A scene something diverting, though of a tragic nature

This past Saturday the 13th, we held a living history event at my Fort. It was something of a last minute affair, but it came together splendidly, with help from  – among others – Lieutenant Ebenezer Elmer, of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment. Lt. Elmer, writing in 1777, left us with a description of the events of February 13th that year (“This day the whole of the forces composing the garrisons of Ticonderoga and Mt. Independence were paraded on the ice, our proper alarm posts pointed out, &c…”) as well as many other days that winter. This past weekend, we used his narrative to inform the stories we told visitors, as well as the activities we undertook. Combining action and conversation, we creating compelling interpretation about life at Ticonderoga in the winter of 1777.

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Soldiers practice artillery drill in the cold

Some of what or friend Ebenezer wrote was easy to incorporate into our storytelling: on the 20th of February the “Regiment paraded, but the inclemency of the weather prevented our going on the ice for exercises, and after some short time were dismissed.” As Saturday was definitively the coldest day yet this year, this entry felt almost as if Lt. Elmer was feeding us material.

Just two days later, though, his entry wasn’t so easy to relate to. In fact, it is only his otherwise steady accounting (and his tone of ironic incredulity) that suggests the story aught to be believed:

Saturday, February 22d, 1777… A scene something diverting, though of a tragic nature, was exhibited some time ago on this ground; the men died so fast for some time that the living grew quite wearied in digging graves for the dead in this rocky, frozen ground: when it happened one day that two of our men being dead, graves were dug for them, but whilst they were busied in preparing the corpses and bringing them to the place, the Pennsylvanians took two of their dead men and carried them to the graves our men had dug, having none prepared for their own, and were just finishing their last kind offices to them, in covering them over in our mother earth, when our men arrived with theirs, and finding the Pennsylvanians making use of their repository a wrangle between the two parties ensued; and finally, our men proving the strongest dug up the others and buried their dead in their own vaults, so the others were obliged to cover their dead in gutters with logs and stones, thinking it too hard to labor so much for those whom they might never expect any return as to cover them with frozen earth.

Elmer’s morbid sense of humor here has to be appreciated. This is a scene of men literally fighting over holes in the ground – holes with dead bodies in them. It doesn’t get much better, or rather much worse, than that. Though I am a believer in the value of historical recreation, I can hardly hope (and do not wish) to ever recreate such a scene. To me the beauty of living history lies in recreating the normal and the every-day more than the extraordinary. However, I gained an unreasonable pleasure from recounting this gory tale to tourists (don’t worry, they loved it). And in reality, retelling this farcical episode was a way to share in the every-day experience of 1777. In the telling, I shared in the macabre enjoyment Elmer experienced writing the story down to begin with.

So next week or next winter, when the weather again drops below zero, and this story of Pennsylvanians too cold and miserable to dig a grave for their companions pops into your mind, look this post back up and share the story with your friends. Your retelling is its own small reenactment of Ebenezer Elmer’s experience. Use it to look back and understand both the hardships and the senses of humor of those who came before us.

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116 Hours

It is February, and my museum is closed for the winter. We’ve been closed since early November, and we won’t open back up properly till May, but lest folks forget us, we like to open up for a day or two during the cold, dark part of the year on some pretext or other. Because of this, we’ve scheduled a Winter Family Fun Day this Saturday, replete with historical snowshoeing, tobogganing, and ice skating. My co-workers of the smithing persuasion have even made a pair or two of reproduction ice skates. We’d never done an event like this before, and we were pretty excited. The advertising was done. It was on people’s schedules.

And then our beautiful, seasonal snow and ice disappeared in an unseasonable warm patch last week.  Winter Family Fun Day was no more.

What with all that advertising though, we were not at all keen to cancel the day. And so this Monday, when the forecast indicated that the weather really would not be cooperating, we sat down and drew up a new plan. To that end, this Saturday you can visit our fort in the late winter of 1777. You will find an American garrison preparing for its coming campaign, and you will find a museum staff of half a dozen, plus a handful of hearty volunteers, preparing for their season to come.

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Group selfie from closing day, back in November. This is what a great team looks like.

That’s right folks, we are going to throw a living history event, and we’re going to do it in four days flat. Of course we picked winter, 1777, because we’re heading into an interpretive season in which we are depicting 1777 anyway, so this will be a dry run of that story. In a lot of ways, the work the staff has been doing since November (carpentry, gunsmithing, tailoring, researching military tactics, trying not to get stuck in the snow) resembles the work which occupied the fort’s garrison that winter, and so opening the fort to the public should be as easy as changing from jeans to petticoat or breeches and hiding the electric lights.

The whole team (all six of us) are voracious researchers, and so despite the fact that we weren’t planning on covering this material with the public till May, we’re pretty much set to talk at length to everyone who shows up. Our interpretive spaces need the floors swept (and in a few instances, modern tool or storage containers moved), but that’s about it.

I’m definitely bragging here, but we’re a kick-ass team of talented historians and material culture nerds. If there was ever a group to take a living history event from zero to sixty in 116 hours, it’s us.

Come visit Saturday from 10-4 and watch us pull this off with style.

Massacre the History?

The problem with bringing history to life is that – as an individual – doing it well sometimes means not doing it.

A month from today I’ll be in Boston to participate in the reenactment of the Boston Massacre. The Massacre, which occurred in the evening of March 5th, 1770, was an incident between British soldiers stationed in Boston, and a crowd of townspeople and sailors. Initiated by an insult to the soldier standing sentry, and his retaliatory blow, mobs of apprentice lads and sailors rapidly gathered. After some serious heckling, and with no direct order to do so, the soldiers fired into the crowd. A dozen men and boys were shot, several of them mortally.

boston_massacre_high-resFrom a living history standpoint, this is a phenomenal historical event to recreate. It is historically significant, dramatic, and extremely focused. The soldiers and the mob combined add up to less than 60 people, meaning that gathering the correct number of people to act it out is very doable. From the records of the soldiers’ trial, we know the names and occupations of many of the participants. The information from the trial is also supported by an engraving done of the event by Paul Revere. The events take place quickly, in a city square which still exists, in the dark of evening, which helps to mellow the surrounding modernity. On top of this it has cachet, and will therefore draw a crowd.

This sort of well-executed and well-researched reenactment is entirely up my alley. As a living historian, I want to be there. I want to contribute. I want my talented friends to come, and I want there to be meaningful roles for us to play. And this is where I find myself disappointed. Because of course, the “exciting” [i.e. shoot’m up] part of the Boston massacre took place in city streets, in the dark, between soldiers, and sailors, and apprentice boys. Though women were in the streets before the threat of imminent violence became obvious, the mob itself was not a place for women [or hardly a place for them – two were in fact in the front of the crowd]. And so [with those exceptions, making up about 5% of the total crowd] it is not a place for women.

I want to help recreate the events faithfully, but to do that, I should really leave once violence breaks out, just as the women of Boston no doubt did when they noticed armed mobs in their city streets. I should skip the denouement, go home, and reflect on the significance of men brawling over taxes. I should skip the part of the event that actually makes it into the history books.

I come up against this problem a lot, and it bothers me. A lot. There is a part of me that thinks, “to hell with it. Would it hurt to re-write things a little to depict a slightly fairer past?” and there is another part, of equal size, that thinks the idea of falsifying history for some theoretical, ideological “good” is morally reprehensible. I do not know the solution, I just know that sitting at home, wondering “how the boys are getting along at the event” feels like crap, and so does standing around at the event explaining how “as a woman, I probably would not have actually been here”.

I crave a solution where I have a sense of ownership over the parts of my history that my culture values. However, since those parts tend to be dominated by male figures, I fear I may need to get used to disappointment…

 

 

“Isn’t That Uncomfortable?”

When I tell people that I dress like it’s 1777 for work, it usually only takes them a minute or two to find their way to the question, “does that mean you wear a corset?”

The answer is yes. I mean, no, I wear stays. But really yes: I wear a structured undergarment designed to shape me into a fashionable silhouette. But I do that regardless, after all, what else is a bra?

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A lot like @AudreyPorne, I’ve got complicated feelings about structural undergarments and society. So when, after ten seconds, they come back with “isn’t that uncomfortable?” I try to answer carefully. Truly, my stays are very comfortable. More than that, they are comforting. The stays I wear are modeled on a pair from the third quarter of the eighteenth century, but they were artfully fitted for me, and the finished product feels like a hug. When I say that, I mean that my stays exert a slight, familiar pressure on my torso, like having someone’s arms wrapped around you at the end of a long day. It is a comforting sensation. However, have you ever had someone come up behind you and give you a hug when you’re in the middle of something? It has a way of impeding your freedom of movement. Hugs are great, but they’re not always convenient. So too with stays.

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In my stays I am coddled, comforted, and to some extent constrained. Some of my actions are impeded. Our Girl History from 1775 is okay with this, because her actions are limited not just physically, but socially. She will never become a soldier, and so the fact that marching all day, drilling with muskets, dropping to one knee to fire, and charging with fixed bayonets would be physically uncomfortable for her is no problem at all. Her society and her wardrobe are united in discouraging this behavior.

Our Girl History from 2016 (which is to say me, at work), on the other hand, is frustrated by this. In her world, gender ought not influence actions, and she’s happy to make that point by doing the same work as men. Just for the principle of the thing, she plans to carry just as much firewood as her colleagues in breeches do, but when she goes up the stairs with her arms full, she runs up against the brick wall of historical reality and trips on her own damn petticoats.

So when I am asked if I am comfortable in my stays, I take the time to answer as fully and truthfully as I can. It is no physical torture to wear stays. And there are few better ways to understand the lives of people hundreds of years ago than by wearing their clothes. But for me, wearing stays is emotionally uncomfortable, because it reminds me that I am telling a story about a society that permits half their population to exist with limited agency, and that one of the tools that society uses to limit agency is fashion. It reminds me that my life is limited in a similar way, if to a lesser extent. It makes me want to burn my bras. But I won’t, because that idea makes me uncomfortable…