The Sunday skirmish between colonial Americans and the imperial British, an annual Revolutionary War reenactment at Fort Ward Park in Alexandria, gave area reenactors an opportunity to embarrass King George III in time to celebrate George Washington's birthday. About 50 British faced about 50 continentals on the battlefield for roughly an hour. Although rumor spread throughout the encampment that the British brought two canons, each side fought the skirmish with a single artillery piece.
Onlookers jumped each time a cannon fired, and cheers erupted each time a British soldier went down. Smoke from the campfires created a distant haze, and the fog of war thickened each time shots were fired. Children were reassured that what they were watching was not real as about 20 participants lay dead or dying on the green at Fort Ward.
In the end, the British lost.
"I like to get out and shoot off my gun," said Alexandria resident Ted Borek as he sipped coffee from a tin cup before the skirmish began. "It's a great way to bring history alive."
BOREK, a State Department attorney who has lived in Virginia since 1980, is a regular on the Alexandria reenactment circuit. He attended Saturday's Birthnight Ball as Gen. William Washington, a cousin of Washington who led several cavalry victories during the Revolutionary War. "We solved the world's problems over a few glasses of Madeira," he said. "Too much Madeira." And yet the morning after the ball, here he was. At the campsite, still shaking off the cobwebs of the previous night, Borek and others feasted on a meal supplied by the First Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line, which has hosted the event for more than 30 years. The meal included warm cider, sausage, ham, cheese, bread rolls and ginger cookies.
While reflecting on the coming battle, Borek filled his clay pipe with tobacco then forcefully scraped a piece of flint steel across some charcloth from his tinderbox. The sweet smell of tobacco filled the air, and Borek's eyes set upon the battlefield. He studied its curves. He contemplated the enemy. It was a moment that belonged to the past.
Revolutionary War reenactors go to great lengths to live in the moment — the 18th century moment. Borek has been fighting the eight-year war for the past 11 years, and he has fought on both sides. He remembers trying to ignore the car alarms that were set off by the Battle of Trenton, a reenactment that took place on the same streets where the Continental army first took the offensive against the British. He has a closet full of period clothing, and a number of personalities and historical personages that can be employed at a moment's notice. For this year's skirmish, Borek joined the colonial riflemen as Samuel Slyk, a proud man who is quick to tell a ribald joke — unprintable in a family newspaper — at the expense of the Scottish.
When asked about an article of clothing he was wearing, Borek replied as Slyk: "I bought it from an Indian who said it fell off a truck."
BEFORE THE SKIRMISH reenactment, colonials and British mingle. The jovial banter between opposing forces distinguishes Revolutionary War reenactors from Civil War reenactors, who tend to avoid fraternizing with the enemy. Boasts were made about who was going to do what to whom. Wartime bravado prompted bold predictions. More ribald jokes were made at the expense of the Scottish.
Michael Seidelman, a Loudoun resident, joined Borek mocking the Scottish. It was all in the name of living history and having a few laughs. "People always ask me if I've been to Gettysburg," said Seidelman. "I always tell them that they've got the wrong person and that they must be referring to my grandson."
Shortly before the musicians signal participants to battle stations, Borek learns that he has been elected as corporal of the militia unit. "I don't want to be in charge of anybody," he says staring toward the sky. A few light snow flurries began to fall, but then the sky cleared.
"It's time to get moving," said Walt Marshall, a resident of Friendship, Md., who was acting as the militia commander during the skirmish. His rank as commander of the militia was signified by a half-moon shaped gorget hanging from his neck, which would be easily identifiable even during the more confusing moments of battle. "Now, corporal!"
When asked about his strategy for the skirmish, Marshall was evasive: "You know what they say, the best military planning ends as soon as the first shot is fired." With that, Marshall and Borek marched the militia into battle.
THE SKIRMISH that took place at Fort Ward was not a reenactment of a specific battle. Instead, period costumes and historically accurate battle manuals created an 18th-century atmosphere of war. The event is timed to coincide with the annual George Washington parade, but a February reenactment would be a difficult battle to schedule.
"One of the quaint customs of eighteenth-century warfare was the belief that armies should not fight during the winter," wrote Joseph Ellis in "His Excellency." Ellis goes on to point out the importance of Baron von Steuben, the Prussian general who spent the winter of 1778-1779 drilling the troops at Valley Forge. "More than anyone else, Steuben was responsible for injecting a professional standard of performance into the Continental army, blending a European code of obedience to authority onto an American army of inveterate individualists, shaping the raw material huddled in the huts of Valley Forge into the hard instrument Washington needed but, until 1778, had not commanded."
When the narrator at Fort Ward began introducing onlookers to the world of 18th-century warfare, Steuben's role as drillmaster was explained as the continental line took a disciplined shape on the field. The anticipation of battle descended upon the field. Suddenly, the jolt of cannonfire brought the event to life. The hour-long skirmish was watched by about 100 onlookers. The militia riflemen concentrated their efforts on the right flank, attacking the British while taking cover behind the thin trees on the lawn of Fort Ward. Although the colonial regiment adhered strictly to Steuben's rules of 18th-century warfare, the militia were under no obligation to form the neat rows created by regimental soldiers. Instead, they were able to move freely about the right flank, picking off several British soldiers who dared wander into their territory.
"My strategy was not to get hit and to follow orders," said Borek after the skirmish. "We blazed away at each other all afternoon and nobody got hit."
After the narrator announced the skirmish was over, the dead rose and joined the living. Smoke lingered as mortal enemies became friends once again. Onlookers watched as the heavy artillery was rolled away. Some participants stayed in character, limping toward the campground. Sons looked expectantly to fathers, anticipating next February — when the colonists will beat the British once more.