HN Global: Q&A With Sue Dudley, American Civil War Re-enactor (in England)

Horse Nation reader Sue Dudley is a rider who follows the beat of a different drummer — that would be an American Civil War drummer, to be specific, in England. We caught up Sue to learn more!

The regiment en masse: Simon, Roy, Rob, Rob, Joe and myself, on Alfie, Marshal, Kara, Monty, CJ and Sparky, respectively. Photo by Christine Bennett.

The regiment en masse: Simon, Roy, Rob, Rob, Joe and myself, on Alfie, Marshal, Kara, Monty, CJ and Sparky, respectively. Photo by Christine Bennett.

Horse Nation may be one nation on horseback indivisible, but we’re an international nation that reaches every corner of the globe — we love catching up with our readers who are doing cool things on horseback all over the world! So when reader Sue Dudley introduced herself on our forums at Equestrians Anonymous and shared details of her riding life as an American Civil War re-enactor, based in Great Britain, we knew we had to learn more.

HN: How did you get started with re-enactment riding?

I had ridden at riding stables from an early age, and had been lucky enough, when I was serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, to be given the opportunity to exercise the Household Cavalry blacks, and was taught tent-pegging by an army instructor, which gave me a taste for military riding. In addition, both my husband and I have always been fascinated by military history, and I used to be a keen fencer and stage-fighter, so when we met someone who re-enacted the English Civil War (1642-51) it was a very natural move to join — that was in 1996. We then became aware of the two cavalry units and watched them with interest, as well as enjoying fighting the Parliamentarian horse on the field.

ECW battle (I am on the left). Photo by Colin Ashworth.

ECW battle (I am on the left). Photo by Colin Ashworth.

When we felt that the time had come to move on from our infantry regiment, we decided cavalry was the way to go, especially as by then I had my first horse. Having watched both regiments, Royalist and Parliamentarian, we decided that the Parliamentarian one, Sir William Waller’s Lifeguard of Horse, was by far the more authentic, so we changed sides, I took my cavalry riding test, and we joined in 2000.  Even now I still see a couple of people on the field who call me a turncoat!

HN: What drew you to the American Civil War period? How has that aspect of history “exported” to Europe — what makes the conflict interesting?

Having been riding for Waller’s for 14 years, I was getting disenchanted with the battles which seemed to me to be far too long for the audience (two hours plus) and geared more towards the participants having fun rather than entertaining and educating the crowd. Just about this time my old infantry commanding officer got in touch to say that he was now CO of a regiment in the American Civil War Society (UK) Ltd, and would we like to come along to a local event to catch up on old times. Then he told us he had spare kit …then he said to bring our Shot Gun Certificates and Black Powder tickets along and we would be able to fire. We had never had any interest whatsoever in the American Civil War, and in fact could never understand why anyone from the UK would want to re-enact a foreign conflict, but we wanted to see him again and it sounded fun so we went along.

From the first moment we loved it. It was all geared around educating and entertaining the crowd, and there were two short 20-minute skirmishes instead of one very long battle. In our very first skirmish the we heard a gasp of surprise from the audience and we were hooked. That was the last event of 2014, so we spent the winter literally reading nothing but books on the American Civil War and getting our kit together, and before we knew it we were Privates in the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers. We started to realise quite what a fascinating period it is in the development of warfare, changing from flintlocks and Napoleonic tactics at the start, to machine guns and trench warfare at the end, with the first used of submarines, the telegraph, hot air balloons etc.

Then we discovered quite how many Britons had fought, with estimates varying from 50,000 to 100,000. Even at the lower end, that is more than fought in the Zulu Wars, immortalised by the film Zulu. Then of course there was the vast amount of supplies that came from the UK, particularly to the Confederacy, the British blockade runners, the CSA ships built and manned in Liverpool, the Trent affair … The UK’s involvement in the war may not have been officially military, but it was vast.

Me in my infantry role. Photo by Stephen Griffin.

Me in my infantry role. Photo by Stephen Griffin.

We find the hobby totally absorbing — we sleep in basic canvas tents, cook authentic food (cush is a favourite) and sing authentic songs (I particularly love the music of the era), and when not taking part in the skirmish we spend our time in the camp doing drill, standing sentry duty and talking to the public about the war and answering their questions. I once had a very embarrassing moment when I spent ten minutes telling a couple about the origins and significance of the war, only to then find out that they were American visitors who grew up re-enacting. At least they didn’t tell me I had it all wrong!

American Civil War re-enacting in the UK is small compared to English Civil War, and miniscule compared to what’s in the US. There are two main societies that do it: ACWS (UK) Ltd which covers the Midlands and North, and the Southern Skirmish Association (SOSKAN) which covers the South of the country. At a large event we perhaps muster 50 a side, although we are holding an International Event in September 2017 where we hope to have hundreds including up to about sixty cavalry, including visitors from Europe and the US.

ACWS has the only ACW cavalry in the country.  I saw them at a couple of events last year, but didn’t have chance to speak, and anyway, had vowed that I wouldn’t get involved in the cavalry as I thought that in soft kit, as opposed the the armour we wear for ECW, it would be too obvious that I was female. Then a chap joined to start a new Confederate cavalry regiment, the 8th Texas Cavalry (Terry’s Texas Rangers). We got chatting and I offered to help where I could, and put him in touch with one of  the stables we use for supplying ECW horses. He decided to use those stables, so I knew the horses and knew they were safe. Then I discovered that a sword I had bought on a whim 25 years ago was spot-on authenticity-wise. And the CO kept twisting my arm …

ACW battle with sword -- after I lost my hat! Photo by Christine Bennett.

ACW battle with sword — after I lost my hat! Photo by Christine Bennett.

Next thing I knew I was attending training with them and had bought myself a pistol. It turned out, much to my surprise, that I was one of the more experienced riders and with my hair tucked up under my hat and a breast binder flattening my more obvious assets, I didn’t look too girly, so I now ride with them regularly. I thoroughly enjoy both cavalry and infantry, and whichever one I do I feel I am missing out on the other, so I tend to do a day of each when the cavalry are present. We have so far had only two events with the 8th, with a third, and the last of the season, coming up at the end of September.

It has been fun learning new drill commands, and having much more mounted firing that in ECW, but what has been just wonderful is the transition from a thick leather buffcoat and steel back and breastplates and pot (helmet), to riding in soft kit. At our first event it was hot so we actually rode in shirt sleeves which was bliss in comparison. What is quite odd is that here in the UK no-one EVER rides without a hard hat; it is simply not done. In ECW we use steel pots which give some degree of protection and at least it feels as if you are wearing a hat. In ACW we obviously wear soft hats, and I lost mine part way through our first battle. Cantering around a battlefield past cannon and firing units, firing a pistol, with nothing on my head whatsoever, was really odd and strangely liberating.

HN: How do you practice for a re-enactment?

We go to the stables which supplies the horses.  All the horses are rescued, and it is run by a former stunt-rider and circus performer, so he knows exactly what is required for a horse to be safe on the battle-field. We do various exercises and drill whilst he stands in the middle of the field firing a bird scarer or pistols, or throwing firecrackers towards the horses. It certainly makes riding more interesting!

Drill is more challenging than you would expect, as you can no longer let the horse walk, trot or canter at its natural speed as you would normally, instead you dress (keep in line with) the person on the right of the rank, so you have to constantly adjust the horse’s speed. When wheeling in line abreast you can have the inside horse turning on the spot in a very slow walk, and the outside horse cantering, with every degree of speed covered by the intermediate horses. It also all has to be done one-handed and has to come entirely instinctively as one has to concentrate on being safe with your own weapons, with any infantry or “casualties” about and with the cannon or pyrotechnics which could fire at any moment. There is simply not enough capacity left to concentrate on riding as well.

ACW battle with pistol (before I lost my hat!) Photo by Christine Bennett.

ACW battle with pistol (before I lost my hat!) Photo by Christine Bennett.

Other contractors we have used for ECW specialise in providing re-enactment, stunt and film horses, which means we get to ride some quite famous mounts. I was lucky enough to ride Ross Poldark’s famous mount from the new series Poldark (which I understand has been shown on PBS in the US), Seamus, in a battle some years ago. The horse supplier we use, as well as training the horses thoroughly, always rides a new horse in a battle himself first so he knows it is safe before a re-enactor rides. Sadly, some of the contractors train the horses by giving them to you to ride in a battle. I have taken a horse into its first battle, knowing it has had no training at all, on a number of occasions, and it can be a tad nerve-wracking to say the least. I would sooner leave that to the younger riders who bounce better now that I am a bit more mature, and my husband most certainly would prefer me to only ride experienced horses. Poor chap, he does worry about me!

I have ridden in battles more times than I can count, and these days generally know the horse well, but I still feel sick before every battle, and I know I am not alone. It is impossible to know what will happen riding a horse under such extreme circumstances, and the imagination always runs wild, but once the battle starts and the adrenaline kicks in, there are very few things more fun. One of the hardest things is trying not to grin!

HN: What are you looking for in a re-enactment horse?

It must be a horse who is calm, preferably forward-going and can cope with lots of new experiences. Most horses will eventually learn to deal with the bangs, especially on the battlefield where the noise is pretty continuous and so not as spooky as in training, but some are just too highly strung and never settle to it. The horses also need to enjoy it – most look on it as a good fun romp  with their mates, but the odd one, even if they can cope with the noise, just doesn’t enjoy it.

Many horses actually find the infantry much harder to cope with than the firearms. There are few horses which will go close to a group of men bristling with weapons and shouting, although most will follow another horse in, so it is essential to always have a lead horse who will go out on his own and give a lead to the others. I generally ride a 15.2 coloured cob, Sparky, who is forward-going, bold, and seems to enjoy the battles. Most of the horses we use are coloured cobs, which are not necessarily the most authentic type of horse, but we simply do not have that many American type horses over here available for re-enactment; we have to take what we can get.

Me with the lovely Sparky. Photo by Christine Bennett.

Me with the lovely Sparky. Photo by Christine Bennett.

The horses are English trained, so we neckrein with a contact, generally using a lot of seat for turning and stopping. One difference I have noticed compared to ECW is that there is much more opportunity to have both hands on the reins. In ECW we have our swords drawn pretty much from the start to the end of the battle, whereas in ACW we swap weapons from sword to pistol and back quite regularly, so there is much more opportunity ride two-handed which can be an advantage on a small battle field. The last event we rode at was in a small arena at a country show, in which we had both armies, two cannon, six horses and very loud pyrotechnics. It was pouring with rain and the ground was very slippy, so we had to be extremely careful not to manoeuvre at speed and to keep the horses under very close control, for the safety of both the horses and the infantry we were close to.

This video is from the first outing of Sue’s regiment:

HN: What kind of equipment do you use? What goes into your kit?

Re-enactors try to get things as close to the original articles as possible. We use the correct materials made as accurately as possible, even down to wearing cotton drawers under our trousers although they will never be seen. I suspect that compared to United States’ ACW re-enactors we are of quite a poor standard and definitely what is known as “mainstream” but we do our best with what we can get hold of. There are a couple of “sutlers” in the UK who supply most things, and other stuff we have to import from the US. For example, I am the regimental bugler, so I had to import an authentic cavalry bugle from Gettysburg.

The horse kit is quite challenging to source in the UK, and being a new regiment I am really the only person who has thought much about it as yet; it will be a priority for the regiment next year. I use my ECW bridle (very simple, brass buckles, no noseband) with a leather headcollar underneath, and currently disguise the General Purpose saddle with saddle bags and blanket rolls. When I get my own horse again I would like to get a McClellan or Jennifer saddle, but I understand they are quite unforgiving in fit, so I will need to get one made for my horse and will have to make do disguising the GP saddle until then. In ECW we use Portuguese saddles which are virtually unchanged since the C17th and which are very forgiving and fit most horses as long as their wither isn’t too high, so we each have our own and put it on whichever horse we ride.  Sadly there is no ACW saddle we could do that with.

With regard to bits, I use a Spanish pelham which is black iron as stainless steel wasn’t invented until the 1880s, and all the cobs I ride go well in it. A Western-type curb would be problematic as all the horses are used to a contact, and I would hate to accidentally catch a horse in the mouth with such a strong bit during the rough and tumble of fighting.

I admit that I am struggling with stirrups. At present I use my iron ECW stirrups to which I have attached home-made hoods, as I simply cannot find any plain bentwood stirrups. There is a Western riding community in the UK, but all their stirrups seem to be fancy. If anyone knows a source of very plain bentwood stirrups with no stainless steel or decoration, then please let me know!

With regard to weapons, I have a cavalry sabre and a Colt Navy 1851 revolver. The pistol is a blank-firer and discharges to the side, so one has to be very careful when firing it to ensure it is well clear of the horse’s ear. I will eventually get a real revolver, but I have to go through the hoops of getting a Firearms Certificate first which will take some time. I have also just bought a reproduction Enfield cavalry carbine which I hope to use at our next event. That is smooth-bore so I can hold it on my Shotgun Certificate, along with the three-band Enfield I use for my infantry impression.

I love horses and riding: hacking (trail-riding as I think it is known in the States), competing, groundwork, but re-enactment riding is something extra-special which gives me a link back to when horses were a necessity — not a hobby. Riding instinctively, for a purpose, following commands, doing drill and using weapons mounted is very different indeed to modern leisure riding, and keeps alive a form of equestrianism which might otherwise be lost as no longer relevant in this modern industrial, mechanised society.

With Pip the dog who acts as regimental mascot. Photo by Pip Wheatcroft.

With Pip the dog who acts as regimental mascot. Photo by Pip Wheatcroft.

Sue, we at Horse Nation salute you! Readers, if you have a story to tell, reach out to us at [email protected] — go riding!

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