The critical role of New York during the Revolutionary War is unavoidable. The remnants of this history lie among its residents. Historic markers, landmarks and historic sites constantly remind us of the area’s significance, drawing visitors from all over. They exhibit stories about the aggression between the patriots and loyalists, the military struggle for the important Hudson River and the bystanders caught in the middle. Throughout the year reenactors will be called upon to participate in major events as walking exhibits of the past. Looking for an authentic experience, visitors will crowd before them and witness demonstrations of camp life, musket and cannon firings.
Image courtesy of New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site
Where do these Revolutionary War enthusiasts learn to walk and talk like their 18th century counterparts? Who teaches them how to interpret history to the public? For the past 53 years, fresh and seasoned living historians have been coming to the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site for just that. The Brigade of the American Revolution returns to the place of the Continental Army’s last encampment with their School of Instruction on April 25th and 26th between 10:00 A.M. and 4:00 P.M. For the first time this two day event will be shared between two sites. Following a day of the Brigade School and weapons firing demonstrations at the Cantonment on Saturday will be more of the same at Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site on Sunday. The firing demonstrations take place at 2:00 P.M. each day.
Through lectures and demonstrations, members of the Brigade of the American Revolution reveal a wide variety of 18th century period life and what it takes to recreate it. New Windsor Cantonment staff offer presentations on military medicine throughout the weekend.
3rd New Jersey Regiment courtesy of Dragoon Photography.
The remarkable variety of dress worn by participants provides a living window into the past. Standing ready to defend the interests of the King and Parliament are Green-coated Loyalists, Germans in blue and British regulars in red. Among the Patriot forces, you will not only find Continentals dressed in blue coats, but also regiments in gray, brown or whatever color happened to be available at the time. In addition to seeing colorfully uniformed soldiers maneuvering to the music of the fife and drums, visitors can expect to see women and children, the family members of the soldiers who traveled with the army.
Reenacting is a long standing tradition. The Brigade describes itself as a “non-profit living history association dedicated to recreating the life and times of the common soldier of the American War for Independence.” Since the organization’s birth at the New Windsor Cantonment in 1962, it has displayed this dedication through organizing and sponsoring events, educational seminars and distributing publications among their supporters.
Why They Do It
Although dressing in period clothes and reenacting the lives of the past is a tradition described as a form of patriotic expression, on a personal level each participant has their own motivations. So, a few reenactors were sought after and asked, “how did you get into reenacting and what keeps you doing it?”
Bob Winowitch is an event coordinator for the upcoming Brigade event and has a vast experience in living history. Involved in reenacting for 43 years; he has seen a lot. He’s witnessed the organization grow to about 1,500 members, making up over 100 units from the tri-state area to New England, the Midwest, West Coast, Southeastern United States and Canada. He simply answered, “My interest is in this time period and the friendships I’ve developed over the years!”
Image courtesy of Michael Sheehan
“It’s not enough to read how to fire a cannon, I want to go out and do it,” was the response by Michael Sheehan, a historic interpreter at Stony Point Battlefield State Historic Site and a member of Lamb’s Artillery Company since 2008. He has spent a lot of time in the history books, visiting other historic sites and soaking up information anywhere he can. He’s even contributed an article to the Journal of the American Revolution, but he still asserts, “to wear the exact clothing that 18th century soldiers wore, to march, drill, cook, and fight as they did is the ultimate learning experience.”
Reenacting isn’t all about building a library of information and the trivial details. For some, it is also about sharing the experience with friends. According to Paul Christophani, a United States serviceman and an active member with both the 3rd New Jersey and 5th New York Regiments, “We focus on education, but we also know that having fun for you and with friends is what makes the experience what it is.”
Image courtesy of Jana Violante
Jana Violante said that last summer was her first in reenacting, “It was fantastic. I’m totally hooked.” Woman weren’t allowed to serve alongside men on the battlefield but those like Jana are dedicated to recreating the role that women played as camp followers and keepers of morale. She was introduced to spinning, weaving and various fiber processing techniques while working at Van Cortlandt Manor and Philipsburg Manor historic sites. “That’s where my true passion stems from. Reenacting allows me to wear my research, craft and garments in real life conditions and experiences,” she said.
Certainly, living the life of a soldier, even if it is temporary, comes with some of the hardships: wearing wool in the summer and sweating, freezing in the winter, cutting your finger on a musket flint, or marching up and down hills before taking formation for a battle. These could be turn-offs to the hobby, but some may say that it adds to an authentic experience. Michael Sheehan expressed, “Going through the difficult aspects of the soldier’s life gives you a full appreciation for the sacrifice soldiers of the Revolution … have to go through in a way that literature alone cannot provide.”
Admission to both sites’ activities is free. For more information please call (845) 561-1765, extension 22. For a complete schedule of programming and more information about the Brigade of the American Revolution, visit their website, www.brigade.org. The New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site is located at 374 Temple Hill Road in New Windsor. Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site located at 289 Forge Hill Road in Vails Gate, a short drive from the Cantonment.