Category Archives: Reenacting

On the occasionally hirsute Revolutionary soldier

One of the interesting things about reenactors is that they have to devote extensive attention to questions that would never occur to the rest of us—even those of us who are fascinated with history.  Questions involving facial hair, for example.

For the eighteenth century, the answer would seem to be simple, at least at first glance. In depictions of gentlemen from this era, facial hair is practically unheard of.  Hence this admonition from a Rev War reenacting group:

18th century men did not wear beards, goatees, soul patches or long sideburns. (Yes, some German troops did sport waxed moustaches and Edward Teach, the infamous pirate wore a trademark black beard early in the century – but these are rare exceptions which had purpose in what they did.) Whatever you may have seen in movies – or even on reenactors – men simply didn’t wear beards during this era.

The German exception is an interesting one, and has always puzzled me.  Some Hessian units did indeed sport mustaches, and facial hair was also de rigueur in certain European hussar and grenadier units.  I’ve never understood why. Whenever I see a film clip or painting with Continentals going toe-to-toe against mercenaries with Super Mario Bros. mustaches, it always looks odd.

For most soldiers and civilians, however, going clean-shaven was the ideal.  But in terms of what actually happened on campaign, of course, things were probably quite a bit more complicated.  For one thing, the fact that officers were telling their men to shave regularly doesn’t mean the men were actually doing it.  If you look at Rev War orderly books, you’ll notice that commands regarding the troops’ appearance were repeated over and over again with ever-increasing tones of irritation, indicating that soldiers weren’t too compliant about this sort of thing.  Indeed, in his magnificent book on the Continental Army, Charles Royster states that “the most common of the soldiers’ signs of independence were hair and hats.”  This refers chiefly to the length of the hair on top of the head, but given this kind of independent streak there were probably a few oddballs in camp who were letting their chins get stubbly just to be ornery.

More importantly, and probably more commonly, the exigencies of warfare meant that soldiers were periodically unable to keep up their usual routines. In December 1776, as retreating American troops crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, Charles Wilson Peale remembered one soldier who approached him “in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his face full of sores,” and it turned out to be his own brother.  His appearance was so ragged that Peale didn’t recognize him at first—probably the most sobering testimony to the harsh conditions in Washington’s Army that I’ve ever read.

Of course, this sort of hairiness must have been unusual, or else Peale probably wouldn’t have noted it.  It was neither condoned nor typical, so Rev War reenactors are doubtless correct in discouraging facial hair for new recruits.

Still, this raises larger issues for reenactors that go beyond specific matters like facial hair to suggest some of the difficulties of trying to depict history as it was lived.  Do you try to portray the ideal soldier, or do you indicate some of the minor infractions and hardships that arose from time to time?  Should each member of the unit try to be as “typical” as possible, or should you try to suggest some of the diversity that must have been present?  And if you’re going to try for the latter, how much is too much?

Reenacting, when done properly, is therefore a difficult enterprise, fraught with unique and delicate challenges.  I think serious reenactors deserve the respect of anyone who researches or teaches history.

By the way, just a few days ago I ordered a used copy of Franklin and Mary Wickwire’s book on General Lord Cornwallis.  It still has a sticker from the “Cottonwood Senior High” library, wherever that is.  By a remarkable coincidence, it arrived today, as I was typing this post, and apparently some student at Cottonwood High thought eighteenth-century armies needed a little more facial hair, because this is what the cover looked like when I opened it:

Doesn’t look half bad, actually.

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Sleeping with ghosts

Back in October I posted a review of Historic Brattonsville, a great site in York County, SC.  Over at the National Trust for Historic Preservation blog, there’s an interesting item concerning Brattonsville written by living historian Joseph McGill, Jr.  He’s found a way to combine reenacting with advocacy, drawing attention to one particular type of endangered structure—the slave cabin.

McGill travels throughout the Palmetto State, spending nights in original slave dwellings and using the ensuing publicity as an opportunity to explain why these buildings are important and need to be maintained.  He’s been chronicling his experiences at the National Trust blog; you can find the first post in his series here, along with links to related news stories.

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Good news for reenactors

…who are worried about getting their butternut trousers sued off.  The Living History Association is now offering a liability insurance program.

‘Cause even if you have insurance, you could always use a little more.  Am I right or am I right or am I right?  Right?  Right?  Right?

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Having a blast at the blockhouse

This past weekend I once again signed on as an artilleryman with the militia from Martin’s Station, this time for an event at Natural Tunnel State Park near Duffield, VA.  NTSP’s most famous attraction is its namesake geologic feature, but the main attraction at the reenactment area was a great reconstruction of an eighteenth-century fortification.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse represents the home of John Anderson, built in the 1770’s not far from the park.  It bruned about a century after its construction, but today a monument marks the original site.  During the Revolutionary era, it was a significant landmark for migrants starting out on the Wilderness Road.  Because Anderson’s house was a relatively secure structure near the road’s point of origin, it was a convenient gathering place for people waiting to join parties headed into Kentucky.  It was also a handy storehouse and defensive post for settlers during periods of Indian trouble.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse at Natural Tunnel State Park, from the NTSP Information site.

Unlike the familiar walled forts that stood at places like Boonesborough and near Sycamore Shoals, which were made up of a series of buildings linked by palisades, frontier blockhouses were solitary, individual buildings.  What they lacked in size, they made up in strength.  The second story was wider than the first, so that the walls of the upper floor jutted out beyond those of the one below; imagine a small cabin perched on top of a slightly smaller wooden box.  This made it extremely difficult for assailants to climb up onto the roof.  Furthermore, since the edges of the second floor stuck out over empty space, openings in the floorboards allowed defenders to shoot or pour boiling water downward, directly onto the heads of anyone approaching the building too closely.

Two additional features make the Wilderness Road blockhouse a tough nut to crack.  There’s no mud chinking to seal empty spaces on the outside walls.  The wood pieces themselves fit snugly together, making a solid and more impregnable structure.  And unlike most frontier cabins, which had external chimneys, this building’s chimney is built within the walls, so that an attacking party can’t tear through it to get inside.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse  has its own small visitor center, with an exhibit and gift shop.  It’s a great little interpretive area, with an extraordinarily effective use of limited space.  The exhibit explores the blockhouse itself, the Wilderness Road, and frontier life in general.  It’s a great spot, with a fantastic view of the surrounding hills.  Check it out the next time you’re in southwestern Virginia.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting

And the reports are filtering in

…from the 2010 Raid at Martin’s Station.

The fort’s website has posted a slew of fine images, including some photos of the artillery in action, with your humble blogger making an appearance.  Here we are maneuvering the grasshopper into position, and here we’re giving the Indians a dose of canister.  Note the fellow with the wide-brimmed hat, dark waistcoat, green breeches, and fingertips hardened from blogging.

I had a glorious time, gained a new perspective on Revolutionary-era warfare, and did not blow my own face off.  HUZZAH!

While browsing around the web in search of photos of the event, I also ran across a few items posted by participants with their own historical blogs, which I’ve added to my blogroll here.  Let me direct your attention to a series of posts (here, here, and here) by a physician who was on hand to tend to the wounded and instruct the young in the art of eighteenth-century medicine.

While I was standing inside the fort with the rest of the cannon crew before we went into action, I spotted an intrepid frontierswoman shouldering a firelock in order to head out and do battle with the menfolk.  It turns out she has a blog, too, and you can read her account of the raid here.

Finally, you’ll find a number of additional photos by browsing through recent threads at this discussion forum, which is well worth your time.

My thanks to the park staff and all the living historians who were present for making a first-time reenactor feel welcome.  When do we get to do it again?

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I’ve finally seen the elephant

A lot of people ask me if I reenact, and they’re sometimes surprised when I say no.  In fact, it surprises me a little.  I’ve been seriously interested in history for about ten years now, but I’ve never engaged in living history, although I’ve helped organize events.  I suppose it’s been a combination of lack of time, severe allergies, and a general aversion to being hot and sweaty that’s kept me from it.

Not long ago I plugged the tenth Raid at Martin’s Station, a frontier/Rev War event held at Wilderness Road State Park near Rose Hill, VA.  I’ve been to it several times, but always as a mere spectator.  WRSP has an active group of living history interpreters, one of whom is a schoolteacher I’ve known for many years.  In fact, it was my dad who got him involved in reenacting when the hobby took off after the Civil War centennial.  This year he asked me if I’d be interested in taking a spot on the cannon crew for the Martin’s Station event, and I said yes.

The cannon in question was a “grasshopper,” a light bronze gun which fires a three-pound projectile.  I knew a little bit about grasshoppers, because they were used in some of those Rev War battles in the South that fascinate me to no end; Tarleton had two of them at Cowpens.

This grasshopper in the visitor center exhibit at Cowpens is very similar to the one I helped service. From Cowpens National Battlefield's website

While the infantry assembled within the fort walls, we went over the routine.  My task was simple.  When the battery commander gave the order, I was to remove a round of canister from the box and hand it off to a runner.  I’d also be responsible, as were all the men on the crew, for helping move the piece into position.

The battle itself was a surreal experience for me, and not just because it was not the sort of thing you get to do every day.  One of the things I found while researching my master’s thesis is that accounts by men in the ranks differed greatly from those by officers.  Commanders remembered the battle with a bird’s eye perspective, as a set of objectives to be accomplished.  Accounts by average militiamen, such as the memoir by James Collins (who was only sixteen when he fought at King’s Mountain), tended to be more impressionistic, consisting of a series of kaleidoscopic and fragmented details: the thirst, the sweat, Ferguson riding into and out of view, and so on.

Once the shooting started during my own little trial by fire, I understood why this was the case.  When the gun crew was still inside the fort, I could observe the infantry assembling in the yard, the riflemen on the walls, and the officers passing around giving orders.  I couldn’t see what was going on outside the walls, of course, but my perspective of the action within the fort itself was pretty good.  Once we were ordered out, though, my perspective shrank to a pinpoint.  I knew nothing but what was happening right in front of me, and my memories of that part of the battle are exactly the sort of disjointed details I’d read in veterans’ accounts: the smell of gunpowder, the ungodly and inhuman yells of the Indians (a sound that raised the hair on the back of my neck), the shouted orders, the breeze, the pain in my feet, the red ammunition box with the word VENGEANCE painted in black on the top, the blurred faces of the spectators as we rolled the cannon past them.

Here’s an anecdote that will illustrate how much my point of view diminished once the frantic process of hauling and firing the cannon started.  After the battle was over, when we had the gun back at the fort and the tourists were allowed in, I looked around to see that an outbuilding had been set on fire and was now a smoldering ruin.  Right in front of me were the sprawled bodies of the “dead.”  I had passed directly in front of all this twice during the engagement, but didn’t notice any of it until it was over.

I also lost all sense of time.  I didn’t have my wristwatch on, for obvious reasons, and I have no idea how long the battle lasted.  It could have been twenty minutes or an hour.  Things seemed to speed up once we were ordered to take the grasshopper out of the fort, but I don’t know if this last phase of the battle was actually shorter or if it was simply due to the haste with which we had to move and load the grasshopper.

I was also surprised at how easily and quickly I forgot things that I’d long known—at least in an abstract sort of way—about eighteenth-century weapons.  Before we wheeled the cannon outside, I was given a pistol and told to take a post on the fort wall.  I hadn’t taken three steps before I absent-mindedly lowered the pistol barrel to the ground, dumping out every bit of the powder.  Once I finally stepped up onto a platform and stuck the pistol out of a firing port, I made an even more basic mistake.  Despite reading countless descriptions of the procedure for cocking and firing flintlock weapons, I neglected to pull back the frizzen before pulling the trigger.  Even in a mock battle in which no one’s life was in serious danger, it was easy to see how the uproar of things could get the better of you.

I’ve long believed that living history is a fantastic instructional tool when it comes to the general public, but now I’m more convinced than ever of its value for the researcher.  I didn’t “learn” anything about the eighteenth century in the sense of increasing my store of knowledge.  Instead, the information that I already had became deeper and more visceral.  I already knew that common soldiers experienced battle as a disjointed series of impressions, that their perspective of time changed, and that they often did things (or failed to do things) for which they couldn’t account afterward.  I knew all that, but I knew it in only the abstract.  Now I know it with a kind of visceral certainty, and from participating in only one event.  So to any researchers who wonder if reenacting will be of any benefit to their work, let me assure you that it will.  And the fact that it’s just plain fun doesn’t hurt, either.

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Filed under American Revolution, Reenacting

Looking for something to do this weekend?

Over the years, history buffs here in the Cumberland Gap region have watched Wilderness Road State Park near Ewing, VA become a first-rate center of historical interpretation.  In addition to a beautiful visitor center and a gorgeous setting, the park features a reconstruction of Martin’s Station, which was once the last outpost settlers reached before heading through the mountains into Kentucky.  Today it’s the most accurately rebuilt frontier fort anywhere in America.

For ten years now, WRSP has hosted an annual reenactment which has become one of the most exciting living history events in the South.  It’s happening again this weekend, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the eighteenth-century frontier, the American Revolution, or Native American history.

In addition to the usual reenactment goings-on—demonstrations, a mock battle, sutlers, music—one especially nifty feature of this event is a staged nighttime raid, in which visitors get locked inside the fort with the militia while Indians attack in the dark.  This is one of those rare experiences that does what good living history is supposed to do, which is give you a sense of a long-past event that’s difficult to convey through any other medium.  It’s one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had at any historic site.

Here’s some additional information.  Check it out.

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How can I get a job like this?

Check out this story from Civil War News about the Rev. Alan Farley, “one of the few full-time reenacting preachers and certainly the one who has been doing it the longest.”

I didn’t know there were any full-time reenacting preachers, but Farley’s been doing it for two and a half decades.

During the 225th anniversary of the Battle of King’s Mountain, the park hosted a whole weekend of activities.  By Sunday morning, most of the crowd had trickled away, but those of us intrepid enough to turn out early got to hear an eighteenth-century backcountry sermon by an ordained minister in authentic clothing.  (I’m pretty sure the guy officiating had a regular job at a twenty-first century church.)  It was a real treat, and if you’re ever at an event that has something like this, I recommend it.

My only question is, if reenacting preachers are full-time, then why do the soldiers have to go back to work on Mondays?

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Canada’s Lost Cause

Here’s an interesting story on a cancelled French and Indian War reenactment, brought to my attention by the New York History blog.  The Canadian National Battlefields Commission is calling off the 250th anniversary portrayal of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.  This was the dramatic British victory that helped break French control over her North American empire.  (Here’s more coverage from a Canadian news source.)

The reason?  Quebec separatists weren’t too crazy about reenacting a battle that secured British control over Canada, and some of them threatened to use violence and turn the sham battle into an actual one.  These guys mean business.  Take it from the NBC’s head honcho: “We cannot compromise the security of families and children that would attend the event.”

One of the “hardcore” reenactors featured in Confederates in the Attic proclaimed, “There’s something in me that wishes we could really go the whole way…I’d take the chance of being killed just to see what it was really like to be under fire in the War.”¹  Alright, then.  I say let the Battle of the Plains of Abraham go forward, so this fellow can roll the dice and put his money where his mouth is.  Super hardcore.

¹Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, 1998; repr. (New York: Vintage, 1999), 16.

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Re-enacting at Slate.com

You might get a kick out of this item published on Slate, in which a writer takes a crack at living history interpretation.  I’m not a big fan of subjective, first-person journalism, but it’s an interesting look at re-enacting from the outside.

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