April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
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.
Inside the nearby park recreation center, representatives of the 43rd, 10th, 64th, and 23rd regiments were holding a meeting to discuss such matters as discipline, recruiting, and the organization of re-enactments at other sites like Bunker Hill and Concord. Founded independently in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island, respectively, these regiments are now all members of the Crown Forces Association, dedicated to the proposition that representatives of the British Army, in Revolutionary War re-enactments, ought to look better rather than worse than their counterparts on the Colonial side. There was no levity at the meeting, and except for the accents and the concrete and plastic décor of the room, it was possible to imagine that it was a British council of war in 1776.
About one o’clock, to the thumping of drums and the shrilling of fifes playing “Rule Britannia,” the various British units fell in and marched up to the staging area from which the battle would be launched. Near the top of the hill a crowd of spectators was now gathering—something like two thousand people, which was a good turnout considering that it was the last day of the World Series and a big afternoon in professional football. Amidst a group of brightly uniformed officers the commander of the 64th Regiment of Foot—the host regiment—was giving last instructions for the order of battle. A stern-faced young man with a magnificent walrus mustache,∗ he was stressing the necessary safety regulations, since a great deal of genuine black powder was about to be exploded in the action. Ramrods were to be removed from muskets and rifles, and no musket balls were to be allowed in cartridge pouches. “I will personally boot,” he announced, “right in the arse, any unit that has a musket ball found on the field, and I have a big foot.”
∗ Face hair was not allowed on British soldiers in 1776, however.
“How much hill climbing do we have to do?” asked a white-haired redcoat who appeared to be in his seventies.
“Why don’t you hide behind a bush about halfway down the hill and just pop up when your unit comes along,” the commander of the 64th suggested kindly.
Promptly at two o’clock Mr. Cerak introduced a chaplain and a couple of local politicians, each of whom spoke very briefly over the public-address system that had been rigged up. The crowd paid little attention, since the Continental troops were now ranged on the hillside and a cannoneer could be seen ramming home a charge. The cannon went off, and the battle began.
The account on page 41 of the actual Battle of White Plains, in which several thousand British and American troops were engaged, makes it clear that any attempt to duplicate it with two hundred men in 1972 was doomed from the start, regardless of how authentic their equipment might have been. Nevertheless, the participants managed to put on a convincing show of what a small segment of that battle might have looked like. The British troops advanced up the hill, firing volleys as they came; the Americans replied with countervolleys and sniper fire, as well as frequent blasts from the field cannon on the brow of the hill. There was an impressive amount of noise, smoke, and flame. Despite an obvious reluctance to soil their expensive uniforms on the cold ground, a suitable number on both sides decided that they had been hit, and dropped or collapsed with an expertise possibly learned from many hours of watching “Gunsmoke.” One of the gunners servicing the American cannon got carried away and forgot to swab out the muzzle before ramming home the next charge; the gun fired prematurely, and the ramrod flew out and took off part of his hand. The battle continued despite the incongruous wail of an ambulance siren, and in due time the British retreated down the hill. (This concession to patriotism does not seem to have been in precise accordance with history.)
Afterward there was a formal awarding of ribbons to the units that had taken part, complete with eighteenth-century bows and military salutes. Then the troops marched back to the assembly area, where camp followers of the 64th Regiment had prepared a repast of baked beans and frankfurters. First, however, there was much brushing off of uniforms, and the pungent odor of Wash’n Dri’s suffused the autumn air. Soon, chartered buses were warming up their engines for the drive back to regimental hometowns.
The Battle of White Plains—at least for 1972—was