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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