Old Bedford Village: Drums in the Forest

Last weekend we went to Old Bedford Village.  This is a historical reenactment village in central PA, similar to places such as Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, or Strawbery Banke.  This weekend was Drums in the Forest: a reenactment of Braddock’s Defeat held every 5 years in the forest just outside the village.

We arrived in the midst of the reenactment.  As with most publicly viewable reenactments I’ve seen, this one seemed heavy on the show and light on accuracy (or, maybe I’m just an eternal critic who doesn’t know what he’s talking about).  It seems that when you’re reenacting a specific event, it’s hard to find enough properly uniformed troops, these days.  There were plenty of irregulars, but there didn’t seem to be enough properly uniformed British.  Truthfully, if I were tromping through these woods I’d leave my bright red coat at home too.

There was lots of smoke and plenty of muzzle flashes, but I had a hard time avoiding the image of a bunch of boys running around in the woods yelling “Bang!” (and this is coming from a “grown man” who plays with toy soldiers as a hobby).

Although I found the reenactment a bit disappointing, I consider that to be my fault and not theirs.  The whole family thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the village, and I was able to have fun once I managed to put things into perspective.  The permanent installations provided many good demonstrations of period industry and craft, and all of the reenactors looked and acted wonderful as long as I ignored the context of the massacre they attempted to demonstrate.  The reenactor’s tent encampment would have been a lot more interesting to me than the reenactment itself, but since they were actually living there (for the night), it felt like a big invasion of their limited privacy even though they probably expected it.  I expect the reenactors probably call us all “muggles” and complain about us behind our backs.

Personally, I find the individual demonstrations of professions such as leatherworking, weaving, cooperage, candle making, tinsmithing, and basketmaking in the context of the homes or shops where they were done a lot more interesting than presenters talking to an audience about what was done and why.  Orating about period Colonial dress is not as compelling to me as seeing the place someone lived, and experiencing the limitations of their life that inspired the solutions they implemented in their industry. 

The buildings at Bedford have interesting stories as well.  Some of them were moved, log by log and stone by stone, from other locations to this site.  I’m reminded of the family who tore out their new house’s “modernized” drywall to find a log cabin underneath… and they were wondering why it was so hard to run wires through the walls?

Fort Ligonier Day 2009

In August, we visited Pam and Bob in Ligonier for the weekend. While I was there, I learned there was a reconstructed French and Indian War fort there: Fort Ligonier. Who knew!

Every year, they have a weekend long celebration in Ligonier called Fort Ligonier Days. We went down last weekend, and went to Fort Ligonier Days on Sunday. There were a variety of arts and craft vendors around town, as well as special events at the fort itself.

Most of the craft vendors were’t my thing. Some of the artists with shops in town have much better work than the people they invited for the weekend. They did have an interesting blacksmith doing demonstrations, though.

I was more interested in the events at the fort itself. Besides reconstructing the entire fort in its exact original location, the owners have also crafted reproduction cannons, wagons, and other buildings on site. They held an artillery demonstration twice each day during the weekend, when they fired the reproduction Big Guns. They fired a wall gun, a swivel gun, a 6 pounder cannon (shown in the picture above) and a 12 pounder. I wouldn’t have wanted to be driving by during the demonstration: the guns are set up in “SUV hunter” positions on the highway side of the fort, and they’re loud!

Later, they held a small reenactment of a French and Indian attack on the British-held fort. During the war, the fort was attacked twice but the British held it both times. In the fort there were British and provincial troops, and the attack was made by a group of French who were camped outside the fort (as shown in the image to the right).

The French grenadiers threw grenades over the wall to get the defenders away, scaled the wall with ladders, and then blew up the gate to open it for the rest of the troops to enter. They then demonstrated standard European style combat with two firing lines. They fired their muskets (with blanks) but didn’t simulate casualties.

The fort is quite interesting. It’s located literally across the street from Bob and Pam’s house, right in the middle of town. It is completely unrelated to the government: privately owned, privately funded, and not a park of any sort. They allow tours through the reconstructed buildings on the premises (for an entrance fee), and have reenactments by volunteers several times per year.

Just before Fort Ligonier Days, I learned a bit more about the French and Indian War. Have you ever heard of “Braddock’s Last Stand,” aka the Battle of the Monongahela? Neither had I. But it happened only a few miles away from our house! Unfortunately the “battlefield” (it was woods, not a field, at the time) is now under a hundred years of city and steel mill, near the appropriately named Braddock, PA.

General Braddock was marching from Fort Necessity towards Fort Duquesne. Just after crossing the Monongahela, his slow-moving column was attacked by French and Indians. They were decimated because they maintained their European line formation and tactics during a wilderness skirmish. Braddock was wounded, and died shortly afterward outside Fort Necessity. A little-known officer named George Washington led the retreat, and learned from the mistakes made that day.

I’m not sure if I learned more about the American Revolution as I was growing up, or if I just remember more of it; in either case I’m sure it’s because New England seems to have a much greater affinity for the Revolutionary war than the French and Indian war.

Higgins Armory

There is a hidden treasure in Worcester, MA: the Higgins Armory Museum. I’ve wanted to go here the last few times I’ve visisted my parents in New Hampshire, but never got around to it. This time around, we made it a priority.

The Higgins Armory holds the second largest largest collection of Medieval/Renaissance arms and armor in North America, and it’s the only museum here which is dedicated to these arms and armor.

Mister Higgins was obsessed with steel fabrication, and founded a pressed steel manufacturing company. This venture made him rich enough to start buying up suits of armor. Eventually he had enough pieces to dedicate a building to their preservation, and the museum was born.

The museum has a great collection of arms and armor, primarily from the “Knights in Shining Armor” period. Interpreters are quick to point out that the period when full plate armor was used was relatively brief: a few centuries in the late Medieval period and beginning of the Renaissance, in Europe.

They have examples of several main categories of plate armor. Field armor is articulated, and provides full coverage without hampering movement during battles. Tournament armor was used for sporting events such as jousting. It was much heavier, and provided superior protection but only the minimum mobility required. Parade armor was light weight and provided almost no real protection. It was used mainly for decorative purposes and bragging rights. They also have a variety of weapons used by fighters wearing plate armor, and weapons used against fully armored combatants.

The Higgins Armory’s strength also reveals its weakness. Plate armor was used during a very short period in a very small part of the world, and the museum mostly ignores weapons and armor used in other periods of time and/or outside europe. They have a few samples of ancient and pre-medieval arms and armor, but nothing substantial. They have only one suit of Japanese samurai armor, but they do have a very interesting helmet patterned after a seashell.

Even in Europe during the late Medieval period, full plate armor was reserved for the rich elite troops. Most combatants were extremely lucky if they got brigandine coats or mail armor. There were a few token pieces of brigandine and mail, but it was obvious that Higgins was most interested in armor which might be reproduced using his pressed steel construction techniques.

Overall, I’m glad I went to the Higgins Armory. Unfortunately I expect “all the rest of the armor” is much less well preserved, even traditional Samurai armor. It’s probably best to live with reconstructions and illustrations for older types of armor, and to go to Higgins if you’re interested in full plate armor.