Monday, August 13, 2007

What is a progressive when it comes to Revolutionary War living history?


Though a veteran of many years in this hobby, I am often reminded that I still a "newbie" in the eyes of most of those around me. In a hobby with close to forty years of history, my years are not much at all. However, it does come with its advantages.

For the serious living historian, coming in late in the game gives you opportunities that your predecessors never had. While standing on the shoulders of giants it allows you to learn from all the research that they had to trail blaze, learn from their mistakes, and set out on new paths to push the envelope of authenticity and interpretation.

Another situation I have benefited from is that of starting a new unit. When a career change required me to move to a new location, it also required me to create a new "home" for living history. The nucleus of this new group was fellow "veterans" of the hobby. While there were research questions to be answered as to what our clothes should look like or what cartridge pouch pattern we should use, we all had years of living history "know-how" to draw upon. It also meant that we all could start with a clean slate. Units are like living entities of their own, over time they take on certain personalities, certain quirks, and certain bad habits.

General Steuben is quoted as saying the following regarding the mindset of the American solider:

"In the first place, the genius of this nation is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your soldier, 'Do this,' and he doeth it, but I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why you ought to do that,' and he does it."

Some things haven't changed. With forty years of research behind us, we have the luxury to look back at where we came from and conduct self-evaluation. As Steuben experienced two hundred and twenty-three years ago, some of the reasons why we ought to do some of those things we've always done need to be reexamined.

The Progressive Movement

The American Civil War living history community has been experiencing a growing trend in their ranks. They've come to be known by various names: campaigner, hard core, serious, progressive, etc.

Progressives have taken one of the mottoes of the 60s radicals to heart and applied them to living history, "Question everything." Like Steuben's Continental soldier, they want to know why they ought to do the things they do. This desire to rethink how we go about recreating the life and times of the common soldier has been coupled with a thirst for higher levels of authenticity and enough courage to take a hard stand on sensitive issues in living history.

This hard line grit has some times developed into full-blown evangelical zeal in a manner that is counterproductive, turning what they call the "main stream" of living history off because of the confrontational nature of their delivery. But their goal is true; the purpose of our hobby is to recreate the life and times of the common soldier to the best of our ability with the highest degree of the historical accuracy based on the best in current research.

As Revolutionary War living history is generally smaller, it has taken longer for this to really be called a "movement" as yet, but we are on the brink of it. This is not to say that this is a new concept, but the means for bringing progressives together within the hobby are making are becoming easier. With no rallying point such as the Bicentennial, when national attention was focused on our hobby, progressives of the past for the most part seem to have operated independently. This is beginning to change. The Internet and the commitment of some to pursue this course are acting as the binder for progressives in the Revolutionary War community to truly come together and make an impact.

Progressive: What does it mean?
To articulate this is tricky, less one falls into the pitfall the "hard core" partisans fall into, which is to create a hostile "us versus them" mentality. This does nothing besides create animosity and is damaging to the movement itself. The examination of what it means to be a progressive is meant to be prevocational though. It is meant to stimulate constructive debate and truthful self-reflection. If it can create healthy discourse that brings the authenticity of our hobby even the slightest bit closer to our goals, it is worth it.

It is important to note the points about to be outlined are generalizations, and as such, needs to be taken within context. They are broad statements within the context of what is common to the war, yet might be contrary to particular aspects of the war.

  1. A progressive's main purpose is to recreate the life and times of the common soldier to the best of their ability with the highest degree of the historical accuracy based on the best in current research. Acceptable limitations to accuracy are primarily health and safety. Another constraint is those areas where research has been exhausted with no results due to the loss of information over time.
  2. All clothing, accoutrements and personal belongings are recreated with the highest historical accuracy in materials and construction techniques. This applies to proper patterns based on research, proper fit according to 18th century practices, and employing period construction methods at very least where outwardly visible. There is an understanding that some items are not available due to the lack of a particular resource or the skills to reproduce that item. In instances where items already owned are known to be incorrect, this is acknowledged and steps are taken to correct the inaccuracy in a timely manner.
  3. Certain aspects of recreating the life of the Revolutionary War soldier cannot be reproduced such as the considerations of disease or injury. These can be interpreted for the general public, but not recreated, as doing so can often undermine the importance of these hardships.
  4. Impressions are based on diligent and exhaustive research, not assumptions or speculation. Quality primary research or extensively footnoted secondary sources should be the cornerstone of any impression. Research is not static; impressions should consistently be examined and reexamined. If in the course of this reevaluation of research new information is found with contradicts current interpretation, improvements and changes are necessary.
  5. There is a general effort to recreate what was common, rather than the extremely unusual or unique. While there are isolated documented incidences of such things as women disguised as soldiers and facial hair on soldiers, these sorts of things are far from the norm for the period. Given we can only attempt to represent the past with significantly smallernumbers, such impressions would present a skewed representation of the armies and society as a whole of the period.
  6. Recreating the common soldier means recreating his lifestyle as well. Soldiers generally did not have the luxury to have baggage carried for them, so personal items should be kept to what the soldier could carry with him. Likewise, shared equipment such as tents and cooking equipment should be representative of what was commonly available to the soldier, not simply common to the period, as life on the home front and in the field were very different. While in garrison, soldiers were known to increase their personal items, but as most events are representing armies on the move rather than in fixed positions, garrison impressions should be limited to the occupation of posts or towns, or recreation of sieges.
  7. Though not always possible, modifications of impressions to better suit particular events or scenarios are explored when possible. Progressives should attempt to insure that the clothing worn and equipment used is appropriate to the specific event being recreated and/or their specific impression being given.
  8. As 18th century soldiers were required to perform heavy physical activity, those portraying these soldiers should be capable of the same.
  9. Camp cooking should be representative of what was generally available to the soldiers, even if it is just in a "best case" scenario, rather than ornate cooking which though to the period, is more appropriate in a home kitchen. Foodstuffs should be limited to issued rations or what was seasonably and regionally appropriate to a particular scenario and cooked in a manner that would be common for the average soldier.
  10. The 18th century soldiers life was largely spend away from the battlefield. Taking this into consideration, everyday life scenarios are just as worthy of recreation as combat recreations. These include, but are not limited to drilling, martial ceremonies, sentry duty, food preparation, etc.
  11. As the war was generally fought using massed troop formations employing linear tactics, whenever possible units with consistent safety and authenticity levels should be willing to be brigaded together into larger formations, no smaller than a platoon (sixteen men). Command structure should be in balance with troop strength so that there are no more commissioned and non-commissioned officers than which are truly needed to manage the troops. Progressives should make every effort to brigade together in collaborative efforts at mainstream events.
  12. As 18th century soldiers did not exist in a vacuum, it is necessary to be just as knowledgeable regarding the basics of 18th century society and material culture. Such knowledge should come from respected sources with ample documentation.
  13. A progressive is a "team player", that is, works well with other units and sees events as opportunities to demonstrate by example. It is counterproductive to be confrontational or demeaning to others in the living history community, the best course of action to spread the progressive philosophy is to participate, leading by example while maintaining their own standards for themselves.

The Arguments against being Progressive, and the Rebuttals
There are many reasons not to be a progressive, but they generally are several variations of the same motives; it requires effort. Here are some of the most common reasons, and the answers to them.

"It's too expensive": Living history in general is expensive, but being progressive does not add significantly to the cost. Most of the cost is incurred in the initial investment of joining a unit and starting from scratch. As we are merely "weekend warriors", most of our clothing and equipment will last much longer than the 18th century soldier could dream of. If while in this initial investment an individual went that extra little step to use linen over cotton, or to hand finish their topstitching instead of machine stitching, the added cost is not great and the item will last a long time. The money you save by not purchasing needless or inappropriate impedimenta offsets these added costs. For instance, the $20 more you might spend on a linen weskit can be made up for neglecting to buy an undocumented lantern stand.

"It's a family hobby": Families and civilians certainly are important aspect of what we recreate, their roles are subject to the same rigors of authenticity as the hobby at large. It should not be forgotten that we are portraying the War for Independence, which means that realistically the military has the emphasis in what we do. Civilians are a very important part of adding to the complete landscape of the 18th century soldier, but a civilian impression requires the same amount of effort, less their roles are trivialized. Civilians always had a reason for being with the army; stragglers and idlers however were not tolerated, as they were nothing but a liability to an army. Impressions can be developed as wagoneers, bateaux-men, artificers, refugees, laundresses, nurses, and petty sutlers, which are just some of the portrayals which can be explored. These roles are just as educational to the general public as that of a soldier, if not more so, as they are often overlooked in our hobby.

"If you're so authentic, why don't you contract smallpox and use real musket balls?": Not to be undiplomatic, but this is truly a "head in the sand" response. Rather than looking at what tangible steps that the progressive philosophy is trying to emphasize, detractors are zeroing in on those conditions that can not be replicated. What separates from "playing soldier" and "interpretive living history" is the willingness to pursue what we can reasonably attempt to recreate. Though from an unusual source in a discussion of authenticity, the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer which asks for "The serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference" provides a good response to this excuse. We can not recreate the hardships of disease, wounds or starvation without trivializing them. Hand finishing our seams, using proper materials, and presenting a more "martial air" to what we do can be done. The wisdom is knowing the difference and acting upon it.

"We've always done it this way...":
For an organization born in the 1960s, it should not be too much of a stretch to embrace the ideology of the time of "question everything." Though history is in the past, our comprehension of it is ever changing. What we knew of the Revolutionary War forty years ago is vastly different than what we know today. Failure to implement new information as it is discovered is irresponsible interpretative living history. We should be able to answer the question the public is bound to ask, "Is this really what it was like back then?" with a straight face and straight answers. I came across a quote, which I can not place, but I think sums it up well: "Questioning is one of the noblest of human acts. As human beings require knowledge and truth in order to live successfully, questioning is also one of the most selfish of represents the struggle to discover the truth necessary to live."

"I don't have it documented to the war, but there is an obscure reference in...": Documenting an item to your impression is just as important as documenting it to the period. For instance, reflecting ovens are well documented to the 18th century, however they would be entirely incorrect for an army on the move. There might even be items that were issued to the armies, but incorrect in the context of which we represent. Bed rugs were some times issued in winter garrison, but to have one in your tent while portraying a battle which took place during a campaign when two armies collided with each other would be just as historically inaccurate as a wool/polyester blend blanket. Our portrayals should not only be accurate to the period, but accurate to the situation in which the soldiers were living. It would be like saying that a vintage 1940s radio could be toted around if portraying a soldier of World War II on the beach at Normandy.

"It's too physically demanding...": A soldier's life was physically demanding, therefore recreating the life and times of that soldier will have an element of challenge to it. Call it an occupational hazard. However, which sounds like more of a challenge? Packing a car, van or truck full of equipment, unloading it at the event, hauling it to where you are encamped for the weekend, packing the car, van or truck again at the end of the weekend and unloading it back at home. Or, leaving your gear in its period-correct packs and walking in and out of the event with those packs?

Some Final Words on the Progressive Movement
The progressive movement appears to be the "next step" in living history, the next evolution in a hobby that is based on history, but should always be changing. While it requires a greater attention to detail and perhaps a greater degree of effort in certain areas, and also eases our burden and is easier on our pockets in other ways.

The ideas and views expressed in this article are meant to advocate progressive ideals, not demand it. Participants in the hobby number in the thousands and some might find themselves leaning towards the progressive mindset, some may not . This is a personal decision either way. It is my hope though that this article was food for thought.

When we consider how much time, money and energy we invest in living history, we should also consider why. Is it just to "play soldier"? That can be achieved at the local video arcade or paintball establishment. If it is to understand and appreciate the "adventures, dangers, and sufferings of a Revolutionary soldier" as Joseph Plum Martin referred to his life as, we need to approach it with the level of detail it deserves.

This article was inspired by "The Campaigner's Manifesto" by Nicky Hughes regarding American Civil War living history. Thanks to Chris Anderson, Mark Hubbs, Chuck LeCount, Greg Theberge, and Rob Weber for their input.

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