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The US Christian Commission is an interesting and valuable aspect of Civil War history. This makes reenacting both a challenge and a rewarding endeavor. Your reenactment of the Commission can range from strictly "living history" to "outright action". Some people choose to set up a display of things the USCC would have had to offer the troops, such as a lending library of books, displays of stationery, Bibles and religious tracts. Others take a more active approach by performing actions the delegates did, such as letter writing for the reenactors or offering food at the tent. Neither of these options is the only way to do it. In fact most people will mix the two by having display aspects that educate with activities that engage the reenactors and spectators. Whatever your personal mix in portraying the USCC, do it with the same humble vigor they lived out. Whatever you do, become God's hands, feet and voice to the men and women who come under you tent fly.
What should I do
for my reenactment of the USCC? Do what you are able to do. If you
have the wealth and time to buy and build a display, and that is where your joy
comes from, then do the research, collect the artifacts and use them to tell the story of the Delegates.
Educational displays can play an important role in teaching about the USCC.
If you are more of a hands-on personality, then find ways to "do again" the generosity of the Commission. Demonstrations such as offering to write letters for soldiers, or participating in a medical presentation by writing last letters home help both reenactors and spectators understand the history and mission of the Commission. We have chosen to focus on the reenactors by opening up our tent and letting the reenactors experience on some level the surprise and encouragement the soldiers must have felt in having needs met. So we give away food and drink, stationery, tracts and small gifts to the reenactors. We offer the following list of activities and gifts as suggestions. Choose what best fits your personality. But understand that what is listed below is given, not sold at our tent. "God's love is free, and so is this" is the message we try to communicate.
As we discuss the various things we give away I will try to address the tension between "authenticity" and "practicality". You will have to find your own way in this debate. What follows are things we have done. Over the years we have had hundreds of men and women sit and fellowship under our tent fly. We have offered them God's love in tangible ways. We have educated them about the mission and practices of the USCC. Our goal was always to serve them in the same spirit that the Delegates served the Civil War soldiers. Whatever means you chose to portray the Commission, do what you are able to and do what you enjoy.
On our blog I am posting additional suggestions, information & transcripts of letters & incident reports. The link is on the CW Stationery Journal page.
Drink: We have found lemonade to be a very cost effective gift. Over the years we have supplied lemonade to reenactments of a couple of thousand. We have made over 100 gallons of lemonade on a weekend back in the day. Now we tend to go to smaller local events, as we are getting older. We bring in ice, keeping it in coolers in the tent. Ice cold lemonade on a hot day is a blessing. We use a mix of powder and fresh fruit. We offer both regular and sugar free. We are happy to share our recipes for making it up. (Coffee is also accurate, but for us making it proved more time consuming than we felt we could invest.)
Food: For us the rule of
thumb has always been whatever we could afford to make up and give away was OK.
We try using many ingredients that would have been common during that time.
Yet we do not only cook up foods from the period. If you are part of a very strict
group, then fit in with them. For us, we give what we have to time and
ability to bake and take.
And I'd say 99% of the men and women who come to our tent are authentic in their
attitude of gratitude. And the 1% hardcore who gripe that "that's not made
with brown sugar, or that's not an authentic recipe", well . . . I'll explain later how we
handle them. But first let's explore the general categories of food: biscuits,
breads, cookies, meat and cheese, pickles, dried and fresh fruits, peanuts.
Many of the recipes we use are posted on our blog linked on CW Stationery
Biscuits are very versatile. They need to be baked the day before or morning of to be best. They can be served with butter, honey, apple butter, jelly, peach cobbler topping, etc. (For serving bowls for biscuits with cobbler topping try using small cans like tuna or mushroom cans.)
Breads are a broad category. We have had very good reception to pumpkin bread. It is a moist, almost pound-cake type we bake up in bunt pans. It's quite tasty and will hold up well for the weekend. It can be baked ahead, frozen in plastic bags, and transported easily. We have never baked white or wheat bread, though that's something that would be nice. For us the Lord has often supplied day old bread through a friend who has contact with a large chain store which bakes homestyle bread. So you might check in with local stores or bakeries and explain what you are doing and see if they might donate to your cause. The first time we put out the bread, we didn't know if it would go. We brought four large garbage bags full of loaves. We piled them up on top of two gum blankets in front of the tent. As the soldiers came by, we said "free bread for the soldier". By the end of the reenactment every loaf was gone. Even if it doesn't all get taken, it does make a nice display.
Cookies and bars are an inexpensive way to please a lot of people and are a mainstay at our tent. We try to do a mix of types, such as molasses, sugar etc. Most people think "dozens" when they bake; we think "hundreds". But bake what you can. Again, many varieties can be baked ahead, frozen, then taken out and let thaw as you transport them to the reenactment. Variety is the key. We also do lemon bars, brownies, oatmeal bars, etc.
Meat and cheese. Though it takes some effort to keep it fresh, meat and cheese is often appreciated especially around lunch time. We offer bread or crackers to go with it. Thin sliced ham or pepperoni goes well. On hot days put the plate on ice, or keep the quantity out small, replenishing it often works best. Having mustard on hand is helpful.
Dill Pickles. Very authentic and very good. We buy the large kosher dills, slice each pickle into three chunks and put them out in a small crock. Offering them to the soldiers after the battle with oranges and lemons is appreciated.
Fresh and dried fruit. Sliced oranges, even sliced lemons. (Try cutting them in quarters, then slicing the quarters in half. That leaves the rind on; makes them easy to peal and eat. And helps you have more while keeping the cost down.) Watermelon is also good. Dried fruit adds a nice touch..
Peanuts in the shell. Pretzels are also nice.
We put out whatever we can afford. We serve watermelon when it's cheap. We have served pies and cakes and brownies and mixed nut squares. Some are authentic, some are not. We don't bake over a camp fire. We couldn't serve the amount of people we do if we tried that. If you are a very strict historian, then do your thing. Having made authentic 1840's/50's cake, I would bet after a few bites you won't have to worry about needing to have much of it on hand. Our attitude is to offer food in the spirit of the USCC. They offered anything and everything they could afford to encourage the men. The first reenactment we did, Vicki worked hard baking all week before. One thing she made was fudge. She made two types: chocolate and peanut butter. As we served it, one man informed us that peanut butter was post-civil war and we should NOT be serving it. To be honest we didn't think about it being new to the hobby, and haven't made peanut butter fudge since. But the issue was the way he said it and the rebuking arrogance of his accusation. After that reenactment Vicki kept a bar of lye soap available to offer the next man who grumbled about the options. Over the years we have relaxed about the issue and taken the attitude of offering what we have time and ingredients to bake. Some food is very authentic. Some is a bit modern. When confronted by someone who wants to point out the liberty taken of offering watermelon too early, or using oranges or apples before they are in season, or brownies that probably are not historically accurate, or having ice when we shouldn't have it, we listen and say "thank you, would you like something else?" If pushed, we remind him that his attitude is not authentic since a soldier back then would have been grateful for anything, and we also ask him how much he has paid for eating at our tent. We are glad for the 99% who are grateful, enjoy themselves, pick what appeals to them and graciously pass over what they don't want. And the 1%, well we are glad they turn their nose up and walk away to not come back.
We use a mix of utensils and plates. We generally avoid glass because of breakage. Yet by God's grace the pickle crock has survived for several years. If you look at the pictures you will see we use several three gallon coffee pots for the lemonade. When we first started doing this we used a couple of one gallon enamel pitchers to mix and serve the lemonade. We had to carry the lemonade around to the men since most didn't know what we were doing. We had to explain it was free. Our wrists hurt by the end of the weekend. Over a few years we "trained" the men to come to the tent. That helped out a lot. We also used to carry the water in canvass buckets which let much of it leak out if we didn't use it right away. Then we bought a three gallon white enamel coffee pot. That made life easier. Over the years we've bought additional ones, and had some given to us by individuals. We now use four large pots and a few smaller ones to keep things going. We keep two large pots mixed and two as water reserves. The smaller ones are filled with plain water and sugar free lemonade, and sometimes other fruit juices. Realize you must start small and work up a reputation of being a place where people are welcome. Don't get discouraged. The reward is being so busy you haven't sat down in an hour. Being so busy filling cans, refilling the food trays, then looking around and seeing men and women sitting under the fly, on the ground, standing in line, talking and laughing and smiling . . . THEN you know you have become the Christian Commission. And the reenactors will have experienced the blessing of the Commission in their lives.
Offer drink in tin cans. When we first started doing this, we'd offer the men lemonade. Often they would say they'd like to have some, but didn't have their cup with them. So we started saving tin cans and bringing them to the reenactments. Then someone shared with us some can labels. I printed them up and that made the cans even more appreciated. We have people saving tin cans for us now. I invest evenings gluing the labels on the cans before each reenactment. Not every can is accurate, actually NONE of the cans are made the way cans were made back then. BUT to a spectator seeing a reenactor walking around with a tin can labeled old style is much better than seeing him walk around with a styrofoam cup. We did this out of necessity. Then one reenactment someone said they had read about the USCC handing out lemonade in tin cans in Nashville, and weren't we wise to know that. I confessed we didn't know that detail, but appreciated the assurance that what we were doing was OK. My point? The Commission did what they could with the tools they had available. Relax and do what you can with the tools you can afford. Do the Commission in their spirit of charity and frugality. By using tin cans, we avoid the necessity of washing out cups after each use. Plus the reenactors get to keep the cups. We say, "keep the cup, bring it back and we'll fill it all day".
To keep the flies and bees off the food, use netting (tulle -- fine netting often used for wedding veil-- at a hobby store or fabric store).
In response to spectators who ask why you aren't wearing rubber gloves, smile and say you didn't know they made gum-rubber gloves, but it's OK, the food is just for the soldiers anyway and you've washed your hands. We don't give food to spectators. Don't want to compete with the food venders. And do not want to deal with health regulations by offering food to "the public" (reenactors are family). We have water to wash our hands. We have disinfectant instant hand cleaner too.
Transporting food. Banana boxes are study. Try getting two of the same brand, cutting both bottoms in half so that you can flip the top over, and put the bottom layers in giving you a two layer box to transport trays of cookies or loaves of pumpkin bread. We also use plastic trays, etc. Obviously keep this inside the tent out of sight.
Seating: When we can we use straw bales. We have some folding camp chairs. We have some blankets and quilts we put down on the ground. For food tables under the fly we have used straw bales or boxes (covered with sheets to hide them).
Small gifts. This is a whole
category by itself. In this are such options as religious tracts,
envelopes and stationery, matches, salt & sugar packets, hand sewn items.
As you read the Incidents Report of the Christian Commission, you realize they
gave away anything they could afford to make life easier for the soldiers.
Religious tracts would have been available. I offer a variety of both US and CS. Bibles and hymn book reproductions are so expensive, I use them only for display. Since we give so much away free at the tent, I found it necessary to put a small sign in the display: "these items are for display only, please do not take". (I have also found it necessary to put small signs on the tables "Reenactors only", to keep the spectators from helping themselves to the gifts and food we offer. I do set up a box just for spectators with information for them to take. Email me for suggestions of what to offer.)
Envelopes and stationery and stamps. I got into reproducing them because this was a big part of the USCC's ministry to the soldiers.
Matches. Yes, I know that modern match boxes are not authentic. I've tried to trim off strike-anywhere matches and glue them into strips, but gave up on the idea. So I glue on some old labels I got years ago, put the boxes out and the reenactors appreciate getting them because you can always use matches. You can keep the box or throw it away and put the matches in your match safe. Again, if you come to our tent, no one forces you take anything you don't want.
Packets of salt, sugar etc. A friend shared a couple of labels that came from the time period. I make up the packets, fill them with salt or (white) sugar (yes I know it should be brown, but white it cheaper since anywhere from 50 to 150 packets go out at a reenactment, and how much did you pay for it?), put them out and it's useful. I also put out packets of powdered milk (in a medicine label packet with a note on the tin can of what's in the packet). I do some other items. Email for details if interested. (For the kids, I've done Skittels in a medicine packet as a treat from time to time. Had fun with this one. They would come to tent. I'd say "you look poorly today, I think I have some medicine to cheer you up" and then explain it was a packet of Skittels. They thought it was great to be treated as special.)
Sewn goods. Comfort bags filled with peanuts in the shell and dried fruit (fill them the day you plan on handing them out). Housewives sewing kits. Handkerchiefs. Wool pot holders for the ladies of the camp. One time for our unit Vicki did leather wallets. Sew what you can. Give it away.
Reprints of pages from the USCC Incidents Book published after the Civil War. Admittedly this is NOT accurate in that the soldiers wouldn't have gotten them, but I hand them out to educate the reenactors and the public.
Where should you set up? In the best traffic spot you can. If you set up in the civilian camp, odds are not a lot of soldiers will come your way. We try to set up between the camps, and near the sutlers or on the way to something that the men will be walking to. Again, we should only be serving US soldiers. I've seen someone portraying the USCC who turned away confederate soldiers unless they said they were prisoners. OK, do what you think is best. We have chosen to open our tent to all reenactors. Since we do smaller events, we are able to do this. If asked by either reenactors or spectators, I explain the reality that we would have been US, yet the Commission did serve confederate prisoners etc. But, I explain, our goal is to teach by example and experience about what it was like to come to the Christian Commission tent and find encouragement to all reenactors.
What to wear? Wear work clothes. I wear a chaplains outfit. The delegates would have worn civilian clothes or minister outfits. Vicki wears a camp dress, as the women who served in the Commission were workers.
The food draws them. The encouragement teaches them the truth about the service of the Christian Commission. The literature lets them take the history and truth with them. We hand out pages from the Incident Reports to show the reenactors how seriously the Delegates took their mission. We want them to understand that in the darkest times God is at work. We've talked with reenactors about history and about life. That's what its all about.
Glenn and Vicki
Dawnielle & George,
Justin & Amber & Jonas & Katya,
This site was last updated 03/22/11