Bringing authenticity to history Catalog: As re-enactments gain in popularity, Alan Wellikoff's book helps Civil War buffs find the right props.

January 03, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

The Civil War ended more than 131 years ago but Americans are reliving it in ever-greater numbers -- and Baltimore author Alan Wellikoff helps equip them in proper 19th-century fashion.

In a series of source books for Civil War enthusiasts -- including his latest, The Civil War Supply Catalogue -- the Roland Park free-lancer offers a guide to virtually anything the historically correct re-enactor could need.

The ultimate in realism may be the period-style wooden coffin with a viewing window, for those who want to either play casualty -- or be buried with historic accuracy.

"History is a commodity and I'm guilty of that," said Wellikoff, 50, a descendant of a Civil War sutler.

Civil War re-enacting began in earnest around the centennial in the 1960s, when there were still enough period weapons available to satisfy the Winchester, Va.-based North-South Skirmish Association, a black powder shooting group founded in 1950.

"Uniforms" in those days were frequently no more than blue or gray work pants and shirts with colored tape sewn on.

Over the ensuing decades, interest continued to grow, fueling heavy demand for authentic equipment. The scant remaining original gear was depleted years ago, however, so the clamor led to a new industry of large manufacturers and individual craftsmen who reproduce virtually everything that would have been available to soldiers on both sides and to civilians as well.

Bill Hoover, an Ohio tinsmith who produces metalware, said his business has boomed since the Wellikoff book appeared in mid-November. "It's been great. I even got a call from an independent company making a movie [set in the 1840s] to make their tinware props," Hoover said.

Wellikoff describes the Civil War as "a richly atmospheric drama set within an ornate Victorian proscenium -- its decorative and sentimental tableaux alternatively charging with swift combat and collapsing into awful despair."

A New York City native who graduated from George Washington University in 1968 with a degree in American History, Wellikoff said his only venture into re-enacting was when he was curator of the New Windsor Cantonment, a Revolutionary War encampment at Vails Gate, N.Y.

But as the movement grew, Wellikoff said he was struck by the fact that the reproduction industry was expanding so rapidly that no one could possibly know all that was available or where to get it.

He sold a publisher the idea of filling the void with a catalog of newly manufactured items from the past.

A full-time free-lancer, he spent months searching newspapers and magazines for vendors and manufacturers of reproductions of all types.

He consulted with experts in various fields to select the most authentic reproductions available and to get information for sidebar explanatory notes, including anecdotes, on each item's place in the overall historical picture.

Among the unusual entries is Kevin Rawlings of Sharpsburg, a longtime Civil War military and civilian re-enactor, who offers a service rather than a product -- appearances as Civil War Santa Claus wearing the red-striped trousers and star-spangled coat of the 1863 Santa drawn by political cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly.

Another is for Famous & Historic Trees, seedlings that are the offspring of trees that witnessed historic events, such as the sycamore that in 1862 was a sapling beside Burnside Bridge during the Battle of Antietam, or a white oak that belonged to Frederick Douglass.

Not everything is a reproduction, however. A common product during the Civil War is still readily available today: the Ace hard-rubber pocket comb.

"I wanted to show that the past is in the present even though you might not notice it all the time. My books marry the past with the present," said Wellikoff, who is collecting information for his next book, on reproductions available for re-creation of The Old West.

Wellikoff's first book, The American Historical Supply Catalogue, A Nineteenth Century Source Book published in 1984 and updated in 1993, is encyclopedic, covering nearly every aspect of period life.

Entries include furniture and crockery, clothing and dry goods, stoves and ranges, musical instruments, patent remedies and Christmas items.

A chapter in that book listed some of the available Civil War reproductions, mostly uniforms, swords and firearms, but the array of items available has become so vast that Wellikoff, who moved to Baltimore in 1988, said it merited a book of its own.

Wellikoff's book "is a good reference book for people just starting out in the hobby," said "Santa" Rawlings, who has written a book about Christmases during the war. "They can find where to get things, even the reproduction knickknacks that make living history come to life."

Among those might be stamped brass bawdy house tokens; perforated tin boxes Civil War physicians used to carry leeches to bleed sick soldiers, or even a wrapper for Dr. Lynde's French Envelopes (condoms).

The guidebook has been a boon for artisans who make period items.

"I've been getting calls from far away," said Bob Porter of Middletown, Va., who hand-sews reproductions of the famous carpetbags in tapestry and velvet. Porter said he made two carpetbags for actress Angela Lansbury for her television movie "Mrs. Santa Claus."

Porter, who spent years as a re-enactor before turning commercial, said the impact of Wellikoff's book likely will grow.

"The reaction from re-enactors has been very good but it only came out at the end of the [re-enactment] season in October. It will be real hot next year," Porter said.

Pub Date: 1/03/97

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