On Saturday it was tough to tell if you were in the 18th century or the 21st. The 2011 Revolutionary Germantown Festival brought a slice of the American revolution to the Philadelphia community at Cliveden House.
In October of 1777, General George Washington launched an attack on the British opposition during the revolutionary war. Every year since 1973, Cliveden has commemorated the Battle of Germantown by hosting a reenactment.
The site is grassy and trees shade the battle grounds. Drum rolls mark the start of the reenactment and about 150 men dressed in authentic style Revolutionary War uniforms begin to march. Spectators surround the action and the crowd is collectively jolted as the first shot is fired.
One spectator, Leonard Kennedy, is wearing a white cowboy hat and jeans and has come to the battle with his young daughter who is poised on his shoulders. A reenactor himself and army veteran, Kennedy is just here to watch but knows that reenacting is about more than showing up on battle day. Most troops prepare about a month in advance by drilling. Reenactors spend their own money to obtain costumes and weapons and cover travel expenses. “Even though you don’t have the fear of actual battle, it’s exciting and exhilarating,” said Kennedy, who believes that reenacting is an important way to preserve American History and most who participate are sticklers for authenticity. When a British reenactor is “shot” and falls to the ground, cheers are heard. The fallen soldiers won’t be getting up until the reenactment is over.
Tom McGuire, an author, teacher and local historian, is considered by many at Cliveden to be an authority on the Battle of Germantown. He’s been narrating the reenactment over a loudspeaker at Cliveden during the battle for the past 15 years and is also a reenactor. He is particularly fond of this event because Cliveden’s Chew House, where the British were barricaded during the battle, is still standing and bears the scars of the battle.
As an historian, McGuire is a fan of primary sources. He has studied colonial war documents, diaries, art and all of Germantown’s 18th century buildings. As the narrator of the reenactment, and as a teacher, he strives to make the event feel real for the spectators.
It’s often hard to hear McGuire over the booming cannons and muskets. “That was one of the things I mentioned,” he said. “You can hear all this noise and there’s only 150 reenactors. Imagine being in a battle where there’s 12,000 people.”
Larry Schmidt, dressed as an American Revolutionary War solider, has been reenacting since he was 12 years old. A fellow reenactor passes by and cheerfully calls Schmidt a “history geek.” His reasons for participating are deeper. “People ask me, wouldn’t you want to live back then?” We get to go back to our comfortable houses, we get to rise up off the battlefields.”
As smoke from the artillary drifts over the crowds, reenacting soldiers rub their eyes. One woman dressed in colonial wear commented, “unfortunately the British always win.”