and head to the nearest gas station for much needed
rehydration. Somewhere along the four hour drive home we stop a fast food joint. Standing in line in our hard-earned aroma of sweat and black powder, we wait for the questions and blandly return the stares. Sadly, fewer folks seem to be asking why we’re dressed like that, or commenting that we smell rather… distinctive. Things must be getting weirder all over.
As we near home, we roll down the windows since the whole car now smells like the inside of a cartridge box. Soon the bikes in the garage get draped with smelly wool. The tea kettle gets cranked up for musket cleaning. The left-over contents of the haversack get dumped on the kitchen counter to the wry wit of my wife, “No wonder you didn’t eat that stuff, look at it!” And, all welcome-home embraces are deferred until after a long hot shower. Ain’t it grand?