Stories and snapshots from the 2008 American Heritage Festival.
From the journal of Christopher Francis -- Patriot, Rebel, Pilgrim
Photos by Lady Rosemary & Sgt. Michael (more to come!)
Minutes away from the first wave of children and I am fighting the Battle of Tightened Knee. These standard-issue Continental Army breeches refuse to button without a struggle. I'm going to fix that last button on my left leg. I pull on it with a strategic tug and the pewter fastener slides through the hole. Success. All is fitting and proper as I stand with our French aristocratic allies and a few redcoats.
"Anybody need sunscreen?" one of the ladies offers.
"I do." I slather it into my face and quickly realize my complexion is turning oily white.
"You could be a member of the aristocracy with that white face," an ally snickers.
I rub it in with desperation, desiring to look like a proud soldier and not a Ghost of Revolution Past. With the help of the ladies, I remove any noticeable traces of protective coating.
The children approach our tent and display with a curious silence. I don't wait for them to offer a question as they stroll up to me in my red, white and blue uniform.
"Good day, ladies and gentlemen!" I greet with a light British accent, my enthusiasm powered by a strong cup of coffee a half-hour earlier. Tea will simply not provide enough effervescence, not after the long carriage ride from the enclave of Tucson.
"Do you have any questions about anything you see?"
They do. "Does that gun really fire?"
"Yes it does," I answer, pulling out a paper gunpowder cartridge and launching into my explanation of the 1777 French musket I hold in my hand. "The powder goes in the pan and down the barrel. The flint makes a spark against the frizzen, like striking a match, and that ignites the powder in the pan. The sparks go through this tiny hole in the barrel, igniting the charge in the barrel, pushing out the musket ball. "
"Now the ball would be in the bottom of this cartridge," I say, holding it up. "But for your safety and ours, we're not going to use one today."
"Are you going to die in battle?" a child asks.
"Hopefully not. But I shall take a few redcoats with me."
I explain it over and over as Le Compte and Le Comptesse show off their beautiful French 18th Century fashions. "What are the French doing here?" a card on the table asks for the inquiring child who picks it up. The simple explanation is that we need them, their money, and their supplies. The war would not be won without them, and not without their muskets.
"Have you seen the AK-47's?" a teenage boy asks.
"I am familiar with them," I say, in accent, in the mindset of a living historian who's seen the future but dwells within the past. "They would certainly make things a bit easier."
"You don't break character, do you?"
Nay, I do not. But I shall happily pose for a more than a few digital daguerreotypes, surrounded by excited children.
"Normally, we did not smile, but I shall smile for you."
Snap. "Thank you sir!"
I bow. "You are welcome, my lady! Enjoy your day!"
And the next group approaches. "Greetings!"
* * *
"Could you help us with some of the drill?" the Redcoat commander asks me.
I thought you bloody lobsterbacks were trained better than that, I think with a snicker. Yet I offer my services without hesitation, tacking on a disclaimer: "I may not be the best person to learn from. My manual of arms is a comedy of errors."
Three British Regulars and I sneak around the rear of the tent and go through the motions.
"Here's what I know. This is Shoulder Arms," I demonstrate, lifting my musket up with the right hand, thumb and forefinger clamped around the trigger guard. The redcoats observe and follow me.
"This is Right Shoulder Shift," I continue, lifting the weapon higher with the lock facing out. This is when I realize I’m giving Civil War-era commands. But fortunately, the British commander has the King's Manual at hand and can translate for me, substituting the word "firelocks" where necessary.
"It helps to think of each command as three parts," I advise, remembering some of the early drill advice I once learned from a Yankee.
The commander agrees. "Yes! 'One for the King, Two for the King, Three for the King.' We had that down the last time." Their training is rising from the depths of their minds.
"You all know how to load and fire, correct?" I ask, more for reassurance. But one of them has not handled a musket in many months, so I quickly review the steps. He is ready.
But honestly, if the King's soldiers are not battle ready, well, they may be dropping their Brown Besses like their compatriots at Prestonpans many years ago.
* * *
The group of young ladies intercepts me as I am calling the troops to muster. They carry tiny books full of questions.
"Who were the ambassadors sent to negotiate the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War?"
They've got me. I should know it, but my mind draws nothing. However, I have a response.
"That is an excellent question, my lady," I say in character. "Excellent because I do not know the answer. However, those ladies and gentlemen over there might be able to help you."
I am able to answer one other question for them about countries allied with the Americans, proving that I do have something to offer them, wanting to show I'm not here for looks. They scribble the answers down, thank me and move on.
* * *
"We need two people to go down on the second volley," General Washington explains, sketching out the scenario for the brief Revolutionary War skirmish. The flagbearer volunteers, and I step up for the number two spot after a brief silence.
It also seems a Molly Pitcher -- a charming colonial lady -- shall also be assisting us in this battle, taking up a musket after one of the Continentals falls.
We march off to the battlefield, and the hundreds of children erupt into cheers as we dress on the colors. They chatter with excited anticipation as the commanders and the flagbearers walk to the center of the battle to parlay. The discussion sours and the voices of General Washington and his British adversary rise. Our sergeant successfully hushes the giddy young ones. As expected, we're going to have to wipe them off the battlefield.
"Do we need to load as fast as they did?" the soldier to my left asks, referring to the speed of a well-trained Continental. "In 15 seconds?"
I doubt any of us could load that fast. I know I can't. "Load as fast as you can," I reply.
The Redcoats get the first volley out before we've barely fired a shot. I am concerned. I do not want to go down this quickly.
"That wasn't a real volley," a compatriot commander advises. "Let them get another one in."
They squeeze off two more. I join in two volleys of our own. The children lap it up, and they want more. A chant crescendos through the crowd: "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"
Then the Big Moment comes with jets of smoke from the British side.
"AGGGGH!" I scream, crumpling to the ground in dramatic agony, writhing from a virtual musket ball somewhere in my midsection. It doesn't matter where.
"You bloody redcoats!" I hiss as my fellow Continentals advance forward. I roll on ground and pull myself into a gasping crawl. "Back to England with them!"
The Regulars advance over me, adding a Brown Bess blow to the head as they pass by. But I know they're doomed.
It doesn't take long. A few more volleys with support from the American artillery and the redcoats are vanquished. Once I observe the desired outcome, I let the life expire from my mortally wounded body and die in the peace of the battlefield green... until the next order.
The children chant and cheer again as I pull myself up and brush off the grass.
"U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"
We respond with our own chant as we march off the battlefield.
"HUZZAH! HUZZAH! HUZZAH!"
* * *
The young lady in front of me swears she's seen me before. I expect her to tell me I look like a certain Revolutionary War soldier who just took that musket ball to the gut. However, she's comparing me to some heavy metal guitarist with long hair.
Granted, it's flowing out of my kepi as I muster with my fellow 1st Virginians. I've just lept forward 100 years in 15 minutes. The lady has lept even further.
"I'm not familiar with him," I say, honestly and in a southern gentlemanly drawl. It's the truth.
Nearby, the eager Federal recruits of the 1st Minnesota are ready to go, uniformed and anticipating a fight they get to win. Our basic scenario: we'll advance, they'll advance. We'll take some hits, they'll take some hits. We'll pick up some wounded, they'll do the same. The victory isn't the goal, it's the route we take to get there, adding just enough excitement to keep the kids entertained and guessing.
The 1st Virginians are in columns of four as they take the field. We reform into two lines and prepare to squeeze off a volley. An eager recruit dashes out from the front rank and runs straight into the Reaper as the bluebellies blast hot lead into him.
"Someone's always got to do it their way," I mutter as I pour a cartridge down my barrel.
Wait, something isn't right here. The files aren't lined up where they should be. Two men are standing behind one soldier in the front rank, and I'm one of them. It becomes obvious as I take aim with the rear rank. I can't lower my musket over the man's right shoulder -- somebody's already there.
The question is, can I do it safely over the left? I think so, if I give warning.
"Coming through!" I yell as we have all been directed when firing from the rear, careful to keep the proper distance. When the front rank takes a hit, I quickly step in and rectify the situation.
The Federals and Confederates push forward and fall back through several volleys, just as directed. I take a hit from a canister as directed and fall onto my canteen. It's more annoying than painful.
Once the Yanks have their victory, our commander reforms us for copious commendation.
"I'm so proud of all of you," he says, noting we have such a fine group of gentlemen among both the Blue and the Gray -- gentlemen who have done much to bless the children who have explored the camps and rooted for us from the bleachers. "Teachers come up to me and say they come here because we say things they can't say in the classroom."
* * *
I figure I've fired at least a dozen rounds, and it's obvious when it comes time to clean my 1861 Springfield. A few rinses with boiling water get most of the fouling out, but a cleaning jag attached to my ramrod lodges in with the residue of black powder.
A corporal supervising the cleaning has a solution: tying a rope around one end of the rammer and pulling with all his might while another private pulls on the stock of the gun. It won't budge. Another private joins into to provide more counterweight without success. Nobody is going to win this tug of war.
This is the second time he has had to do this, and I'm wondering if I'm using the right kind of jag for the job. Our corporal adds water to the barrel, then oil. A few more pulls with the rope, and the filthy patch crumpled into the jag finally dislodges.
Someone suggests a brush down the barrel instead.
Our Federal friends have it easier. Their Enfield ramrods have a gap designed to accommodate a cleaning patch, provided you can figure out how to slide one in.
"Come on, get in there," I mutter as I assist a 1st Minnesotan with the patch job. I've threaded needles easier than this. Even off the battlefield, those Yanks still taunt me.
* * *
Through the trees a figure emerges holding a picnic basket, dressed in the attire of someone seeking the Mayflower -- or in this case, a pre-Thanksgiving potluck meal.
The ladies and gentlemen notice I've slid back some 250 years on the timeline as they spot me in the brown and white attire of a Puritan, one wearing a cross over his large collar and a belt buckled with the letters "CS." A confederate Pilgrim?
"Did you bring any turkey from Hillshire Farm?" someone asks.
"No, but I brought Liberty Cookies."
Now that the children have departed, we take time to stand and offer thanks for all of God's blessings -- our families, our children, our friends and our fellowship with each other as we enjoy coming together in the cause of preserving the past. It's a misty-eyed moment for me as I offer my words of gratitude: "I am thankful for my arm healing so well over these past few months. I am thankful for all of your prayers. People ask me how I've healed so quickly. I tell them God is Great. That's all I need to say."
Prayers are offered for many of us, we learn, many times over. Wonderful things are ahead of us, our leader assures, big wonderful things. I know, and I believe.
My thanksgiving extends into the night, as I wander among the camps conversing with my friends in history.
"Do you have any stories about the Mayflower?" a colonial gentleman asks me after he invites me to sit with them around the camp fire.
None that aren't nasty and brutish, I tell him. "The 17th Century is not my area of expertise," I admit. "I don't feel comfortable doing an interpretation from that area." At least, not yet. He engages me with the story of some rambunctious Pilgrims I've never heard of.
I have so much to cram into my head and so little space for it, I often wonder. Even sponges leak water. As I write the first drafts of history in my modern working life, new facts crowd out old ones.
But when a lady inquires how I made the journey into re-enacting, it turns out I do have a pilgrim’s story to share.
"It started with a ball in 2006," I say, beginning the tale and its winding journey leading me to the Continental Line and then the 1st Virginia... and then, back to God.
I have told the tale many times now. Each time I feel my soul pour out through my eyes. I do not know if the others feel it. In the dark, nobody can see you cry. But they are heartened by my testimony, and as the water drains from my eyes I realize I am once again surrounded by Brothers and Sisters in Christ.
"Christopher was leading pretty much a normal life," our commander has shared earlier with the crowd. But it lacked meaning, he added.
"It's all about purpose," I say. That's why I do this. It’s why I dream about living history as an interpreter in Williamsburg, recalling my depression after spending four uplifting days submerged in the past and then leaving.
"But if I'm there," I wonder out loud, coming to a realization after another has talked about re-enacting in Arizona, "I can't do that here. So maybe God has put me right where He needs me."
The full moon illuminates the camps from above as cooking fires flicker among the tents. I offer nighttime greetings to few mountain men and World War II compatriots.
"What's that CS stand for?" one jokes at the anachronistic belt buckle.
"In this context, 'Christian Soldier.'"
* * *
It's a 28-pound cannon, brand new and waiting for a test fire, which one of our artillery experts performs in the twilight of the evening. The gathering of Confederates, Yanks and Virginia ladies cups their ears.
Fire and smoke flash from the mouth of the monster, setting off a rumble that triggers car alarms in the distance. Even without a ball, it's deadly at close range, and our commander gathers all the recruits for a safety lesson, conducted by a man with a lengthy artillery resume.
Small red flags mark off a safety zone, Raised sticks by the artillery men indicate a loaded weapon. Crossed sticks indicate a misfire. Any charging of a piece will not take place without planning beforehand, and even then, only when it's safe.
Merely looking at the cannon stokes fear with its five-inch-wide barrel. A ball would slice you to pieces along with at least twenty other men.
We return to positions behind the safety lines for another test firing.
"HUZZAH!" we cry.
* * *
Clap, clap, clap.
I hear it from my bed outside the camp.
Clap, clap, clap.
I know what they are doing.
Clap, clap, clap.
Some lively souls are dancing a Virginia Reel.
Clap, clap, clap.
But I am not by any means dressed for the occasion.
Clap, clap, clap.
I long to be with them.
Clap, clap, clap.
But I need to rest my bones for an eventful day tomorrow.
Clap, clap, clap.
Resist, young soldier, resist.
Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap...
* * *
Canvas tents flutter like sails in the gusty morning winds. With half an hour until the public arrives, President Lincoln is offering advice and assistance as I labor to keep one side of the French tent from tearing apart. We pull the guy ropes as tight as we can and knock a few stakes lower into the ground. That will hold the tent. I am still concerned for the ladies' skirts as well as the Scots in their kilts. Many an eye may have to be averted before the day is over.
It doesn't faze our commander. "I love how the flags flutter in the wind," notes General Washington as he leads the parade of soldiers and civilians onto the battlefield. A pair of young fifers add a patriotic accompaniment.
Families braving the winds fill the bleachers. They stand and pay tribute as we say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the National Anthem.
* * *
An experienced soldier notes we Continentals shoulder our muskets on the left. It’s a relief for my healing right arm.
"You three shall die for the cause of liberty this day," General Washington says to myself and two compatriots as we discuss the scenario for the first Revolutionary War battle. An artillery canister shall take us out after a set number of volleys and advancements.
We have the help of our French commander and young officer whose voice barks commands like a man twice his age. It won't be enough to save us in this first skirmish, but our French commander reminds us the British are trying to subjugate us from our God-given freedoms, and they shall not be successful.
Tell that to the artillery. One blast from across the field and three of our militia crumple to the ground. That was supposed to be our death, I think, but we shall live for a few more volleys.
“Ugh,” I grunt as I pull back the hammer on the 1777 French musket. This gun resists my loading efforts. At least misfires and pan flashes are not a hindrance. In the rush to load as close to the 20-second mark as I possibly can, I’m neglecting to use the my whisk and pick hanging from a coat button.
All does not end well for us. We shall have to wait for the second battle.
Getting back at the Brits take reinforcements. Our militia move in first, but they make little headway. Shots are exchanged, but nobody falls.
"Why is nothing happening?" a frustrated General Washington barks to a subordinate who has run back behind the lines. His Excellency soon sends in the Continentals. The contest is a technical draw but a Patriot victory as we chase the British from the field.
* * *
With my mind like a sieve, I continue to depend on friends who have developed encyclopedic knowledge bases. So I stand before a crowd after the battle next to a Continental commander who has ten times the knowledge of Revolutionary War facts and figures. I’m glad he can talk at length about tactics and battles because I sure can’t.
A friend disagrees. I have seen her many times before -- the lady in the black gown and matching parasol. She praises my presentation, whatever I have given.
“I try to focus on the big picture,” I tell her with gratitude, explaining that my mission is to make people care. If I can’t, then what am I doing here?
* * *
"Our scenario is similar to Chancellorsville," our Captain informs us. Sounds familiar. However, I expected to stay standing this time.
I struggle into a dragging crawl with another 1st Virginian to my side who supports me as the field doctor and a nurse inspect my wounds.
"Where were you shot?"
"In the gut," I say.
"Do you want to live or be mort?"
I get a choice? Well then, let me live!
The field nurse hastily dresses my wounds before moving on to the next body on the field. Another nurse comes by and pops a candy-flavored tablet into my mouth.
"Morphine," she says, dashing off. It's the best-tasting morphine I've ever had, and I've had the real thing.
* * *
“Are you making progress?” an 18th Century gentleman quips.
Yes, I respond with a smile as I stroll back into camp as a Pilgrim. I have accepted an invitation for a few rounds of swing dancing in the parking lot, yet the lady with the music is inexplicably delayed. I am seeking her out.
Ahead of me, crowded around one of the tents are the officers and presidents of times gone by, merry from toasting and celebrating at their traditional social.
“Come sing with us, Christopher,” a sergeant invites. I do not require much persuasion.
His Excellency General Washington and the others are sharing treats and praise and carols with each camp, the latter determined by request.
“O Holy Night,” someone prompts.
President Theodore Roosevelt, with his strong and commanding voice, begins the hymn of praise.
“O Holy Night, The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth...”
Every time I hear this carol, the rest of the world disappears and I recall the voice of Luciano Pavarotti singing it. The passion and power of the voices sink me to my knees, spiritually if not physically. He is not here. Yet the power of the message and the music moves me to join in on the final stanzas, even if I am unsure of the exact words...
“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!”
Mr. Roosevelt flashes a hint of surprise as I loose my voice in full volume.
The procession continues as we pay respect to all the camps, singing and praising and thanking and wandering on, picking up the curious and the joyous.
Our journey takes us from the past into the present day, away from the tents and into the boxy encampment of recreational vehicles, the domain of our Flagstaff contingent and at least one boy with a birthday.
At least three presidents, two French aristocrats, several 18th and 19th Century civilians, soldiers from North and South, Patriots and British Regulars and a “wandering Pilgrim” now surround the huddle of people in plastic chairs. Again we sing and take requests. Again, we sing O Holy Night.
We take another request. “Jingle Bells!”
Which version, though? The traditional version -- if such a beast exists? The rock ‘n’ roll version?
The crowd launches into what version we all know, and without warning or fanfare, President Roosevelt, our British Commander and another merry soul form a chorus line, laughing all the way.
“I think that’s the Rockettes version,” General Washington observes. Without doubt, we are in the mood to dance. Those urges must be satisfied with a Virginia Reel.
“Lead the way, William Bradford,” His Excellency directs, inviting me to start the procession to the parking lot.
The few couples I left behind are undoubtedly surprised to see me return with so many enthusiastic potential dancers. They are cavorting to the beat from a modern-day carriage. A lady tries to teach me the introductory swing step, but I can tell I will not learn it this night; my heart’s like a reel.
A French aristocratic lady has already accepted my offer for a dance. His Excellency calls the steps while the rest of us clap a noteless beat. Many of us are rusty on the specific figures, but it does not matter. We dance on and love every minute, turning and swinging each other around, honoring each other with bows and curtsies and leading the lines through an arch of hands. I try my voice at calling and realize I have a figure out of order. No matter.
Nobody is counting the minutes, but I estimate we dance for at least fifteen or twenty before cheering and clapping and paying honors to each other one last time.
* * *
“This match is supposed to be a technical draw,” I say to a comrade.
“Yeah. After 12 volleys, we’ll go to the scorecards. No standing 8-count, no 3-knockdown rule.”
However, our leader informs us the scenario will be the Battle of Cowpens, a Patriot victory.
“This is our last Revolutionary War battle of the day. Let’s make it a good one.”
He’s still dressed in the clerical garb of Rev. George Whitfield, carrying a beautiful new fowling rifle. But unfortunately, he’ll be fighting on the wrong side.
We take the field, skipping the usual parlay. “No promenade; let’s just get to the ball,” our leader quips.
As we form up, the rolling roar of a passing jet fighter falls upon us. “Air support,” a compatriot quips. Surely the patriot and regular alike dream about it.
Phase One: send in the militia. They take the field and draw the redcoats’ fire. Almost immediately, two regulars fall.
“They may not leave us much to do,” I think out loud.
They fall back, letting the British think they’re on the run. Thus begins Phase Two: sending in the Continentals. We unleash several volleys upon them, eating away at their numbers.
“Show zhem vhat these farmers can do!” bellows our French officer.
A redcoat ball fells our beloved Sergeant.
“You shall pay for that!” I scream as I struggle to reload. The testy hammer of my musket refuses to loosen in the height of battle as I force it back to sprinkle fresh powder in the pan.
We fire at will at them until at last the enemy forces wither and we are close enough to finish them off.
“Back to England, ye bloody redcoats!”
The British flee with us in pursuit. I run straight at their general, who halts and raises his hands. My musket is trained squarely on him until he graciously hands over his sword.
And that’s that.
As the crowds cheer and the casualties stand up and brush themselves off, the British commander and I exchange a hearty handshake.
“Good show,” I say in the tone of a proper English gent.
* * *
I explain to a family of three how my musket works, clarifying what they have just seen on the battlefield. Eighteenth-century warfare is a combination of shoot and move, stand and fight and advance.
“And vhere did zat uniform come from?” my French aristocratic ally injects.
“Oh, from a family in Louisiana,” I explain.
He means originally. “Oh, the French!” I remember. “The first Continental Line uniforms came from the French because they were ready to go. They had been made up for a previous conflict and then mothballed. So when we needed them, they were ready. They also provided this musket.”
Thank Heaven for the French. We couldn’t have done it without them, but we all need reminders.
* * *
“Forward march, double quick!”
Our young Corporal dashes us in formation across the battlefield into the trees for Stonewall Jackson’s famous flanking march at Chancellorsville. I’m shouldering my musket and running out of breath. My upper right arm is complaining about the weight. Fellow privates, all of them nearly half my age, barely break a sweat.
“Private Francis, are you all right?”
“Yes sir,” I pant. “I’ll be all right.”
“Let me take that.”
Without time or energy to protest, I let him take the Springfield rifle from my arms as I tough out the distance into the trees. Eventually I catch my breath and shake off the mild embarrassment.
We wait patiently from the tree line as our fellow 1st Virginians move into position. Timing is crucial if we want to take out the artillery as planned. Our corporal waits for a volley or two before moving the six of us forward. A rogue tree branch knocks the kepi from my head as I advance, and my Springfield jabs me in the face as I bend down to recover it.
Our small detachment fires upon the artillery in a leapfrog pattern. Every other man from the line advances forward and fires. While they reload, the others advance past them and shoot.
“Move up! Move up!” our Corporal motions to us. We’re kneeling, rising and shooting, and then kneeling again. This is where I explain to people why 18th and 19th Century soldiers shoot standing up. It’s so doggone hard to load a muzzle-loading musket while you’re squatted down.
Several volleys and we’ve eliminated the artillery. Celebrations arise from our Confederate brethren across the field as we stand in the rubble of dead Federals. It all looked too easy from here.
We would not be so fortunate on the second battle of the day: the disastrous Pickett’s Charge. A canister would take out nearly our entire company as we advanced.
But from the ground, I can hear the cries of 1st Virginians struggling to stay in the fight: “We’ve got to get them!” one grunts. “We’ve got to take them!”
So, one by one, fallen soldiers struggle to their feet and limp into formation, joining up with a crumbling line facing off against a confident company of bluebellies who just won’t die.
We charge the infantry in desperation and find ourselves fallen again, kissing the earth and dreaming of a victory we cannot win.
“The day is ours!” I overheard the Yankee commander tell his men before the battle. Indeed it is.
* * *
We have come so far, President Theodore Roosevelt tells the gathered masses. It is an exciting time of American invention and ingenuity in this year of 1908. The railroad and telegraph have brought us so far. The airplane holds much promise. Why, even the Chicago Cubs have had two championship seasons and we expect great things from them. But many challenges lie ahead of us, internationally, and we must be prepared to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Teddy Roosevelt could have made the same speech 100 years later, in this day of 2008, substituting the Internet for the telegraph or the Arizona Wildcats for the Cubs or the global dangers of terrorism for the conflicts of years past. But leave his spirit of optimism, his tough yet reasoned response, and his genuine belief in America. We want leaders who inspire us. We vote for them. We pay tribute to them. President Roosevelt, you’re still with us.
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