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The Redcoats Are Coming!

Revolutionary War re-enactors relive the glory days



War, like shark attacks and being cheated on, is an event most participants try to repress. Common post-war feelings such as shame, guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder are not the only reactions, however. Some people, living historians as they call themselves, fire up the time machines to visit a chimerical past of profuse bloodshed.

"Other people play golf on the weekends. I do this," says Captain Jay Callaham, commander of the Britannic Majesty King George III's 4th Company of Foot Guards -- and info tech specialist for United Guaranteed Insurance in Greensboro.

Revolutionary War re-enactors make up a smaller, more family-based community than Civil War re-enactors, says the event's director John Misenheimer. For one thing, women and children can camp with the men. But that's not the main difference between the re-enactment groups. "The Civil War still thinks it's going on, and the Rev. War knows it's a settled thing. Our guys, after the battle is over, they'll go and have supper and they're friends," says Misenheimer.

Misenheimer is a relative newcomer to the re-enactment world, having been inspired to take up fake arms after watching The Patriot. Callaham has been re-enacting for more than 30 years. When the bicentennial approached in the 1970s, he figured the bad guys would be underrepresented in the re-enactments: "How much fun would a one-sided fight be?" In other words, he isn't really a dirty Tory.

Callaham's brigade meets monthly to practice field tactics, drill and discuss generally how they can be more 18th century. During battle re-enactments most soldiers spend the whole weekend in period-accurate tents, eating period-appropriate meals while decked out in traditional garb. In Callaham's brigade, the average soldier drops about $1,500 on clothes and equipment. A Concord member sews most of the 4th Company's red coats. That way it's even more authentic than the clothing from retailers who design outfits specifically geared for re-enactors.

Callaham's red coat has visible stitching, because there weren't sewing machines in the Revolutionary War days. His rain jacket is made from terathane cut with turpentine and mixed with olive oil and iron oxide. After he first used the coat, the wet turpentine gave off such a noxious odor he had to store it in his garage. Despite not having a real British connection, many in Callaham's 4th brigade are planning to visit England this year to celebrate the real brigade's 350th anniversary.

Callaham correctly sensed the need for well-trained Revolutionary War-era British soldiers. His company has been cast as British troops in numerous TV shows and films including The Last of the Mohicans and The Patriot. Callaham himself commanded the British troops in The Patriot for the first battle scene. He was disappointed that director Roland Emmerich refused to listen to suggestions on how to avoid inaccuracies. For instance, the legend of Banastre Tarleton has been mythicized. Callaham says Banastre never tortured prisoners, nor did he kill women and children, as was depicted in the film.

Charlotte's "hornet's nest" nickname is another Revolutionary-era myth, but one without a clear origin. According to one account, an angry woman cursed General Cornwallis over a grievance she had with his soldiers, prompting the General to say to an officer: "Sir, I think we have stepped into a hornet's nest." Another theory has the name deriving from the battle of Bradley's Farm (aka, the Battle of the Bees). On one of their foraging expeditions, hungry British soldiers simultaneously agitated both bees and militiamen. Upon reaching into the hives for honey, the soldiers were attacked by the bees, and militiamen hiding nearby opened fire on the flailing Redcoats. (Some believe the militiamen intentionally overturned the beehives.) Still another theory attributes "hornet's nest" to the personalities of the pestering Charlotte-area militiamen.

This February's Rev. War re-enactment at Rural Hill in Huntersville marked the 225th anniversary of the battle of Cowan's Ford. I went hoping they might re-enact a tar-and-feathering. When it comes to humorous torture, nothing ridicules a foe like dumping a bucket of hot tar on him, sticking on a bunch of feathers and then watching him squirm (due to searing skin burns) like the foolish turkey you have just dressed him up to mimic. Unfortunately, the re-enactors didn't take requests, even when I shouted out, "Battle of Yorktown!" (That's the "Free Bird" of Rev. War re-enacting.)

A cold, constant rain came down from the heavens, perhaps foreshadowing the horrors that were about to befall the battlefield. Before the battle, Misenheimer inspired his troops: "Actually on Feb. 1, 1781, there was rain, so this is better." In the battle of Cowan's Ford, General William Lee Davidson got shot off his horse and killed. Without a commander, the confused American troops ran away into the woods. (Yellow bellies.)

The battle looked realistic enough to me, but I probably wouldn't have noticed if they used UZIs, or if they just decided to play laser tag instead, because I was shivering so much from the freezing rain and lack of umbrella. Out of the 50 or so soldiers that day, only four went down during the entire battle, even though many fake shots were fired from close range. It reminded me of play-shooting with my fingers and being disappointed that despite my audible "bangs" and "pows," my friends never took fatalities.

I asked one militiaman if his gun was a replica. "They're newly made. They're real firearms," he explained. "Now, the thing is, these are all smooth boards, they're not rifles." He shows me one: "This, actually, is the equivalent of a 12-gauge shotgun. It'll shoot a solid round ball, or it can shoot shot; it can shoot buckshot. I can shoot a round ball and three buckshot, which is bucketball, which they used to shoot. Or I can shoot birdshot. You can hunt with these legitimately in special black powder seasons. This weapon will take deer, moose, bear ... well, black bear."

The only black soldier at the battle interrupted: "You're an idiot if you want to chase a bear around with a musket."

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