What Is A Re-enactor, Anyway?

A re-enactor is someone who recreates history by portraying the look and actions of a person from a particular time period. In the case of The Continental Line, re-enactors demonstrate the life and activities of an 18th Century military camp.

With “a strong interest in history” being the leading excuse for joining this hobby, re-enactors come from all walks of life—teachers, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, chicken catchers, etc. Many folks stay involved because they enjoy educating the public about history. Others enjoy being with friends, demonstrating a particular talent or craft, or simply escaping the complexities of 20th Century life for a weekend.


How To Become A Re-enactor

Your first move should be to find a unit. Go to the Continental Line Unit directory to find some units in your area or contact local historic sites. Find out when the next re-enactment is going to occur. Visit the re-enactment and get to know the people in the various units. Ask plenty of questions. When you feel comfortable with a particular group of people and think you’ve found the right match, tell them that you are interested in joining their unit.


Do NOT Try To Get Your Kit Together Before Finding A Unit

At these various re-enactments, you may see vendors (called Sutlers) selling clothing and accoutrements. As tempting as it may be to start getting your uniform or outfit together right away, find your regiment before spending any money on equipment or clothing. To maintain some consistency or a particular level of authenticity, many units prefer certain sutlers over others, and some use private tailors (often creating garments less expensively than if you had “bought it off the rack”).

Re-enacting is an expensive hobby to get into if you’re starting from scratch. (Just a uniform coat, cocked hat, and musket can run you $1000—and that’s not counting pants, shoes, socks, a tent, some cooking utensils, etc.) If you find your unit first, you can avoid buying something that’s “not period” (just because someone is selling something at an event doesn’t mean that it’s authentic or appropriate). Also, many unit members have extra clothing and equipment for people to borrow, so you can often participate even if you don’t have your full kit together.


Finding Out More About The American Revolution

Feel free to get an idea about re-enacting and the period through the excerpts from The Continental Soldier, the quarterly newsletter of The Continental Line. You should also pick up a copy of Private Yankee Doodle, the diary of Joseph Plumb Martin. This is an inexpensive book available at most Revolutionary War sites.

Additionally, the following books and publications may also give you a better insight into the period:


Books for Starters - by Thaddeus Weaver

The average American views the Revolutionary War as a set of disjointed scenes, too far removed from modern day life to be anything more than quaint vignettes: Betsy Ross makes a flag, Paul Revere rides a horse, George Washington crosses a river in a boat. As a new reenactor, it can be difficult at first to get beyond those initial images and try to understand the nature and scope of the War for Independence. However, there is a rich developing literature on the Revolutionary War with an increasing focus on what life was like for ordinary citizens. Although some of the books below are scholarly or specialized, they are an excellent start to a well-rounded library.

One of the best short and simple books on soldier life during the War for Independence is Philip Katcher’s Rebels & Loyalists: The Revolutionary Soldier In Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA: Atwater Kent Museum, 1976), which was written during the Bicentennial with the specific goal of discussing the everyday experience of soldiers in and from Philadelphia. The paperback can be read in an afternoon and is illustrated with photographs of period arms and equipment. A basic book on the clothing, equipment, and branches of the Continental Army is Harold L. Peterson, The Book Of The Continental Soldier (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Company, 1968), a standard work.

One of the most quotable sources for Katcher’s book was Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: Being A Narrative Of Some Of The Adventures, Dangers And Sufferings Of A Revolutionary Soldier, ed. George F. Scheer (n.p.: Acorn Press, 1979). Martin was a Connecticut soldier who served in portions of the New York and Philadelphia campaigns, as well as in the siege of Yorktown. While his memoir is sometimes subject to criticism for being written long after the end of the War, it is an entertaining firsthand account of one soldier’s experience. If Martin’s adventures are to your taste, for a bit of comparative history, consider Sam. R. Watkins, “Co. Aytch” A Side Show Of The Big Show (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1962), an account of the experiences of a Confederate Soldier during the American Civil War.

Returning to the Revolution, in the past twenty years, a set of “new military historians” have attempted to take the battles, leaders, and armies of the war and place them in a broader political and social context. Much of this work is synthesized in James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, A Respectable Army: The Military Origins Of The Republic, 1763-1789, The American History Series (Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1982), a general history of the war and its aftermath. One of the important historians contributing to the “new history” is Charles Royster, whose book, A Revolutionary People At War: The Continental Army And American Character, 1775-1783, (n.p.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979; New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981) theorized that the Continental soldier’s principal motivation was republican ideology, rather than material gain. Royster’s book is food for thought on why men joined, and stayed, with the Continental Army despite terrible hardships and is well worth the time invested. A nice complement to Royster’s book, with important information on diet, attitudes toward service, and the social structure of camp life is Fred Anderson, A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers And Society In The Seven Years’ War (Chapel Hill, NC and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984). Although addressing the service of the Massachusetts militia during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), there are obvious comparisons to be drawn with the Continental Army.

In portraying a revolutionary soldier, there is a particular need to be familiar with the drill and manual of exercise adopted by the recreated unit. In the eighteenth century, drill manuals (and related “how-to” books on military service) were standard fare for junior officers. A copy of the drill manual selected by one’s unit is a must. For many regiments, the cheapest and most accessible copy of Von Steuben’s Regulations, also known as the “Blue Book,” is a facsimile reprint of the 1794 edition entitled Frederick William Baron Von Steuben Baron Von Steuben’s Revolutionary War Drill Manual: A Facsimile Reprint Of The 1794 Edition (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1985). Although more expensive (and correctly bound) facsimile editions are available of this and other drill manuals for use at encampments, the Dover reprint has the benefit of a $4.95 price tag.

Along with a knowledge of the manual exercise, a military reenactor should have a knowledge of the history of the unit portrayed. A good bibliography of regimental histories is available in Robert K. Wright, Jr., The Continental Army Army Lineage Series (Washington, DC: Center Of Military History, United States Army, 1983), a highly detailed organizational history of the army.

The books listed above are only a start for the serious reenactor. To find other titles which may prove interesting, look at the comprehensive bibliography in Wright’s The Continental Army and the “History and Historiography” chapter of Martin and Lender’s A Respectable Army. For facsimile reprints (and a selection of eighteenth century military publications), The King’s Arms Press, of Oldham, New Jersey, is the best choice. Private Yankee Doodle and Katcher’s Rebels & Loyalists are available at a number of revolutionary war sites in the Delaware Valley, including Brandywine Battlefield State Park near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Most such sites have a gift shop with potential books for your library. Some of the more scholarly works may be assigned by college professors; the used book section of a college bookstore may hide some bargains.