28 July 2009

Greatest Hits: So You Wanna Re-Create a Revolution?

By Anna C. Bowling

Long ago, in a not so faraway (for me) land called New York state, I gloried in the splendor of an autumn afternoon, my long skirt swishing about my ankles as I traversed the dirt road adjacent to the home of John Jay, the United States' first Chief Justice. To my left, behind a stone wall, an endless sea of identical white tents covered the green lawn. I felt a rumble behind me, and a deep male voice called out, "Make way for the king's men." I stepped quickly to the side, and a long column of scarlet-coated soldiers streamed by, posture ramrod-perfect, marching in step behind a Union Jack toted high.

The actual calendar year was of somewhat more recent vintage, 2003, but for that one particular day, I found myself swept back in time to when a native New Yorker could well have been a loyal British subject...and also to my own childhood, when the Bicentennial meant fife and drum corps everywhere, beginning a fascination with those gents in the red coats that continues to this day. Cue music. Leonard Bernstein British Grenadiers

The procession was only the start of the day's events, followed by a muster, where the historical interpreters demonstrated how their unit might attract new recruits. Hint; free liquor was involved for any able bodied male of adult years willing to sign or make his mark. This, apparently, was a valid recruiting technique. Speeches of the glory of king and country, of the sterling reputation of soldiers (which one may snort at without qualms once one mucks about the tents for a while, as I did) and thus swelled the ranks.

Being the nosy historical author I am, I took the first opportunity to venture into the tents and hunt down the interpreter playing the commanding officer. What was life really like after the free liquor wore off or commissions were purchased? What sort of men would have inhabited these tents two hundred plus years ago, and furthermore, what sorts of men recreate British Army life in the country where the redcoats were the antagonists during our revolution?

The answers to the above may surprise some readers. Reenactment units such as His Majesty's Tenth Regiment of Foot can give a different perspective on what we think we know about life in the eighteenth century British Army. Though the unit I saw that day was re-creating 1740s life, the gentlemen (and that they were, to a man) were more than happy to discuss Redcoat life up to and beyond the Revolution. Whatever the period, a soldier's life was seldom one of comfort. Even the officers' tents I inspected were of necessity small, to be easily packed up and moved to the next site at a moment's notice. A cot, a trunk for personal items, perhaps a few comforts of home such as a deck of cards or musical instrument, perhaps a book for those so inclined, but with space at a premium, functionality ruled over pleasure.

The soldier's life might not always be a lonely one; those who could afford it could sometimes bring along wives, and where wives (and other women) go, babies could follow. Even bringing one's dog was not entirely unheard of, and visitors to reenactments can often see all of the above as important parts of the units as a whole. Add in camp followers, noting that "laundress" did not always mean laundress, wink wink, and my mind started to fill in those rows of tents with people who might have inhabited each one. Some aspects of the military life are universal, no matter what era or affiliation.

The soldiers themselves, on these colonial shores, could come from any walk of life. A younger son from a noble English family might have bought his commission, to find himself shoulder to shoulder with a young recruit born to laborers in the colonies, or during the Revolution, even a German Hussar or a former slave. Male slaves who enlisted in the British army would be considered immediately freed from slavery, certainly an extremely appealing incentive. After the Revolution, when British and Hussar forces returned home, several former slaves stayed with their units, making new lives for themselves in England or Germany. Great story potential right there, methinks.

Story potential as well in the Grenadiers, those gentlemen memorialized in the music above. Dealing with explosives at such close range takes a special sort of man; calm under pressure, willing to do what it takes to get the job done, knowing, as all soldiers do, that any engagement may be their last, but hoping to come through to the end of the day.

Why would a modern American choose to devote his (or her) free time to interpreting the other side of our country's first war? Perhaps the most succinct answer is that somebody has to. The British Army is part of our history, and those who comprised it were individuals who also deserve to be remembered. While some British (civilians and military alike) did oppose colonial independence, others were actually for it, but believed that a different time or method for that independence would be better for all involved. Some interpreters do also interpret patriot units, and I spoke to one, an actor by trade, who has appeared on the History Channel, in different productions, as both Benedict Arnold and George Washington. Talk about seeing things from both sides.

Which is, really, one of the best parts about historical reenactments. We can muck about in as close as we can get to the real thing, interact with those who study hard to get the feel of the era and convey it to those who may not be as familiar with the big picture. If the reenactment includes a battle, consider traipsing over to those re-creating the other side, whatever that might be, for a different perspective. Who knows, you might meet a new character along the way.