A Family Together Feature
By Kathy Vilim DaGroomes
The musicians' corps of the 6th North Carolina Regiment, Continental Line, reenactment group strode across the Market Square green onto Colonial Williamsburg's Duke of Gloucester Street. As they headed west in formation, drummer Edwin Self, 13, his brother Cooper, 18, a fifer, and the other musicians played 18th-century military standards like "Yankee Doodle" and "Free America" during an early-morning drill.
The calendar read Saturday, Sept. 5, 1998, Labor Day Weekend. But for historical reenactors at Colonial Williamsburgthe restored 18th-century capital of Virginia that abuts The College of William and Maryit was Sept. 5, 1775, the first day of "A Call to Arms and Action!" weekend.
As the sounds of fife and drum faded into the distance, the other reenactors of the Self familydad, Osce, in the role of a soldier; mom, Lou, an 18th-century backcountry housewife, and 11-year-old Whit, a cook's helpermoved around the tented encampment on historic Market Square.
"We're portraying the times just prior to the formation of the Continental Army," explained Osce, as he cleaned his flintlock musket. "A few months before this in 1775, New England militias clashed with British troops at Lexington and Concord and at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Now regiments like ours from other colonies are preparing to join them in resisting the British."
On either side of him, reenactors from five states in period clothing were encamped on the grassy square in a sea of 18th century-style tents.
The five Selfs are in the North Carolina Historical Reenactment Society, a group based in Charlotte, N.C., whose members are best known for their portrayal of the 6th North Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army. The 6th North Carolina regiment fought in Revolutionary War battles like Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, and endured the cruel winter at Valley Forge.
At Williamsburg's 1998 Labor Day reenactment, 85 of the 160 members of the "6th North Carolina"as the reenacting group is sometimes referred towere present. These experienced Revolutionary War-era reenactors understood well the fall 1 775 scenario they were portraying:
The British governor, Lord Dunmore, has fled Williamsburg, and independent militia companies (portrayed by nearly 400 reenactors) have moved in. The twice-a-year "Publick Times," when courts are in session, is under way, with farmers, merchants, litigants, entertainers, and others having come to the capital of the Virginia colony from the surrounding countryside.
Word of the battles in Lexington and Concord had reached Virginia four months earlier, and Williamsburg's townsfolk are currently under resolves against tea, imported goods, and "frivolous" entertainments. Merriment abounds, but a dark tension hangs in the air.
A new Committee of Safety has begun to oversee the development of a regular army. Halfway through this weekend, the Virginia Convention disbands the independent companies, or militias, and soldiers are urged to join new regiments under Patrick Henry and William Woodford. Soon after, recruiters scour the town, signing up recruits for the new army.
The Self family, the rest of the "6th," and seven other reenacting units arrived on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day. By sundown, rows of white tents, including a few large residence tents, or "marquees," for commanding officers, dotted the square next to the restored courthouse of 1770.
By 8:30 Saturday morning, as Colonial Williamsburg's crowd of Labor Day Weekend visitors began to arrive, the members of all eight units were dressed in period clothing, ready to step back 223 years in time.
"Healthy men who were of age were expected to participate as a member of their local militia unit," said Osce. "During militia 'musters,' they would get together and practice their military drills as a unit. But we are in September 1775, and there's a move underfoot to get militiamen like me to commit to serve in a role to defeat or resist what is viewed as British imposition on the rights of free men."
Members of the 6th North Carolina for nine years, the Self family participates in three to seven reenactments a year. The longest is Colonial Williamsburg's annual three-day "A Call to Arms and Action!" which they've attended several times. The family's involvement in reenacting started when Cooper, then 9, first expressed an interest in participating.
"In his early school years, Cooper was very interested in history," said Lou, "and I would read biographies of the Revolutionary War period to him. We went to a battle reenactment at Latta Plantation, just north of Charlotte, N.C., and Cooper said, 'Oh, Mom, I really want to dress up like that.'"
Lou talked to members of the 6th who were at that reenactment and learned that they had another one scheduled soon, in Ninety Six, S.C., site of a British fort during the Revolutionary War and the hometown of Osce's parents. So, two months later, while visiting relatives at night, the Selfs participated in the South Carolina battle reenactment during the day "in borrowed everything" amid nonstop rain.
The wet introduction to reenacting didn't dampen their enthusiasm, however; the Selfs were hooked. Soon they were donning their own 1774-to-1782 period clothing and joining other members of the 6th North Carolina regiment in several of the unit's 18 to 25 reenactments yearly.
"Cooper's interest got us started and has kept us in it all these years," observed Lou, "and Osce has become very versed through reading and studying about the Revolutionary period."
"Reenacting is the great equalizer," said Jim Daniel, who heads the 6th North Carolina reenactment group and who served as coordinator of volunteer reenactors for Colonial Williamsburg from 1990 to 1998. "Reenactors come from all walks of life; the bond that binds them is a love of history."
Lou, a substitute teacher and "the proverbial student," as she puts it, picks up facts and ideas from American history that she can utilize in various classroom settings with her students. Osce and Eagle Scout Cooper share a love of history, boning up on a particular reenactment's fine points before they participate.
Star Scout Edwin and First Class Scout Whit are still developing their personas, but Edwin's love of working with his hands would seem to lend itself well to the role of an 18th-century chip carver. Whit, meanwhile, who's learning the fife and has assisted for some time at the camp kitchenswhich strive to serve authentic 18th century-style food to the reenactorsshows a real grasp of the rudiments of cooking.
Osce and Lou have been active in Scouting in the Mecklenburg County Council, Charlotte, N.C., for years in a variety of capacitiescurrently troop committee chairman and pack committee chairman, respectively. They feel reenacting has had a positive impact on their family, both in drawing family members closer together and by increasing their appreciation for history.
Osce cited one reenactment that really made history come alive for him and Cooper: the commemoration of Lord Cornwallis's British army fording the rainswollen, raging Catawba River at night in a cold North Carolina February. True to history, the reenactment included rifle fire from local patriot militiawho were covering the retreat of Gen. Nathanael Greene's Continental army.
At that event, Osce and Cooper portrayed Torieslocal militiamen who remained loyal to England and fought for the "Redcoats." It showed the pair that the war that brought America independence was also a civil war that divided families and communities. That insight underscores why reenacting has meant a lot to all the Selfs:
"In terms of American heritage, reenacting gives you an appreciation for what it tookthe sacrifices, the conditions that people had to live under and suffer throughto birth our nation," said Osce. "If we are miserable over a weekend in bad weather, you think of the people that followed on either side of the Revolutionary Warboth sides had to suffer horrific conditions."
"Reenacting makes you feel what happened, instead of reading about it in the history books in school," said Cooper. "It gives you a better idea of what really happened."
"My point would be simply to encourage people to seek opportunities to learn about the history of the country," added Osce. "There are events that took place that formed our history, and if a person finds some period of particular interest, get involved in its reenactment, because it's fun and rewarding."
In September's issue, Associate Editor Kathy Vilim DaGroomes wrote about amateur radio enthusiasts in "Hams in the Family," another article in Scouting magazine's "A Family Together" series.
NCHRS: One of the Oldest Reenactment Societies
The North Carolina Historical Reenactment Society (NCHRS), founded in 1960-61 on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, is one of the oldest reenactment societies in the United States.
The Selfs' reenactment group, the 6th North Carolina Regiment, Continental Line, operates under the umbrella of the NCHRS and was first funded by the state of North Carolina as a part of the Civil War centennial. The "6th North Carolina" has been together ever since, participating in 18 to 25 reenactments a year.
When the Civil War anniversaries were over, reenactors wanted to continue their experience; America's bicentennial in 1976 gave them the opportunity to do thatand they've been doing it ever since.
Colonial Williamsburg Abounds in History
Colonial Williamsburg, site of the "A Call to Arms and Action!" reenactment, is the nation's largest outdoor living history museum.
Two and a half hours south of Washington, D.C., and easily accessible via Interstate 64 (exit 238), the old Virginia capital is a historical site where characters dressed in period clothing move among hundreds of reconstructed structures, including 88 original homes or shops from the 18th century.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation presents a year-round special events programincluding several reenactment opportunitiesthat enhances the 173 acres of the Historic Area. Call toll free, 1-800-HISTORY, for program information or visit its Web site, http://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org
Getting Started in Reenacting
People often ask Jim Daniel of the 6th North Carolina Historical Reenactment Society and a past coordinator of volunteer reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg, how to get started in the hobby.
"My recommendation to those interested is to attend several events where there are reenactors," said Daniel. "These may be battle reenactments or living history encampments. Look at all of them and talk with individuals from each group."
Daniel suggests that prospects ask about a group's area of emphasis and approach to history, its size, organization, requirements of members, and reenactment schedule.
Cost is a second area that must be considered. "There is considerable expense and commitment involved to participate in reenacting," said reenactor Osce Self. "That may be a little bit of a negative, but on the positive side, most reenactment groups welcome your participation and have people who have old, spare sets of clothing. And you can really begin to get a taste of participation at very little monetary expense."
A rewarding hobby
Membership dues for the 6th North Carolina regiment are minimal, about $20 a year for the family, said Lou Self. (There's also a $5 camp fee per day per person at each reenactment to help defray gas and insurance costs on the group's truck and other expenses.)
Lou and Osce estimate the minimum investment for period clothing per reenactor is $150. The cost of instruments for musicians, weapons for soldiers, and family cooking utensils adds more to the overall expense.
Of course, reenactors can spend far more than that, especially when clothing and other essentials are bought from a supplier and not homemade.
"As a rule of thumb, the basic gear and equipment, including weaponry, for a reenactor portraying a Revolutionary-era soldier is about $1,200," said Jim Daniel. "A female reenactor of the 18th century can expect to spend about half that...And it's not uncommon for a single reenactor to have in excess of $5,000 invested in his clothing and equipment."
To put reenacting's cost in perspective, Osce emphasized the value his family derives from it. "For those who do find it interesting, it's a very rewarding hobby," he said. "Beyond some essential items that must be purchased, you can get along on a more limited budget.
"As Jim Daniel often says: 'As reenactors, we get to immerse ourselves in the past and savor those experiences, while the public is limited to watching. They'd willingly pay great sums to share in the experiences we reenactors count among the rewards of our hobby.'"
Web sites featuring information on reenacting as a hobby, planned reenactments, and reenactor groups are plentiful. Among them: http://www.cwreenactors.com; http://www.ushistory.org/brandywine; and http://www.oldwest.org
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