In less than a decade, the United States will commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Revolutionary War, and for many Americans, the focus on our nation’s birth will spark a lifelong interest in our shared heritage.
Such was the case for noted Loyalist historian, author and Crossroads Advisory Board member Todd Braisted during the 1976 Bicentennial. Through personal recollections and photos, he shares the youthful excitement of discovering a new passion, along with the evolution of historical interpretation.
I confess it publicly: I am a child of the Bicentennial. My very last day playing Little League Baseball was the day I joined a Revolutionary War reenactment group in May 1976. I was twelve. Within a few short weeks I traded in my Louisville Slugger baseball bat for a reproduction British short land pattern musket. America was set to celebrate its 200th Birthday and at least one student of Lovell J. Honiss Middle School, me, would be taking part in it!
I joined up in the tiny town of Rockleigh, home to about 1,500 residents in the northeast corner of Bergen County. That May afternoon I was watching a Three Pounder artillery piece manned and fired by the “East Artillery Company of New Jersey,” a living history group that had recently formed. Before leaving that afternoon, I had signed up, along with my cousin Steve and my Uncle Bill who were with me that day. After getting home, I couldn’t wait to tell my father, who also joined, along with my best friend Scott, and his Uncle Jack and Cousin John. We nearly doubled the size of this group in one afternoon.
It didn’t matter that the clothing we wore was not authentic in the least, that the “18th Century cannon” had Studebaker wagon wheels less than 100 years old or that the group nearly rebelled when told they needed to wear accoutrements and camp equipage (which they famously referred to simply as “stuff”). All that mattered was we were honoring America, learning history, traveling to cool historic sights and taking part in once in a lifetime opportunities. Or so we thought…
The Bicentennial continued through 1983, although not nearly with the pomp and ceremony with which it started. No one was entirely sure living history (i.e. reenacting) would continue, at least as we knew it. You could make the argument it didn’t: rather, it evolved. A good number of the groups that had started off in 1976 never made it to 1983. My family and friends had left our original group in 1977 and formed the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, a Loyalist unit. We were pretty bad authenticity-wise for the first couple of years, but by 1981 we were as good as anyone on the field. Other new groups had started up as well, often with the remnants of previous organizations that had folded. And they all now sought improvement.
Those improvements were certainly on display when the 225th Anniversary rolled around in 2000. Those Bicentennial experiences paid off with new leadership and greater proficiency on the field and in teaching the Revolution to spectators. Now we are moving into America’s 250th, and living history is still here. A new generation of reenactors, along with some of us veterans (I cannot think of myself as an old-timer at the age of 53) will once again relive America’s past at the hallowed ground where American freedom was earned: Monmouth, Fort Lee, Princeton, New Bridge, Trenton, Morristown and all points in between. Will you be a part of it?