August 24, 2011

Reenacting Safety

These storms we've been having! The thunder last night was rolling and constant. I was lying in bed, looking toward the window and couldn't help but think of artillery fire.  None of my family could sleep, so we sat up and watched the lightning storm together. There is a reenacting event this weekend that part of our group is going to (Andy and I are taking a reenacting break.) I have been at events in the past where people could have seriously been hurt but "hardcore-ness" or "this is what they had to deal with" has gotten in the way of many people taking necessary safety precautions.

 Heat-Related Problems:

I think heat exhaustion is one of the most common reenacting maladies. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 154 people were treated for heat-related illnesses at the last reenactment of First Manassas. But it happened then too: "Our men now and then fell down exhausted. If there were any cowards, they had a good excuse," wrote Frederick Frye of the 3rd Connecticut Infantry on July 30th, 1861 of his troops.

There are actually many heat related problems, including heat cramps, syncope, exhaustion, and stroke. The first three can be treated in camp but heatstroke is a medical emergency.

If you:

-Start to feel sick to your stomach
-Have been drinking a lot, but can't urinate
-Stop sweating when you should be sweating

Start to rehydrate by drinking a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda per quart. The person should then take a trip to the medical tent. It is generally advised to not do any further physical activity after you've become sick, so if you are feeling slightly sick in the morning: sit the battle out. Don't let anyone convince you that you are "letting them down" or "they need the numbers," when it could turn into a medical emergency.

A mixture like this can easily be kept in a small period correct jar or poke sack and poured into a tin cup or canteen as a precaution.  Make sure to keep an eye on other reenactors, especially on hot days or when marching. If nothing else will persuade you to take necessary precautions; remember, if you go down with heat and EMTs have to treat you, they will cut right through your meticulously researched, expensive, time consuming clothing to save your life. (It's ridiculous to have to put it into these terms but it is actually the only thing that will convince some people.)

Cold-Related Problems:

Cold-related problems include hypothermia and frostbite. These problems normally only occur at events that are later in the year, high in the mountains, or near a body of water. Sometimes events can be sizzling hot in the day and freezing at night. If you get to the point of hypothermia, it is a medical emergency.  According to The Civil War Battlefield Guide by Frances H. Kennedy "Many of the Union wounded froze to death in the no man's land between the lines," during Fredericksburg in December of 1862. Not many winter events include camping but some do, such as the Bath-Romney Campaign in January.

The best thing to do to prevent cold-related injuries is to pack a change of clothing and extra blankets, even if these things are kept in the car. Always take an extra blanket, even if you think you won't need it. You never know if one of your blankets will get wet or if it will turn out to be a lot colder that everyone anticipated.  Also keep a spare change of socks in a dry place.

Some "reenactor" tips for cold events include carefully warming up a stone near the fire, wrapping it up in a blanket, and using it as a heating pad for your feet at night. Also carefully putting hot liquid in a tin cup and holding it helps warm the hands. Keep in mind cuddling for body heat like real Civil War soldiers did; some guys would rather freeze, I know. Many people prefer to sleep "taco style" which is folding your blankets so you have one side of the blankets under you and the other part over top of you.


Rain is a common reenactor nuisance. One would think that we would all be better prepared for it. While there were rain umbrellas in the 1860s, I have yet to see an accurate reproduction one. Coats designed to repel rain did exist but I have not seen a reproduction one either. A good photo of Thomas Jackson's coat can be seen here. Also for civilians, oiled-silk capes existed for rain and some wools are water resistant. Oiled-silk was also used for water-proof dresses.  

Most storms are small and can past without harm, but violent storms can be dangerous. Make sure that your wood pile is covered with a ground cloth so that you can cook once the storm is over and that your tent stakes are firmly in the ground as wet soil can loosen them. Some people dig a small trench around their tent to direct water away from it but it is not possible or allowed at some events.

If there is lightning at an event, the best thing to do is to get a hotel room or sleep in your car. The last place you want to be during a lightning storm is in an open field with metal flag poles, cooking equipment, rifles, ect.  Metal on the ground doesn’t normally attract lightning strikes but can direct ground currents. Make sure not to touch metal during a storm with lightning. This is hard with rifles in tents.  Some people may dismiss the danger of lightning storms, but if the thunder is within 10 miles, find another place to stay. (To see how far away a storm is, count the seconds between when you see a lightning strike and when you hear the thunder. To see the science behind this see my post here: How Close are the Guns?)

Lightning will strike the tallest object in an area and then spread out along the ground. You do not want to be too close to the tallest object in the area to be hit when the energy travels along the ground and you do not want to be so far away that you become the tallest thing in the area. Last Gettysburg reenactment, lightning injured 5 reenactors during an early morning storm.

I think this post will be part of a series on possible safety issues we might encounter in the field. Hopefully I won't have to cover gun safety as it should be drilled into everyone's heads. I hope everyone was safe and enjoyed that last event, even with those terrible storms.


  1. Good advice from a wise reenactor! Everyone who participates should take heed!

  2. twice in the past two years, i've been camped at an event where there were tornado warnings/watches! that was pretty nerve-wracking because we had no place to take shelter... just tried to find a somewhat sheltered place and pray!!

  3. Stephanie, did you feel the earthquake at all the other day? Sadly, I was napping so I didn't feel it.

    BTW, this article made me think of you! 4 generations in this family have worn a 127 year old bridal dress!

  4. Thanks Ken and Samantha! I have been at events where it wasn't possible to leave and you just have to wait it out. I think that some people go overboard though, almost putting themselves in danger.

    Sarah Lynn, That dress is beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing that.


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