The First Re-enactment?

We often think of re-enacting as a modern phenomenon. Those of us familiar with the hobby can attest that re-enacting has evolved greatly since the 1960s and 70s. In those decades participants often made their own clothing and accoutrements, with varying degrees of accuracy. It was not uncommon to see jeans and modern military gear mixed in with poor copies of historic clothing.

Today there is a thriving reenactment community and an industry to support it. Various suppliers offer reproduction clothing, weapons, gear, camping supplies, food, and every imaginable item for nearly every time period.

Yet the roots of reenacting to back earlier than most might suspect. In fact reenactments were held during the American Revolution. The occasions were combinations of training exercises and patriotic celebrations. What follows are descriptions of early reenactments held during the war.

In September, 1778, the Continental Army was camped near Fredericksburg, NY. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Dearborn of the 1st New Hampshire wrote, “Our men had a Gill of Rum Extra to Day on account of its being the annivercery of the Glorious victory Obtained over the British army at bemus Heights- & the Officers in General had a Meeting at Evning had a social Drink & gave several toasts suitable for the Occasion- & our men had a Grand sham fight.” This, was, perhaps, the first battle re-enactment in American history. Unfortunately there are no details of this ‘sham fight.’

During the second Morristown encampment in New Jersey an even larger re-enactment was held by the army on May 29, 1780. There seems to have been nothing else like it, either before or since, during the conflict. Several participant’s accounts give good details, and unlike in many battle accounts, they all agree! Lieutenant Colonel Josiah Harmar of Pennsylvania wrote of this dusty and hot day, “Several Manouvers perform’d this day in presence of the Honble Comitte of Congress, the firings with black cartridges well executed.”

It was a dusty and hot day, recalled Ensign Jeremiah Greenman of Rhode Island. He wrote, “This day 4 Battalion paraded & went to Morris Town where they fired 14 rounds of cartridges & saluted the Committee of Congress which was here on business, settling the affairs of the army.”

Dr. James Thacher of Jackson’s Additional Massachusetts Regiment also wrote “4 Battalions of our troops were paraded for review by the committee of Congress, in the presence of Gen Washington, they were duly honored with the military salute.”

Lieutenant Ellias Parker of the artillery wrote of a “Review and sham fight to day by the Committee from Congress the maneuvers were performed exceedingly well by 4 battalions- I was ordered to & took the command of a 3 pounder on the Left of the 3rd Battalion- after which we had done maneuvering all the officers go to Col Abeals where we get a plenty of Grog .. the soldiers are all furnished with rum.”

Private Joseph Plumb Martin of the 8th Connecticut wrote, “About this time there were about 3,000 men ordered out for a particular field day, for the Prussian Gen Von Steuben to exercise his maneuvering … We marched off our regimental parades at dawn of day, and went 3 or 4 miles to Morristown, to a fine plain, where we performed a variety of military evolutions.  We were furnished with a plenty of blank cartridges, had 8 or 10 field pieces, and made a great noise, if nothing more.  About 1 or 2 o’clock we ceased, and were supplied with a gill of rum each.  Having had nothing to eat since the night before, the liquor took violent hold . . .”

Reconstructed huts at Morristown. It is not known where in the area the re-enactment was held. Author Photo.

Captain Samuel Richards of the 3rd Connecticut wrote, “On one fine day the army which then consisted of about 11,000 was paraded and divided into 2 separate bodies, one occupying a small hill and the other moved on to attack them.  In this sham fight the various maneuverings common in a real battle were acted over.”

Richards concludes with, “After the assailants had continued the attack for some time the reserves came up which turned the battle in their favor.  The usual shouting of the victors ensued, while the defeated retreated.  The victor then took possession of the hill and pitched their tents on the battle ground.”

NPS Photo.

Lieutenant Ekuries Beatty of the 4th Pennsylvania was not present but heard the racket: “I now hear a very heavy firing of cannon and musketry which is 4 battalions maneuvering at Morristown before Marquis de Lafyette and I am very sorry I had not the chance of seeing them.”

The soldiers used blank cartridges: powder only, without ball, for these sham battles. This was not only for safety, but to preserve precious lead. Were the reenactments valuable for training? Most accounts don’t reference the experiences being helpful in real combat. Interestingly these ‘sham battles’ as they were called, were not done by armies in the Civil War.

When the Revolution began to be commemorated a century later, sometimes ‘sham battles’ or pageants were held. Wildly popular in the early 1900s, they were planned more for dramatic effect than accuracy. Although many battles have been re-enacted, the Morristown re-enactment of 1780 has yet to be re-enacted.

In 1802 a sham battle was fought at Bennington, Vermont to commemorate the American victory of 1777. What makes this and other early battle re-enactments noteworthy is that Revolutionary War veterans, revered and celebrated as living connections to the conflict, actually would have been on hand.

Re-enactment proved to have practical value in the War of 1812. At Fort Meigs, Ohio in 1813, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh used a sham battle to draw the American defenders out of the fort. It was hoped they would be lured out by thinking that reinforcements were coming. The ruse failed it but was unorthodox.  

There was a large “sham fight” in 1854 to commemorate the battle of Monmouth, New Jersey. Others were held off and on through the nineteenth century.

Monmouth battlefield, a state park in New Jersey. Author Photo.

As the Civil war was breaking out in 1861, local militia units held a sham battle in Easton, Pennsylvania on George Washington ’s Birthday. The re-enactment involved companies of militia from the counties of Easton and Northampton, as well as local artillery. A reporter noted that, “some of the boys became unduly excited and began to fight in earnest.” 

Re-enactments have become part of the core programming at many historic sites. NPS Photo.

The hobby grew in popularity during the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s and Revolutionary War Bicentennial of the 1970s. Living history, or re-enactment, became integral parts of the commemorations and have only grown since then, now being major aspects of many historic sites. Yet its origins actually go back to the nation’s founding, to the very War of Independence itself.

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