L’idée Réelle

Trenton seems to have been a turning point for a lot of us. A little over a year ago on December 21st, when I left my former British regiment, I was told by the man in charge that I “won’t last a year with them (the progressives)” and “that you’ll be begging me to come back.” Well, here I am a year later and Trenton has cemented my place in this side of the hobby. It provided the group and I with the “history hard-on” (As I’m now calling it) that we seek to get from any event we go to. Isn’t that the purpose of doing this stuff anyways?

In between the silly songs and bad jokes on the march, we did have some deep discussion. For a sleep deprived, hungry, thirsty, and in pain group, we were pretty alert and philosophical. We crossed the bridge at Washington’s Crossing around what I assume was about 6:00 AM after a very brisk 5 miles. On the bridge, we were discussing our favourite fife and drum songs and roles of musicians. As we got off, that same French sailor who coined the term “history hard-on” asked me, “What’s your idée réelle (real idea)?” This threw me off. I was tired, hungry, and not quite sure if he was having a stroke as the sound of French at that time of day can do that to you. I asked him to put it in simpleton terms for me and he asked, “If you could sum up everything you want a visitor to know in one sentence, what would it be?”

I had to stop and think. I didn’t really have a good answer at this point. There are so many things about musicians I want visitors to walk away with since often times they come to battles with misconceptions of 12 year old boys banging on the drums and just looking cute. After a few moments of silence, I replied,  “I want them to know that musicians aren’t weak.”

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After all, I was portraying a fifer who was probably about 15 at the time. The young man gets handed a musket and told he’s going into battle with the rest of the company. He’s just as cold and miserable as the rest of the army.

A lot of guests come to these reenactments with that image of a young drummer boy that comes from the Spirit of ’76 and countless other films and T.V. shows. The average age of musicians in the Continental Army is about 19-20. (See John Rees’ article “The Music of the Army Part 1 and Part 2) Guests think the drummers and fifers just stand behind the line and bang out useless sounds. But we know they’re doing WAY more than that. If they’re not fighting in battle, they’re playing some commands, they’re carrying dead and wounded back, and they’re assisting the surgeon. 

After I gave my on-the-spot idée réelle, I realised I wasn’t satisfied with it. Maybe it was because the French sailor who asked the question kind of stayed silent for a bit and then tried to lead me, through question, to a better answer. Alas, I was unable to do so in the time it took for topics to change. This question haunted me the 10 miles left we had in the march.

When I go out, what do I want the public to go away with? I finally figured out my idée réelle: This sucks. Life in the military is in no way fun. We may go out and play war on the weekends but the guys who marched marches like I did every day were probably not there for shits and giggles. They were hungry, cold, poorly clad, and lacked every creature comfort they knew. And if I can demonstrate that this sucks to visitors, then I’m happy.

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Photo credit to Dragoon Photography

As a musician, we are the signals for when the men do stuff. When the men heard a drum call, they probably weren’t all “Oh boy! We get to assemble because that means it’s time to burn powder!” They probably were more along of the lines of, “I may die in the next hour.” Musicians witnessed every hardship the common soldier witnessed yet I have guests ask me if because of the fancy uniform I get to eat with the officers or even “ride in the wagons.” (Lady, in my dreams.) Musicians walked like everyone else and ate in messes like everyone else.

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At about 10 miles into the march, the corporal, Vanilla Bean Latte, and Low Spark and I were straggling behind. The corporal said to me, “Ya know, I’m getting real tired of this fake army bullshit. I like to sew cool clothes and look good in them but this is ridiculous.” Maybe it was the pain in our feet talking or that we hadn’t had a break in a long time and our stockings were filling with blood. But in a sense, Aunt Kitty and I have had this talk on countless occasions and many others are in accord with us. Civilian events seem to be where it’s at.

But we’ve also discussed how to make Gun Shows better for everyone involved. And making them better lines up with the whole this sucks theme. I lucked out and avoided the extreme 6  hours of drilling the men did the day before marching. But that was what army life was. It’s not building your dining fly and sitting around drinking Sam Adams with the rest of the guys. It’s wanting to cringe when the officer yells “Fall in!” and the rest of the commands.

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Do these faces look like they’re having fun when the officer is yelling commands?

This doesn’t mean we can’t have fun doing it. And I can totally see how not everyone wants to do this. It takes a real insane person to give up their weekends to drill 6 hours then march 15 miles and mess up your feet for 4 days afterwards. There has to be a middle sometimes and this where you need units that have the comforts of a dining fly and Sam Adams.

I like to think I accomplished a lot this past year in my reenacting career. I left a unit and joined a new one. I’ve made some incredible friends who have a like mind in regards to authenticity. I did some not-so-great events that taught me a lot about what kind of events I do want to attend. I improved my sewing skills (kind of) thanks to a few garments and thousands of errors.

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2016 has some really interesting events lined up along with some secret garments I’ll be spilling the beans about later on once we get under way with them. For now, my hint will come from a Les Misérables song that not only nails the colour scheme, but sums the year up nicely: “Red, a world about to dawn. Black, the night that ends at last.”

“Can you give me a history hard-on…?”, or, Trenton 2015

I’ve always said it takes a special kind of person to want to reenact. To want to sew out of date clothing, wear it, then let random people take pictures of you in it requires something that most people lack. But to agree to a 14 mile march, this takes some sort of mental deficiency.

The story of Trenton, for me, goes back to October when I went to Germantown, PA for a battle. Upon visiting with one of my favourite regiments, the 3rd New Jersey Greys, the good sergeant mentioned to Low Spark and I that they were planning on following Washington’s route and do a progressive camp. We were immediately intrigued and decided we’d do it.

The next two months saw two training missions. One Low Spark and I did by ourselves which was about 7 miles, or half the distance we needed. We did pretty well with that and only ached at the end for a few hours after. The other one was done in conjunction with our Aunt Kitty. This one ended up being about 8-8.5 miles after a couple of wrong turns on the trail but was done at a force march tempo the whole way due to Aunt Kitty aka Captain Sobel’s long legs.

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A week before the event, musicians and their roles were being discussed on the Facebook group for the event. I completely forgot about a fifer named John Greenwood’s account of Trenton. In it, he mentions how he gets armed with a musket for the battle and at the end, he even grabs a sword off of a dead Hessian. On one hand, I had absolutely no desire to carry a musket 14 miles. In fact, for about 30 minutes after remembering this account, I contemplated dropping out of the march altogether. But then I remembered, I wrote a rather heavy post berating the state of music in the hobby. If I am to critique the portrayal of musicians and then go about incorrectly portraying a documented account for an event, I would become everything I preached against. I decided to do it and experience what this fifer went through so I could better understand what a musician went through.

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Fifer John Greenwood, complete with musket, cartridge box, fife case, and Hessian sword.

So, here we are, at the present. Low Spark and I have now done two marches that kind of sort of prepared us for Trenton. We set out the morning after Christmas around 8:30. We took the dreaded I-95 through CT with relative ease and then passed through a land filled with strip malls in New Jersey. We arrived at the Thompson-Neely House around 1:30 and were greeted by the ladies of the Greys. The site is really amazing. The Delaware River was right along side our camp and the canal trail nearby was gorgeous. There was very little modern amenities near us which provided a huge boost to the immersion factor of the event.

The camp was kept simple, only a fire and some tin kettles. In one was a beef stew with the other containing some rice and beans. The ladies made some fire cakes consisting of flour and water which were a billion times better than my ship biscuits I made from the same ingredients. There was even some bacon but that was for the officer and to eat would land you in deep water. But I was the one who cooked a large chunk of it so I placed a piece between two fire cakes and made a bacon sandwich which tasted really good.

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The brave ladies of the Greys with their patented Bacon Tree!

The men drilled for a bit while I watched the fire and cooked our ensign some bacon. I was going to rejoin the company once the ladies returned to watch the fire but I was called off to prepare for the ball that evening.

I’ll skip over the details of the ball simply because it was nothing amazing. At all. Though I did look incredibly French in a powdered wig and makeup.

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Perhaps the only photo of me at the ball. Taken before a dance that involved so much spinning, I felt a tad nauseous at the end.

I arrived back at camp, depowdered and bummy once again, around 9:45. The drummer and I played the taptoo and off to bed we went on hay and a blanket with everyone around the fire. Just as I closed my eyes, rain started to fall. I quickly went to move the guns and my sheet music into the car. Since it was raining, I figured I’d take a seat and rest my eyes for 5 minutes in the car until it passed. Turns out, that 5 minutes turned into about 4 hours and at 3:30, I was woken up by Low Spark and told to get moving. Fortunately for me, it seemed I was the only one who got any sleep whatsoever.

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What the camp would have looked like at 3:30 AM provided there was sun light.

I fell in with the company, in the pitch black at 3:50 AM. I was placed at the rear of the line. The march began for me on an ominous note. Just as we were about to hit the trail, my stocking began to fall down. I quickly undid the buttons near my knee to fix it but my knee buckle fell off. I fell out of line and attempted to scramble in the pitch black fog to find it. The column zoomed ahead without me and I could no longer see them. I gave up on my buckle and ran ahead with my stocking at my ankle. Fortunately for me, I remembered I threw an extra pair into my market wallet before we left just in case of an emergency. My dear friend Vanilla Bean Latte attempted to fix them but it was impossible to see and the column was moving all too quick. I marched the first 5 miles, which were done at an incredible 120-130 beat per minute forced march, with my stocking at my ankle.

These first 5 miles were some of my most immersive moments the whole march. It was dark along the canal route and all I could see was the men in front of me and the Delaware on the left. The fog added a level of mystery to it all and the spirits were high, like Greenwood mentioned in his account.

The first break was taken at Washington’s Crossing site where I was FINALLY able to bring my stocking back to where it belonged. I’m happy to report I had no other issues with them the rest of the march. While there, a certain French sailor mentioned to me about Greenwood’s account. He said, “Can you give me a history hard-on by taking a Hessian sword?” I then decided from that moment on, I had to fulfill the Greenwood prophecy.

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The mist was so bad that the flash captured it all. This was right after we crossed the Delaware (via bridge)

The march continued on. Up until that point, we had been on dirt paths and we were fresh out so things were great. We were all in good spirits and were traveling ahead of schedule. But then, we switched to paved roads and this is where all hell broke loose. Feet began to hurt, blisters formed, people began to drop. Our speed decreased drastically while our complaining increased.

With breaks few and far between, the company morale began to decrease but we all kept plugging along. With many feet bleeding, it lead one soldier to proclaim, “It hurts so good!” And to think, we all had shoes and the temperature was probably in the upper 50’s with some fog and heavy mist. Imagine if we did this in a raging snow, hail, and rain storm and no shoes.

We plugged along though and I remained with the column. We came to the conclusion that our officer took cocaine or some sort of drug since he was always about half a mile ahead of us and never complained once the whole way.

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Our corporal is quite the rebel. We may have entered a private country club just to walk on the grass because our feet ached that bad.

After awhile, the pain just became normal and we learned to live with it. We began to sing songs like the theme from Mickey Mouse Club and tell jokes that never end and have no punch lines. All the while, begging for the Sunoco gas station to appear because that meant we were going back on dirt roads. But before getting there, we passed by the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. Many of us were convinced we would be told to left wheel in since we were obviously crazy for making it this far.

The gas station came and we climbed up a large hill and met up with another unit doing a 10 mile march. With combined forces and spirits renewed by the prospect of being so close (and the sergeant passing around a bottle of extra strength Tylenol) we continued on at a quicker pace.

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One last break before the final push to the end.

The last 2.5 miles went by quickly. I had forgotten about my massive blisters and aching legs and wanted to get to the end so I could finally sit down.

When we finally arrived at the monument, we all collapsed. I was ecstatic that I and the rest of gang made it. To celebrate, the drummer and I broke out the instruments and decided to play a few tunes to pass the well deserved hour rest until the battle.

The battle was nothing too amazing either. It was some street fighting in a modern setting. The coolest part came at the end when our company of militia decided we would capture the Hessians. The same French sailor decided he wanted a mitre cap and I still needed my sword. We formed a circle and captured about 30 of them. Two tried to run but I and another gave chase and got them back in with the rest. I grabbed my sword and wore it with pride. The drummer and I took to the front of the column and Rogues March’ed them down to the Old Barracks.

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Complete with my captured sword, we picked up a few extra souvenirs to take home.

As I’ve stated on other sites, this event was the best event I’ve ever attended. It combined everything I love: site based, time based, and a touch of first person interpretation. It was researched by others and we combined our efforts in order to make it the best we could. The bond we had formed by the end of the death march was incredible. As I type this post, my body aches from my shoulders down but if I was asked to do it all again, I’d say yes. If you had asked me yesterday, it would have been hell no.

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Some of the best bunch of guys this hobby’s ever seen. And then there’s moi.

Boston Tea Party, or, La Ville de Déception

Last night, members of the RI contingent headed up to Boston for the annual reenactment of the tossing of the tea into the harbour. After doing the research on Garrick, I found a website where I could search apprentices in Colonial America based on trade and town. I found a lesser known wig maker in Boston named Richard Carpenter with an apprentice named James Melvin. Not wanting to take on a character such as Garrick, Melvin became my alias for the evening.

We arrived at the Old South Meeting House a little after 4:00 thanks to traffic and some parking garage mess ups. (We may have tried to enter a secure Federal parking garage but the security attendant was very nice.) Low Spark and Miss Miggins got jobs assigned to them but fortunately for me, the people in charge seemed to have forgot I was coming and didn’t assign me anything to do! I had the leisure of lounging around and doing things as I pleased.

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Mr. Melvin provided a double curled wig for Mr. Copley during the evening.

We had friends there but for the most part, this was a crowd I hadn’t seen before. I kind of knew what I was getting into. The script for the reenactment read a little hokey. I had seen pictures of previous years and the clothing left a little to be desired.

The clothing, I think, was the worst part. Mr. Hancock and Mr. Savage looked spectacular. Low Spark in the borrowed rugg coat also made an impression. There were definitely many more highlights but there was some horrendous mountain men there. I have never seen so many sets of full length gaiters in my life. Not even at military events. So why are civilians in Boston wearing them? I didn’t ask for my own sanity.

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Big hair, silk suits, and rugg coats. Who could ask for anything more?

 

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One of the members of the 10th Mass Light Infantry as John Hancock. The suit is amazing, but the greatcoat he came with, even better.

The women really raised the bar though. Stays were worn and the impressions were really different. Come to think of it, I don’t think I saw one set of sleeveless bodices the whole night. Miss Miggins sold second hand clothing while another sold ginger biscuits and drams of gin. Surprisingly, the gin was ACTUALLY gin.

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The second hand clothing lady chatting with the gin and biscuit lady.

But back to the meeting. The hokey script sounded better live than reading it. Despite my intent on being a patriot for the night, it seemed I resorted back to my loyalist ways in order to support the outnumbered crown supporters. There were a few times Mr. Copley and I got really into it and I forgot we were in the 21st century, despite the hoard of tourists surrounding me and the mountain man in my pew.

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You can just make me out next to Mr. Copley in the red, standing and yelling.

But after the surprisingly good meeting, we marched to ships. My arch nemesis waited for me outside: three fife and drum corps. Full on, continental army coat wearing, two-piece fifes, 19th century song playing fife and drum corps. But this is not the post to complain about that in.

We strolled from the Meeting House to the ships. This is where it all went down the drain, or dare I say, into the harbour. Organisation was kind of lacking. The reenactors were told to go to one place, told to back up, go forward, back up, and then finally to stay put. The script got even worse here and the historical inaccuracies came flying out of the cargo hold. They dumped tea for what felt like a good 30 minutes. It got so long and monotonous they lost the audience and they stopped cheering. I know, the folks paid good money so you want to give them a show, but don’t give them a boring one. Not only that, you couldn’t see anything from just about any vantage point. I instead stared at the back of a mountain man’s haversack and ignored this part.

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Yeah…I wasn’t joking. Literally the only time I could see the ship.

The event ended with a neat little reception. They had tea with leaves from the same province in China that was on the ships that night. If the tea in the 18th century tasted anything like what was in those kettles, it’s a good thing they dumped it. I thought it tasted like smoke from a fire. Miss Miggins said it reminded her of sweaty petticoats. Mac and Cheese was ate, ale was consumed, and talks of more marching events in RI were discussed.

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Remember kids, don’t HUZZA too hard, or this can happen to you!

All in all, I enjoyed myself. The historical aspect of it left me wanting more. A little less hokey, a little more history. But it was great seeing friends from Boston we don’t see very often. Will I go back next year? Probably not. Despite my love for site based, 1st person interpretation, this just didn’t cut it for me. Low Spark and I agreed, once was enough.

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From left to right, myself, Low Spark, and one of my many idols in the hobby. Who not only dresses well, but is willing to give you research and sources for good wigs and fabric.

 

Mr. Hiwell’s Do’s and Don’ts of Character Development

On Wednesday, Low Spark, Miss Miggins, and I are joining some of our Boston friends for the annual Tea Party reenactment. Looking at the script, (which I’m told by a very reliable source hasn’t been changed in 10 years) I’m a little hesitant. The initial set up seems kind of hokey, like something I expect out of the opening of a Disney film.

But I’m going in with an open mind. It’s 1st person so it has that going for it. The three of us got to the game kind of late so we don’t have major roles like we did at Stamp Act. We’re just going as generic citizens. Since the event is first person I began to think at 10:00 on Monday tonight, “Gee, I should I really have some sort of an alias.”

So, let’s take a trip into my process for developing characters.

1. DON’T develop characters a day before the event like I’m doing.

Yeah…just like my papers for college, I like to procrastinate. Granted, we didn’t know for sure if we were going until last week. Still, character development takes time to research and rehearse. This isn’t my first rodeo and a theatre course plus years in drama have made it so I can memorise lines relatively quickly and can improv.

2. DO think about what you feel comfortable with portraying.

Step 1 is deciding what you want to be. For once, I’m not playing the loyalist this weekend. My dear friend is portraying John Copley and mentioned he lacked a proper peruke to use. Fortunately for him, I have a second I can do up for him. This sparked my desire to portray a wigmaker on Wednesday.

But not everyone can portray everyone. Obvious reasons aside, it depends on your level of comfort with that character. Maybe indentured servant or prostitute is too much for someone. Sometimes the villain can be difficult with the constant barrage of fists and slurs coming at you. Pick someone you can handle being in their skin for a few hours and everyone else feels comfortable being around.

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See? Even babies love the Customs Collector!

After you decide who/what you want to portray, get your butt to this. Our dear Aunt Kitty made this presentation at the BAR School of the Soldier a few years and it’s stuck with me ever since. It was probably the first thing that made me think that 1st person interpretation was feasible. I have all the documents saved on my computer just so I can access them whenever, that’s how helpful this resource is.

3. DO the research.

After finishing my last final exam on Monday, I dove right back into the databases looking for information on wigmakers in Boston around 1770. Initially I found a few immigrant wigmakers from London and Ireland that came around 1729-1730 in one source. Taking their age as a factor, they’d either be rather old or dead. I’m 20 so they’re out. I was looking for a wigmaker no older than 35.

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I then found a guy named John Piemont who was making wigs in Boston in the 1770’s. His apprentice is the guy who starts the Boston Massacre. Piemont ran a pretty good business, making wigs for Governor Hutchinson and the British officers garrisoned in town. He must’ve been doing well because he even hired one of the soldiers to work for him.

I was all ready to play Piemont (Even though he was past my age) but by June of 1773, he’s getting called a loyalist and hauls arse out of town to Danvers to run a tavern. Which means he wouldn’t be in Boston in December.

Now what? We hit a dead end. But not quite. There’s still his apprentice, Garrick. There’s a fair amount of research done on him already by those of the Boston Mob which makes my job so much easier. Even better, in 1770, it’s suspected Garrick is in his mid to late teens so by 1773 he’s my age.

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My only issue here is that he’s kind of a big name. It’s not like I’m addressing the assembly but still, I’m not looking to draw undue attention. So, here I am, late Tuesday afternoon, still potentially looking for wigmakers in Boston.

4. DON’T incorrectly portray your character.

1st person based on an actual person, to me, is treading into s”sacred ground.” We’re choosing historical people, that actually lived and have names and taking them on for a few hours. For me, I feel a little more pressure to get things right. That means not vilifying the person but not making them into something they’re not.

When looking at John Robinson during Stamp Act, we knew that after Newport he goes on to Boston. While there, he gets into a fight with a man over some comments about his character. That fight ends in John Robinson putting a hole in the man’s head with his cane. You read that right. His cane. So we can assume Robinson is a strong man with maybe a little temper. This allowed me to yell a bit and get angry back   at the rioters.

Garrick is an interesting kid. Looking at John Adams’ minutes from the Boston Massacre trial, Garrick gets mentioned indirectly at one point.

“and 5 lives sacrificed to a Squabble between the Sentry and Piemont’s Barbers Boy.6 A sawcy Speech in the Boy.”

The tiff begins when Garrick was (falsely) calling out Capt. Goldfinch of the 14th Regiment of Foot in the streets for not paying his bill to Piemont. Right there shows some sort of, for lack of a better term, balls in the boy. Then, when Private White, the sentry on duty, calls him over for slandering an officer, he retorts with “I’m not afraid to show my face.”

I don’t know about  you, but a soldier with a musket isn’t the guy I want to sass. So White takes the butt of the musket and whacks him in the head. One could argue if he deserved that or not but that’s not the point.

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So, we know Garrick is a young man doing young man things with his fellow apprentices. He likes the ladies. He also likes to backtalk authority.  I’m in agreeance with the esteemed blogger that it’s not the soldiers he dislikes, since he went to the barracks the night before to converse and officers felt comfortable around him, but it’s really money he’s after.

After all this, where are we? We have a young man likely in his 20’s by the time of Tea Party. We can’t confirm nor deny he’s still in Boston since he (smartly) keeps a low profile after it all. He’s got a slight attitude. He likes ladies. He likes money, perchance to impress the ladies. My oh my, how stuff has changed in today’s youth. 

Garrick is the backup for the moment. I may do a composite character. An apprentice to a Boston wigmaker I know was in the are but with a little less fame. I may use parts of Garrick’s attitude but with a made up name. Until then, the search continues!

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Basile, c. 1750