One of the basic foundation points of the living history/reenactment game is the need to document (i.e., prove up) that a particular item, typically a uniform, piece of equipment, or weapon, existed for the specific period being recreated. Sometimes this can be incredibly difficult to do and especially if there are no reliable (or any) reference sources.
Unfortunately, at that point you have no choice but to try and determine for yourself through your own research. This can be daunting task, especially if it involves an obscure period and especially if it involves a foreign language of some type. What to do?
Here were some options:
- Online research, preferable in the language of what you are researching (eg., German for researching the German Army).; often there’s a lot of information out there but it’s difficult to access because of the language barrier.
- Old pictures
- Interviewing surviving members of the unit or organization.
- Examining official records (from the horse’s mouth, so to say).
- Consult experts
- Private collections
In the case of the 2 Chevauleger, Option 4 was out (we were late by some 20 years, unfortunately) while Option 1 was out due to expense (I didn’t have the money to hop a plane to Germany).
However, I lucked out in that there were several excellent references that unfortunately were in German but Google Translate and several dictionaries allowed me to make some fairly crude translations. Also, thanks to the glories of the internet, I was able to verify my translations with native speakers who were also interested in the same subject matter; I was very lucky in the that regard. To supplement this were a number of books with many photographs of the German Army and the Chevauleger in particular so I was able to identify items and then verify them against my other references.
This was not an easy process and to honest, it necessitated me investing over $500 in the relevant reference books- needless to say, it took awhile (anything published in Europe is going to cost you major $$$$, it’s a fact of life). Option 6, private collections were also a major help in that I was actually able to look at many artifacts “in the flesh”. It’s one thing to look at an artifact in a picture but actually being to physically handle it can answer a lot of questions such as how the item appeared from every angle, its weight, etc. Sometimes it was a real eye-opener being able to actually examine an artifact- it was vastly different from what it seemed in the pictures.
However, the one caveat I will put out is in regard to consulting with experts. Often the experts are academics, either working in a university or museum setting, and tend to react with some antipathy or outright hostility when you mention that you are a reenactor/living historian- “professionals” tend to view reenactors/living historians as little more than ignorant people lacking “credentials” who want to play dress up. It’s usually best to remain silent on this point unless it’s absolutely critical or that you know that the person won’t react negatively. While this may seem a bit dishonest, it will preclude having the proverbial door slammed in your face. The other thing is, you have to approach it from the angle of “could you help me verify some aspects of XYZ” instead of “Tell me all about XYZ” (which you shouldn’t be doing anyway but it happens all the time).
I can speak from personal experience in regard to the above. At one point I was researching Spanish uniforms of the Napoleonic Era with an eye towards recreating a uniform from a particular regiment. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much out there reference, either in English or Spanish, so it was very difficult. Somebody put in touch with an expert (he’s still publishing today) who completely misunderstood my questions even though I was careful to couch them in terms of “could you point me in the right direction please”. He assumed that I wanted him to simply tell me everything (yeah, that would have been nice but that’s not what I was after) and basically told me to fuck off, in so many words- “I’m a busy professional historian and I don’t have time for this, etc.”. What a jerk- needless to say, I’ll be sure to never buy any books authored by him.
So in the end, I’ve been able to learn quite a bit about the 2 Chevauleger and fortunately, the people I have interacted with have been a lot more forthcoming. It’s a constant process and I have had to change my opinion on many things as I learned more. The hunt for information continues….