|First Person: Civilian: Joe Smotherman|
Reenacting innocent—and not so innocent—civilians
Tennessean impersonates newspapermen, black marketeers, and sutlers
Watch out for that postmaster! He’s not only a mailman, but also part of the local black market. Banker Joe Smotherman’s civil war reenactment hobby includes not only impressions of soldiers in both blue and gray, but also civilian roles.
Joe Smotherman was pacing his way carefully to his next stop, his thoughts on his mailbag—and the 1861 Colt Police pistol contained inside, along with the mail. Deserters were known to be in the woods, and there was a good chance they’d try to rob him for any cash in the envelopes.
Fortunately, Smotherman wasn’t in any genuine danger. He was taking part in a lesser-known aspect of Civil War reenacting: Playing the roles of civilians caught up in the conflict.
Smotherman, 48, has been reenacting both Confederate and Union roles for many years, but in the last year or so has been playing the part not of soldiers, but of the many supporting characters that may take part in a reenactment. In the case of his postal work, he was a local postmaster who also ran the local black market on the side. The code word for a purchase was, “I heard that there was a package for me.” Smotherman would pick it off a shelf of parcels and matter-of-factly advise, “There’s some ‘postage’ due.”
While the uniformed reenactors have frequently garnered all the publicity and much of the action, Smotherman says the civilian reenactors get their share. At one event, attendees who started out as civilians responded to the call to arms, joined up, and reappeared in their uniforms. Immediately they formed ranks and began drilling with sticks in lieu of actual weapons, just as enlistees of the time did.
At another event, in a tavern, Smotherman witnessed a barroom knife fight that only a handful of the reenactors had been told of in advance. To others, it looked very real.
Before the un-informed knew what was happening, two barflies drew knives—which turned out later to be rubber—and had at it. One went down.
“The other guy was arrested,” says Smotherman, “and tried. I served on the jury.”
Getting started in reenacting
Civilian reenacting “is another way to go to an event for me,” says Smotherman, a longtime reenactor. “It’s another impression I do.”
In his real civilian life, Smotherman, a community banker by background, works as a specialist at Citi Community Capital, a section of Citibank’s investment bank that finds and invests in Community Reinvestment Act deals. Projects may cover construction of or investment in low-income housing, schools, medical facilities, and other civic needs.
When Smotherman turned 14, relatives gave him a “whole bunch of money” for his birthday. He knew just what he was going to buy with it: a drum set he’d heard was for sale. But when he went to the home of the seller, he saw a Civil War-era musket replica hanging on the wall.
Somehow or other, when he left the house, the drums didn’t go with him.
But the musket did.
That was his first serious step towards getting involved in reenacting, but he’d been interested in the Civil War for a long time.
“My grandfather used to tell me stories about my own family in the Civil War,” he explained. Young Joe ate up the stories.
The first time he saw a Civil War reenactment, he exclaimed to his mother, “Mom! Those guys out there are playing soldier!” Actually, when he came home with a gun instead of a drum, this did not cause the upheaval it might have in some families. “I grew up in the country,” in College Grove, middle Tennessee, Smotherman explains. Hunting and shooting have been and continue to be accepted outdoor hobbies there.
The previous owner of the musket was involved in reenacting, and before long Smotherman was an active reenactor. In time, he became company commander of one of the units he joined over the years—reenacting groups tend to fall out, after a while—and his son, Daniel, came along as bugler in his early teens.
At one point in his reenactment “career,” banker Joe Smotherman served as company commander of his group. His son, Daniel, blew the company bugle. Today the younger man is a Marine reservist.
“Going out for the weekend to sweat in wool uniforms wasn’t of interest anymore,” says Smotherman, especially once he had a truck and had discovered girls.
However, something stuck. Smotherman says Daniel, now 21, an EMT, and a Marine reservist, found his sweating as a reenactor helped him get through the “Crucible.” That is the final period of Marine Corps training, noted for deprivation of food and sleep and a great deal of marching.
“Dan told me that he thought, ‘Heck, I’ve been on reenactments worse than this’,” says Smotherman.
The thought was comfort enough to get the recruit through his training.
Shifting to “civilian duty”
He notes that many reenactors tend to be older than the typical Civil War soldier—especially frontline infantry. In addition, with good modern living, many reenactors tend to be a bit more ample around the middle than the young, skinny soldiers they portray, who lived the life for years, not just weekends.
“Eating Army food and marching ten miles a day will do that to you,” says Smotherman. At one five-day event, he dropped 12 pounds on the military routine.
Reenacting “has become a little more physically demanding, as I’m getting older,” Smotherman admits, but he wanted to continue with this hobby. So he began to get involved in civilian reenacting.
Smotherman explains that non-military reenacting began on the distaff side. Wives who didn’t want to be Civil War “widows” or who had an interest in the historical period themselves began working at ways to join their husbands at the events. They researched the dresses, manners, traditions, and other aspects of Civil War life.
Now, “civilian reenacting is a blossoming thing,” says Smotherman. Historical restorations and museum villages in various parts of the country have been opening up their buildings for civilian reenactors, letting them play out entire scenarios in their “towns.” Some such events are entirely Civil War civilian affairs, while others are a mix. Some reenacting events, which start in the year of significant Civil War anniversaries, are part of multiple-year continuities. Some events even print their own scrip, so reenactors can buy period “currency” for use in the event (with real, current U.S. money, to defray expenses).
One such reenactment that Smotherman is part of—where he plays the black-market postmaster—will simulate a southern village that’s been occupied by Union soldiers. Smotherman predicts that, given the volatile relations of Confederate sympathizers and federal troops, there will be “trouble.”
Scalawags: The newsman and the salesman
The old saw holds that the pen is mightier than the sword, and perhaps it is mightier than the musket, as well. Smotherman has never tested that out, though one of his other civilian impressions is as a Civil War correspondent. His character is a composite of various period journalists—many were held in low regard and weren’t above taking bribes to make officers look better, nor above making things up when they lacked facts or initiative. While a composite character, Smotherman’s journalist represents a real period publication, however, The Cincinnati Commercial Daily. (Apparently just in case the pen isn’t the supreme weapon, in character the journalist Smotherman carries a pistol.)
Another civilian impression that Smotherman does at reenactments is a “sutler.” Sutlers were civilian peddlers and traders permitted to visit the military camps to sell wares that the men didn’t receive from their units. Military authorities issued lists of what could and couldn’t be sold to the troops—one officially forbidden item was spirits.
One benefit of being a costumed sutler is that the reenactor isn’t just playing at the role. He’s really selling things that the “soldiers” need and can buy—if they have the price.
“I only take greenbacks—you can’t pay me in anything else,” says “sutler” Joe Smotherman. This can be a bit more lucrative than hauling a musket through the woods.
Recalling a recent turn as peddler in Franklin, Tenn., Smotherman notes, “I cleared $300 that day.”
Both period journalists and sutlers on occasion roused the wrath of top officers (and in the merchants’ case, the men). Generals Grant and Sherman weren’t above throwing reporters into military prison, and some sutlers were notorious for cheating the troops one way or another. Sometimes the soldiers raided their supplies as comeuppance.
Boiling at Manassas—more than one way
Several of the banker-reenactors interviewed for this ABA BJ project intended to take part in the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of First Manassas (also known, in the North, as the First Battle of Bull Run) this month. Smotherman is one of them. But he won’t be wearing a uniform in the July heat.
“I’m going to Manassas as a cook,” explains Smotherman.
He’s not just playing the part of a cook—he’s going to cook.
The group he’s accompanying to Manassas is going to eat what he produces. Smotherman has been assembling accurate period cooking gear for a year or so, in preparation for the event.
In keeping with the longstanding tradition of Army cooking, Smotherman admits that fine cuisine is not, shall we say, among his skill sets.
He intimates that his troopers will be game to eat whatever he manages to serve up, just like in the Army. Reenactors are actually used to getting by on dubious camp food and hard tack—brick-like bread.
Smotherman will be doing his own suffering, rest assured.
“I’ll be up at 4:00 AM every morning,” he says, “cooking in the July heat.”
—Steve Cocheo, executive editor
Joe Smotherman, right, and a friend at a reenactment on what he calls “one of the hottest, most humid, miserable events I’ve ever attended.” He adds, “You can’t tell, but we are so wet, you’d think we’d been in a pool.”
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