View Full Version : what's your impression?

09-25-2006, 11:52 AM
I've been spending some time thinking (I'm home sick, might as well!) about exactly what impression I'm trying to portray. What am I doing "hanging out" in a camp full of soldiers? What does my family do? My dress is a shade of lavender... what am I in mourning about? Etc. etc.

What impression do you portray?

09-25-2006, 09:29 PM
Miss Rebecca, I'm no expert on civilian reenacting, but I know of a book that might help you decide on an impression: An Introduction to Civil War Civilians by Juanita Leisch. It's available on Amazon.com. "This book is a great start in understanding what a civilian's life was like during the war. It is also a good place to start if you're going to do reenactment. It's an excellent overview of civilian customs, fashions, etiquette, and the mindset of the times along with being a great resource for the new Civil War enthusiast or civilian reenactor. It has fun interesting facts and great photos. This is a great overview of a neglected area of study and if you are thinking of getting into CW civilian reenacting, this is the FIRST book you should buy, as it will familiarize you with the overall cultural and social framework of the era, thereby helping you get your individual interpretation / impression right."

I am, Mademoiselle, your devoted Servant,

09-25-2006, 10:17 PM
That book is actually on my wish list!

09-27-2006, 09:06 AM
Liz Clark will probably sniff out this post right after me. The joys of being a civilian reenactor bloodhound. :D

A first step most new folks take on their own is to develop one "generic" impression, preferably one which provides them with an excuse to be near the camps. For most ladies, it the quintessential Army Contract Laundress, followed by officer's wife/visiting relative, or the Relief Organization rep.

In reality, though, there are going to be times when women will not be around the camps, especially if the troops are on campaign. Ergo, our joint suggestion would be along the lines of "adapt your impression for whatever the historic scenario your group is doing." (And I am hoping Liz will back me up on this.) Not all women would be around the camps. Women were, and are, everywhere in life and society.

Sample situations, but not limited to . . . you may wind up being a part of the "historic family" who inhabits the house where your military is camped in the front yard. At others, you may be "refugees", a word which in and of itself has a variety of connotations. At an historic village, you are part of the townspeople. At a dance in an historic home, you are partners. If the event is in the South, then working on a Southern impression is in order.

Groups such as (but not limited to) the Chattahoochee Refugee Society, the Atlantic Guards Soldiers' Aid Society, the Hardtack Society, or the Frederick Ladies Relief Society all provide great options to help new folks get set up in research and material culture. A lot of us will assign a mentor to answer questions and help you purchase (or upgrade to, in my case) better quality reproduction material culture. And lastly they provide that feeling of "Band of Siblings" so to speak, that helps you fee like you are part of the group and getting something out of it.

Also, this opens up a world of civilian reenacting, with limited or no military at all, just citizens living their lives during the war (and in some cases, pre-war). That's a big consolation to a lot of ladies who sometimes feel they get deposited into the spousal holding tank in the civilian area to float in teas and fashion shows the whole weekend while Hubby goes off to play guns with the fellas.

09-27-2006, 09:25 AM
It took me two whole days... in my nose's defense, we have a sinus cold and can't sniff much of anything. :)

Tremendous dittos with Mr. Briggs' comments.

If a person wants to portray society as it actually was constituted in the 1860s, it's important to consider both the typical and atypical arrangements. Noah mentioned several groups who work very hard to portray typical people in typical lives--often at events with little to no military presence whatsoever, as a scenario without military engagement is far more likely to be a scenario with lots of room for citizens.

In the majority of cases (historically), a lone woman *would not* be in or even terribly near a military encampment. There are dozens of reasons (including, but not limited to: military regulations, disease, filth, fear of crimes against her person, social sanctions, lack of resources to travel near the military, etc.)--and not a terribly lot of reasons that can be manufactured to support women in military camps, especially absent an official task (like laundry--the only official task appropriate for women that I am aware of--and then it's a limited role.)

I'd encourage you to consider yourself a member of the town--and develop a set of interlocking "generic" impressions that can be adapted to virtually any scenario. If you define yourself as X, and the scenario cannot support X, then you're out of luck, or else being anachronistic in your impression. If you define yourself as A through L, and the scenario can support option D with a few hints of H thrown in, you're going to be appropriately interacting in a great scenario... and you can also attend every event that works with impressions A through L.

This doesn't mean you have 13 different sets of clothing... if you base the A-L learning off a working class person, you may have just one set of clothing and some accessory items. But A-L involve different facets of society at the time: a farmer's wife/daughter, a town-dwelling family, a school girl, a shop girl, a small factory worker, the daughter of immigrants, a dressmaker, etc... all facets of the "working class" realm, very adaptable.

More later, I'm sure.

But the question was, what impression do I have? I'm a citizen--usually working to professional classes, often far removed from any war or battle scenarios (I prefer westward migration and homefront scenarios to battle skirmishes). Our whole family can be involved (husband as a citizen, not military), but we have to select events that allow for appropriate citizen attendance--and not every battle skirmish event qualifies.

09-27-2006, 10:17 AM
I serve as a nurse attached to a field hospital. While it might not have been an "official" position, nurses did travel with the regiments and camped if not exactly with the men, in close proximity. I believe it was Dorthea Dix that wrote of sleeping with the quartermaster's supplies at one battle. On the Mississippi River they had hospital boats and the nurses stayed on the boat. Many of these women did have a commission, so to speak, to be with and travel with the regiments. They were not the relief society women, they were helping on the battlefield, risking their lives. I use women like Sarah Edmonds, Kate Cummings, and others to draw from. I'm still researching my medical history, focusing more on the day to day disease and illness that were rampant in the camps, fevers, dysentery, malaria, chicken pox, etc. If you need to know how to make rice water, or what to do for tapeworms, I'm the person. I'm also working on my "who was I before the war?" impression. My inspiration is drawn from women like Phoebe Yates Pember, Hannah Ropes, Juliet Opie Hopkins, etc. Most of these women were from good families, middle to upper middle class, and educated.

I enjoy being a nurse, because I have a legitimate reason to be in a military camp (and next to a battlefield), and in living history events be "on leave" visiting family and telling them about my experiences. That's when I get to wear my hoops! Another reason is I'm a vet tech, so in real life I'm in the medical field, which I love. So I was able to combine my interest in medicine and my interest in the civil war. So that might help, if you have an interest in real life, that can be incorporated into your impression.


09-27-2006, 10:44 AM
Rebecca, another thing to keep in mind: black and lavender aren't *just* mourning colors: they're also quite fashionable. A woman may be dressed all in black, and not be mourning a single soul. As one moves to lighter purples, etc, the overlap into "Fashion" territory is even larger... so your lavender dress need not be mourning at all. :)

09-27-2006, 11:12 AM
I usually am a nurse, however an injury sidelined me this season to being a lame townsperson.

Elizabeth and Noah have given great advice about the civilian side of the hobby. I'd add one more--be sure that what you choose is age appropriate.

09-27-2006, 12:04 PM
I'd add one more--be sure that what you choose is age appropriate.

Oooh, good tip. I forgot.

09-27-2006, 06:35 PM
All very good advice and I am soaking it up like a sponge. I also keep adding books to my wish list at Amazon... I'm either going to go into debt or space out my ordering over the next few months!

So this is my situation. I'm 27 but don't look it. (Thanks, Mom and Dad, for the genes!) When I go to a reenactment, I go with my boyfriend. My friend Rose might come with me, but as soon as we get there she evaporates and goes to find her BF and is pretty much with him the whole time. He usually goes grey so she'll be off with the Rebs. My other friend Lisa (Rose's Mom) doesn't come to too many reenactments because she's got other things to do at home most weekends. There aren't too many people at the reenactments I attend who portray civilians at all. Only a handful of women at each one, and maybe one or two men if you're really lucky. So if I'm not in camp doing something then I'm just out in the world somewhere with not many people to talk to and not much to do. (I usually bring a book to read or something else to putz with so I don't get bored while the guys are drilling and there aren't really any spectators to talk to yet.) So I need a scenario that explains why I'd be in camp.

My Mom actually suggested the nurse angle. I could say that my father is a doctor (which would explain how my family had money that I could afford a ball gown) and my mother is a nurse so I learned nursing from her. The only problem with that, so far, is that I doubt that a nurse would have "wasted" money on a day dress with a pattern like my lavender one has if it was going to get covered in blood and guts. So I need yet another dress. And that's kind of the point where I am right now in my thinking.

09-27-2006, 10:30 PM
If you can, post a picture of your dress to get comments about whether it is right or not. It might be ok to use as a nurse, if it has straight or cuffed sleeves, pagoda sleeves wouldn't work. A nurse coming from a middle to upper middle class background wouldn't wear her best, but it would probably still be much nicer than what a lower class woman would wear. What I wear right now for a nurses uniform would also work for a farmer's wife, but I'm going to make a new dress, based on Dorthea Dix's recommendations and it will actually be a step up. It would probably be more in line with the farmer wife's Sunday dress, or a middle class woman's "work" dress.

I wouldn't worry about a new dress until you decide who you want to be. Then work on that impression, using what you've got if you can, to make sure it's something you want to do long term, then invest in more appropriate clothing.


09-28-2006, 05:42 AM
Also remember that in Dix-assigned general hospitals the female nurses typically would not be in the surgical area. You might be changing dressings or helping to feed those incapable of getting out of bed to eat, and you take your orders from the ward matron. Washing, of course was done to the patients by male nurses.

Dr. John Woodward wrote up the Hospital Steward's Manual in 1864 which details the duties of the different staff members. The book's worth reading, if you ever care to read where your pay is coming from and a small list of your duties. Dr. Woodward acknowledges in the book the position of ward matron, who was the female boss of a ward.

Also read Gangrene and Glory, which has a section that describes the power struggle between the men and the women in the hospital. Interpretations of duties lead to different interpretations of doctor's orders, and it was clear both groups were struggling with a new set of social rules.

So - back to the duds.

The lavender dress might be fine. Please post it, if nothing more than for us to ooh and ahh it. Also have another outfit for "working class" or something you don't mind getting stained. A good white apron would be the ticket regardless of what you are wearing, and if you anticipate stains, then maybe even a pinafore.

From a practical perspective Dix's orders make sense. Leave things like excess jewelry at home, and avoid lacy collars and cuffs when working at a general or depot hospital. Dix said it removes temptation, I just don't want you to lose something pretty and valuable in the field.

And lastly, if you wanna be a nurse, stop on by the medical and relief society folder every now and then. Pull up a hardtack crate, sit down and let's jaw away. :D

09-28-2006, 09:43 AM
Here's a budget-stretcher: take that book list in to your local librarian, and ask for help with inter-library loan requests. Most libraries in the US belong to a lending network, allowing you to request books that aren't in the local branch collection from other libraries that own them. You'll get to have them for usually about three weeks, and often, there is no charge to you to borrow them this way. (Our library is on the LILI system, and I can request it only display titles available at no cost.) It's a great way to read and preview books--that way you'll know if it's a "read once and take notes" book, or a "own and read weekly" book, and can focus your budget on the "own and read weekly" types. :)

It sounds as though the events in your local area would be fine for a "living history demo area", as they're using more of a "Skirmish of Somewhere Generic" model, rather than recreating precise historic events. (That your friend can hang out with her boyfriend all weekend is a key clue. :) ) Why not look at getting a small fly for shade, and setting up a display to talk with spectators about an aspect of the war and how it affected women? You wouldn't be locked into any one "impression"--you could easily wear "normal" clothing, but talk about many different things that affected women and their roles. You could sit with other ladies winding bandages, knitting, sewing (your shade fly might become a major spot for citizens!), and talk with spectators about the support women lent to Sanitary Commission labors (great book to read: My Story of the Civil War by Mary Livermore), or what it's like to run a soldier's convelescent home... lots of options, really. This could solve the problem of "all dressed up and nothing to do."

Another good one to read on hospitals: Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott... it's a memoir of her time as a nurse in a hospital during the war.

Before going to lengths to explain how a young woman got to be a nurse, I'd suggest doing further reading regarding medicine and practices in, say, the 30 years leading up to the war--basically your "father's" early training and practice, his marriage to Mother, and your childhood. You'll want to know if it's at all typical or likely for a married doctor to use his wife as a nurse (not generally a well-respected female role prior to the mid-1850s, and even then, it was pushing--many female "nurses" at that time had a reputation of being drunkards, theives, and even prostitutes, which is why Florence Nightengale had such a hard time getting respect and going into the hospitals of the Crimean in the latter 1850s--reading biographies of her would be a good thing, too.)

Keep in mind that not all doctors did well--it was quite possible to live in genteel poverty as a doctor! There may not be any spare cash, ever... if the patient base is rural or poor, the doc can expect goods in leiu of payment, IF he can get payment at all. So, though a doctor is generally in the professional classes, he may or may not actually have a professional-class income.

Do share a photo of the dress if you can (and, if you'd like opinions on it.)

Are there aspects of the war experience you find fascinating, beyond medicine? Anything that intrigues you?

09-28-2006, 06:54 PM
This is my dress (again, sorry if the picture is big):


Most of the reenactments we go to are small, except for the one in Jackson, but I haven't been able to go to that one yet. So IMO the reenactments generally go like this: We get there the night before and set up camp. The guys who are doing military impressions all set up together, some in tents and some just with bedrolls. The civilians (like I said, usually not many) sort of losely set up camp somewhere at least sort of nearby. Everybody (or most people) from one group hangs around chatting and whatnot until it's time to go to bed. (So like everyone from our company, the 1st MI, hangs around and chats.) The next morning the officers have an officers meeting which is followed by company drills (all the union together and all the rebs together). Sometimes the military guys have time in camp before the battle, which is in the afternoon. Usually the battle is a specific battle (like the most recent reenactment I went to did two of the battles of Spotsylvania) but the rest of the weekend is generic. Usually there aren't many spectators either, and the ones that do attend usually just talk to the guys with the guns and/or artillery. Civilians are boring, apparently.

I like being there and I love dressing up and hanging around with a bunch of great people, but other than that I usually feel like I don't know what I'm doing. So even if no one ever asks me what a woman would have been doing back then, I want to know for my own edification. (And besides, it's fun to make up stories.)

09-28-2006, 08:15 PM
If you want to be a nurse, I think your dress will work to begin with, add a white apron. You look like a school teacher, but a teacher wouldn't be at a battle. Before the war most teachers were men, but with a shortage of men, women took over the role of teaching. So a teacher would work in a living history event.

Do most reenactors know what their impression will be when they start? That would be a good survey question. I did, but I'm wondering if I am the exception rather than the rule. Maybe the majority are like you, they get into it but don't know what impression to do until they've been in awhile and done some research. That's one thing about this hobby, you have to like reading and research, and I think as you read more about women during the war something will spark an interest. While I knew I was going to portray a nurse, I assumed they were women from the local town that went out to help with the wounded. I didn't know until I started reading and doing research on civil war nurses that there were women that actually traveled with regiments and went out during the battles to help with wounded. That's how I got my impression, it's based on actual people. Anyway, happy reading and research, when you find yourself ;) let us know.


09-28-2006, 08:58 PM
Just a note, Hospital Sketches is available online at project gutenburg. I've downloaded it and a few other ebooks from there for the sake of research. And to top it all off its free; and free is good.

09-28-2006, 09:07 PM
Usually there aren't many spectators either, and the ones that do attend usually just talk to the guys with the guns and/or artillery. Civilians are boring, apparently.

I like being there and I love dressing up and hanging around with a bunch of great people, but other than that I usually feel like I don't know what I'm doing. So even if no one ever asks me what a woman would have been doing back then, I want to know for my own edification. (And besides, it's fun to make up stories.)

I honestly think that a lot of the problem is that the events you're attending aren't structured to allow civilians (or soldiers in most cases) to fit into historic roles. They're set up for "doing what you do at reenactments" but not for "doing what they did at the time and place being portrayed."

So you're either completely on your own to come up with something you can do, fairly independently of anyone else, which can solve the problem but can also be lonely, or difficult if it would normal involve others.

Or you can look for events which are structured around the expectation that civilians and soldiers will all be "doing what they did." The difficulty there is that those events are few and far between, so they require planning to be free on the necessary weekend and maybe extensive travel, and also may require adapting your impression to the historic situation and therefore a lot o specific research and planning. Next year, as my plans stand now, I'll be a Confederate prisoner of war trying to beg opium at one, a low-class tavern owner cooking and trying to keep fights from breaking out at the next, and a lawyer arguing a case at the third.

I whined about this same topic in the whine cellar a few days ago, here http://www.cwreenactors.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1754&page=3 starting with post 29 and on-and-off later in the thread.

If you're specifically interested in that kind of event with hospital-related activities, Noah Briggs who's posted on this thread is a good one to get in touch with, and I'm also hoping to run into him a few times next year as well, when I'll be a military nurse or some similar occupation--different yet again.

Hank Trent

09-29-2006, 09:43 AM
project gutenburg... free is good.

I had no idea there was such a place... How cool! And yes, free is very good. :)

09-29-2006, 09:53 AM
Rebecca, I'll pop a private message off to you with some dress notes. I wouldn't use the dress as-is for any nursing activities, but there are some adaptations you could consider.

Ditto with Hank on the structure of events. You've nothing to do right now, because the event structure doesn't support citizens. It CAN, but you'll have to do some work with the other citizens, to see if they feel a lack, and want something more. I've an article on my site called "Value Added Events"--it's in the Compendium right now, but we're moving things around in the next week, so if you want it and can't find it, email me and I'll send you a direct link: elizabethstewartclark@hotmail.com Some of the ideas there may help get your citizens going with some "demo" activities that give everyone something to do and a reason to be.