Since I am not working, I have been pressed into field-trip chaperoning service for my grammar school grandchildren and occasionally for the youngsters at Hillside Middle School in Manchester where my wife, Jean, works. She is a counselor who works with the troubled kids, dealing with problems related to alcohol and other drugs, teenage pregnancies, suicides, gay and lesbian issues, and parental substance abuse and divorces. Because she does not have a definite schedule each day, she gets asked to chaperone quite often. If they are still shorthanded, I get pressed into service which is generally quite a treat for me. My busy wife manages to find time to bake cookies (favorites being chocolate chip, peanut butter and ginger snaps) for the students and chaperones who go on these field trips, which may have something to do with her selection as a chaperone all the time.
In my brief chaperoning career, I have been fortunate enough to see excellent plays at the Music Hall and the Capitol Center for the Arts and to take cruises on the Thomas V. Leighton, where we visited the Isle of Shoals and had the Star Island tour, and on the Mount Washington on Lake Winnipesauke. I’ve also managed trips to the Museum of Science and the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium with my third grade grandson. I was supposed to go on a field trip to Odiorne State Park a couple of weeks ago with my first grade granddaughter, but it was cancelled because of the concern over the “streaker” who has been loitering there.
A month and a half ago, on one of the few non-rainy days in May (it was slightly overcast which was actually good), one of the eighth grade Social Studies’ teachers, Bruce Batten, who is also a Revolutionary War buff and reenactor, brought a number of his fellow reenactors in full colonial uniform, along with a lot of equipment, to the open field beside Hillside and set up an encampment. These reenactors are members of the First New Hampshire Regiment, a military unit from New Hampshire that saw a great deal of action in the American Revolutionary War, most of it under the direction of New Hampshire’s General John Stark.
The First New Hampshire Regiment often marches in Memorial, Independence and Veteran’s Day parades. They participated in the annual Candlelight Stroll at Strawberry Banke in the Pitt Tavern last December. They have also appeared at several New England Patriot football games, performing at half time. As an aside, young Ethan, Bruce’s son, (more about him later) has become quite a favorite with the Patriots' cheerleaders; he has a wonderful photograph of himself surrounded by bounteous beauties.
Bruce Batten, a former New Hampshire Social Studies Teacher of the Year, offers this gift to his students as a part of living history. The students find out what it was really like during the Revolutionary War period and what the common man put up with as a colonial soldier. The kids were surprised and almost unbelieving of how difficult the times and the war were. They experienced the troops' deprivations and how primitive everything was.
Bruce does this each year, primarily for the eighth-graders. The students are divided up into four teams of about 100 students each; a different eighth grade team came out each school period. It was a fascinating event and a great learning experience, not only for the students, but for Jean and me as well. Hillside is one of the largest middle schools in the state and the reenactors had a number of items on display, many of them originals; thus the need for plenty of chaperones.
Bruce’s wife, Debbie, who is a nurse at Concord Hospital in real life, was playing the role of a widowed woman who follows the troops around to cook for them. I guess you might call her part of the support staff, as she baked several different kinds of fruit pies over an open fire, kept the troops supplied with coffee and cooked them a meal for lunch. Unfortunately, the pies were only prepared for the reenactors, not the chaperones, but they smelled delicious.
As might be expected, there was a display of rifles, muskets and pistols, most reproductions but one or two originals. I was unable tell the difference. Several gentlemen were on hand to explain what each gun was used for and to answer questions. The first was dressed in a typical colonial uniform, but the other was dressed as a frontiersman. He explained the use of the musket which is what frontiersmen used for hunting most of the time. One of the guns on display was a replica of a rifle made in England, and the soldier told an interesting story of how the rifle could be reloaded several times faster than the standard rifles used by the English and Americans. Somehow politics became involved and only 75 were shipped to the British troops. It is thought that the outcome of the war might have been different had the British received an adequate supply of those rifles.
Another display that interested the kids greatly, was one in which a soldier made musket balls on an open, extremely hot, fire. After turning the lead blobs into shiny, round balls, he handed them out to the students. He attracted all the boys who, of course, kept begging for more.
Powder horns were also on display. The soldier manning the table was able to show original powder horns, and he explained how they were used, some for powder and others for carrying other stuff, even water. Some of the horns were engraved and some were so well done that the engraving looked almost like calligraphy. It’s hard to imagine a soldier sitting around waiting for battle, cutting letters into an old cow horn and having them look so professional. Peculiarly, some of the words on some horns were misspelled, at least as we know the words to be spelled today. This may be because some words were spelled differently back then, or because the soldier was not educated enough to know how to spell properly.
Bruce’s son, Ethan (where do you suppose that name came from?), a middle schooler himself, somehow managed to skip school to demonstrate regimental drumming, as he is the official drummer for the First NH Regiment. It was the drummer’s responsibility to communicate the officers’ commands to the troops by using different drum cadences. It was not unusual for a 14 year old to be a regimental drummer, as older men were needed for battle. Nevertheless, it was a dangerous responsibility. In fact, some teenagers, not much older than 14, saw battle because the colonials were so undermanned. The kids found this hard to believe. Because another gentleman was there with a bag pipe, we were able to enjoy drumming and pipe music, separately and collectively, throughout the day.
Bruce’s and Debbie’s daughter, Emma, played the role of a sweet young maiden, helping out with the chores. (Both she and Ethan are high honor students in Concord.) Obviously this reenacting and encamping business is a family affair for the Battens, all of whom were appropriately costumed.
Colonial games and toys were on display. Surprisingly, a few were games that I recognized, having played them when I was a child, although most have not been seen for years, except in antique shops or at auctions. Some were quite innovative. There were games of chance, games with string, checkers, a game that looked something like Chinese checkers but wasn’t, spinning tops, playing cards and many others. An 18th century peddler was also on hand displaying a number of different articles used during colonial times.
Questions like “Did they really use those guns? Why would a woman become a camp follower? How do you go to the bathroom in those pants?” and “Were there soldiers really as young as Ethan Batten pressed into service?” were heard from the students.
(You might be surprised to find out that there is quite a multicultural aspect to the students in schools in Manchester. There are many Somalian, Sudanese, Bosnian, Asian, and a wide variety of Hispanic students at Hillside. Counting dialects, there are now something like 78 languages spoken in Manchester schools.)
Every participant in this encampment was in uniform or appropriate costume. The soldiers were not all wearing the same uniforms and the students wondered why. We were told that members of the First Regiment began the war wearing civilian clothing. As time went on, several different styles of uniforms were issued, mostly with brown coats, first with red facings and later with white facings. Some members of the colonial militia did not even have uniforms because there was no money to supply them. Or, if the first uniform issued was ruined, there was no money for a new one. The Americans would steal uniforms off dead British soldiers whenever possible. In order to distinguish their American uniforms from those of the British Red Coats, they would dye the coats brown. You could find American enlisted men wearing British officers’ uniforms, but that was sanctioned because the coats would have been dyed and the appropriate non-commissioned or private’s insignia would have been sewed on in the right places. In spite of the attempt for some uniformity, some uniforms had yet to be dyed, so there was quite an array of uniform colors on this day.
Students had a chance to practice infantry drilling under Bruce’s tutelage and to observe him firing his musket. Near the end of the school day, all the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students came out to observe the regimental cannon being fired off. Of course this was the coup de grace, as this huge artillery piece made a significant amount of noise, and Bruce and his entourage fired it off more than a dozen times. Each blast was preceded by a loud shout “HUZZAH!” to alert the troops (and students) that the cannon was about to be fired. There was considerable shrieking and screaming as the kids shouted their approval. One wonders what the neighbors thought.
All in all, it was a great day for both the students and for Jean and me. I happened to have served on the New Hampshire American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and participated in commemorations of the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of Bennington and have always found everything having to do with the Revolutionary War fascinating. The displays put on by Bruce Batten and his cohorts at this First New Hampshire Regiment encampment proved to be extremely impressive. Even kids who generally show little interest in school work could not help but enjoy and learn something on this day.
July 7, 2005
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