Wednesday, June 29, 2016


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I just went to the Battle of Monmouth last weekend in nearby NJ—although I was in no danger of being shot or impaled by a British dragoon. For a novelist, historical reenactments like this one are a unique kind of research. It’s one which, especially for the dedicated participants who volunteer their time to living history, functions as a full-on primitive camping trip, a personal exercise in experiencing the hard realities of “time travel.”

Kathy Fischer-Brown, who also writes the Revolution (The Serpent's Tooth Trilogy) did a lot of the work of getting us there, so she's the "we" and "us" in the following recitation.

At such events, you’ll find a group of dedicated history buffs portraying life as it was, in this case, during our now mythologized Revolution. These folks wear the clothes, made  of wool, muslin, and linen. They negotiate the territory wearing the one-shape-fits-both-left-and-right-foot shoes. After the “battle,” the men – and the women filling the ranks as foot soldiers--clean and oil their black powder flint locks, clean (puke!) the cannon. The “camp followers,” in reality, mostly poor women and their kids who would starve if they didn’t follow their soldier husbands, pluck chickens and scrape vegetables and use the cooking utensils—on the road, like this, mostly big black pots, knives, and iron cranes, to prepare their meals. Often, just as in the past, those big pots do double duty for food preparation.

At night they’ll sleep on the ground, with the marked exception of a few officers with camp cots. Washington, Lafayette and Joh Laurens are said to have slept under a tree together on the eve of this battle. On the British side, there will be tents and even the occasional officer’s lady/mistress, prettily parading at the encampment. On the American side, they’ll sack out in a group on hay strewn beneath a lean-to roofed with green branches. As much as possible, they walk the walk and talk the talk—and, this being summer in New Jersey—they sweat the sweat too.

Unlike the reenactment, the original Battle of Monmouth was not much fun. More soldiers are said to have died of heat prostration than bullets. And New Jersey was thoroughly beaten up in the American Revolution, marched and back and forth upon by both armies. (Only Massachusetts and Virginia may have suffered more.) The British Army, with a contingent of brutalized professional soldiers, plundered and raped indiscriminately. “…a day of rest and plunder,” is casually noted in the Visitor’s Center display, as the British Army who’d settled in the little town (then called Monmouth Courthouse) the day before the engagement. Don’t forget, though, that there was bad behavior by the Americans, too, under the cover of “Freedom’s Cause.” Violent militia groups with an ax to grind took advantage of local breakdowns of law and order in exactly the same way.  
This year at the Battlefield State Park, a young "soldier" reminded us that if you’d had a vote on The War of Independence—1/3 of the population would have been for it, 1/3 of the population against leaving the British Empire, and 1/3 just trying to stay the hell out of the way and get on with trying to farm their fields and raise their families. It must have been a long, dangerous, frightening eight years for all colonists.
However, June 18-19,  2016, was a great day to be at the place where all this history happened. Sunny skies brought out lots of people to take in the spectacle—the black powder display which seems to attract most of them.  They came in like a wave, and then, after the shooting was over and the acrid black powder smoke drifted away, departed.

After the crowd dispersed taking their small children, the hard core remains--folks like us who love history and the reenactors, who, I think, can lay claim to loving it even more. This is the time in which you may visit the encampments to observe and perhaps chat a bit while those in costume make their supper.  The reenactors Kathy and I have met are spectacularly devoted to their chosen task. (Calling it a "hobby" wouldn't be correct.) We saw entire families, from infants on up, at this “camping trip + time-travel”, everyone dressed appropriately.  Even little fifer boys of eight or nine are willing to play a part and give a history lesson.

Loyalist Rangers

One enjoyable facet of this reenactment at Monmouth was the number of young people enthusiastically and knowledgeably present.  Kathy and I enjoyed meeting the “smallpox survivors” who’d gone to the trouble of makeup to demonstrate active pocks, scaring, and boils.  Other young reenactors had constructed an ingenious in-ground cooktop, which conserved fuel and was less obvious from a distance than an open fire. (The reason, we were told, that you won't see this at a lot of other reenactments is that the Park personnel are usually not keen about folks digging holes.) Several pots of bubbling stew—a random assortment of vegetables and some chicken, with a bit of flour added, were being served, along with chunks of hearty bread.  

Laundry too "cooked" in a large "copper"—the heat and a bit of lye soap part of the sanitization process necessary for undergarments, this explained by the barefoot woman of the army busy stirring the pot. She and her sisters-in-arms were busy everywhere, all at work at some period appropriate task.   

In Sutler's Row, Lady Ellen showcases her talent as a seamstress; note what we'd call "mismatch."

BTW not a selfie in the background, but the heavy crook of her cane.
A pot full of chicken is seared.

         The in-ground cooktop/oven

Col. Hamilton was at Monmouth, an aide de camp who rode all day carrying messages around the battlefield for his commander-in-chief. (His doings, of course, brought about my original interest in the site.) Miscommunications and a lack of concerted movement by Gen. Charles Lee and Gen. George Washington turned the battle, begun so promisingly, into a kind of draw. This action, the longest single day's action in the war, was, nevertheless, an important moral victory for the Americans. Although the British continued on to their embarkation point at Sandy Hook, for the first time, the American army really stood up for itself against the military know-how of a far more mission-ready foe.

To close, if you write historical novels, there's a great deal to be learned at reenactments. Simply observing people wearing the clothing kick starts my writing process. Therefore, if you've never attended one, this summer would be a perfect time to start.

~~Juliet Waldron

All My Novels

*With heartfelt thanks to everyone who participated in this marvelous day of living history, especially to the 2nd PA "The Regiment" The 43rd of Foot, who were so generous sharing their knowledge.