During the Revolution the British army, under the command of General Cornwallis, briefly took over Williamsburg in 1781. They abandoned it a few days later when they headed to Yorktown, where they expected to be met by the Navy, who would pick them up so they could live to fight another day. Instead, they were greeted by the French Navy--and coming down the road right behind them was General Washington. The British were surrounded and they surrendered. Ta-da.
Last weekend CW hosted a re-enactment of the British taking over Williamsburg. They hired several professional interpreters to play Cornwallis and his men, but they also had camping for "amateurs," meaning groups of people who interpret various battalions and troops of soldiers, along with civilians or camp followers. These are not your weekend interpreters, oh no--a lot of them wear clothes more accurate than CW's allotments, handsewn and so on, and they know their history frontwards, backwards and sidewards. Friday afternoon I saw people "hiding" their cars in the employee parking lot so they could walk to the historical area in full dress, carrying period camping equipment. There were even toddlers running around in little gowns. Aw.
It was bloody hot on Saturday, so I didn't dress up originally, but Dad and I ran into a couple of colleagues who convinced me to slip on the ol' red stockings and dive into the fray. It was sort of like being at a renaissance festival--it was more fun if you were dressed up. The British (along with a troop of Hessians, boo, hiss) had set up checkpoints at either end of the main drag, and you had to either show a pass or tell them the password on demand. They handed out little pamphlets containing "The Rules:" Anyone in period dress was subject to questioning and search. If you weren't okay with that, you should change into 21st century clothing.
About a half hour after I returned petticoated and capped, a soldier asked for my pass. Indignantly I told him that I had lived in Williamsburg all my life and that I didn't need a pass to get around. People started looking at us. The soldier called over a corporal to arrest me and escort me to the magazine, where a small tent had been set up for dissenters. As we were walking I tried to get some of the modern tourists involved by telling them about the indignity of being arrested, but they mostly goggled.
When we got to the magazine I was put in front of the local authority--I never did get his title or his name, but apparently he was the one in charge of deciding whether or not you were a royalist or a traitor to the crown. He was handing out passes that showed the bearer had sworn an oath to the king. I refused to swear the oath, so he made me stand off to the side in the sun. Meanwhile, Dad was hanging around in the background, taking pictures. Now, my colleagues had also followed us, and since they too were in period dress they were also subject to questioning--but they quickly assured their loyalty and were issued with passes. I entertained the crowd by shouting out "traitors! cowards!" as they left. Then I was brought in front of the magistrate again. He made me take off my straw hat and my cap and then my shoes--I felt dumb because my hair was being held up by very not-period bobby pins and an elastic tie--but it was quite exhilarating because it was a little bit like improvising. I said I lived in the Lightfoot Laundry when asked, and he said "oh, are you a laundress?" and I said yes, thinking that would be a good job for a woman in my type of clothes to do. And if anyone asked, I could say that my husband had been pressed into the British Navy and that was why I was so all-fired uppity against the British.
We parried a bit more--he told me the light of King George's benevolence could shine upon me, I said thanks but no thanks--and then he ordered me put into shackles. When the soldier attempted to shackle me I tried stabbing him with my hat pins. No good--I couldn't get much leverage and he was wearing a wool coat. Like I said--total authenticity. Well...okay, mostly it was all in good fun, but I think they appreciated actually having someone resisting taking the oath for a change. Finally someone suggested putting me in the stocks, and my interrogator threatened to have me take my stockings off. Well, I wouldn't have minded agitating from the stocks for awhile, but the stockings were no go since a unicorn tattoo would DEFINITELY have been non-period. Also, I was getting hot, and hungry, and I had to work in a couple hours. So, broken, defeated, I allowed myself to take their stupid oath. I got the last word in though--when the questioner said that he would be sure to send some of his shirts my way I said "Oh sir, I shall give them such a scrubbing--you will not recognise them!"
The whole time this was going on we were surrounded by a couple of touristy families. I quite enjoyed the attention, actually, apart from thinking at one moment "what the hell am I doing?! I don't know anything about 1781!" When I was being shackled (shackles are heavy, btw), a soldier turned to a little girl and asked her if she would take the oath, or if she would like to be chained up with me. She quickly shook her head, even though I encouraged her by saying "Courage, friend, we must stand up to these tyrants!"
Even after I got my pass I refused to be quiet...as Dad and I were walking to the car (parked, luckily, right behind the Magazine) I shouted over the stockade "God save General Washington and General Lafayette!"
Oh man, it was a blast. I could have gotten arrested all afternoon--I would have too, if I had not had to work. Or if I had planned a little better I could have printed up some revolutionary pamphlets and had them be "found" on my person when I was "searched." Or at least done a little more reading about that year and that moment in history. I had an awesome time being part of the action for once instead of being backstage...I definitely need to get out in costume more.
Apparently, the Americans are coming in September, a reenactment of Washington's march on Yorktown. Some of the same regiments of people will be back--this time though, they'll be the Continental Army. Someone suggested I too should flip sides and become a rampant Royalist. Not a bad idea, actually, that way I get the best of both worlds. God save General Washington! Long live King George!