First Person Impressions
First person... what is it, and can I do it? These are just a couple of the questions asked by most new recruits to the hobby. Basically, first person is the portrayal of a person of the Civil War (or other time period). First person can be done at almost any time or place, although a camp or permanent Civil War era structure can be of great help.
To do a good first person impression there are simple everyday things that anyone would know about themselves and their surroundings. It may take sometime to research these basics, but most of them can be used at event after event. First person is not for everyone, but by knowing the following basic facts even the greenest recruit can give it a try.
The first thing you should select is your name. When doing a first person impression there are two basic ways of picking a name. The simplest way is to use your own name (that is provided it isn't Moonshine McBeam). The second way is to take the name of a person who actually, took part in the Civil War. This involves researching different sources to find a person of about your age who was in your location at the time you are portraying. Also remember where this person was from. If you say you are from New York why do you talk with a thick southern draw?
Many good first person impressions fall apart when someone asks your age and you answer 19XX. The easy way to find your birthday is to take the year you are portraying, subtract your age and use your own birth month and day. If you are portraying an actual person of the period you may consider using their birthdate.
Every soldier thought of it on a constant basis. When selecting a hometown, remember that troops, unlike today's military, were organized by states. Therefore you and your pards would most likely be from the same state and many from the same town. If you are doing an impression of Florida troops and you just can't quite master that southern drawl, then you will need a cover story as to why you are in that particular unit. Perhaps your father was from Florida and you decided to go south and join up with other members of yo t= family when the war first broke out. This can be said if you are portraying a Union soldier and you have a southern drawl and are unable to master that 'Yankee' voice.
How many brothers and sisters do you have? large families were the order of the day and 12 or 13 children in a family was not uncommon. Are you married? A man of 16 at this tine was very likely to be married. An older man might be on his second or third wife. A girl of 14 was considered "fine for marrying" and even younger in the backwoods cam ziities. It was also common at this time to marry your cousin. Remember, you and your wife would have been living close to each other before you were married. Few people traveled more than a few miles to go courting in those days.
Since almost all of the Civil War soldiers were "civilian soldiers" it is important to pick a job that you did before you went off to "see the elephant". The rank you are portraying will have a great effect on which job you chose. An officer, although sometimes promoted from an enlisted man, was most likely a man of means. He might have been e rich merchant or banker or even e politician. Many politicians raised units early in the war end were elected to canmand them. Another possibility for an officer is a large landowner and/or rich slave owner. This would most likely not be e man who only owned three or four slaves. An enlisted man could own a small store or be e factory worker. However, farming was by far the most common occupation of the period.
You will need to know something about the job you claim to have done before the war. Remember the story of an officer who claimed he was a rich slave holder. He had an apple orchard, raised cotton, end owned 140 slaves. Sounded good until he said he did it all on half an acre.
Education would be linked directly to the type of job you had in civilian life. Although an officer might have attended college; the chance of an enlisted man attending college would be small. Very few high schools were in operation in the countryside where most of the population lived. If an enlisted man had gone to school, it was probably no further then the 8th grade. You must remember that many men could not read or write their "letters" at all
What company do you belong to? Who does it belong to? When did you join the company? Have you been with it from the start? Are you a volunteer or a conscript? What is your term of service? What is the name of your commander and First Sergeant? What do you think of them? These questions form the basis for a soldiers life in the military. You should be able to give a short history of the company from a soldiers point of view. Just because history says one side won a battle doesn't mean that each soldier agrees as to who the victor was. Also keep in mind that the average soldier would of only been able to see a very small part of each battle.
How did you get to this place? You could have come by train, boat, wagon, horseback, or the most common mode of travel for the infantry, marched! Marching was a way of life for most soldiers in the 1860's. Long marches were the order of the day during hard campaigning and you surely have some stories of a long march where the water ran out and the bottom of your brogans gave out.
WHAT ARE YOU FIGHTING FOR:
What are your personal reasons for being in the Army? Reasons for fighting varied greatly during the war. Many of the men fought simply because they felt it was their duty to their country or state. Few average southerners fought to only to save slavery. Most members of the southern army were not slave owners but were just small farmers. The reverse also applies to those in the Union army. Although some men joined the Union army to free the slaves, a larger part of the army was made up' of men fighting to "Save the Union". Some men even left the Union army when it became clear that a Union victory meant freedom for the slaves. One must remember that even the most staunch abolitionist of the time did not consider Negroes as equals.
WHAT HAS THE WAR TAUGHT YOU:
The answers to this question will vary greatly from person to person and during different times of the war. For most of the soldiers this was their first time away from home. Many of the men joined the army to see other places. Few could believe all the things the world had to offer. No man would of ever thought of doing "women's work" like cooking and sewing prior to the start of the war. Taking orders may have been the biggest lesson that a soldier learned. Men couldn't get used to taking orders from someone they felt was their social inferior.
Although this list is by no means all inclusive, it should give anyone wishing to do a first person impression a good start in the right direction. Doing first person can lend a whole new aspect to the hobby for both reenactor and the spectator. First person is not easy, you will in the beginning have the tendency to slip back into the 20th century. There will even be people who will purposely try to make you slip out of character. However, once you have mastered doing first person, you can have a most enjoyable time with your pards as well as with the spectators.
Perhaps the best time to do first person is at a candle light tour. These tours have become very popular in the last few years and is the prime time to polish your first person. Of course, these tours are usually done in a time machine fashion, that is to say, everyone is doing first person while the public passes by.
I would encourage everyone to give first person a try and if you have a problem at first, continue to stick with it. Ask others in the hobby who have done first person to give you some tips or to help you with your impression. the end result will be a greater enjoyment of the hobby for yourself and may help to put an end to National Perk Rangers who see us as a bunch of grown men playing at being soldiers.
by Mark Strother