Getting Started (it helps to be nuts!)
Reviewed April 2017
This is for anyone interested in joining a Civil War Cavalry reenacting unit. Each unit has its own personality and set of standards; one size doesn’t fit all. Perhaps even more important than choosing to ride with the Blue or the Gray is the choice of the people you want to share this hobby with. The right group can make your weekends a real joy. The wrong one can send you running for the nearest exit.
Before deciding to join the cavalry, we offer four important questions for you to consider: Interest, Money, Time and Skill. If you can answer these questions positively, then have a look at the additional considerations that follow.
1. Interest: It’s not just about the riding the horse. This hobby is for persons truly interested in Civil War history and who recognize the sacrifice that those we portray made, 150 years ago. Only this recognition can lay the foundation for a solid cavalryman, man or woman. Are you ready to consider the historical precedent for this hobby, and to honor the tradition of the United States Cavalry through your correct impression?
2. Money: This is not an inexpensive hobby. Reenacting can be a serious pastime for those who wish to pursue it to its fullest extent. However even those who attend only a few events a year must make a significant investment in period-correct uniforms, cavalry equipment and camp supplies. Most of us don't get everything at once, but we do acquire these items within a reasonable period of time. In addition to equipping yourself and your horse, most units require members to pay yearly dues to cover event registration costs, pay unit insurance fees and to purchase unit equipment. Keep in mind that for each event, you'll also spend money on gas, food, and black powder. Are you able to bear these costs?
3. Time: We all have demands placed upon us that require our time. Considering the current demands on your time, do you have enough of it to spend about one weekend a month away from home during the reenacting season, especially if your family chooses not to participate with you?
4. Skill: We don’t require you to be an expert horseman or to ride the ideal cavalry horse. However your horse must be in good health, able to meet the physical demands of the hobby without undue stress, and conform to the Federal Cavalry’s color requirements. You can find these requirements on our FAQ page. As a trooper, you must be skilled enough to control your mount in formation, while handling weapons, in a manner that enhances our impression while not endangering yourself or others, and not negatively impacting others in the ranks. To enhance our collective skills and improve our overall impression, we hold an annual spring training session. Riding in the cavalry is a skill that must be learned and subsequently maintained; it doesn’t come from trail riding. Are you ready to train so that you can join the ranks in a manner that enhances a unit’s impression?
Cavalry reenacting is a blast! There’s nothing like the thrill of a saber charge against opposing forces, thundering over the battlefield knee to knee with your filemates as you pound into the enemy’s line. However it’s a hobby in which potential recruits should prepared mentally, physically, and financially. Make sure you know what you’re getting into. Most importantly, cavalry reenacting is a team effort and your commitment to support your unit’s ideals is important so that all can enjoy the hobby together. If you’re ready to commit to this above, then you can consider that which follows.
Reenacting impression: Which branch of service do you really want to portray? The Cavalry turns heads as it thunders across the battlefield, but the Infantry requires much less equipment and there’s no horse haul from event to event. They also have a lot more units to choose from and can be visually impressive on the battlefield owing to the sheer number of reenactors filling their ranks. Artillery, Signal Corps and Medical Corps are also represented, each with its own advantages. There is even at least one group of Civil War Ballooning reenactors who sometimes fly scale models of reconnaissance balloons over the battlefield, as was done in the 1860s.
Cost: Not including the horse, you'll make an initial investment for period-correct uniforms and equipment. Once you have a good set of equipment, this large initial investment will be out of the way but you’ll still need to consider occasional repairs or replacements. As you start getting hooked on this hobby, you'll develop a long list of extra stuff that you've just "gotta" have. Trust us, we know.
Used uniforms and equipment are sometimes out there. We may know of someone leaving the hobby, or you might find something on Craigslist or eBay. The latter can be a good option but before you buy, ensure it’s what you need and free from unseen defects.
The good news is that if one day you decide to leave the hobby, as long as you bought the right stuff in the first place, our uniforms and equipment never go out of style so there is almost always a good market for anything in reasonable condition. See our Stuff link for an idea of what you’ll need, and what you might want in addition to what you need.
Unit personality: Like people, units have different personalities and like-minded people tend to group together. Visit different units and look carefully at their personality before making any commitment. Consider how members relate to one another, make decisions, support fellow members, especially new members, and resolve conflict. Do they balance a serious approach to the hobby with a sense of humor? How would YOU fit in?
Unit leadership: Look also at a unit’s leadership. Are its officers and NCOs mindful of the abilities and needs of those in the ranks? Do they offer help and support if someone is having problems? Do they seem to understand that while this is a military hobby, the unit is comprised of volunteers who want to have a good time? And can the leadership tactfully remind unit members that while they’re having a good time, they should remember that this is a military hobby and that uniformity, discipline, and horse control is essential for both the unit impression, and so that all can enjoy the event in an equal manner? It’s not an easy balance to achieve.
Consider also how leaders reach their positions – is the membership involved in the choice or is the leadership self-appointed? Either way can work: our unit is democratic and all have a say in how we operate and who leads us; we’ve also known units founded and led by dynamic individuals who work hard to keep it going, and whose efforts result in a top-notch impression. Both systems have their plusses and minuses. Talk to the membership to see what they think.
Safety: How does a unit approach safety? Do they have and adhere to Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)? Most units in this hobby are very careful when handling sabers, firearms, artillery and other period weapons. We know that despite engaging in mock battles and firing blank ammunition, lives could literally be on the line if our weapons are handled incorrectly or aren’t properly maintained. Our unit conducts formal inspections at every event to ensure that our weapons are clean, functional and well maintained.
As a cavalry unit, we’re also mindful of horse safety. Most of us are used to working around large, sometimes unpredictable animals so this is second nature to us, though it may be more challenging for those who haven’t spent a lot of time with horses. We also keep in mind that our horses get a good workout on the battlefield, often in extreme heat and for long periods of time, so during events we don’t ask them to work unnecessarily outside of scheduled activities.
Your level of tolerance is entirely up to you, and there’s something out there for everyone. However we don’t recommend you join a unit with a more conservative demeanor if you’re ready to turn on the John Wayne, or vice versa. You won’t be able to change them and it will only lead to frustration, both for them and for you.
Historical accuracy: We touched on this above. This hobby is for persons truly interested in the history of what we’re portraying. Consider what value, in both word and deed, the group places on maintaining an accurate portrayal of the 19th century United States Cavalry trooper. How is this evident in drill, tactics, uniforms, weapons, camp activity and appearance? Does the group really know its unit history and keep rank to a minimum? Does it honor the tradition of the Cavalry - Federal or Confederate - by striving to achieve the best impression possible?
Family Members: Does the unit welcome family members to the hobby? If you have family that you would like to have participate with you, ensure you find a unit that welcomes spouses and children. Most do, though some might choose to focus more strongly on the combatant side of their impression. Our unit welcomes family members; they enhance the camp with their civilian impressions, and some of us have kids who have grown up spending weekends reenacting. Our families make our hobby even more enjoyable.
Logistics: Where are most of the events the group attends, and how far are you willing to drive? How does the group share work details? How are meals planned and executed? Can the unit loan equipment to newcomers? In general, how well does a unit plan to support itself at an event and how well is this information shared with individual members, so that all are prepared for a fulfilling, enjoyable weekend?
Once you've decided if this is a commitment you can make, then decide what impression you want to portray and what group you want to join, the rest is pretty easy. If you don’t know where to look for a unit, ask us. We have contacts throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe.