Civil War Days – Clothing and Food

Part 2 of 2

Mostly, the Civil War was no picnic

Naper Settlement’s Civil War Days was a fun way to do period research. However, I picked up so much information that I’m mostly sharing interesting factoids, rather than anything that will make you a Civil War expert.


Sis and I saw some swell clothing at the Civil War Fashion Show. Many of the ladies who accompany the gentlemen reenactors like fashion as much as I do—okay, maybe more—and they have a tremendous commitment to dressing authentically.

Fashionable Yankee Ladies

I bet most of the ladies we saw were Yankees. Though several were more humbly dressed in cotton, we saw plenty of silk, and had it been cooler, we might have seen wool, too. Well-to-do Confederate ladies might have had those fabrics early in the war, but as time wore on, many of them ended up in homespun. Of course you might have met a confederate lady who, like the fictional Scarlett O’Hara, didn’t much care what anyone thought of her, but most ladies would rather not wear blockade-run fabrics, even if they’d been able to acquire them. Some very high-toned ladies learned to spin and weave their own cloth.

Parasol, piping and reticule

If you were lucky enough (or Yankee enough) to have a new dress made, it would almost certainly have piping. In addition to being an interesting decorative detail when done in contrasting fabric as with the dark edges of the dress above, it also helped the garment wear better. In those days, women didn’t have nearly as many outfits as we do now, so a dress needed to last a good long time and hold up well.

Lady with veil

Ladies might have veils on their bonnets even when not in mourning. Veils served as protection against debris while traveling, as well as protecting their skin from the sun. The lady above is wearing a dress with the lowest collar she could possibly wear (during the day, that is) and still be considered respectable. The shawl helps. A proper lady took a shawl with her even in the warmest weather, since to go out “uncovered” would be quite the scandal.

Lady with expensive ribbons

The lady above had a lot to spend on expensive silk ribbon for her bonnet. Also, like many of the other ladies, she wears mitts to protect her hands from the sun.

Work petticoat next to hoop skirt with hem saver

When a lady had physical work to perform, she was likely to wear a corded work petticoat and work corset (one without whalebone stays) so that she could move. If she was only paying calls or going to church, she would wear the whole shebang: linen underclothes consisting of a chemise and knickers, a corset, a petticoat or three, a hoop skirt, possibly with a hem saver to catch any dirt before it could get to her dress, and then the dress itself. Half-sleeves might be worn under the decorative outer sleeves of the dress to give the dress a different look in daytime before one met friends for dinner. Of course, in public, she wore a jacket or shawl, and a bonnet. Even indoors, she always wore some sort of head covering, though it might be just a light fabric.

Confederate after the battle

The Confederate gentleman above no longer has his gray uniform, but his jacket is in the butternut that often served as a substitute. His trousers are ordinary civilian garb. Despite his injuries and the fraying of his attire, he was anxious for us to notice his cravat, since that signaled that he was still a gentleman.

Union camp site

Soldiers’ Food and Supplies

A gentleman from the Illinois Eighth Cavalry displayed samples of the food and other items a soldier might carry as they camped or marched. Union soldiers could often tell that they’d soon be in battle, even before receiving orders. They could count on hardtack, salt pork or beef, coffee, sugar, and salt. If that’s all they got, they were about to head out. If they also received soft bread, cornmeal, dried peas or beans, rice, tea, vinegar, molasses, and vegetables, they’d have time to cook so they might be in camp for a while.

Vinegar can make spoiled food palatable, and maybe even safe to eat. Among soldiers’ rations during the Civil War, they were issued vinegar. Sometimes the food was not as fresh as it should have been, and they’d prepare it with vinegar, which masked the off flavors.

When I said something like, “Great, then you won’t know when you’re getting food poisoning” the quartermaster said that actually, the vinegar was able to kill some of the microbes that cause food-borne illness. Huh. Who knew?

Union kit with canteen, utensils, soap, candles, and game pieces

The number one leisure activity among soldiers was writing letters, or reading letters they received from home, but they also enjoyed reading books, making music or playing baseball, checkers, dominoes and other games.

Civil War Days – Medicine & Music


Part  1 of 2

I recently went to my first Civil War reenactment. Up until May 18, 2014, everything I ever knew about Civil War re-enactors, I learned from Sharyn McCrumb’s Highland Laddie Gone. The people in that book were wacky, so I approached the experience with some trepidation. However, I am now a fan. My attitude changed when Sis and I visited Naper Settlement’s Civil War Days.

I was more comfortable at Civil War Days than I expected to be. You can ask Sis. She was a great companion, but I was a terrible one. I neglected her for long stretches while I picked the brains of faux quartermasters, period musicians, and medicine show charlatans.

To be fair, Sis had some warning that I was attending for research purposes. My current novel (working title: Dr. Miracle’s Medicine Show) is set a few years after the Civil War. Visiting a living history museum seemed a great way to see how people dressed, ate, and otherwise managed their lives back then.

Sis always says that you should try to learn 3 new things every day. Since it was a special research trip, I tried to learn more than that, but here are a few of the new things I either learned, and/or got to see up close and personal:

Professor Farquar at his 40-miler, meeting a client

I met “Professor Farquar” (aka Sanford Lee) who told me a lot about medicine shows, and got to check out his 40-miler wagon. While a big medicine show—like the ones for Hamlin’s Wizard Oil or Kickapoo Indian Sagwa—might use Percheron horses to pull their wagons, the little shows were much more compact. These smaller shows didn’t range more than about 40 miles from their home base. They might use donkeys if that’s all they could get, but they often liked to use zebras or llamas. What a great way to generate buzz!

Professor Farquar and I compared research notes and found that we’d done some of the same research on medicine shows, but he had one source that blew me away. Al Lewis (the guy who played Grandpa Munster on the old Munsters TV show) used to work the medicine show circuit! He gave Professor Farquar useful tips back in the days when they used to perform in dinner theatre together.

Playing jawbone & banjo—gourd banjo (inset)

And then, I learned bunches from the John and Elaine Masciale of Tin Cremona.

First, about banjos: Banjos were like the electric guitars of the 19th century—far and away the most popular instrument of the time. They didn’t always sound like they do now. Their precursors were made by African-Americans from gourds and gut. Even once white Euro-Americans co-opted the instrument, it was still made with wood, using gut strings. The period instruments sounded softer and mellower than the metal string banjos I’m used to hearing. You can hear a sample here, courtesy of Old Fiddle Road Banjo Works.

Next, the old minstrel shows had four major performers, which accounts for honorifics you may have heard in other contexts, like Mr. Tambo (or Tambourine), Mr. Banjo, Mr. Fiddle, and Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones, literally, played the jawbone of an ass. In the days of gourd banjos, ass jawbones were easier to come by than they are nowadays, and if you were a slave on a plantation, no one cared much how musically gifted you were, so you had to make do. The minstrel shows—even the ones where people merely pretended to be black—started out with the traditional instruments. So one of the percussion instruments was usually a jawbone.

Finally, I was pleased to learn that not all of the old minstrel shows consisted of white men in burnt cork makeup. There was one group, the Georgia Minstrels, who were actually African American. How did I not know this? I’m already plotting a way to work it into a story somehow.