Re-enactors of historical battles are all dressed up with somewhere to go.
By Adrian Zupp
JUNE 7, 1999: In the meadow above the far bank of the Concord River, the minutemen form ranks. The redcoats wait at the bridge, apprehensive, edgy. It is a picture-book tableau: thin mist lifting from the river, the greenness of awakening spring, uniformed men in the dawn's early light. A good day to die -- again and again and again.
"I grew up in Concord," says Addison Seele, here to watch the spectacle, with more than a hint of pride. "They used to shoot the cannons off starting at dawn and I could hear them in bed as a kid." Suddenly the crowded peace is snapped by a volley of musket fire, and Addison bolts down to the river's edge for a better view. "I'm feeling like a kid again!" he calls back as he goes.
The throngs of onlookers crane their necks and lift their kids onto their shoulders. The redcoats hold the bridge as the minutemen advance. When it becomes apparent they will be overwhelmed, they fall back, dodging around the whopping stone obelisk that was erected in 1836 to commemorate this fight.
Welcome to 1775, 1999-style. The battle of North Bridge, the beginning of the Revolutionary War, is under way once more -- scripted, choreographed, and presented by a dedicated corps of fully costumed history buffs. It is the first battle of a day-long reproduction of Battle Road, the day 224 years ago when the redcoats first faced armed colonial resistance and got chased all the way from Concord back to Boston.
Battle Road, staged every Patriots Day weekend, is just one of hundreds of re-enactments that take place across America and around the world each year. What began in the '60s as a scattering of small events for the Civil War centennial has evolved into a series of spectacular military reproductions as logistically involved as Woodstock (if not the Battle of the Bulge) and as passionately played out as a daytime soap. Re-enacting is growing exponentially, in terms of both participants and spectators.
It is also, increasingly, a lifestyle, a subculture made up of men who affectionately refer to what they do as "The Hobby," and who devote serious time, energy, and money to indulge it. Their dedication to history takes them out of their time -- and, often, out of the realm of what usually passes for history.
Here at Battle Road, it is going to be a long day. Thank goodness for recreational vehicles and deluxe drink coolers.
Ken Grant, a latter-day Battle Road veteran, lives in Kittery, Maine, and has been a re-enactor since 1971. He is, you might say, a general in the camp of true believers. With his long, graying locks, full beard, and weathered face, he could've blended right in at Lexington or Gettysburg. His house is an orderly clutter of books, videos, and artifacts that recall seemingly every physical disagreement in human history. Paintings and photos of battle scenes, real and replicated, line the walls. Fifteen styrofoam heads sit on shelves around the room modeling a range of military headgear. If General Patton were alive today, this would be his cigar room.
"I don't know where [my fascination for military history] came from because nobody in my family is interested in history," says Grant. "But I am. Ever since I was a little kid I can remember being overwhelmingly interested in this stuff. I had my face in books rather than play baseball and football and all that. When I found out there were people doing this hobby . . . " His voice trails off. The rest is obvious.
As The Hobby grows bigger, the devotion to detail is increasing -- a far cry from the days when, as Grant recalls, militiamen from different towns elected to wear matching polyester ensembles in ludicrous colors. Nowadays, the attention to detail verges on the fanatical for many re-enactors. Winters may be spent seeking better pictures of period warriors, followed by much stitching and modifying.
The specialized needs of re-enactors have even given rise to a booming cottage industry. Ken Grant's living-room coffee table (actually an old ammunition chest that contains some of his French and Indian War equipment) is littered with catalogues sent by prominent "sutlers," or outfitters.
"You can go to a big event like Gettysburg and have your credit card with you and walk around from tent to tent to tent and buy everything you need," says Grant. "You can buy a thousand dollars' worth of equipment right there, including a gun, and go right into re-enacting."
For your thousand bucks, you get your uniform, your gun, and maybe a pup tent. The deal is roughly the same for any period. Many sutlers deal in several periods: they can sell you your own little piece of the 18th century at a Revolutionary War event, and then catch you on the go-round at a Civil War show. Time warps are their business.
For a guy who works hard at making himself archaic, Grant is strikingly practical. "Like any hobby, there are people in there of varying degrees [of devotion] and for varying reasons," he says. "A lot of people will come to the events and say, 'Well, you guys are playing cowboys and Indians.' And probably to a small degree that's true with some, and maybe to a bigger degree with others. Everybody likes to prolong their childhood." He laughs, then shifts gears. "But the reason most of us got into this, or my friends anyway, is that we have an overwhelming interest in historical stuff."
For information, re-enactors increasingly bypass textbooks and go straight to primary sources such as letters and diaries. Some even choose specific people to play, and, like method actors, they learn their characters inside and out.
This kind of historical excavating yields some interesting results. Indeed, the version of the revolution in Ken Grant's mind is not necessarily the one of American myth. He'll tell you, for example, why Benedict Arnold wasn't all bad, or why the Colonial minutemen of Battle Road weren't exactly storybook heroes.
"It was a cowardly turkey shoot, as far as I'm concerned," he says. "The British were out to do a job and the Americans hid behind stone walls and in the trees and shot them all down and laughed while they were doing it. The reason they called the Brits 'Bloody Lobsterbacks' wasn't just because they wore red coats."
Re-enactors' understanding often verges on the professorial. And, as in academia, there are conflicting opinions. For example, not every re-enactor subscribes to Grant's "turkey shoot" theory. But that's okay. Such issues provide good material for debates between the enthusiasts, whether by the campfire or over beers at an air-conditioned downtown bar.
What is common across the board is a more profound understanding of the average soldier, of bygone ways of life, of the fact that history really isn't played out in books. And when it comes to military re-enacting, the practitioners of the art have a distinct advantage over the men they portray: if they want to better understand the other side, they can join it. There is more than one New England re-enactor who has fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War.
Historical fidelity can go only so far. Battle Road 1999, for reasons of town planning and traffic flow, cannot replicate the continuous march and sniper tactics of the original. Instead, it involves a series of pitched battles and ceremonial skirmishes at various parks along the route. People have turned out in the hundreds to watch.
At McHugh Field in Concord, a symbolic re-enactment of the Meriam's Corner confrontation is staged in grand style. Blocks of men line the huge field and face off. About 700 to 800 men -- roughly a third the number that originally clashed in Concord -- fire blank musket rounds at one another, smoke puffing as the volleys crack the air. This is one of the few clashes of the day where muskets can be leveled at the enemy. "Opposed firing" is forbidden on national parkland, which means that any confrontations on national historic sites -- like, say, North Bridge -- invariably feature preposterously misdirected muskets, soldiers firing up and away at thin air as if in a game of armed blind man's bluff.
Re-enacting is simultaneously interesting, funny, dynamic, uneven, impractical, and engaging. At a day-long show like the Battle Road re-enactment, weird juxtapositions abound.
This is, after all, an event at which men with muskets and tricorn hats get bused from battlefield to battlefield. One moment you are lost in ontological thought, pondering the whole life-for-country trade-off. The next, you are giggling at the fact that six minutemen have been forced to dodge around a park gazebo to get a clear shot at the enemy. Sometimes you are gripped by the authenticity of the guns and uniforms and the curious splendor of it all. Other times, the gunfire is drowned out by a passing fleet of Harleys.
The folk at McHugh Field enjoy the spectacle. A clutch of high-school kids from Cleveland are clearly impressed, though they don't let their teenage cool slip for a second. "Here comes the napalm," says one as a plane flies over. "They could practically load each other's guns," says another. He's not far wrong. The smooth-bore muskets of the time had a very limited range, and as a result the opposing ranks are separated by a strip of dirt smaller than the width of a football field. They're so close that they could likely study each other's features and distinguish individuals as individuals. When you think about that, and lock in on the realism, the sheer brutality and mad courage of this kind of warfare hits you. In those moments, the past is very much alive again.
The grand illusion that re-enacting can often provide hinges on the dichotomy between past and present, or between authentic and bogus. From a spectator's point of view, for every mood-breaking observation you make about the artificial product, be it an errant wrist watch or a moving dead man, you make another about history. Watching 700-plus men go at it on a battlefield drives home some sad truths in a way TV news never could. Like the realization that only titanic stupidity could foster the notion that very general precepts can be proved, one way or another, by engaging in very particular hostilities. The deliberate repetition of re-enactments makes it embarrassingly clear how often we've let history repeat itself.
Another truth that becomes patently obvious at these battles is that they were slow. It seems to take the re-enactors forever to load and fire. And it was an even slower process for the authentic musket men (Grant says that a good soldier could get off three aimed shots in a minute). Back in the 18th century, war didn't rage, it crept. No automatic weapons, no grenade launchers or night-vision gun sights to mow down the opposition from a distance. And certainly no long-range, remote-location, push-button warfare. In the old days, killing took time. You had to get up close and personal.
The main man behind the Battle Road re-enactment is Skip Hayward. He's also colonel of the Massachusetts Provincial Forces ("So I run it on the field as well as behind the scenes"), president of the Lexington Historical Society, and chairman of the Lexington 2000 Commission.
He has no doubt that re-enacting is a lesson in history. "We have people coming away saying, 'I've never seen anything like this. I love it. What books can I read?' We spend thousands of dollars of our own money to put these things together. For the Battle Road, we actually hold clothing seminars to make your own clothing. We hold seminars on the history. We do all kinds of things. It's a lifestyle, almost."
For many, the lifestyle is clearly about history. About digging up old facts and dusting them off. About almost crawling into the skin of our ancestors. As Hayward puts it, "We put ourselves actually in the place of somebody that was there. We go right back in time. We don't see the crowds." He adds, "We want people to realize what these people went through. That's the only way you can truly understand people. You have to somehow show people the way it really was to get them to truly understand it."
But a passion for history isn't the only reason people get involved in The Hobby. At the extreme end of re-enacting is a whole breed of so-called hard-core re-enactors who get into character and rough it. They stay out for days at a time, sleep on the bare ground in camp, and abstain from even the most minor modern comforts. Hard-core behavior isn't necessarily conducted for an audience: it extends to non-spectator endurance trips and "tacticals," during which re-enactors hunt each other over raw terrain. For one such event down south, Grant received a circular that warned all participants to watch out for water moccasins.
Grant himself dabbles in hard-core behavior and recalls the time he slept in the open and got earwigs in his ears. There are some guys who take it even further. "We've got one guy -- he does War of 1812 and Revolutionary War -- he doesn't even wear shoes," says Grant. "He goes barefoot and he sleeps in the mud. I've seen him sleeping in the mud." This seems to be another psychological mindset altogether: no longer about putting on a good show, it's about paying the same penance the originals did. And, it seems, it is a test of self.
But, as a day event, Battle Road is more about presenting history. Skip Hayward has arranged for approximately 50 "interpreters" to give running commentaries at the battle sites. Dressed in full regalia, these people (mostly women) answer hundreds of questions from eager spectators.
At the day's later re-enactments at Hastings Park and Tower Park in Lexington, I seek the inside word from a couple of other re-enactors. Paul Supley, from Saratoga, is a captain in the 21st Regiment Grenadiers. What do his friends think of his hobby? "My co-workers and such support me," he says. "They come out to the events. But my family doesn't understand. It's not their cup of tea. They think it's play-acting." Yet he insists, "We're not just out here being a bunch of clowns. We're historians."
"You get more of a personal experience about what happened during the war," says Doug Ozelius of Boston, a member of the First Regiment of Foot Guards. "I think it does teach history if people are also willing to read and talk to us. Taken out of context, it just looks like a bunch of people running around with muskets."
In the kitchen at Ken Grant's home there is a calendar. The months from April through October are quilts of highlighted squares, color-coded to signify upcoming re-enactments with the different period units he belongs to. As with a good battle plan, everything is mapped out in advance. He uses his vacation time for his hobby, breaking it up so that he can head off to Maryland or Virginia for extended weekends of mock warfare.
Grant likes to keep close tabs on what's going on in the world of re-enacting, domestically and abroad. "It's gigantic in England," he says. "And in the last 10 or 15 years it's been getting really big in Europe. The Germans do American Indians better than American Indians do. They're tremendous; I've seen a lot of their stuff. The French, the Belgians, the Germans, and the English do Waterloo every year, and it's getting bigger every year. There are thousands and thousands that show up at Waterloo."
Virtually every period is covered somewhere, whether in its natural environment or not. Romans, Celts, Picts, and samurai still roam the earth. Cavalry incursions and Alamo replays go on west of the Mississippi. And latter-day wars are being done, too. The trench warfare of World War I, the artillery fire of World War II. There are even some Vietnam re-enactments. And already there are guys showing up at "time line" events -- non-battle exhibitions that bring together different periods -- in Gulf War uniforms.
As for Skip Hayward, he's already at work on next year's Battle Road. The 225th, and the Y2K version, it's going to be big. He's estimating that as many as 1200 re-enactors may take part, drawing a crowd perhaps a quarter-million strong. The current high-water mark for a staged event is last year's Gettysburg Civil War re-enactment, the biggest congregation of re-enactors to date, which involved an estimated 25,000 participants.
Whatever its size, Ken Grant will be at Battle Road again next year. He clearly loves The Hobby, and, it seems, The Hobby has been good to him. In his many re-enactment photo albums, there are countless pictures of the good times. Posing for the camera in uniform; camping out with his buddies; shaking hands with actors like Martin Sheen (Grant has been an extra in several films, including Gettysburg and Glory). Though their circumstances are wildly different, Grant finds something in Sheen's interest that real soldiers have always found: camaraderie. Sure, Grant loves to learn and teach, to chase details and facts, but it is the friendship involved in the doing and teaching that brings him the greatest satisfaction. There are approximately 50,000 re-enactors in the eastern United States. Ken Grant likes to say he has 50,000 friends. Whether re-enacting is history come to life or just a bunch of guys playing dress-up, there has never been a better argument than that for going off to war.
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