Re-enacting the Revolution

Re-enactment of Revolutionary War battles was not just a phenomenon of the US Bicentennial celebration of 1975-76. After all, the British didn't finally give up on putting down the insurrection until Lord Conwallis surrendered his army to George Washington at Yorktown, Va., in October 1781.

There were a few battles in between, and these have been duly commemorated in their turn -- most with authentically equipped re-enactments.

With more than a year to go before an expected 5,000 latter-day patriots muster to re-create the final British defeat in the largest Revolutionary War battle re-enactment ever, a number of the groups along the East Coast are priming their muskets and powdering their wigs. It has become a grass-roots "uprising," prompted by patriotism, educational interest, and the fact that grown men and women claim that such exercises do have more value than just "dressing up and firing guns."

"We don't just study history, we live it," says Capt. Jason H. Korell, public relations officer of the Massachusetts Council of Minute Men and Militia.

Since the average cost for a Colonial costume is $600 to $800 -- and more like $1,500 when antique items are used -- the interest is not frivolous.

The catalyst for many battle re-enactments was the 1975 restaging of Benedict Arnold's 1775 expedition to Quebec from Cambridge, Mass. More than 1,500 Americans from groups throughout the East participated. The latterday minutemen were cheered like conquering heroes as they entered Montreal -- after all, the 1775 expedition was a march to French Quebec to drive out the British.

Yearly "battles" are still staged in Lexington and Concord, outside Boston, to celebrate the first confrontations in the incipient revolution -- that first "shot heard round the world" on April 19, 1775. Other revolutionary battles that have been re-enacted include those in Saratoga, N.Y., and Bennington, Vt., both in 1777. The battle scene on this page is a re-enactment of the British retreat on April 19, 1775, from Concord to Boston. The Colonials, who called themselves minutemen, fired on the Redcoats (the 64th Regiment of Foot) from the cover of stone fences and trees along the line of retreat.

Needless to say, New England is home to many of the vicarious militiamen. Massachusetts alone has 86 companies, while Vermont and New Hampshire each have 8 and Maine, 6. There are several in Connecticut and Rhode Island, too.

Purists -- and this is one activity that seems to attract nothing else -- feel that the last Bicentennial battle commemoration will not occur until 1983. Plans are in progress to re-enact the final military expedition of George Washington, launched in the Newburgh area of upstate New York in 1783. His objective was to drive out a leftover contingent of British under the command of General Clinton.

In an age of nuclear warheads carried by intercontinental missiles directed by computers, it takes a leap of the imagination to see a historical re-enactment as more than just "passing a pleasant weekend afternoon." For participant and spectator, the authenticity of the event -- the accouterments, the accuracy of troop movement and strategy -- must assist this leap into America's past.

And to judge by the costumes, pageantry, and battlesmoke-filled are that accompany an afternoon-turned- time-machine of a revolutionary battle, the authenticity is there.

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