Re-enactment in the classroom

Here at the University of Northampton our first years have the option to take HIS1028 ‘United States: War and Society, 1610-2020′. I am a specialist on the eighteenth century, so I teach the segment that covers the Seven Years’ War and the War of American Independence.

I always start with a class on how to fight a battle in the eighteenth century. In order to understand this, you need to focus on the military technology of the time, and in particular the musket. This weapon was slow to load, inaccurate and short range, so to make the most of it you had to adapt your battlefield tactics to make sure that fire was concentrated and coordinated.

Explaining how it was operated is therefore important to the class. I usually use images and youtube videos to explain this (alongside miming with an ‘air musket’) but this kind of thing makes much more sense when you see it in action. So this year we did something a bit different.

Andy Smith is a re-enactor, and offered to come to class to display his uniform and kit, and to demonstrate his muskets. He came along in the uniform of an Irish regiment in the French service from the mid-eighteenth century. He was accompanied by his colleague Richard, dressed in the uniform of a Prussian Landwehr regiment from the Napoleonic Wars.

They brought a selection of guns from the seventeenth century to the First World War, in order to demonstrate how the technology changed. Andy explained how they were used, and the implications for how soldiers fought. The rifles of the late nineteenth century were much more accurate, long-ranged and quick to load than their musket predecessors.

Students had an opportunity to handle the weapons, and were struck by the weight and length of the muskets. It took quite a bit of physical effort just to level the musket, and even moreso when a bayonet was attached. This also provided a useful lesson in how to handle historic artifacts, and the ways in which weapons of war need to be approached safely and respectfully.

Historians of material culture like myself argue that there is no substitute for encountering an object. You can learn a certain amount from a written description or an image, but questions such as size, weight and tactility can only be explored by engaging directly with the artifact. And as re-enactors know, you learn even more by using them.

After the classroom demonstration we therefore moved outside to a grassy area on the outskirts of campus. The landscape was perfectly flat, just like the ideal eighteenth-century battlefield! Andy and Richard gave us a firing demonstration of a selection of the muskets and rifles, while the class stood a safe distance away, marshalled by the university Safety team.

It was fascinating to see them load the weapons, which showed just how tricky and unreliable it could be. One firing resulted in a ‘flash in the pan’, where the charge did not ignite properly. It was also interesting in terms of sensory history. Soldiers armed with muskets had to bite off the top of their paper cartridge, so they often got some black powder in their mouths, which is very salty and dehydrating. The different sounds of the muskets and the rifles were also noticeable, from the ‘boom’ of the Brown Bess to the ‘crack’ of the Martini-Henry.

This was a fascinating exercise, which added to the students’ understanding of war in the past. Some passers-by were also able to enjoy the spectacle, having been drawn to the site by the loud bangs and the clouds of smoke!

Matthew McCormack

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