(photo at left courtesy of Brandywine Creek State Park. Other photos by Tim Abbott or Talya Leodari)
Last weekend was the 235th Anniversary of the Battle of Brandywine, a key engagement in the American Revolution that took place in 1777 during the Philadelphia Campaign. Talya and I along several hundred reenactors gathered at Brandywine Creek State Park in Wilmington, Delaware to commemorate it with a living history encampment.
The host unit for this event was the 2nd Virginia Regiment, known in our hobby as valuing serious research and for setting the bar very high for authenticity. In coordination with the site, they arranged for both the Crown and Continental forces to have access to wood for constructing brush shelters, and excavated field kitchens for those who wished to prepare their meals as the soldiers we depict often did.
Reenacting culture varies from unit to unit in our hobby, and not everyone wishes to sleep rough and do a minimal, "campaigner" impression. This was an opportunity to demonstrate both to the public and to our fellow reenactors the techniques used to create and utilize these 18th century amenities. I had determined months ago that I would take full advantage of these options, and encouraged any in our regiment who wanted to help set up a brush arbor or dig a firebox and maintain an authentic camp kitchen to join me in that effort.
A brush arbor is a temporary structure designed to provide shade to a small group of soldiers who historically would not have had the benefit of the large, canvas awning flies that are prevalent in Revolutionary War reenacting but which belong to a later era. It consists of a number of pole saplings cut and trimmed and set in holes int he ground as uprights. To these are added additional poles as roof beams and supports, upon which are piled cut branches and vegetation to provide the shade.
I had prior experience erecting a small, emergency arbor at an August reenactment where temperatures reached the high 90s, but looked forward to making something more substantial at this event. To aid me I had my fascine knife and the assistance of fellow 1st NJ members Jeff Cox and Bob Boer. Jeff brought along a modern ax but we largely used the fascine knife to cut and trim the poles and branches we needed. There was a post hole digger available as well which proved a Godsend, because we soon learned we needed to sink the uprights at least 18 inches into the ground for them to be stable and secure. I suppose the 18th century way would have been to dig out a much larger post hole with a mattock ir pick which we did not have. We also learned that using dead wood for a long, diagonal rafter without a central support would place too much stress on the weight bearing wood, and our arbor came down inside its frame later on Friday night. Saturday morning, though, we had the kinks worked out of the design, and the result became a focal point for many reenactors and the public as they entered our encampment.
Next to the brush arbor was our field kitchen, which consisted of a 2' deep circular trench about 16' in diameter with the excavated earth piled in the center. We were to dig our own fireboxes into the side of the trench, about 1' square and 1.5' deep about 4" below grade. Above this, we cleared a flat shelf and dug a 4" shaft about 11" back from the inner wall of the trench connecting to the firebox. It was over this hole that we were to cook our food.
Jeff and I dug out the firebox, taking our queue from one that had already be placed around the circle. The idea was that up to 12 6-man messes could cook at this location, using less fuel than an open cooking fire and more easily supervised by their officers. We should have started our firebox higher up from the floor of the trench than we did, and closer to grade level, becasue we found that we needed a hotter fire to cook our food. We also found that smaller diameter twigs and pieces of wood worked best in the fire box, which was rather smokey. Noentheless, both we and our comrade John Funk cooked several meals in this manner, including a brisket and two large dutch ovens filled with chicken cordon bleu, which if not strictly an authentic soldier recipe was damned fine eating.
In addition to these two creations, there were other aspects of this event that provided added opportunities to demonstrate field fortification techniques, such as the construction of fascines, which were 6' bundles of wood used to reinforce the top of gun emplacements and to provide a degree of cover to exposed troops. There was also an authentic regimental sutler impression near the Continental field kitchen, and a presentation on the roles of black soldiers int he Continental army.
The upshot of all this effort was an event that it created more opportunities to inform the public, engage their curiosity and inspire impromptu living history demonstrations than are customary at reenactments. People were drawn to the unfamiliar fires and the shade of the arbor, and a number of the distaff and camp followers with period skills sat before their kitchen areas weaving baskets and providing additional teaching moments.
Some of this activity was spontaneous, and allowed participants to be even more creative with their impressions than is customary. I found it invigorating and am grateful to Todd Post of the 2nd VA, Thaddeus Weaver of the German Regiment, ours hosts the 2nd VA and the management and staff of Brandywine Creek State Park for making it possible for us to do this.