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American Civil War Society

American Civil War Society

As the smoke quietly curled away into the sky and the flaps of the white A – frame tents indicated there was movement from within, those with a feeling for living history were transported back in time. A true representation of life during the period of 1861 – 1865, the American Civil War Society were recreating one of their last living history gatherings of 2010 at Tatton Old Hall in Cheshire, the society’s diligence and dedication to authenticity making the organisation one of the most respected re-enactment societies in existence.

Described by the ACWS themselves as a ‘hobby with a difference’, it’s not unusual for two to three hundred of the five hundred or so members to gather together on a regular basis at the numerous events the society holds. Usually by invitation at a variety of venues throughout the country, the ACWS’s exact to period camps, authentic clothing and artifacts, military activities, battle recreations and weaponry and extensive knowledge of the period has proved a major draw for visitors, along with England’s often little known involvement.

A Fascination with History

Enjoying an early morning ‘cuppa’ sitting outside his white A – Frame tent whilst others cooked breakfast around the various communal fire pits, Philip Clark, the Society secretary and member of the 19th Indiana Volunteers Infantry, quietly explained the fascination of the ACWS, their activities and the format of their events.

“The ACWS started back in 1975 and basically re-enacts the American Civil War over the four year period of its duration. In structure it’s the usual format of chairman, secretary, treasurer along with the projects in which we get together and for want of a better term, fight the war. Our members are from all parts of the country and all walks of life, my own regiment of the 19th Indiana having members from as far apart as Fife in Scotland down to Bournemouth in the south of England - along with one in New Zealand! Our period is Easter to late September the main dates being most Bank Holidays, the 4th July and wherever we’ve been hired to appear. This also means that we get to stay within the grounds of various stately homes or similar venues, along with occasional television work, the area we cover mainly is the north such as Cumbria down to the south Midlands around Oxford”.

For potential members, the American Civil War itself was and is so well documented, that research is relatively easy. From detailed descriptions of the battles, camp life, clothing and various social activities backed up with photographic documentation of every aspect, members can ensure that what they can get every aspect of daily life correct even down to cups, plates and utensils even at times down to specific individuals.

“Those who attend can then decide whether they want to be completely authentic, sleep in an A – Frame tent, stay in caravans or go ‘concrete camping’ which is a nearby B&B. Likewise, members can choose whether it’s the Union or Confederacy they want to represent or be bipartisan such as cavalry members who’ll wear whichever uniform they need, dependant on the battle we’re recreating. In respect of the average day, things start at 8am with bugle call followed by breakfast, regimental duties along with a church service on Sundays. From there small public demonstrations are held throughout the day with the main battle at around three in the afternoon, all the while a member of the Society explaining to the public exactly what’s happening and why”.

Dependant on what’s asked of the society weekends range from basic camps to full blown battles in which they use artillery pieces specially cast by a foundry in Liverpool, these being 2” versions of the 9lb and 12lb Napoleonic cannons used in the war. Smaller by virtue of the fact they only fire blank charges, visually the society’s artillery is genuine as it comes in performance and handling, the resultant bang and smoke being just as impressive as the real thing - as are the men who operate them.

Uniforms and Other Kit

Clothing wise, whilst the society itself doesn’t carry a stock, those who decide to become a member of one of the various regiments can usually borrow the correct uniform for as long as they need until they can acquire their own.

“The 19th Indiana for example has a pool of equipment in hand to kit out at least six people to at least get them started, whilst we also have our own ‘in society’ sutlers like Ark Stores and West Point”, continued Philip. “These two companies supply everything from clothing, materials if you’d like to make your own - something many members like to do - along with what I’d describe as the metal bits like belt buckles, bayonets, holsters, swords, replica pistols and rifles along with other similar items, although there are numerous other well-known shops that also sell the correct items. It’s also worth pointing out that this was the first war in which uniforms were manufactured and provided although different states tended to supply their own variations to set them apart, the Confederates often using a brown cloth as opposed to the more familiar blue-grey colour”.

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Now weaponry - as you would expect - tends to favour reproductions from makes like Pedersoli, Pietta, Euroarms, Uberti and Armi San Marco although since some lesser known makes can also be seen. That said, for the serious member only the real thing will do, one Confederate justifiably proud of his genuine 1843 Baker Brunswick rifle and Star revolver from 1861. This is where the society becomes especially fascinating for those interested in the various firearms of the period and the diversity. For many such as the Confederates back in 1861 it was a case of bring what you had at home, the Kentucky hunting rifle then and now being a familiar sight as were various hammer-action shotguns.

Equally, if you were a member of a regiment that was commanded by a wealthy Colonel, he might well have kitted his men out with something far more elaborate such as a Colt Revolving rifle, a Sharps set trigger rifle or a Whitworth 50 Cal. complete with scope. Basically, providing it’s no later than early 1865 and was known to exist in America, it’s an acceptable weapon. The only thing new members have to remember is that if their genuine or replica gun is the real thing they must have the appropriate certificate along with the black powder explosive ticket. Most of the reproduction rifles are actually smooth-bored, so can be acquired and kept on a Shotgun Certificate rather than an FAC.

You’ll also see a variety of correct period revolvers on show at re-enactment events, although in the actual war they tended to be worn and used by officers and cavalry only.

Many of the guns are deactivated which also allows members of the public to handle them and get a greater feel for the period weapons, and gain a greater understanding of the fact that the American Civil War was more or less the last conflict in which muzzle loaders were used, the breech loading era just round the historical and technological corner. 

Made in England

One gun that really does stand out is the three-band 1853 Enfield, a rifled musket that had a serious presence in the American Civil War and was used extensively by both sides of the conflict. Often represented by the basic Enfield .577 Parker Hale reproduction, as owned by Nic Cole, these particular guns are authentic in every detail from the correct bore to the 7lb weight that still takes a 50 gram load, devastating at the then firing distances of 75 to 150 yards, although the rifle has the exact open sights for ranges up to 900 yards although marksmanship wasn’t taught - just to be able to load fast and shoot in the general direction.

What few people realise is that a factory was purpose built in Sheffield, England to produce the three-band Enfield of which nine hundred thousand were sent to America for use by both sides, the only rifle more prevalent being the American made Springfield M1861, with just short of a million and a half seeing active service. Over ninety-five percent of the gunpowder used during the conflict was also produced in England as was most of the leather work that originated in Nottingham. Many of the knives used by both sides would also have come from Sheffield.

To keep the interest running high, Philip also arranges various live range shoots and competitions usually in Staffordshire for those who want to use and fire their rifles. It also gives members a far better idea of what these types of firearms were actually capable of from the most basic muzzle-loader up to the sharpshooter’s rifle of the time such as the Sharps.

How Much Does It Cost?

Costs wise a new shotgun certificate will set you back £50 for five years in addition to your security, etc. whilst a black powder certificate is free providing it’s for an individual and it’s for your own personal use. Weaponry wise a suitable rifle will set you back £200 although various used examples can be had for around £100. Basic clothing of a jacket, hat and trousers is around £150 although more specific kit such as the best regimental uniform will cost you more, especially if you decide to import it from America.

The overwhelming sensation of the ACWS is that from whatever angle you wish to approach it from there’s an aspect or a branch you can become involved with. Intensely family friendly, even down to youngsters becoming flag bearers and drummer boys, wives taking on the roll of camp followers or a Vivandiere which roughly translates into a grog carrier.

Each and every member is keen to pass on their own knowledge or can introduce you to members who’ll be able to answer your question no matter how intricate or obscure. A fascinating period of history with far greater connections to England than you might expect, even if you only go along to take a look you’ll find a day with the ACWS a most rewarding experience.