Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Civil War Reenacting: Staging a Battle

By Matthew Pizzolato

Have you ever wondered how the outcome is decided at a Civil War reenactment? First and foremost, attention is paid to historical accuracy. Whatever battle is being portrayed is played out according to the way it actually happened.

For example, the unit that I reenact with portrays the 11th Louisiana Co. K. During the War, the unit suffered heavy losses during a bayonet charge at Shiloh. This past year during that reenactment, our company charged the enemy lines and most of us took hits as a way to honor the brave men who fought in that regiment.

However, before each battle, the commanders of the opposing sides meet and create a scenario as a way to put on a show for the spectators and to keep it as historically accurate as possible. Everything is discussed including how many hits to take as well as when each side advances and retreats. A battle is scripted before hand to keep it as safe as possible.

Of course, taking a hit is an art of its own. There are several factors that play into it. If too many reenactors fall, then there won't be enough left to put on a show for the spectators, but there also has to be an element of realism with all of the rounds being fired.

Generally, the commanders will tell us to take a few hits and we have to time it so that we fall when the enemy fires a volley or an opposing cannon goes off. Other times, if one of us runs out of rounds or a rifle fouls, there's sometimes no other choice than to take a hit.

Another important element is where to fall. If cavalry has been across the field, you don't want to fall where they have been because horses tend to leave "signs" of their passage. Also, falling in a bed of fire ants isn't exactly wise either. When the weather is hot, taking a hit and laying in direct sunlight can lead to dehydration if you have to stay there for any length of time. I've seen reenactors take hits and become wounded and crawl to shady spots before actually dying. I might even have done that myself once or twice.

Is there anything about reenactments that you've wondered about? Feel free to ask and I'll do my best to answer in the comments.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He is a member of Western Fictioneers and his work can be found in the Wolf Creek series as well as his own publications, THE WANTED MAN, OUTLAW and TWO OF A KIND. 

He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western. He can be contacted through Twitter @mattpizzolato or via his website: 


  1. What a great way to keep history alive and give others the chance to see the experience. I knew there had to be some choreography, but was not aware of the extent that is was scripted beforehand. Thank you. Doris

  2. Matt, I always love these posts of yours, because I do not know the first thing about re-enacting, and your posts are informative, interesting, and educational for those of us who don't have a clue! I never even thought about the choreography of who would fall, who wouldn't, and where. But now, I can see this is a very carefully thought out part of the re-enactments. As Doris says, this is a great way to keep history alive and well. Maybe one of these days, I'll get to go to one of these re-enactments and see it for myself.

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  4. In my stack of "in the process of being read" books is Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic, written about becoming a reenactor. Informative and humorous. Hooray for the 11th Louisiana! Do you have a schedule for your reenactments?