Those that serve in the ranks rarely have a comprehensive view of the ebb and flow of the battlefield, nor a strong sense of overall strategy. In the American War of Independence, even those with field authority often lost their ability to coordinate and respond to unfolding events once the smoke grew thick and the units spread out. Battles in those conditions soon came down to what the NCOs and their various platoons and sections did to carry the fight forward within their own narrow spheres of influence.
This was certainly the case last weekend at the large battles and small unit engagements that played out at the 2011 "Escape from Wyoming" Reenactment. The scenarios for the three big fights were discussed by the commanders, then relayed to their subordinates by the Brigade Major and passed on to the senior NCOs. The nature of the ground, though, and the generality of the battle plans, left a great deal open to the changing circumstances of the fight, and it was this combination of strategy and uncertainty that made for such a rewarding and exhilarating experience for participants.
As a lowly private in the 1st NJ Continentals, mine is not to reason why I was initially sized for the second rank of my platoon, even though I am among the shortest in the line and was shorter than my file partner in front. Nor was it necessary for me to know that the first battle was actually intended to be a reenactment of the historic 1778 engagement, which fact I later learned from a new friend: a senior British officer who kindly avoided trampling my fallen carcass as the Lobsters drove between our divisions in the last engagement.
"In the script, the British were never supposed to get on the field, but remain firing from the woods while the loyalist brigade turned your flank, and broke you. The redcoats only came on to try to push the militia and continentals off. They were told by me--nobody goes down except militia until the second field. There we took plenty of hits. I had trouble moving my horse around the bodies."
Nocturnal high-jinx notwithstanding, this is a safety-conscious hobby, and both The Continental Line and The British Brigade take it seriously. When we charge bayonets, they remain in their sheaths. We have safety inspections before and after each fight and rules for operating in proximity to artillery and the public. We elevate our muskets when the enemy is close. Dehydration, sunburn and preexisting health conditions are the greater threat to our physical well being than the firearms and artillery we play with.
Still, the freewheeling nature of the tactical demonstrations - open order fighting in the woods, and even one that took place at night - and of the second and third battles that were intended as open-ended contests, made for lots of adrenaline and an historically appropriate amount of uncertainty.
We have very few contemporaneous, first hand accounts of Revolutionary War engagements by
enlisted men, a good number of whom were illiterate. Most of what has come down from common soldiers of the Revolution was written more than half a century later in veterans' pension applications (often via amanuensis). What they saw, or thought they saw, must be evaluated in that context. Here, then, is what I saw, or thought was going on, in each of the three fights that I took part in at Wyoming.
I formed up in an amalgamated company of two platoons under Captain Murphy of our sister regiment the 2nd NJ. This included elements of the 1st and 2nd NJ, 6th PA, 1st MD/DE and 1st Continental Regiment, under whose colors we fought. Our 1st Sgt. was my comrade Eddie Koenig from the 1st NJ, and the Sgt. of the 1st platoon where I was placed was David Skorka of the 2nd NJ (soon to be my collaborator in song and other deeds of daring do well after dark).
We represented line troops of the Continental Army, but received instruction in light infantry tactics for this fight which we hoped to have an opportunity to use. We were in the light division under Major Vogeley of the 1st NJ, and on paper this also included a company of Light Infantry (3rd and 5th PA and Wayne's) under Captain Jordan, a Rifle Company under Captain Faust (Donegal's and the 1st PA) and Billy Myers with Coren's Artillery. There was also a second Continental Division, along with both mounted and dismounted dragoons, and Crane's 3rd Continental artillery. The militia under overall Patriot commander Lt. Col. Stephens had their own encampment with line, rifle and artillery companies, but I only saw fragments of their fight.
The ball opened with us marching in column from our encampment, across a bridge and along the edge of a steeply sloping field bordering thick woods, dense with flowering mountain laurel. We could hear the militia fight up ahead the the war whoops of indians (ours or theirs) that sounded not a bit like Whoop-ie-ti-yi-yay, as you might have expected for a battle called Wyoming.
We came to a woods road and the cannon fire was closer now. We took a path to the left and emerged just below Lt. Col. Stephen's cabin at the militia camp, conveniently but imprudently located just beyond the rise from the vast encampment of the crown with a narrow field between. There were enemy infantry in the woods across from us, and the militia had already been pressed back against the onlookers by both loyalist and british units when we reached the field. We primed and loaded and poured a couple of brisk volleys into the exposed enemy flank without much effect.
I am contending with a soft frisson, a condition which makes my Brown Bess fail to spark far more often than is usual. This was unnerving, but less so than when we actually did deploy in extended order in the next fight and I and my file partner were firing in pairs, or rather, he was firing and I was hanging fire.
I did manage to fire several rounds in the first battle, as it appeared that there many more of the bloody backs in the woods across from us than just British lights. I saw the Black Watch there for certain, and saw them even better as we withdraw toward the crest of the hill and I did the honorable thing with a misfiring firelock and took a hit. I lay in the grass until the battle passed me by, but then with the action resuming in the field we first had skirted, I determined that it must have been a spent ball that knocked me down and was able to regain my feet.
Regaining my unit was something else again, with the Royalists between it and me. I followed a line of militia through their camp in company with a member of my company who took the field in a scarlet short coat, and this created a near friendly fire incident as we came out of the trees behind some mililitiamen. I requested of Col. Stephens whether I should fall in with this unit or try to rejoin my company, and he pointed to the proud, tattered flag of the 1st Con and instructed me to cross the battlefield to them.
This I did, just in time to be pushed back still further, cutting my finger on my gun flint while trying to reposition it to strike the frisson better, and blotting it on my cheek which cause several of my comrades to ask if I was truly injured. I also stood in the front rank, a position I retained for the remainder of the Wyoming fights.
This first battle closed with the full might of the Crown pressing down the edge of the field toward us as we executed a strategic withdrawal and the militia were charged and captured. So ended the intended reenactment of the actual Wyoming massacre, from my perspective.
During the lull between engagements, I managed to get myself captured by a patrol of the King's Royal Yorkers. I had wandered down to the pond to get a better look at the Battoe "Moon", not realizing that the British ensign at their camp meant that she was still in enemy service. I was paroled shortly thereafter,and thought in parting I should accept what I thought had been an offer of a beer in the Crown Camp in recompense. I can neither confirm nor deny that the rescinding of such offer influenced my involvement in the King's Sausage incident in the wee hours of the following morning...
The second battle was the high water mark of Patriot arms, and took place later that day. We assembled in the (marshy) field before our own encampment, and were told to expect the Lobsters and their allies to try to overrun our camp. We heard them working along the edge of the pond, screened by the trees, and the militia were hitting them hard but they kept extending their lines and working around the flank. Major Vogeley ordered the rifle company to go forward and stop them, then shifted us and the artillery to shadow members of the Loyalist lights that were now in the woods on our right flank. We extended our lines and held them out of our camp with open order firing on the spot, and they eventually were pushed all the way around, through the parking lot, by our other continental division.
Major Vogeley said that there was no scenario for what would happen next, so we countermarched back to the sound of the guns where we found the main Royalist force. We fired several rounds, or rather my comrades did as my gunflint shattered. Then we charged them and drove them back toward the bridge. We were considerably exposed at this point, but they were not able to rally in enough strength to force us back. The other Patriot units came up on our left, and once again we charged. We overran elements of the 10th, 23rd and 42nd and captured them, driving the enemy back over the Bridge into the sloping field. We even found a deserter in the uniform of the 43rd, who was known by his ginger hair, and who we spared the gibbet and later joined our merry singing in camp that night.
We learned later from our officers that our ability to shift and cover the field impressed their British counterparts. I should say at this point that it seemed as if there were more crown forces available for this weekend than patriot, and I believe this was certainly the case on Sunday when some of our numbers had left.
I cleaned my musket thoroughly and replaced the flint, but was not at all sure it would behave the next day, so I did not participate in the honors rendered with a memorial salute that evening for the farmer who had made this extraordinary property available to us before his passing. Instead, I took pictures, and there was a very strong turnout by the Continental, militia and Royalist forces. We also enjoyed a complimentary ice cream social and a tavern at Col. Stephen's cabin, and there was much fraternizing that evening and well into the wee hours. I did not take part in the night tactical, but understand from those who did that even with a nearly full moon there were numerous friendly fire incidents. Instead, I fell in jolly company and paid an audacious visit to the British camp, the result of which has already been memorialized in a lyrical broadsheet that can be seen in the previous post. I will either be hanged as an enemy of the crown or become a campfire legend (perhaps both). Joseph Plumb Martin was a scamp as well, so I can claim to be keeping true to the period...
Perhaps it was the loss of the King's Sausage, or perhaps they were still smarting from the drubbing they received at our hands the afternoon before, but the Crown came at us with everything they had for the final engagement. Our plan was for the Light Division and all our artillery to receive them at the bridge as they fought to reach our camp, and for our other division and dragoons to hide in the woods on our left flank. We were to be the bait, and draw them into the field where we could go at them hammer and tongs. We also attempted this maneuver with our senior commanders out of view, since they were known to the enemy, in the hope that they would be confused as to whom they were fighting.
I heard later from our commanders that they felt this plan might still have worked if we had extended our lines and not let them get around us, but from where I stood - and all too soon, fell - we allowed ourselves to be split like kindling. Our cannon fired hot and heavy on the lead elements, that filed off into the woods on either side of the bridge. The Hessian grenadiers made for the trees by the pond, and the lights made for our left flank. We were soon under cannon fire ourselves, and then suddenly a very large number of the enemy rushed over the bridge and deployed in our front.
We took heavy fire and fell back to the road that ran through the field from the pond to our camp, and here I decided that will my musket unable to spark at all I should become a casualty. I dutifully, fell face forward, but this time did not have the benefit of the cape of my hunting frock to shield me from the sun because it being very warm I left it in camp and fought in my smallclothes. I had my cocked hat over my face and my comrades firing just above me, and the cannon fire was all around me. Then I lay in the sun as my comrades were pushed back and the redcoats drove further into the field, coming between our division and the other continentals where were eventually flanked at the side and rear and captured.
Captain Murphy later said of the engagement:
"Swarms of densely packed redcoats came through that opening while we and the great guns blazed away and very few went down. At the same time, only 15-20 minutes later I was thinking that we (our company, only possibly just our platoon) should surrender, run off the field or begin taking serious casualties. Unfortunately, we were kept too busy to follow through with any of those options."
Captain Murphy had his back to the pond and only some swift talking and slight of hand spared his colors. Maj. Vogeley said Sunday was definitely a dogfight and was right pleased by our performance even as our clocks were cleaned.
Both sides then formed up and rendered honors and the dead arose and rejoined their units, myself among them. The Crown forces did so with fixed bayonets, and I will confess I was prevented by a touch of shock and awe from getting a picture of their ranks.
I should have used more sunblock, and I need to attend to my frisson before the next reenactment, but otherwise feel I was able to give credit to my sweatsoaked uniform. There are some excellent videos making the rounds on Facebook of some of the better moments in the 2nd battle, including a counterattack launched by the other Continental division where they tagged a cannon. The Highlanders had a stealth photographer who took these stunning battlefield shots of the kilties.