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Reenactor 101

Experienced reenactors offer step-by-step instructions for doing it yourself. 

Get Involved: Wayne McCarthy, 53, Waltham, MA

Wayne McCarthy

You don't have to be a descendent of a colonial rebel to act like one. Learn how the Lexington minute men convert a 21st-century observer into an 18th-century revolutionary.

Step One: Meet People
Visit recreations like the Patriots Day demonstration on Lexington Green. Talk with people there about getting involved.

"At the Patriots Day parade in Lexington, I happened to see [a man I know] marching down the street in uniform. And it was like, 'Oh my God! That's Dan.' ...I went over to him and began asking him questions. I was totally fascinated." 

Step Two: Ask Questions
Schedule an interview to make sure you know what you're getting into. A reenactor will tell you about the time commitment, costs and roles you might portray.

"It's a voluntary organization. You explain that up front: you tell them what the costs are going to be, you tell them where they're going to be Saturday mornings at 4am, that you have to get up and drive to Chatham and march in a parade at eight... We feel that it's better to let someone know up front than to find out after." 

Step Three: Get the Overview
Get oriented to understand more about your role and your new company.

"We try and give members an idea of what the different ranks are, who outranks someone else and what their function is, what their responsibility is. We do the best we can with the orientation to make the people feel comfortable."

Step Four: Research the Details
Choose a character, and prepare for your role!
"When we're on the green we all have a character that we portray... You find out a little bit about their background, their history, their family, as much as you can about that character. We read it to the company so that, what happens after a while, you know who the person is --'Fred' or whatever his name is -- but you also know him as 'Ebenezer' or 'Elijah' or the person who they portray. When you do that, it lends a little bit of reality to what's going on in the Green." 

Look the Part: Monique, 17, Lexington, MA


Step One: Know Your Clothes
If you are a girl, prepare yourself to be a little uncomfortable. You will be wearing clothes that are quite different in material and form. Don't forget your bonnet!

"The clothes are completely different from what I normally wear. Bonnets are always worn -- women always wear something on their heads. You can't see peripherally, which is kind of disorienting... The clothes are really heavy, the cape is really hard to keep on, the skirts itch and the bodice is always really tight." 

Step Two: Tie On Your Pockets
Colonial pockets look different from modern ones, but they serve the same basic function: keeping needed items close at hand.

"The pocket is a separate piece and it's just almost like this mitten with a slit down its side with a ribbon going through it. You tie it around your waist. The first year I had a cold, so I kept tissues in my pocket." 

Step Three: Practice Makes Perfect
After enough practice you'll overcome difficulties with your period outfit -- though it might take time.

"The skirts just refuse to work. It's one-size-fits-all so the string always tries to slip out of the scrunched-up part of the skirt. The bodice is impossible -- it's so difficult to wear one of those -- it's hard to lace it up because you have a square-shaped leather string you have to put through just slits instead of metal grommets. And you pull out all sorts of threads and stuff trying to get it on. But, I've learned how to put it on pretty quickly now." 

Step Four: Get Into Character
All laced in? Now imagine that you are in a different era.

"It's easy to ignore the audience because it's dark, you hear the bell tower ringing and you see all the men walking around with guns and you know that the British are going to show up. You can just imagine how frightening it would have been. The women back then were so much different than they are now. I hold myself -- literally hold myself -- a little more proper, less casual." — Monique

Know Your Weapons: Greg Hurleym 23, Arlington, MA

Greg Hurley

Take note of the explosive gunpowder, sharp bayonets and smoke during the battle reenactments. Learn what you need to know to stay alert and safe in a dangerous environment.

Step One: Understand 18th Century Technology
Find out how battlefield gear affected the fighting. Revolutionary-era muskets like the Brown Bess were slow to load, inaccurate, and could only fire their ammunition short distances. Enemy combatants often charged and fought in hand-to-hand -- or bayonet-to-bayone t— combat.

"The only way to make any solid impact was to mass volley -- hundreds of muskets going off at once, firing into a thick line. Once you got close enough, you charged at each other with bayonets, and the side which held the field was victorious... It was often decided with what we like to call '15 inches of cold steel.' So it was brutal."

Step Two: Pass Up the Ammunition
Be glad reenactors don't use live ammo! For every shot, a colonial combatant would pack a lead musket ball with black powder down into his gun. The musket ball hooked and curved wildly, but did severe damage when it hit.

"The ball is a .75 caliber... so it's fairly big. Lots of lead, which is very soft, so when it hits something it just splatters. Actually this is kind of gruesome -- it expands to about three to four inches around. So often you'd see exit wounds on men, just gigantic exit wounds... it made quite a mess."

Step Three: Study Your Moves
Get in training to master the choreographed troop movements and battle positions. Read the drill manuals and field guides put together by other reenactors, and attend drill practices. When your commander orders you to "Shut Your Pans!" you'll want to know what he is talking about.

"You have to have some sort of plan -- there's too much chaos out there to go in completely unprepared -- so we all try and keep it as safe as possible, and keep it as realistic as possible... We rehearse charging -- because the last thing you want is someone falling on their bayonet -- and we teach how to fire while making it look chaotic."

Step Four: Follow Safety Rules
Learn tricks of the trade for looking authentic while being safe. For example, the paper cartridges that you load into your musket will be similar to actual cartridges used by colonial troops -- minus the deadly musket ball.

"You throw the all of the contents of the cartridge down the barrel of the gun and fire it. Load once, fire it, load the next one, fire it, load one, fire it. Often we do this as group so that we keep the amount of lead -- or smoke in our case -- coming out of the line as effective as possible."

Make Music: Steve Cole, Jr. 26, Lexington, MA

Steve Cole, Jr.

Carry a weapon that's not a gun! Learn about musical troops, who use high-pitched flutes -- called fifes -- and drums to communicate battle commands and set a marching pace.

Step One: Start Early
You can learn to drum or play the fife at an early age -- younger than 16-year-old William Diamond was at the Battle of Lexington.

"I took lessons in fourth and fifth grade...The Lexington Historical Society supports the William Diamond Junior Fife & Drum Company. It's for ages seven to twelve and they taught us how to play the instruments."

Step Two: Make a Big Noise
Don't be shy! As the drummer or fife player, you will be the main line of communication between the commander and the troops.

"When you're on the battlefield, the captain will give the commands and it's often loud. The drummer will be right next to the captain so the firing militia will hear the calls through the drum. Drum commands signify 'Prime and Load,' 'Make Ready,' 'Present Fire'... to assemble, to retreat."

Step Three: Practice Moving
In the heat and excitement of battle, make sure you can move around freely with your drum.

"It's quarter of six in the morning... you feel that adrenaline going through your body like the men must have felt back then when the redcoats marched on the green. The first year I did it I had goose bumps... I used to tie a rope around my drum and my leg when I was younger, because it would bounce all over the place. But you get used to it."

Learn Outside the Book: Brian 13, Nashua, NH and Alex, 13, Lexington, MA

Brian and Alex

Immerse yourself in a reenactment to find out what's missing from history books -- the sounds, the smells, the early wake-up calls. There are plenty of roles for civilians. Experience it all firsthand!

Step One: Be There On Time
Think you know what a "midnight ride" is really all about? Get up super early to make sure you don't miss any of the action. 

"I get up at two o'clock, maybe. It's not that bad -- I don't really go to sleep." — Brian
"I get excited when I realize what morning it is and why I'm getting up this early... so I get up pretty fast."— Alex

Step Two: Try on the Clothes
Colonial clothes are a little more challenging than your regular clothes. Try on breeches or gaiters, weskits or smocks. 

"Usually I sleep in some of the clothes so I don't have to get dressed all the way."—Alex
"The pants are a little uncomfortable but you learn to live with it."— Brian

Step Three: Get an Assignment
During the battle you might run out to assigned fallen minute men to help them -- or mourn, if the character has died. 

"We stand by a rock and wait until the reenactment starts. We get assigned a person to run to beforehand so we know which person and where they'll fall down."— Alex
"The first time I didn't know what to do when the guns were firing because I never heard it before. It made me jump."— Brian

Step Four: Stop, Look, Listen
After all the hard work and preparation, make sure you enjoy the experience! 

"It's awesome because you get to watch everything happen in front of you like it's really happening. I studied this in school and it doesn't compare to being there and watching it."— Brian
"It's right up close and personal, not just words on a book or pictures on a TV."— Alex

Play the Games: Emily, 14 and Kelsey, 11, Lexington, MA

Emily and Kelsey

Imagine what 18th-century life was like beyond the smoke and chaos of the battlefield. Emily and Kelsey describe other reenactment venues, games, and fun — colonial style.

Find out about reenactment opportunities that don't take place on a battlefield: encampments, parades, and school visits.

"Every year my dad and my grandpa and some other minute men come in and talk to my class about all the different clothing and things that happened back then."— Kelsey

"We do school presentations and we go to different elementary schools and we show them our uniforms and talk about April 19th... We did a presentation where we were on the field, for tourists... playing games."— Emily

Step Two: Try the Toys
Check out colonial wooden toys. Some are still popular today, like the Jacob's ladder -- a stack of thin wooden pieces, connected by thread, that "flip" when unfolded.

"We have dolls and Jacob's ladders."— Emily

"There's the game with a string with a ball around it and you try to push it and get it into the cup."— Kelsey

"We play games where you have hoops and you have two sticks and you throw the hoop at someone else and they catch it with the stick."— Emily

"They also play checkers because they made the checkers out of wooden pieces. They would just find sticks and chop them up to make the pieces."— Kelsey

Step Three: Learn and Have Fun
Reenacting colonial life not only helps you understand history -- it's also a lot of fun! Once your friends see you doing it, they'll want to try, too.

"Doing the reenactment and being in the minute men is a fun way to learn about colonial times. It's exciting for me to be there in the moment."— Emily

"[Reenactments] are really fun for the kids. It gets them involved. After going to the parades and just watching, it's fun for them to actually be in it."— Tom, Emily and Kelsey's father

Bring Your Family: Linda Boardman Liu 38 and Paul Duval, 45, Lexington, MA

Linda Boardman Liu and Paul Duval

Reenacting is a great family activity. Kids, parents and grandparents can share the experience at weekend encampments or events like Patriot's Day.

Step One: Know Your Neighborhood
Explore your town's history. Visit the local library to track down information about interesting historical spots nearby.

"After I moved to Lexington, I saw the reenactments and then drove down to Williamsburg for the school holiday... The first thing they do in Colonial Williamsburg is give you an orientation film which starts off in Lexington and Concord. I thought, 'Why am I paying this money for something I can do for free in my own backyard?'"— Paul Duval

"I'm a native of Lexington, I've seen recreations all my life. I was in it as a child when my father was a minute man."— Linda Boardman Liu

Step Two: Include Everyone
Share the reenacting experience with your family.

"What I really enjoy is the family participation that we've gotten out of it... It's fascinating for me to see how — avoiding the anachronisms of modern day history -- you spend the day with a two year old."— Linda Boardman Liu

"My kids have experienced first hand what it was like to see a column of close to 600 regulars march through town. It's a very awe-inspiring sight. When they talk to the other kids about that, they add their little bit about the history. You can tell that there is a level of excitement."— Paul Duval

Step Three: Do Something Different
Recognize the ways everyone in your family can participate, and appreciate how different reenacting is from the other activities in your lives.

"We have modern, fully booked schedules -- very busy lives... It really is a matter of commitment... It's hard to get the kids up out of bed at seven o'clock to go to school, but it's not so hard to get them out of bed at three thirty in the morning to go down for breakfast with the minute men."— Paul Duval

"You join it on your own as opposed to something all of your classmates are in. It's more independent for a kid to make a decision to join a group like that -- kids like to do things that are kind of challenging, but fun."— Linda Boardman Liu

Balance Your Schedule: Paul O'Shaughnessy, 47, Lexington, MA

Paul O'Shaughnessy

Reenacting can be a year-round activity. Whether you dabble or dive in headfirst, you will need to figure out how to manage your schedule.

Step One: Be Businesslike
Understand that organized reenacting groups are small businesses. You may want to help out with logistics or support functions.

"You've got a budget of several thousand dollars a year at least -- in a good year it may be more -- and with that you have to purchase insurance, make arrangements for your drill hall, have regular meetings of your command staff in order to plan out the season, purchase material, repair parts, and contract with tailors."

Step Two: Be Careful with Then and Now
Be aware of how real reenacting can seem. Don't be alarmed if you find it a bit difficult returning to the 21st century.

"When you're out there on the weekend there is a gradual transition away from the 21st century and into the thinking and norms of the 18th century. If there is a difficulty sometimes, it's in coming back Monday morning and remembering what you were doing Thursday or Friday."

Step Three: Allot Time Carefully
Balance your time commitments and plan ahead. That way you'll make sure you're as involved as you want to be.

"This last weekend sort of went 'poof' for me. On Sunday, I had a walkthrough for a battle that we were planning in Sutton, Massachusetts next May. That started at about eleven o'clock in the morning and went until about three thirty in the afternoon. On Saturday I had some people over at the workshop -- which happens to be in the basement of my house -- to get some muskets fixed and to cast a few buttons and things of that nature."

Step Four: Collaborate
Make a connection between working together with other reenactors and the democratic ideals of the colonial minute men.

"The ideal of the 18th century -- and particularly of America -- was that everybody was an individual but you could also do great things through cooperative effort. That was what the minute men... were all about. That's why the British found it to be such a challenge to deal with. Today we find so many people where it's 'me, me, I, and me.' In order to join a group of this nature, you have to give up some of that identity."


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