The Way It Was-more Or Less

PrintPrintEmailEmail

At one point in the Battle of White Plains an American militiaman whose unit was temporarily not engaged with the enemy called out to a nearby civilian: “Who’s ahead?” The civilian, holding a small square object up to one ear, replied: “Oakland, 3 to 1.”

That, however, was almost the entire extent to which modern reality intruded upon the twelfth annual reenactment of the battle, which took place on a park hillside just outside White Plains, New York, on October 22, 1972. The site was authentic; the season was right (the original battle was fought on October 28, 1776). And everything else was as authentic as many months of devoted attention, plus many thousands of dollars invested in uniforms and equipment, could make it. Some two hundred men took part in the re-enactment, the “British” outnumbering the “Americans” slightly; and on an average each man had laid out about five hundred dollars for his eighteenth-century outfit. From three-cornered hats or grenadier bearskins to boots or buckle shoes, nearly every detail had been researched and reproduced faithfully, indeed fervently, following the original Revolutionary War models right to the last buttonhole.

At eleven o’clock on Sunday morning Silver Lake Park showed meager signs of the battle scheduled to start there at 2 P.M. On an autumn-brown hillside falling away from the paved road at the park’s edge a few women were busy setting up a hot-dog and hamburger stand. Twenty yards away a flatbed truck decorated with patriotic bunting had been stationed; a sign on its side read: “Battle of White Plains Monument Committee Dedicated to Preserve our American Heritage. “On the bed of the truck a grayhaired gentleman in slacks and a chino jacket was adjusting a speaker’s microphone. He turned out to be Mr. Albert Cerak, a retired well-driller who has been the chief motivator of the White Plains re-enactment since 1960.

“The idea is to show people what really went on here during the Revolution,” Mr. Cerak told an inquirer. “We try to give a realistic re-enactment that is more interesting than the history books the kids read in school.” He said his committee is raising money to erect a large monument at the battle site; to that end it also sponsors a Washington’s Birthday costume ball and a Fourth of July pageant.

By this time two or three Revolutionary figures had appeared on the hillside. An apple-cheeked fifteen-year-old boy carrying a flintlock rifle and wearing a buff-colored fringed smock declared that he was a scout for the Westehester Militia and that he had made his leather leggings himself. A tall, redheaded young man in a handsome scarlet coat identified himself as a grenadier in His Majesty’s 64th Regiment of Foot. Without much prodding he pointed out interesting details of his uniform and went through part of the eighteenth-century manual of arms with his “Brown Bess” musket—which, he explained, he had purchased by mail from Japan for $160.

“It’s an authentic replica, though,” he said. “It has a 42-inch barrel and fires a .76 ball with this flintlock. I use it for duck hunting sometimes.” He was, he said, a college student at the University of Plattsburgh. On his splendid bearskin hat was a plate engraved with the motto of His Majesty’s forces: Nec Aspera Terrent .∗ He said he wasn’t sure what that meant.

∗ Hardships do not frighten [them].

On his invitation we walked down the hill along a path leading through light woods to the assembly area for the troops taking part in the battle. In answer to a question about his personal involvement in Revolutionary commemorative activities he waxed enthusiastic.

“A lot of guys tell me I’m crazy,” he said, “but I tell them we crazy people have the most fun. It’s a great hobby. Everybody in it pushes toward perfection. The minute you put on your uniform you feel eighteenth-century and you act eighteenth-century.”

At the bottom of the hill, by the shore of Silver Lake (which was not present in 1776), there was considerable precombat activity. An exceedingly plump sergeant stood before a “company”—perhaps twenty men—of the 43rd Regiment of Foot. In the manner of sergeants from here to eternity he was dressing them down for imperfect performance of their drill and exhorting them to do better when the battle began. “You guys damn well do what you’re told,” he said. “We’ll argue about it later.” Nobody smiled. The sergeant, it developed, was in real life a social worker from Maryland. His spectacles, he pointed out, were actually inherited from an eighteenth-century ancestor but were fitted with his own prescription lenses.