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Dressed For Battle

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On a field in Pennsylvania near Fort Duquesne Vince Watson stands at the ready, proudly wearing a gold-trimmed tricorn hat and a uniform of blue wool breeches, waistcoat, and stockings. As Watson reaches down to check his 1763 Charleville musket, something on his wrist glints in the sunlight. It's not a part of traditional 18th-century military attire--it's a 20th-century Timex.

The weekend festivities typically begin on Friday evening, when participants arrive and park their fully equipped Winnebagos or pitch their two-person tents in a mock 18th-century military camp. In the morning, members gather at an assembly to take attendance, check weapons, and "kit up''--dress in their period uniforms.

Because Watson's Revolutionary War unit was a civilian militia, the "kit'' is not a military uniform like the French marines' but regular dress of the period: linen or leather breeches, white stockings, buckle or tie shoes, a long-sleeved pullover shirt, a sleeveless vest called a waistcoat, a woolen outer coat for cold weather, and either a tricorn or farmer's hat. The weapons vary because the soldiers used whatever they could get their hands on: hunting guns, rifles, or arms provided by the regular military.

Re-enactment participants try to be true to the period dress. "We use original materials,'' Watson says. "People in the clubs can tell if something isn't authentic. But we do sometimes have to go by a guess.'' The Timex, he concedes, would have to go.

After gearing up, the battalions show their clothing and artillery to the public. The number of spectators varies from "under 400 to up to thousands, depending on how well the re-enactment is publicized, where it's being held, and what other events are scheduled along with it,'' explains Watson.

In the afternoon, the large battles are staged. Opposing sides face off in an open area and shoot at close range. Sometimes they fake casualties, but the point, he says, "is not to show people dying but to show how the wars were fought.''

On Saturday night, friends from across the country catch up with each other and talk about the day's activities. "You see a lot of the same people and get to know them at these things,'' Watson says. Entire families often get into the act, with women and children portraying "camp followers.'' Watson's wife has her own kit and occasionally goes along.

Watson says he hasn't been able to incorporate much of the history of the wars into his 6th grade social studies class, but as a history buff he considers the insight he gains from the re-enactments to be invaluable.

"Reading history and living history are two different things,'' Watson explains. "When you live it, you get to the truth of the matter, not just history book kinds of things. You understand why they did things the way they did.''

-M. Dominique Long

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