During an April reenacting event at Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site, two women began their tour of the elegant 1754 Georgian-Dutch style mansion in Vails Gate, New York. The women, among many other reenactors, were participating in the annual school of instruction organized by the Brigade of the American Revolution, a living history association dedicated to recreating the life and times of the common soldier. I didn’t get their names. They were dressed in period clothes and were likely portraying camp followers of the Continental Army, but I was more interested in their tour experience. This year was the first time that a part of the school was held at Knox’s Headquarters and the staff went to great lengths to offer something special to the members of the association and the public who attended.
We came before a guard at the front entrance who demanded we state our business. I was the most suspicious looking, dressed in a blue button-up shirt, blue jeans and sneakers; out of place and time compared to the multi-layered garb modeled all around me. However, I got through without drawing too much attention and immediately noticed the “something special” I was previously made aware of. There were no guides to take us through the historic house and no comprehensive narrative. Instead, the staff offered the theme, “living through customs of an 18th century upper class household.”
Historic interpreters and volunteers dressed in period clothes were placed in each room, all of which visualized a specific time, custom or military history this home and others experienced in the eighteenth century. Upon entering the center hall through the front entrance, I noticed the best parlor was decorated for Christmas. Opposite this room in the second parlor, family members were mourning the loss of a loved one during a wake. Down the hall and in the room on the left, American General Horatio Gates and his officers were discussing the conspiracy that would later be known as the Newburgh Address. Upstairs in the sickroom, a doctor was attending to an ill patient.
Chad Johnson, the Historic Site Assistant, admitted that in breaking away from the traditional tour the aim was to offer a sampler of the history the site interprets; “give people a survey.” As a frequent visitor to the programs at Knox’s Headquarters, I recognized some of the rooms from past events. Chad also saw this as a learning opportunity for members of the Brigade, who “often portray the poorest or common soldier, not an upper class household.”
“This is a first,” Chad confirmed. Something like this was never done before and he couldn’t predict how the visitors would respond to the special tour layout. “We’ll see if it confuses people or works,” he said. I was curious myself.
I continued my tour trailing the two camp followers as they peered into the best parlor decorated for Christmas. A look of confusion appeared on their faces. Christmas in April? Catherine Ellison, the hostess and the original owner’s daughter-in-law as portrayed by historic interpreter Karen Pena, was elegantly dressed. The room was decorated with fine greenery, fruit and set onto the dining table was a tablescape representing the Fortification of Dorchester Heights to honor their guest, General Henry Knox.
The women turned away and decided to enter the room opposite of it. I never asked whether that decision was a conscious one. Maybe a feeling of confusion turned them off in that moment or maybe the parlor decorated for Christmas was something they’ve experienced at other historic sites and they sought something new. They did eventually visit the room near the end of their tour open to the idea that it was not Christmas in April, it was Christmas in December when they crossed the threshold into the room.
I was delighted they decided to enter the second parlor first. I recognized the other rooms in the house except that one. A wake was in progress. Sunlight filtered through two large windows on the south wall onto a casket at the center of the room. On either side were mourners portrayed by historic interpreters, Staci Kerdesky and Lisamarie Nunez. The lid to the casket was leaned upright against the far wall. Black crepe over the doorway announced a death and the wake that took place. Crepe was used to cover a painting and a mirror, a practice explained to be derived from period folk traditions.
Reconstructing an 18th Century Custom
Historic interpreter, James Finelli, explained the deceased was interpreted to be Thomas Ellison, the first owner of the home who died in 1779. Thomas Ellison’s Last Will and Testament still survives to this day, but it offers no instructions on his funeral proceedings. Finelli explained that clues were gleaned from other primary sources to determine a typical practice and what the coffin may have looked like.
According to Finelli, “a 1770 print of four coffins of men killed during the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere served as the first model.” Additional research turned up a New England style where the edges of the coffin were curved, applied to the outside was a black or crimson silk and the interior was lined with linen nailed into a pleated pattern. Excavation reports of burial grounds became great sources to determine the type of handles used on coffins. One article about a slave burial ground in New York City went as far as diagramming handles and other artifacts found.
Before Finelli described what the model inside the coffin was wearing and why, I broke my silence and asked who made the coffin. He answered, “a majority of coffins were made by furniture makers,” but the coffin that sat before us was made by a restoration crew employed by the State of New York. This restoration crew services the needs of many historic sites in the region, but they sometimes have the opportunity to execute special projects like this one. James Decker and Sean Seymour were the crewmen involved in the project that also included creating the stands the coffins sat on.
I later reached out to James Decker who explained the work was based on his own research and the research provided by Chad Johnson and James Finelli. Decker added that the coffin stands were created “after studying furniture of the Hudson Valley and the workshops of Beekman Elting of Kingston, I designed the turnings similar to leg designs of the draw-bar tables they made.”
I continued my tour through the house, noticing the growing enjoyment of the two camp followers as they learned histories they may not have been exposed to at other historic sites. There were discussions on medicine, etiquette at the dining table and how 18th century civilians mourned the dead. This is where this event succeeded. Visitors who were drawn in by the site’s military history with expectations of canon and musket firings were exposed to the parallel history of wealthy civilian life. For the past 53 years, the Brigade of the American Revolution has been coming to the area annually to host the school of instruction. When they return next year, maybe they will bring with them a newly discovered appreciation for this familiar Revolutionary War headquarters.
Interested in seeing the coffin yourself? The coffin will be on display at the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site during their Memorial Day events, on Sunday May 24th and Monday May 25th at 2:00 P.M. A military demonstration and cannon firing follows the concert of patriotic music on Sunday and the graveside ceremony on Monday. For more information please call (845) 561-1765 ext. 22. Admission is free. New Windsor Cantonment is co-located with the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor at 374 Temple Hill Road New Windsor, two miles east of Stewart Airport and three miles from the intersection of I-87 and I-84 in Newburgh, New York.
Top photo of James Finelli, historic interpreter at Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site, greets visitors in the mourning room during the April 26, 2015 event, Revolutionary War Day.