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Redcoats & Rebels 'invade' OSV fields

Re-enactors bring American history to life

Militia men line up for musket drills inside Old Sturbridge Village as Redcoats and Rebels events got underway Sunday. Shawn Kelley. (click for larger version)
August 02, 2009
STURBRIDGE — Hundreds of tents crowded the Old Sturbridge Village common and many front yards nearby Saturday, as British, American and French units gathered to do battle. By the time the smoke cleared, the field nearby was littered with bodies — but surprisingly few given the number of rounds expended.

Of course, such carnage wasn't real — the museum was hosting its annual Redcoats and Rebels re-enactment weekend, attracting history buffs who enjoy walking around in 18th Century garb toting muskets and swords, sleeping on thin blankets and cooking over open firepits.

One of them was Steve Leet of Andover, who has seen both sides of the battlefield in his 17 years of re-enacting. He now portrays a major in His Majesty's Corps of Engineers (and spells his name "Leete" when in uniform), but started with a Minuteman company.

"I liked the pomp and circumstance of the British Army, and you've got to admit we look better," he said. Later, talking to a woman with a camera, he quipped, "I get nervous when Americans are pointing Canons at me. Nikons are OK, but Canons…."

As an officer, Leet's character would have been largely behind the lines, somewhat protected by custom. In European wars, he said, "it was ungentlemanly to shoot an officer," so they could get away with wearing bright red outfits with various accoutrement and feathery headgear. That started changing in the 1700s, partly due to the Colonial Indian wars and the Revolution, which featured the introduction of "light infantry" units on both sides that engaged in what today are termed "guerilla" tactics.

As part of the 6th Connecticut Regiment, Richard Swartwout of Andover, Conn., was one of those light infantry fighters. He described typical battles of that era as "standing across a field and raining lead at each other," with the winner usually being the one who could get the most shots in.

Bob Stokes of the Stow Minuteman Company agreed, pointing out that around 35,000 rounds were shot during the Lexington/Concord battle of April 19, 1775, but there were only 200 casualties.

A musket had an effective range of around 70 yards, but "a lot of people were shooting from 200 yards," he said. "… One British officer said he'd stake his life on the fact that nobody ever got hit by somebody [at that range] who was actually aiming at him."

Stokes noted many re-enactments (including this one) feature one element that would not have been historically accurate — On the battlefield, the opponents essentially stood still in a line to reload while the enemy fired. In reality, they usually had multiple rows trained to rotate firing; one would fire than step back to reload while a second row fired, he said. Normally, a skilled musketeer takes 15 seconds to reload, so this tactic would accelerate the rate of fire and make it hard for the enemy to charge, he said.

Many of those participating were history buffs, and several claimed a family connection to the Revolution. Swartwout's colleague Dave Holloway, for example, said he had six ancestors in the 6th Conn. and another who served as chaplain of the 5th Conn. The two men started as members of an honor guard in the Sons of the American Revolution, but later met re-enactors who saw them as "pretty boys" and taught them a more accurate version of history, Holloway said.

Holloway noted there are three governing bodies of Colonial re-enactors that try to educate participants and ensure such accuracy. Although there are sometimes overzealous "authenticity police" who even measure the width between shoelaces, Stokes later added most events operate under a simple rule — "if you can't see the difference at 10 feet, it doesn't matter."

That led to another observation of a common inaccuracy from Stokes — many participants use replicas of 1763 French muskets that the real Colonials would not have had. Instead, most Colonials essentially built their own muskets from various parts, rather than having them manufactured as the French and British did, he said.

OSV featured a lot of that kind of individual handiwork, with participants at various tents engaged in woodworking, metalsmithing, sewing, toymaking, drum-fixing and other hobbies while waiting for haunches of meat to cook on spits over open flames. Colonial-garbed drummers and fifers played their music, barber-surgeons discussed their trade, an Indian talked to a Colonial woman, and a few women rocked their babies while crowds of 21st-Century folks crowded around to listen and ask questions.

Leet noted most people don't try to portray a specific historical person, just a general character type. Typically, he said, Colonial gear costs less than British, and enlisted men cost less than officers. For example, he has spent around $20,000 on his gear, making most of his clothing himself out of linen, because it has to conform to what the British Army would have issued, while those portraying Americans have a lot more flexibility.

Swartwout noted his unit picks specific people from the surrounding towns to depict, but can only go so far. Typically, there's very little on record about them, especially after the war, he said.

Stokes agreed, saying he chose not to portray a specific person because he's "not comfortable with the whole style of first person rather than third person. Doing that means being so much in character you don't 'understand' what [visitors] are saying." By that, he was referring to the major differences in world view and word meanings between the 18th century and today.

One great example of the difference in eras is clear in Stokes' role in the Stow unit — as surgeon. Back then, a surgeon's gear was basically the same, but there were no anesthesia, few drugs and zero knowledge of basic hygiene or microbes.

"They didn't know the next step after surgery; they knew nothing about infection," Stokes said, adding they generally left bullets in torsos because people almost always died if they removed them. "… A good number of people would survive the surgery but die in recovery because they caught one of the diseases going around the hospital."

At that time, "there were a lot of self-help remedies because doctors didn't have a good track record," he added, noting people had no concept of the scientific method for testing medicines. Often, somebody got well despite some odd treatment (for example, turpentine and cow dung was occasionally used for eye problems), but the "medicine" was given the credit and later sold, he said.

"They were trying to treat the symptoms, but without knowing the cause, it was superficial," he said.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

See Tuesday's Southbridge Evening News for complete coverage of community news.

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