Friday, November 11, 2016

The continuing lure of toy soldiers

This is an article that I wrote for Civil War Times about six years ago.  It was never published as the focus wasn't exactly what the editor wanted.  A second try was more successful and was published in CWT a few years later. 
I hope you enjoy it.
Though usually unnamed, most of the greatest Civil War battles have occurred on bedroom floors, tabletops, and backyard gardens.  Fearsome phalanxes of plastic toy soldiers have engaged in mortal (if only temporary) combat, generaled by generations of boys, and occasionally girls, to triumphant victory, staggering defeat, or the unsatisfying stalemate that is precipitated by bedtime.

The children of the post-World War Two era were the beneficiaries of the abundance of cheap and versatile plastics developed during that conflict. Companies such as Lido, Ideal, Topper, Remco, and Marx were manufacturing a variety of Civil War-themed toys in an abundance prompted by the Civil War Centennial of the early 1960s.

In the closing years of the 1950’s, toy magnate Louis Marx released the first Civil War play set marketed through the Sears catalogue.  Marx figures were remarkable in their day for detail, sculpting, and the animation of the realistic poses.  The Marx “Blue and Gray” play set was a wonder of fun.  The set included an exploding bunker, antebellum mansion, boulders, trees, a horse-drawn limber, cannons and seacoast mortars (that fired little projectiles) fences, breastworks, horses, an army ambulance, and armloads of 54mm scale toy soldiers molded in plastic of blue or gray.  A focal point of nearly every tabletop or bedroom floor battle was the plastic Burnside Bridge – style bridge that completed the set.

Presented with this playset on my 10th birthday I was the envy of all my friends, and the bane of their parents as the nagging began; and soon more and more boys were showing up at school with five or six Marx “Civil War guys” in their grimy pockets.

I was typical of many boys of that generation who began a lifetime interest in the American Civil War.  Now, that same generation of older, sometimes wiser, paunchy and world-weary baby-boomers frequently find themselves scouring the screens of eBay hoping to score a little piece of their childhood.

Most of those beloved Marx figures have been recast and are now available from many toy soldier vendors.  Newer companies including Toy soldiers of San Diego, Barzo, Replicants, BMC, Conte, and the aptly-named Armies in Plastic carry on the tradition with exciting new poses with, in most instances, superior sculpting and animation compared to the old Marx figures, but usually at premium cost.

John Zabawa’s shop Gettysburg Miniatures Soldiers provides the full range of toy solders from the inexpensive BMC/Americana line to the very high-end miniatures including W. Britains and King and Country. Although these are called "miniatures, rather than toy soldiers, I still happily play with them. 

In business for the last 14 years John, like many others, first became interested in the Civil War when he received that classic book “The Golden Book of the Civil War” with its fascinating battle maps populated with tiny soldiers, evocative of toy soldiers.  At age 10 John was presented with the Lois Marx Blue and Gray playset, and he has been immersed in the world of toy soldiers ever since.

Over a decade-and-a-half in the same location, John has seen many changes in the industry, especially in the quality of the sculpting, noting “Conte collectables upped the ante with incredible detail.” John has also seen the customer base change, observing that adults are his primary customers although he frequently gets children in the shop and enjoys “educating them to the wonderful world of toy soldiers.”

Although plastics prices have risen substantially he notes that there are inexpensive figures out there including the BMC Civil War figures (sold as Americana in the Gettysburg area) “if a vacuum gets a couple of these its no big deal” It is the BMC/Americana “Gettysburg” play set that is the steady seller in John’s shop.  “Its nice to see a parent leaving with a child who’s gotten some toy soldiers who looks up and says ‘thanks’ to the parent…that’s a good thing, a nice thing…that’s what starts their interest.”

He believes that “the future of the hobby looks good” and encourages parents to get their kids interested, noting that there’s “a lifetime of enjoyment if you get the bug early.” 

Meaghan Barry, manager of the bookstore at Antietam National Battlefield enthusiastically affirms that “Toy soldiers are a consistent seller and generally more than one bag is sold at a time” and notes that the most frequently heard refrain from children  in her store is “I want this one, and this one!”

Meaghan’s shop, located on the battlefield itself, serves the full range of visitors.  She says of the Americana line of toy soldiers “Children, parents, and grandparents purchase them”

Of those children, one in particular, is emblematic of the new generation of toy soldier enthusiasts: Michael Logan Thomas.

Eleven-year-old Michael Logan recently became fascinated with those little plastic men and, when asked what he finds most interesting about them, observes “The fact that you can set them up so they’re battling and then set them up differently;  they can be different every time.”  This articulate bedroom-floor general currently collects soldiers of just the Civil War period though adds “I want soldiers from other periods but it’s a work in progress.”

Michael Logan is looking forward to middle school and the opportunity to use toy soldiers in history assignments; “I could use them to show what the Battle of Bull Run was like; set them up to demonstrate it.”

This child of the sesquicentennial era has a personalized approach to his soldiers and battles noting “Usually I just like making different set-ups but I’ll do battles when I get the chance” adding “When one side is outnumbered they get more cannons.”  Asked who usually wins as he presides over blue and gray armies he responds, “Typically, I never get to the end, but usually the Union wins and some times the Confederates.”

Michael Logan’s taste in toys is reflective of other kids his age noting his interest in Legos. Megablocks, Pokeman, and Transformers, but he gives nearly equal attention to his Civil War soldiers.  When asked what he would tell other kids about toy soldiers he thoughtfully responds, “You might think that they’re not fun, but they are quite fun.”

Thus far the emphasis has been on men and boys as the primary interest group for toy soldiers, but to exclude girls would, in fact, be quite hasty.

Meet 31-year-old Christin Sciulli, a self-described “true geek girl, who has always been drawn to gaming and collecting toy soldiers."

Christin, a native of Pittsburgh, traces her interest back to middle school when her father became involved in the hobby of 15mm miniature war gaming with a focus on the American Civil War.  Christin thought “the figures were really cool, and I offered to paint the horses for my dad, which then led to my siblings and I painting entire units for him.”

A history enthusiast since childhood, Christin particularly enjoyed watching westerns with her grandparents and reading about westward expansion.  This led her to the Civil War era which, even as a young girl, she found “very interesting and tragic.” Initially, she was drawn into the hobby by Civil War and Wild West figures, and, like her father, miniature war gaming became her primary interest.  Her interest has grown beyond the Civil War to include painting and gaming with miniatures from a variety of eras, noting “I realize that I just don't have the physical space to buy figures and game in every period that interests me.”

When asked how she is viewed in this traditionally male domain she responds “Very positively . . . until I start rolling the dice and killing their troops! Generally everyone I have interacted with has been very polite and encouraging, and happy to have a woman gaming with them and discussing history and the hobby with them; they are happy to have any new blood participating in the hobby with them.”

Since the 1960s the hobby has changed, seeing the range of Civil War toy soldiers increase in quality, availability and in price.  What is unchanged however is the joy found in setting up and knocking down these little plastic men in miniature battlefield dramas just as they have been for generations.

In Christin and Michael Logan one can see the torch being passed from the Centennial generation to that of the Sesquicentennial era.  Despite the distractions of electronic gaming, and technology-based toys, young people and children are still happy to marshal their plastic and metal legions, both blue and gray, and soldier on into the future.

Toy soldiers, happily, will endure.

Soldier on!


Friday, October 28, 2016

I like lichen

I'm sprucing up many of my scenics with shrubbery, and I like the effect.

Preserved lichen can be purchased at any hobby store (I boycott Hobby Lobby) and averages around six dollars per bag.  The lichen in the bag is pretty compressed so when you dump it out and leave it overnight it expands to its actual size.  As you can see above, there's a lot of product in the bag.  Craft lichen comes in a range of color mixes from spring to autumn foliage.

This is one of my stepped, upland scenics which looks pretty sterile.

Hot glue is the perfect adhesive for lichen which is very spongey and the hot glue gets a particularly good grip.

Lichen grows naturally in moist wooded areas.  The greatest cache of lichen I've ever found was at Detour State Park in upper Michigan.  Lichen in its natural state is quite stiff, and as it dries it becomes increasingly brittle and eventually breaks down.  Craft lichen, however, is pickled in glycerine and remains soft and pliable though perfectly preserved.

Even just randomly sprinkling the clumps of lichen over your battlefield will really enhance its appearance.  When the smoke clears, just pack it all up in a large Ziploc bag where it'll remain dust-free until the long-roll sounds again.

Soldier on!


Monday, October 17, 2016

Army wall tent

First of all, a big shout-out and acknowledgement to friend and fellow blogger Scott Lesch who inspired this newest project.  Recently Scott posted to his blog I Like the Things I Like his fantastic conversion work on Safari Plastics army wall tents (here).  His work quickly had me rummaging around the wood pile.

I had been thinking about making or buying wall tents as well as dog tents for the toy soldier table.  Always looking to do things on the cheap, rather than buy tents from Safari, I decided to try and make my own.

The primary material I used was Sculpey which I've worked with a lot over the past thirty or so years.  It's a poly-form plastic modeling clay that's very easy to work with and oven bakes to a permanent hardness.

Step one was to make a wooden armature to drape the Sculpey over.

Off to the scrap pile I went to select some nice pine leftovers.  On the bandsaw I cut the pieces to dimension.

Five pieces were stacked, glued...

and clamped.

The next step found me at the disc and belt sander making each plane perfectly smooth.

The table saw was the next operation where I cut the sloping angles of the tent's roof.

 Then I started the laborious process of rolling out Sculpey.  This took a lot of time and elbow-grease.

The foil-wrapped armature is at the upper right and the rolled-out Sculpey is ready to drape and shape over the wooden support.

Guy ropes were added at this stage.  At about this time I knew that the finished product wasn't going to look a good as the Safari Plastics product and that the time and materials already invested dwarfed what one of the store-bought tents would cost. 
Still, I soldiered on.

Into the oven; 275 degrees for 25 minutes.

Next I made a base on which to mount the tent.  I pressed the now firm tent into a base of Sculpey and used an old toothbrush to make a grassy texture.

I put the two components together and added a pole and tent pegs and popped the whole thing into the oven for another 22 minutes.

Now, all baked and hard, it was time to paint.  Pegs, ropes, tent pole, canvas, and grass were all painted with craft acrylics.

And this is the result.  When compared to the job that Scott did, this is a pretty poor cousin.  Nonetheless it was a fun and instructive exercise, it got me out to the shop (which is always a good thing) and I now have a pretty serviceable wall tent for the troops.

I concluded that time and expense would keep me from doing this again, so I decided to make use of the wooden armature as well.

Here's the finished product.  Most of my scenics are made of wood so this fits right in.  The base is a salvaged piece of plywood which I cut on the band saw with a nice organic shape. I applied a very thick base coat of green paint and liberally sprinkled sawdust over it.  When the base coat was dry and the sawdust locked in I gave it all a two-tone green overcoat.  I drilled holes for the guy ropes and the tent pegs and glued the whole thing together.

The side-by-side shows two very different approaches and, though nowhere as cool as Scott's, it was still a satisfying day and a half project that left me with two serviceable wall tents.

Soldier on!


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A gem from Wm. Britains - the three-inch ordnance rifle in 54mm

New to the toy soldier table is a pair of Wm. Britains American Civil War
m.1861 three-inch ordnance rifles.

The ordnance rifle was a favored gun for both Union and Confederate armies.  Although all of the nearly 1400 guns produces were for Federal forces the Confederates did prize those that they were fortunate enough to capture.

Union General George D. Ramsey, Chief of Ordnance US Army said of the three-inch ordnance rifle: "The experience of wrought iron field guns is most favorable to their endurance and efficiency.  They cost less than steel and stand all the charge we want to impose upon them..."

The m.1861 fired bolt, shell, and case shot.  Canister was also carried in the limber although canister was not as effective in rifles as it was in smoothbores.

The detail is incredible on this little gem.

The ordnance rifle had a maximum range of 3972 yards at 20 degrees of elevation
and fired projectiles with great accuracy.

 The splendid detail includes the hanging bracket for the pendulum-hausse rear sight.

The trailspike is at the perfect height for the Britains Swoppet artilleryman.

Collectors avert your eyes.  On one of my parrots I removed the trailspide and drilled out the large and small pointing rings to allow the gun to be towed behind a Swoppet limber. I'll probably do this with one of the two ordnance rifles

as well as one of my Napoleons.

In 2002 Britains produced its first-generation ordnance rifle and the difference between the two editions are obvious even upon the most casual inspection.

The current issue is on the left and the 2002 on the right.  Compare the width of the trail as well as the thickness of the wheels. 

The current issue is painstakingly accurate, still, the 2002 was a workhorse in my
tabletop battles for many years until the better one came along.

Left to right are the Britains12 pounder light-gun howitzer (Napoleon), the 2.9-inch Parrott rifle, and the three-inch ordnance rifle; a delightful addition to the Britain's family of
American Civil War light artillery.

Until next time...

Soldier on!


The Second Battle of Greenbrier - postscript

Sixty-three years later there's only a handful of them left, but the boys of the "Old Third" still talk about that dreadful October day at Greenbrier.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Second Battle of Greenbrier: final installment


When the people of Greenbrier Maryland return home they find the village transformed into a hospital filled with misery and suffering.The battle is over but for the people of Greenbrier Maryland the struggle is just beginning.  The South Mountain road is choked with a long ambulance train stretching nearly three miles from the scene of the battle.

The return of the residents nearly coincides with the arrival of the ambulances and the scene is of nearly unimaginable suffering to the people of Greenbrier.

Homes barns smokehouses and all manner of outbuildings have been commandeered by the army to house, however crudely, nearly 1500 wounded soldiers both Union and Confederate.

"They filled every building and overflowed into the country round, into farm-houses, barns, corn-cribs, cabins, wherever four walls and a roof were found together."
Unidentified Hagerstown Woman

"[The Newcomer house] was used by the surgeons for amputation purposes, and dressing wounds, and there were one or two tables in the yard being used for the same purpose, and a pile of severed hands, arms and legs lying on the ground...A horrible and sickening scene to behold such as I never wish to see again.  I staggered from the carriage, but exercising all of my will power, kept from fainting."  Angela Davis

"The doctors would huddle the family all into one little room or turn 'em out.  The house across the way from mine was a hospital, and the family there got what the doctors called camp fever and some of 'em died."  Jacob McGraw

"I have lived through my first battle, and I am well, but when I think of the brave boys who lost their lives yesterday in defense of their country, I feel sad to think that Jeff Davis did not die in their stead"
                                                                                                                     Unidentified soldier, 107th New York

"There is a smell of death in the air, and the laboring surgeons are literally covered from head to foot with the blood of the sufferers."   Peter Alexander

Confederate prisoners are pressed into service as litter bearers taking the
dead to be buried.

The known are interred separately in shallow, temporary graves, a board from a cartridge box serving as a temporary headstone. 
The unknown are laid in a trench with only the number of bodies recorded.

"Oh how dreadful was that place to me where my dear boy had been buried like a beast of the field"

Mr. Newcomer knows it will be quite some time before his sheep can be returned to this pasture and countless others as well, from Tennessee to Virginia, from South Carolina to Pennsylvania.  The final harvest would be close to
seven million souls committed to such fields.

It was all so long ago.

And what of Mr. Newcomer?

His farm became prosperous and he lived to be a very old,
and very respected elder of Greenbrier Maryland.

And there you have it, the story of the Second Battle of Greenbrier. 

Of course, there was neither a first nor a second Battle of Greenbrier.  The quotes in installments six and seven were actual quotes made by participants in, or observers of, the battle of Antietam.  The only fabricated quote was the one at the beginning of installment six ascribed to A.P. Hill. The sepia photos in installment six were taken last week at Gettysburg.

I've done three different stories centering around "Greenbrier Maryland".  Greenbrier is based on a tiny crossroads about a mile from where I live - Mt Lena; at least I think it was Mt. Lena, it has no name now, no post office, only a handful of houses, two small businesses (one with a Pepsi machine out front) a church with a cemetery and a school - Greenbrier elementary school.  I live in a lovely place on the shoulder of South Mountain in Civil War Country.  Antietam, where I worked as a park ranger for eight years is just eleven miles away.

I must acknowledge fellow blogger and toy soldier enthusiast Scott Lesch.  His multi-installment narratives were an inspiration for this series.

 The Second Battle of Greenbrier was all pretend... 

and isn't that the very essence of playing with toy soldiers?

Soldier on!