True Story: I’m A Historical War Reenactor

This is one of many True Story interviews, in which we talk to people who have experienced amazing/challenging/interesting things.  This is the story of Jamie and her hobby of taking part in historical war reenactments.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m 28 and I currently live in North Carolina, though I secretly consider Ireland, a country I’ve only visited twice, to be my true home. I’m a purchaser at a large manufacturing company and I flirt with IT like a wanton whore. For fun, I enjoy playing with SQL (Structured Query Language), Photoshop, painting, writing, making jewelry, and reenacting! I’m also married with an imaginary puppy. I intend to have a real one someday.


How did you get into historical war reenactments?
I can thank my friend Jenny. She invited me to come hang with her Revolutionary War unit, who portray the NC Highlanders on the side of the British. Honestly, that weekend was horrible. I went barefoot, stepped in goose poop and it didn’t stop raining once. And I loved it. I loved sleeping under the stars. I loved wearing long skirts. I loved dressing as a soldier and carrying a gun. I loved being a history freak in the middle of history freaks!
What interests you about these wars and reenacting in general? 
I’m sure I’ll sound like a total girl here, but: the fashion. Oh, the fashion. You haven’t lived until you’ve worn three petticoats (underskirts), an overbust corset, and crotchless drawers. And that’s just the undergarments!
Also, my husband is a tailor who makes bespoke suits and sells a LOT of reenactors their clothing. He’s the one responsible for most of my clothing! It got so popular we’re about to open a website!
Honestly, reenacting is a chance to step back in time, to live as our ancestors did, to honor their memories by portraying them as accurately as possible. First person reenacting is very popular; you’re basically playacting the whole weekend. For instance, in the near future I’ll be portraying one of my ancestors, a Lenape refugee during the French & Indian war. I’ll wear a mix of European and native dress, which includes a prayer shawl made from turkey feathers. I’ll still be blonde and green-eyed, because the Lenape intermarried so often with the Europeans, but I’ll be portraying a native as she would have dressed and lived during that time period. With first person reenacting, you’re in character while the public is around. You answer their questions and you do the things they would have done, like keeping a fire going, cooking food, and doing laundry.
How historically accurate are your reenactments?
Well, I belong to a small group of tightly knit friends. Originally we were called the Quick Reenacting Force, but right now we mainly focus on the Civil War and the War of 1812. We fall in with Starr’s Battery, a unit of soldiers who fought in eastern North Carolina during the Civil War and the 10th US Infantry for the War of 1812. Starr’s Battery is an artillery unit, meaning we have a cannon, and the 10th Infantry has guns.
Both these units are what you call hardcore in the reenacting world: we eat, sleep, and live as the soldiers and camp followers would have. No running to McDonald’s for coffee; we grind our own and boil it over the campfire. Lots of reenactors will go out for dinner during the evenings, or go to hotels to sleep. We cook our own food, and cooking a chicken over an open fire is more difficult than you’d think, as no one wants food poisoning!
We try to use primary sources for our clothing and uniforms as often as possible; fortunately both units left excellent records. We sleep in canvas tents or out in the open as they would have. As I said, our Civil War unit is artillery which means we have a cannon! It’s a fairly small cannon, capable of shooting 6 pounds of shot and its very expensive. One of our members inherited it from his parents, who are retired reenactors, and we’re very lucky to have it!
How do you prepare for this?
We usually prep about four days in advance, unless we’re going to be traveling a long distance (we’ve been to reenactments as far north as Pennsylvania and New York). We buy provisions and put them in small sacks; usually bread, summer sausages, cheese. If we’re going to be bringing something that needs to be cooked, like chicken or rabbit, we stick it in a small cooler in a bag of ice and leave the cooler in the car.
I keep all my reenacting clothing in one closet and my husband…needs three closets (and the attic) for all his gear. He cleans whichever guns or muskets he’s planning to bring, and we usually get dressed before we leave the house, as it takes me a good twenty minutes to get on all my clothing! If we’re doing a more modern era like WWII or the Gulf, we just throw everything in backpacks designated for the era and wear our uniforms down there.
Reenactments are usually large events, often done at a historical park or site, and exist for the public. A few weeks ago, we reenacted the Battle of Goldsboro Bridge, and I had to familiarize myself with a basic idea of who won, what was happening, and where that battle lay in the grand scheme of the Civil War. Lots of times, however, when the public comes to your campsite, they really want to know a) if the fire is real (yes), b) does anyone actually die in the battle (not unless something goes HORRIBLY wrong) and c) how do you use the bathroom with all those skirts (and that’s why I wear crotchless drawers)!
Tell us the logistics that go into planning a reenactment – how many people take part? Do people have to pay to do this? Who organizes it? How long does each reenactment last?
Each reenactment is different and a lot depends on how popular the war is. For instance, the Korean War is hardly ever portrayed. World War II, however, is immensely popular. It also depends on anniversaries; for instance, the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg is coming up in June, and thousands of people will probably show up. I’ve been to reenactments as small as ten people and as large as several thousand; it just depends on what time period and how popular it is.
As for payment: most reenactments have a registration fee, which is usually nominal. However, larger events can be more expensive. Events are nearly always free to the public though, so if you hear about a reenactment in your area, check it out! Organization depends, again, on the era and the battle taking place. Oftentimes the historical site or park will organize the bare bones of the event, and then several units will be in charge of setting up registration, sending out emails to interested smaller units, and providing directions and details.
Its important to note that you behave appropriately. Be polite around the public, answer their questions, and don’t do anything stupid, like chop down trees for firewood or kill animals on the property for food. I’ve seen units do both these things, and they’ve never been invited back. Reenacting is a small world, and a black mark against your record could cause your entire unit to suffer the consequences.
Has anyone ever taken issue with this – particularly veterans of the Gulf War?
Actually, this is one of the sweetest and best things I love about reenacting. I normally don’t portray soldiers except in more modern eras (the Gulf War is actually very pro-women; it was the first time we had such large numbers of women in combat). My husband, however, has dug foxholes for WWII, slept under a mound of leaves for Korea, and been a doughboy (WWI). I cannot tell you the number of times veterans, especially older ones, have come up and been tickled pink! They get insanely excited. They want to hold our guns. They ask to wear our helmets. They climb into the jeeps and tanks and pose with weapons. I’ve seen WWII veterans cry with gratitude that their unit was remembered, that they haven’t been forgotten, that we remember their sacrifice and honor them for it.
Once, I was in my Gulf War gear getting more water and a woman stopped me, in tears, and thanked me for my service. She’d served in the Gulf, and she was so glad to see that I was portraying what women did in the early 90s. Honestly, we sat down together and had ourselves a bawl out, right there. The public probably thought we were crazy, but I’d never been so glad in my life.
How do your friends and family feel about your hobby?
A lot of my friends who aren’t reenactors think its both cool and totally weird. Like, why would you want to spend your weekend freezing/sweating your ass off answering questions and carrying firewood? But then I convince them to come out and look around and the next thing I know they want to know if my husband can make them a dress for the next event!
My family is a kind of patronizingly amused by it, but I think they’re just glad I’m outside and passionate about it!
What do you get out of this?
It sounds weird, but I get a sense of honor and gratitude. Honor in that we’re keeping history alive in a time when education is getting cut all over the country, and gratitude that I live in the modern world. It’s really, really nice to come home to things like TV and Netflix and the internet after a weekend of hard ground, 50 pound kettles, and hoopskirts.
What advice would you give to others who are interested in taking part in reenactments?
First, I’d say look for an event that interests you, that isn’t too far from where you live. Walk in with the rest of the public. Go around to each encampment and ask questions. Who are you portraying? Why? Why is this battle or event important in history? How do I join? Where’s the best place to buy my effects?
Be prepared: if you’re interested in the Revolutionary War to WWI, and you’re a guy, you WILL need to eventually purchase a firearm. These are expensive. Most units will have an extra someone can lend you, but ALWAYS make sure you return it in good condition and that it’s been cleaned. Also, be aware that not everyone sells the same quality, for either gear or weapons. If you’re portraying a Civil War Union soldier and you find a jacket for 50 dollars and a jacket for 200….the 200 dollar jacket is probably more historically accurate.
One of the best ways to do this is to ask a reenactor whose clothing/gear you admire where they got their stuff. If it’s clothing, they probably either made it themselves or can point you to the tailor or seamstress who did it; reenacting is a small world, and we often know each other.
Oh yeah, and have fun. It’s a total blast and the people you meet are amazingly cool!

Thanks so much for sharing, Jamie!  Have any of you guys taken part in reenactments?  Do you have any questions for Jamie?

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  1. Zelde

    I used to do medieval reenactment on historical markets here in Switzerland. I mainly got into it because I wanted to make the clothes involved but I really enjoyed wearing them as well. I portrayed a fairly simple woman who walked about the markets with a hand spindle and some wool, spinning yarn. I always loved showing people how it is done and I taught quite a few children and adults who were curious. I had to give it up when I moved out of the country but at some point, I will get back into it.

  2. Destrehan's Daughter

    I worked as a costumed tour guide in college and high school, and my Mom made all of my costumes. We went to a few Civil War reenactments where I worked and close by at other homes and battle sites. A couple we knew even got married at one. I love getting dressed up but I never did the sleeping outside and cooking over a fire thing. My mom on the other hand is a historical food demonstrator so she loves open hearth cooking and baking. Loved this post!

  3. laco

    it is wonderfully refreshing to read about reenactors! i used to be one as well. it is less battle-referenced in north florida (but we do have a few -like natural bridge). a lot of ours has to do with florida history in regard to spanish colonization, native tribes, and our roles in the rum trades (yes, pirates…in st. augustine- that is a darn good time, lemme tell you!). it's awesome to read more about more people doing something very american all over the country. it warmed the heart of this little history nut.

  4. lauren claire  |  rebuild (health + home)

    How interesting! I love history, and when we visited Belle Meade in Nashville for a tour, I remember thinking how much I'd enjoy getting to be one of those tour guides who knows the place inside and out and gets to dress the part.

    Full-on reenactments seem so interesting, and I enjoyed reading Jamie's experiences with them. I've never been to one, but now it's something on my list to seek out. Thanks for sharing, Jamie!

    • Anonymous

      No problem at all! I really love being able to share my experiences with people, and reenacting is a lot of fun!


  5. LynnieBee

    Thank you so much! I do Renaissance era reenactment, and I would LOVE to bridge into Revolutionary War and/or Civil War! Reading this was delightful, thank you!

  6. Annie Dog

    I think this is my favorite True Story so far. I love it!

  7. Renée

    Wow, thanks for sharing! I've never read anything from an actual reenactor before, and on television and in movies they only ever seem to portray male reenactors doing very old wars. I had no idea people even reacted things as modern as the Gulf War!

  8. Rochelle New

    I found this post via Nova's blog "Glitter and Doom" and thoroughly enjoyed it since I JUST got involved in reenacting. WWII more specifically. I've been busy sewing up period clothing in preparation for my first even and I can't wait! Awesome post. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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