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.