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How To Make Your Own N Scale Civil War Reenactment Scene

Updated on August 1, 2013
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Bill Watson has authored 3 books and many articles online and for print publications such as Sports Afield, Income Opportunties and more.

Diorama or Model Railroad Project?

Civil War reenacment battles happen across the United States throughout summer, spring and fall. If you would love to honor your fascination with Civil War battles on your modern era model railroad layout, a reenactment scene can justify the difference in time periods.

If you don't have a model train layout, a small diorama can memorialize your appreciation and will be a tremendously rewarding individual or family project. Would you like to get your teens or your significant other a little less into iPhone texts and Facebook timelines and a bit more into real-life history? This would be an excellent sneak attack : )

You can choose a specific battle to model- there were hundreds- Gettysburg, Shilo, Bull's Run, Perrysville- to name a few- or you can make your scene generic, less specific to a particular place.

The picture in this module shows 1/2 inch tall Confederate soldiers, charging, in my mini-reenactment set at Stone Mountain, Georgia. At the point the pic was taken they were simply mounted on raw wood with grass and other landscape elements yet to be added to the scene.

What You'll Need - Miniature soldiers, grass, trees, and more.

You can build your scene around any train set, it doesn't have to be Civil War period. You can even purchase Civil War era trains. Or you can skip the train idea entirely and make a diorama focusing on the figures and landscape. A lot of the scenery elements can be created from simple materials like clay, paper, flour and dyed sawdust so a diorama would be much less expensive than buying the track, train and power pack needed for a railroad.

Here are the basic elements:

  • Base: A flat door is perfect. It can be cut to size if necessary. If it's the hollow type you may need to glue in a brace at the cut. A plywood sheet will work well also but may warp without framing. If it's large enough to bend easily you'll definitely need to frame it with 2 x 4's.
  • Soldiers: The scale size of the soldiers will determine the scale of your entire scene. I work in tiny N scale and if you choose N, I'll point you to the proper resources below, but it should be noted there are more soldiers cast in a wider variety of materials in HO scale 1:87 or close to it, than any other.
  • Scenery: Trees, grass, dirt, rocks, shrubs, walls, fences, ponds, creeks, etc.
  • Terrain: Few Civil War battlefields were flat. Hills made of paper mache, some irregular features in the ground made of modeling clay or spackle are in order.
  • Train set: You can either purchase a complete train set or you can purchase individual pieces: track, power packs, locomotives, and rolling stock. Another option is to incorporate a non-moving train into your diorama as if it were scenery. For that you could probably get a great deal on old miniature locomotives that no longer run, and on rolling stock with frozen wheels.
  • Spectators: To complete the illusion of a reenactment rather than an actual battle you'll need spectators. Scale size civilians can watch from a nearby hill, or from behind ropes. I made an observation tower, similar to the towers on the Gettysburg Battlfield and put a few spectators there also (see the link at the bottom of this page). It's nice to have 1:1 scale spectators admiring your work from time to time too ; )


Get Started By Choosing Your Scale And Purchasing Miniature Soldiers!

To create your Civil War reenactment in miniature you'll need soldiers. Even for a diroma, it's probably best to choose a particular scale to model as there will be a greater abundance of commercially available materials.

My scene, a small portion of which is pictured here, is N scale (1:160) but that means the figures are very tiny, about 1/2" tall. Painting such small pieces with any degree of detail is difficult, you'll likely need to wear magnifying (reading) glasses. HO scale is about double the size of N making painting easier, or you can purchase even larger scales. Another option is to go with non-specific scale soldiers and scale the scenery to what you have.

Plastic soldiers are inexpensive but may be less realistic than their metal counterparts. They may also be a little harder to get paint to stick to, you'll probably need to prime first. I bought the more expensive pewter cast soldiers as opposed to plastic to obtain the ease of acrylic paint sticking and the extremely fine detail available in that medium. For about 250 pieces I paid about $150.

For a base you can use 2 x 4 framing and plywood, possibly veneered with luan, to create any size or shape you like. For speed and ease I built my layout on smooth wood doors, the flat type that has no window panel recesses. Lowes sells a 3' x 7' door for about $30.

The pics on this lens are of a work in progress, there's a lot to do yet.

Detailed instructions on how to make your own hills, mountains, grass and other scenery practically for free can be found on my Lens How To Make N Scale Scenery. See the link module at the bottom of this page.

Miniature Civil War Trains and Civil War Era Pieces on Amazon

Bachmann Civil War - Confederate HO Scale Ready To Run Electric Train Set
Bachmann Civil War - Confederate HO Scale Ready To Run Electric Train Set

If considering doing a Civil War layout or reenactment scene in HO Scale this would be a cheap and easy way to start. Not only do you get the train, track and power pack, you get figures, cannons, and more!

Bachmann Civil War - Union HO Scale Ready To Run Electric Train Set
Bachmann Civil War - Union HO Scale Ready To Run Electric Train Set

Includes 100-piece set of Civil War military figures with 3 cannons and 4 horses!


More Miniatures To Get Your Civil War Diorama Started

Note that the Imex products below are plastic and not exactly HO scale which is 1:87 but close enough to work very well with HO scale model trains, track, buildings and scenery.

Wash plastic figures in warm, soapy water prior to painting and towell dry. Next use gesso, a white primer undercoat found at most art supply stores and follow with your choice of acrylic paint, also found at places like Hobby Lobby, Jo-Ann Fabrics, etc. Overcoat with acrylic matte varnish or with polyurethane.

The end result will be as good as and as durable as most painted metal figures.


Research Your Battle

Troop Placement

Research will be in order if you want your diorama to be accurate to the reenactment engagement you're modeling. Most major and many minor Civil War battles have websites dedicated to them. There you will likely find free, detailed maps of troop movements which will help with proper placement.. Of course you must choose just one moment in the course of the battle to depict.

In theory 100 men comprised a company but attrition forced most companies to operate at less than full strength, often with as few as 30 or 40 men. And often although the field might be full of soldiers, it was rare that every unit fought simultaneously. So one company might be engaged in battle while several others simply waited for orders to take their turn. Therefore you'll need some troops that are cast in a "charging" posture but it's good to have some standing troops and skirmishers as well.

Watching a real Civil War reenacment before beginning would greatly help you understand how troops were used, how field generals relayed troop orders, etc.

The picture in this mod shows an N scale miniature mounted General Lee overseeing the Stone Mountain reenactment battle from a boulder.

A Book About Real Life Civil War Reenacting

There's a lot to reenacting and researching the subject, then applying your newfound knowledge to your mini reeactment scene can only make it that much better.

Basically the reenactors are divided by two approaches to the art. One camp is firmly entrenched in absolute historical accuracy. The other is more into making a good show for spectators than painstakingly re-creating every detail.


The Battle of Stone Mountain

There wasn't one!

Stone Mountain, Georgia is just norh of Atlanta and it's the perfect setting for a Union-Confederate clash. One can easily imagine the troops attempting to outflank each other on the hilly terrain at the base of the mountain. Fortunately for the SM residents and unfortunately for my reenactment plan, there was no such battle. When Union general William Tecumseh Sherman burned old Dixie down he hit Atlanta hard but left Stone Mountain untouched.

Although I was born a Yankee and lived in the north much of my life I chose to set my reenactment scene at Stone Mountain because I have family near there and have visited Stone Mountain Park many times. It is a wonderful place to spend a day or two.

There is a tram ride to the top of the mountain. There is a train to ride around it. There is an awesome carving of the southern generals in the side of the mountain and hundreds people gather there nightly for the spectacular lazer show right on the mountain that incorporates the carving into the show. There are many other things to do there including occasional Civil War reenacments. And that is what gives me the license to set my reenactment at Stone Mountain while maintaining historical accuracy.

Well, sort of : )

Woodland Scenics Products

These are the items you'll need to mount your pieces to your wood base.

Scenic Cement (16 oz.)
Scenic Cement (16 oz.)

This glue dries hard and clear but goes on watery. It's the perfect consistency to glue down the civil war miniature soldiers yet leave them easy to pull back up for additional painting, touchup or re-positioning. Highly recommended.

Woodland Scenics Realistic Water, 16 fl oz WOOC1211
Woodland Scenics Realistic Water, 16 fl oz WOOC1211

If you want a pond, river, waterfall or other water feature on your diorama, this is the ticket.

WOODLAND SCENICS ST1444 Foam Tack Glue 12 oz WOOU1444
WOODLAND SCENICS ST1444 Foam Tack Glue 12 oz WOOU1444

This glue is for trees, rocks, buldings and other large structures. It tacks them down immediately so they stay in place, then dries hard to complete the process.

Not for miniature soldiers, use Scenic Cement for them.


Pre-Made Scenery

These items will give excellent results but they are more expensive than rolling your own with raw materials. For a small diorama the extra cost may not be a factor. If you are building a large diorama or a model railroad then you'll likely prefer to scratch make scenery. Please see the link module at the bottom of this Lens for an article on scratch building.


Glue Down The Grass and Mud

You'll want to use Woodland Scenics Cement to glue the men to your wood base. It's a thin glue that dries clear and soft enough that you can pull up a particular soldier later for maintenance, repainting or repositioning. When using it for grass put down the glue first, then add the grass on top, otherwise you'll end up with have a slick, matted look to the grass. It may require more than one application of grass.

An excellent idea is to paint underneath the areas you'll be applying grass or mud, using a color that comes fairly close to the color of the material you'll be applying. That way you can put the grass down a little thin without wood showing. You'll discover the painted areas showing through will actually look better in some spots than a way-too-thick application of wall-to-wall grass.

But for the larger items like fences, rocks, bushes, trees and such you'll want to use the Woodland Scenics Foam Tacky Glue not the cement. Elmer's Wood Glue will work also but it lacks the tackiness so if you use it you will need to prop up certain items until they dry, no easy task when miniatures are close together physically. Use it and you'll become a frequent flier of the phrase "This is driving me nuts!" It should also be noted that Elmer's has a high pH content that can possibly harm some elements of a diorama.

The tacky glue can work for grass also. Apply small globs of glue onto the wood base straight from the bottle. Use a paintbrush to move it where you need it, keeping it relatively thin. Sprinkle the grass or dirt particles onto the tacky glue.

Once dry, use a straw to blow off the excess material.

In the scene above about half the soldiers have been positioned amnd glued in place and the raw wood has been painted various colors in anticipation of adding the grass and other materials.


A Miniature Cannon and Crew


Civil War Trains

Trains were coming into their own just as the Civil War started. Powered by steam engines with various wheel configurations they helped move supplies and sometimes transported troops. Initially the railroad owners were more concerned with making exorbitant profits but once the Railways and Telegraph Act passed Congress and was signed by the president on January 31, 1862 they generally fell into line for fear of seizure by the government, which the act permitted. A few companies were indeed seized and converted to United States Military Railroad service. (U.S.M.R.R.).

Your reenacment scene can certainly be constructed in a diesel era layout but you might wish to incorporate a steam loco or two as well. Steam locomotives were the only train game in town in the 1860s Civil War era.

Some of the "Civil War Series" locomotives and rolling stock are adorned with Civil War battle scenes. They're very cool but I fear that unless properly employed in your layout they'll impart a "kid's toy" quality. I'm pretty sure no real life Civil War trains sported battle scenes, most were far more mundane. An army green color for rolling stock with U.S.M.R.R. enscribed in black is appropriate. And privately owned trains operated throughout the war in all types of configurations. The obvious lesson here is if your entire layout or diorama is actually set in the 1800s don't use the overly adorned rolling stock. But if your layout is set in a more modern time frame and incorporates a reenactment scene then you can get away with using these attention getters.

The most famous Civil War Locomotive, The General, is a type 4-4-0 steam locomotive

My N Scale Train Chugging By Embattled Troops

My N Scale Train Chugging By Embattled Troops
My N Scale Train Chugging By Embattled Troops

The Civil War

The north-south conflict forged the United States of America as we think of it today. Prior, the U.S.A. was a collection of states that had joined the union and were populated by people who assumed that since they had joined voluntarily, they could simply leave at will. By the war's conclusion that erroneous belief had been altered decisively. Before the war most people's loyalty was primarily to their state. Their country? Not so much. That changed a great deal after the war.

When I first experienced it, I was spellbound by the Ken Burns PBS series The Civil War and can't recommend it highly enough.

If you haven't seen it, or know someone who would appreciate it, definitely put it on your Christmas list:.

Teach Your Kids About The War Between The States - Make It Fun!

Yeah, learn about violence, that's what children need, right? But there's so much more to it than the gory stuff. I attribute my love for history directly to my parents taking me to Civil War battlefields at a young age.

History class is a turn-off for most kids, page after page of dates, places and names to memorize. It's up to you to turn something boring into something fascinating.

If you show an interest in the Civil War and history in general, expose and involve your kids in a fun way without being pushy, they'll develop a love for it too!


Where Can You Purchase Pewter N Scale and Ho Scale Soldiers?

GHQ makes the N Scale Civil War figures cast in pewter that I used and they are the ones pictured in the photos on this Lens. They're highly detailed and take acrylic paint well.

The only drawback is each figure is mounted on a tiny square base that sticks up about 1/32 of an inch. Those bases should not show, so you'll need to either cut them off with a Dremel or glue them down, then simply "grass" them over, which is my intention. You can use sifted sawdust colored with green food coloring for the grass.

The scene in this mod shows some troops "mudded in" as they advance on a Union position. You can't see the pewter bases at all.

GHQ also makes 15mm (HO Scale) Civil War figures. Visit:


Stone Mountain Carving Update

The glued on "confederate carving" photo has been replaced.

Here is an in-progress photo as the miniature carving begins to take shape, complete with the 3-d effect of bas relief. For details on how to re-create this effect see my lens How To Build Your Own Stone Mountain (you'll need to copy/paste this URL into your browser) at


Update II

Stone Mountain, nearly finished, with the darker gray paint added


Maybe Add An Observation Deck?

I read a "Best of Civil War Battlefields" type article recently. Written in the first person, the author said that the Gettysburg National Military Park once had observation towers but by the time he visited (in 2011) they'd been permanently removed, a fact that disappointed me temporarily.

I was at Gettysburg last week (late 2012) and I'm thrilled to report that all three of the massive observation towers are standing tall and fully functional right where they've been for over 50 years. So much for truth in journalism.

Anyway, the fact the decks exist gives you a license of sorts to put one or more observation decks on your scene. I built mine from scratch materials. Please see the link below for free instruction on building your own.

How To Add Realistic Water Effects To Your Modeling Scene - Why not use real water?

If you want to have a meandering creek or a pond on your model train layout or diorama you need realistic water. Literally. that's the name of the product you want.

You could create a place for a water feature and put real water in it. It will look fine for a short time but real water is problematic. It evaporates, it soaks into most materials, it gets that stagnant green color and it can cause black mold on your project. Don't do it.

Instead check out Realistic Water another Woodland Scenics product I can't recommend highly enough. I use it. I love it. You'll love it!

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    • NickHerc profile image


      4 years ago

      Great job, really awesome lens!

    • Writingmystory1 profile image


      6 years ago

      I love it! Great job!


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