Smoke, Bullets, Mayhem
With black smoke still wafting over the field, the line of British redcoats fired another volley at the American position, which immediately fired back. Turning about, the British marched back to their old positions.
"Just the ammo and cold steel this time," yelled their commander as the redcoats dropped their heavy packs and bearskin caps. "We'll take these scurrilous dogs, or we'll die trying."
Marching forward, the redcoats loosed another volley, suffered a couple of casualties, and then fixed bayonets and charged the flanks of the American position. As the redcoats came on, the Americans dropped their muskets and lifted knives and hatchets. A second before steel fell upon flesh, everyone froze, as though someone had pressed a pause button.
The scene wasn't from a documentary or a movie, but rather a historical re-enactment mounted on a sweltering July 1 at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace—well, as historical as you can get when your battlefield is a cramped, grass-covered amphitheater near a reflecting pool lined with palm trees and rosebushes and situated next to the gazebo in which Nixon's daughter Tricia married Edward Cox in 1971. The couple of dozen men performing weren't soldiers or historians but local residents who enjoy dressing and acting like Revolutionary War-era British and American soldiers. They spend more than $2,000 each on their uniforms and reproduction weapons. And they take their roles seriously. They drilled constantly at the Nixon Library, even between re-enactments. At one point, a crowd gathered as they stood at attention in their "camp"; the onlookers drifted away awkwardly when they realized the soldiers were merely choosing who got to play what role in the next re-enactment.
"Recruits may not be a member of any other Revolutionary War period re-enactment group, and upon joining the RWF, [they] must submit a letter of resignation to the commanding officer of any such groups that they are currently a member of," states a notice posted on the group's website. "This is a regimental-wide requirement and helps the regiment to maintain the standard of quality for which it is known."
The "regiment" brings old myths to life. But make no mistake—they are myths. The words "liberty" and "freedom" that resound from those days were pretty much just words. Women and landless men were barred from voting. The Southern colonies still enslaved blacks, and as Americans steadily moved westward, they slaughtered Indians at a frightful pace. It was exactly that expansion that caused the ruinous French and Indian War—whose first shots were fired by the very inexperienced, very inept militia commander George Washington. Since the colonists started the war, Britain thought it only fair they pay for it with a series of taxes. In what has become an American characteristic—refusing to pay for what you want—the colonists found the taxes intolerable, and both sides soon came to blows.
That history—which makes the American Revolution far less divine, heroic or even memorable—was absent from the Nixon Library festivities. But the actors did a surprisingly good job of re-creating war at that time as nothing more than two armies standing ramrod straight, facing each other less than 100 yards apart. Firing three rounds per minute, the men just blast away at one another until one line breaks. "The word 'aim' wasn't even given to the troops," explained one actor during a weapons and tactics demonstration.
The men just loaded and fired, loaded and fired, until they either died or ran. Of course, not many died on either side during the war—a fact illustrated by rare casualties among the acting troupe. One audience member in his early 20s, who'd already established himself as a history buff by arguing with his father over the exact start date of the Crimean War, sadly lamented, "More people die in the Civil War re-enactments."
The troupe re-enacted three battles at the Library. First was the spring 1775 engagement at Lexington, Massachusetts, in which a small force of drunken militiamen ran in haste from a redcoat column. Dubbed a "brief skirmish" by the West Point Atlas of American Wars, a standard authority given all U.S. Military Academy cadets, Lexington has achieved status as the genesis of the American Revolution.
Next up was the bloody battle at Breed's Hill, sometimes incorrectly called Bunker Hill. In the summer of 1775, American militia forces fortified Breed's Hill in Boston. Fearing this obvious threat to shipping in the harbor, the British attacked. The redcoats won, but half of their forces were killed or wounded.
The last battle, fought at 2:50 in the afternoon, was known as the Cowpens. In January 1781 in South Carolina, a thousand American troops disciplined in the classic style routed a similar-sized British force under the direction of the brutal cavalry commander Banastre Tarleton.
Ending the day's re-enactments with the Cowpens battle implants the notion that Continental Army forces ejected the British from the continent by sweeping them from the battlefield. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Cowpens battle was a fluke—British historian Christopher Hibbert calls it "one of the rare tactical defeats inflicted on the British in the whole course of the war." There was still nearly a year of fighting left, and when the end finally came at Yorktown, it had nothing to do with Cowpens.
Receiving more accurate treatment was the role of the colonial militia in the war. Portrayed in movies such as Mel Gibson's The Patriot as a wily band of citizen soldiers who sniped and harassed the British into submission, the militia was in fact a disaster.
"It is absolute myth that colonial militia using [guerrilla] tactics won the war," said one actor portraying a Pennsylvania rifleman, explaining how the militia was a frightened, disorganized rabble that ran from nearly every battle throughout the entire war. "The militia was worthless."
Ironically, not everyone in the re-enactment group seemed so well-briefed. Not 15 minutes after this valuable history lesson, a woman dressed in period costume informed the crowds waiting to see a re-enactment of the bloody battle of Breed's Hill that "militia troops fought as professionally as any soldier in Europe."
In fact, the American army wasn't a serious contender until it achieved discipline—the trust each soldier needed in his commander and his cause to stand in close ranks under withering musket and artillery fire. That wouldn't come until the end of the war, and by then, the landing of thousands of French troops by a powerful naval squadron had tilted the balance of power irreversibly against the British.
By then, the war had become too expensive, and it was obvious that the Americans weren't going away. Besides, Britain had more important fights with the French closer to home. America had become a quagmire, which the British escaped when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781.
But clearly, as the tiny acting troupe of Delaware colonials swept the Pat Nixon Amphitheater of redcoats at 3 p.m. amid a wildly cheering crowd, that kind of history was forgotten. What can you expect from an event during which photocopies of royal proclamations were nailed to palm trees wrapped in Christmas lights?
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