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All Fired Up

Reenactors will bring to life the Revolutionary era's patriotism this weekend.

September 14, 2000|By BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

America's traditional fascination with the underdog can be easily traced to the beginning of this country, when George Washington pulled off one of the major upsets in military history.

More than 200 years later, America is alive and well, and so are the memories of those brave patriots. This weekend at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley, living historians will bring back those thrilling days of yesteryear during the Revolutionary War Weekend.

For the second consecutive year, the U.S. Continentals will square off with the British Redcoats. And it's not just a bunch of men playing army, according to Hank Kayser of Simi Valley, a Revolutionary War reenactor for more than 25 years and an NCO for his unit, Haslet's Delaware Regiment.

"We do a military encampment," said Kayser, "plus we have a number of civilians. . . . They do an 18th century fashion show. These people are in character and they talk about what their life was like in the 18th century."

Other living-history events will include demonstrations of metal-casting, spinning, weaving and other everyday activities from the Colonial era. There will also be gunfire from period weaponry. The number of Revolutionary War reenactors is comparatively small, so there will be no giant battles, but rather smaller--although still noisy--affairs.

"Because there are less than 50 of us, we do skirmishes," Kayser said. "We've done a Lexington and Concord sequence, a little Bunker Hill sequence and we also do a small phase of the Battle of Camden."

Reenacting is huge in Europe, a place with more history and more wars, where thousands portray soldiers from the Roman days to the present. The Civil War is the most popular in this country, but interest in the Revolutionary War is growing. Kayser, like many other living historians, got involved in his hobby as a black-powder shooter and took it from there.

"A number of us started out as muzzle-loading shooters," he said. "And when the bicentennial was rolling around, we wanted to do something concerning these guys who put everything at risk so that we could have a country."

Kayser's unit, the Delawares, was one of the best Colonial outfits during the war. Even though Col. John Haslet was killed at Princeton at the beginning of 1777, his unit continued to serve throughout the war. The perennial adversary of the recreated Delawares are the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

To join the ranks of the Revolutionary War folk is perhaps no more expensive than say, joining a softball team or a bowling league, and you're set for life for Halloween.

"It depends on how craft-oriented a person is," Kayser said. "The more he can do from the patterns we have, the less it will cost. There are some things ready-made, but a lot of things have to be hand done. It's opposite of the Civil War clothes, which were mostly loose-fitting. You could fit a Civil War soldier off the rack, but a Rev War soldier's clothes were snug."

The most expensive piece of equipment is the flintlock. Kayser's unit was issued the English Brown Bess, and a replica costs around $700. These weapons are capable of firing a .75-caliber ball, a projectile large enough to spoil anyone's day. But at reenactments, only black powder is used. So everything looks and sounds real, except for all that blood.

"Once we live-fired against a Civil War unit to see how effective Rev War firepower would be against theirs," Kayser said. "At close range and firing in volleys, our flintlocks could be loaded and fired much faster than a Civil War musket."

The Rev War people represent life for the common soldier in the ranks during the period, so don't expect a sea of people dressed as the period superstars--George Washington, Paul Revere, Benedict Arnold, King George III or Lord Cornwallis.

"We've had functions where they've wanted Washington standing at the door greeting people, which is something he wouldn't have done," Kayser said. "He didn't even believe in shaking hands because he felt that was below his position as commander-in-chief. They like to see him put in a white wig like in his portraits, but he actually hated wearing the wig and preferred his natural color hair."

For those who snoozed through history class, this is a chance to catch up on the facts, presented in an entertaining fashion. The Brigade of the American Revolution is an international organization formed in 1962 that now claims more than 5,000 members. It has performed for six presidents, and members know their stuff. And, according to Kayser, several common misconceptions can finally be laid to rest.

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