First Impressions
Ruminations from the Old Corporal

The night is late here in the camp. Pickets have been posted and the 6th New Hampshire boys have finally run out of songs (or rum) and the night is quiet at last. I look down the cool hills of the Shenandoah Valley and see campfires across the hillsides. Peace in the camps and time for this old soldier to sit before the fire and ruminate on some things. Pull up a stool or a log and let us talk of things past….

There are many reasons to get involved with living history and reenacting. Some seek to relive a particular period of our nations past, some wish to teach and share their love of history. Some folks like to sit around the campfire and jaw a bit. Others want to participate in the excitement of battle. Some wish to show what things were like on the home front. The reasons are as numerous as there are people. However, this brief article is not about your reasons for coming aboard the Crew or for joining the 12th US Infantry (whether soldier or civilian) for I'm sure you'll be telling us anyway.

This article is to ask a simple question: Just who the heck are you?

Now this may seem a silly question, but if I point out that I want an answer other than your 21st Century "you", I would guess you might have a problem with that. And, to be honest, so would I. But it's a question we should all in the hobby be thinking about. Just who are we?

When we sit in camp, is our mindset for today? Do we think beyond the drill and the camp and the battles? We are indeed people of our time and it is difficult to turn into a 19th century individual. But by trying, and thinking, and doing a little research (helps towards your Bronze Awards!) you can become a little closer to your history.

All was not war and blood and sacrifice. All soldiers were not grim (I guess if you sat for many of these formal photographs you'd look grim too). These were lads of 17, 18 or 20, they were full of life and knew how to laugh. They also knew how to fight and, as we all know, they knew how to die. But what was their background, what did they think about, who did they love?

How does one develop a persona? There are lots of suggestions and resources and we will post as many of them as we can find. But here are some basic thoughts. Use period resources from the area you might have been recruited from. Old newspapers may be on line (if in doubt…check with Miss Pamela; a member of the Venture adult leadership, Civilian Coordinator…and a librarian to boot). What was the news from home? Were you a farmer? Even if you lived in an upstate city…in the 1800's you would have had knowledge of farming because you would have either lived on one, knew someone who did, or knew where your food came from. What were the fashions of the day? What words would someone have written home to Mother, Father or sweetheart?

You have joined a Regular Army unit. What does that mean? Unlike many regiments in the war, which were volunteer units formed from local areas, the Regular Army had veterans of the Mexican War, and recruited new men from near and far. These were not local companies for the most part. The Regular Army was the core of the new army, the tough, unyielding men of discipline and honor. A history of the 12th and the Regulars is found elsewhere on the 12th US website and I encourage you to read it. Know our history and record.

But what this also means is that the documentation of the Regular common soldier is not as plentiful as that one might find for a Volunteer. Don't let that stop you. I, for one, have found in the record books of my fraternal Lodge, a member who served in the Regular Army during this period. I can at least come up with a name, a place of residence (or I can come close). With that information I can look at the history and old maps of my "hometown" and start to understand what life was in the 1860's. It gives me one more connection to share with others without sharing particularly, the 21st Century "me".

By reading authentic letters you can pick up the words, the mannerisms of the times. It won't come overnight, but it comes. There are many, many resources out there. Read good historical magazines as well as there are many gems in there. One recent publication I recommend is the Civil War Historian. Worth a read.

Now this is not to mean that once you have developed a persona that that is all you will communicate during the reenacting period. We realize that we are not living in the 1800's and it really is nearly impossible to be one (you'd have to forget an awful lot). But you can use this persona to teach and put forward to others; use it to ponder what you do know and what you have learned.

Our 12th US Civilian Coordinator and Charter Organization Representative will soon be placing a column in the Crews News called, Tidbits from the Rural New Yorker. These were journals published in rural upstate New York in the 1800's and are fascinating to read. From the great debate on hoops for women to the doings of the army in Virginia, it is filled with news and current events. I am sure we will all get something out of them.

Well, the embers of the fire grow dim and the smoke lingers over our camp. A soft mist covers the valley. It's time to stroll and visit with the ghosts of heroes. Then, I think I'll reread my letter from home. Wonder how the neighbors cow is doing down in Onondaga Hollow. Wonder if some pies have been baked and sent on their way. Sanitary Commission does little for us Regular Army men, but the packages from home are worth far more. So, my friend, walk with me in the mists and tell me…

Just who the heck are you?

Corporal Charles A. Poltenson, Sr.

Last Updated on 5/4/05

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