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Wartime Holiday

The Christmas season comes to a 1780 military encampment re-enactment.

During the Revolutionary War, a soldier’s Christmas was a somber affair.

A soldier might conduct a recruitment party, participate in a military drill, hold a court marshal or write a winsome letter home. Following the Scottish Walk, members of the First Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line will set up camp on the grounds of the Carlyle House — re-enacting a 1780 encampment in the midst of the Revolutionary War.

"This event was designed to start right after the Scottish Walk," said Jim Bartlinski, curator of the Carlyle House. "The First Virginia will be gearing up for the road to Yorktown."

Members of the First Virginia Regiment will be trying to recruit new members, and they have already received a special permit from the city to conduct artillery drills. A court marshal has been scheduled to mete out wartime justice, and the joy of the Christmas season will be eclipsed by the struggle against the British Empire.

"This is right before George William Carlyle went off to war," Bartlinski said, adding that John Carlye’s son was killed eight months later at the Battle of Eutaw Springs. "At this point, things are heating up down south."

DURING THE WINTER OF 1780, the war effort was in a state of uneasy flux. In October, Nathanael Greene had taken command of the Southern Army after Horatio Gates' failure to stop British Gen. Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina on Aug. 18, 1780. After Camden, Washington promoted Greene and started listening to French Lt. Gen. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau. He was advocating a "a war of posts," which consisted of tactical engagements and withdraws designed to inflict maximum British casualties.

George Washington, who was then commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, resisted the French plan in favor of focusing on regaining Manhattan from the British. Washington called Rochambeau’s plan a "Fabian Strategy," referring to the Roman general who defeated the Carthaginians by withdrawing whenever his army’s fate was at risk. But the plan, conceived by the French military junta in charge of the war, was eventually successful in defeating the British at Yorktown. In December 1780, it was still quite controversial.

"'Years later, when Washington was asked when he first envisioned leading a southern campaign against Cornwallis, he claimed that the idea was broached at a meeting with Rochambeau in September 1780,'" wrote Joseph Ellis in "His Excellency." "'Strictly speaking, this was true, but the larger truth was that Washington remained obsessed with New York and resisted pressure from the governors of South Carolina and Virginia to take his army south well into the summer of 1781.'"

IN ALEXANDRIA, John Carlyle’s recent passing was being mourned. Recruiters from the First Virginia Regiment attracted Carlyle's teenage son, George, left fatherless and eager for a new direction. Philippe Halbert — a senior at T.C. Williams who portrayed the young Carlyle in the recent re-enactment of the elder Carlyle’s funeral in October — will reprise his role as George William Carlyle.

Sarah Carlyle Herbert, John Carlyle’s daughter, will also be part of the re-enactment. Erica Nuckles, a graduate student who portrayed Carlyle's daughter at the October funeral, will portray her again.

"I’ve been doing living history my whole life," Nuckles said, adding that she made the gown she wore at the funeral. "It was hard work, but it was fun."

Nuckles is pleased to be working again with Halbert, whose performance at the funeral brought an immediate mourning for the city’s long-dead patriarch.

"He’s great, and I’m so happy that he’ll be my little brother again," she said. "And it’s not everyday that you see a high school student working in a museum."