“The traces of British cruelty were faint as they marched through the country. Here they remained for some days, and with them pestilence and famine took root and poverty took up the rear…To add to the catalogue of mortifications, they contrained all the inhabinates of the town to take parole.”
— St. George Tucker to wife Fanny Tucker, July 11, 1781
It is the middle of the day in Williamsburg, over 90 degrees outside and humid enough to make your hair curl. I am standing by a fire in the swampy heat, wearing wool stockings, layers of skirts, heavy leather shoes and a few more layers on top. Smoke is stinging my eyes while I try to flip bacon slabs in a frying pan.
Along with a few hundred other people from across the United States, I sat through several hours of I-95 traffic — without air conditioning, either — to spend last weekend camping out in 18th century clothing. That includes everything mentioned above, plus a hat, linen cap, and, underneath it all, a pair of lace-up stays.
Believe it or not, I do this for fun.
Most people associate re-enacting with old guys in Civil War battles, but the re-enacting I do centers around the time period right around the Revolutionary War. Sometimes, these events involve battles — the 225th anniversary of the battle of Yorktown is coming up in October — but I’ve gone to raids, market fairs, even weddings.
This past weekend’s event, “Under the Redcoat,” re-enacts the British occupation of Williamsburg in July 1781, just months before the British army surrendered to the Continental army at Yorktown. Inconveniently, the Brits also chose one of the deadliest hot months of the year to do it, and so I find myself sweating like a farm animal in front of a couple thousand tourists.
But, you know, at least we don’t have to worry about the smallpox.
PEOPLE GET into re-enacting for a variety of reasons. When I asked Carrie Fellows, a member of the Augusta County Militia (the same group I am in), about how she became involved with the hobby, she laughed and said: “I didn’t have any choice.”
According to Carrie, her family took her to “every historic site within driving distance for every vacation.” She became interested in history by default, she said, and as a student of English and history at the University of Massachusetts, found out about the re-enactor hobby. She even ended up working at historical sites as a profession.
“I found out more about history as a career, and it kind of flowed,” said Carrie, who on this particular weekend had made the drive from Morristown, N.J.
It was family ties that roped Alexandria resident Nick Borek into historic re-enacting as well. His first event was when he was 8 or 9 years old, wearing a shirt and breeches at Fort Frederick, a French and Indian War fort in Big Pool, Md.
“I got hooked,” said Nick, now 20. “It’s just one of those things. It’s weird. It’s a weird hobby.”
I’d say so. A follower of a Loyalist militia, I spent the weekend frisking and searching two young girls as suspected rebels; waking up face-to-face with a cabbage in a garden; drinking liquor out of a large bowl; and watching some guys from my militia fling horse manure at 18th-century British sailors. At a checkpoint along Duke of Gloucester Street, I had a British soldier grill me on the notes I took for this article — I made the mistake of writing them on the back of the pass that let me move about the city.
“What are these notes?” he said.
I mumbled something about an article and a newspaper and real life and he stared at me skeptically.
“It looks treasonous,” he said. He let me go, eventually, but never once dropped the soldier act. For all I know, he could be an accountant in real life.
But that’s how the hobby is. If the point is to leave modern life behind, you end up doing some things that are pretty weird by today’s standards, like not bathing for three days, or roasting a squirrel over a fire.
We talk about modern things, and use modern concessions like medicine if we need them, but the idea is to experience history by actually living it — for a while.
ALTHOUGH NICK has been re-enacting for over a decade at this point, this year’s “Under the Redcoat” was his first event as a member of the Grenadier company of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot. He dressed as a Highlander soldier, kilt and all.
“It’s different,” he said. “People don’t know about it.”
The primary goal of re-enacting, for Nick, is to educate people, to dispel misconceptions about the Revolutionary War British that so many Americans have from their fourth-grade history textbooks. According to Nick, the British army was not the overbearing, oppressive presence that Hollywood would have us believe.
“We were here to liberate people from rebels,” he said.
Although the heavy wool uniforms get hot and guns get heavy, re-enacting has its perks, he added: “Women like the kilt.”
As for me, I got into wearing the funny clothes at a young age, too. But unlike Carrie and Nick, I was the one dragging my parents to events at the nearby Claude Moore Colonial Farm in the dead of July because I wanted to play with chickens and run around in bare feet. They eventually gave up, and as a result, I didn’t put on a short gown or petticoat until I was in college, when on a whim I decided to intern at Claude Moore. The rest was ... you know.
FOR CARRIE, re-enacting is another way to be involved in history. Some of the members of her group work in history like she does, but others have professions ranging from lawyers to arborists to college professors. But, like Nick said, no one gets into it because they like wearing funny clothes. We have a deep love for some aspect of 18th century history, whether it be military, culinary or fashion.
I like educating people, and I like public events, but I’ve discovered that an entire weekend of uncomfortable stays and sleeping without a mattress is worth it for those five seconds you look around and realize that this could be another time.
Last year in Williamsburg, it was when I awoke in a pile of hay just before sunrise; at a wedding in Ohio last fall, it was when everyone piled into a small cabin to celebrate and sing drinking songs. In those five seconds, you are someone else, your problems and worries become things of the future, and you can actually feel the past the way no history book or movie could ever allow you to do.
And that, I think, is why I wear the funny clothes.