You say you want a revolution?

The Redcoat diaries, or visiting the Port-o-Potty in a tricornered hat
By JAMES PARKER  |  July 20, 2007

7:50 am. Military Road. We’re all lined up, unit by unit, waiting. Mist moves across fields of waist-high goldenrod, and someone offers me a pinch of snuff from a tiny tin box: one sniff sets off a carcinogenic light show behind my eyeballs. Yes, I am a soldier. I am something deadly, sheathed in tight hemp trousers, thumbing the butt of my saber — I hear the wet crackle of musketry up ahead and I yearn toward it.

To my left, the men of the 40th are playing a murmuring game of dice in an upturned hat. Deeply I love them, this July morning. To my right, a sociopathic lump of a sergeant is free-associating about death and buggery.

“You’re from the 20th, right?” I ask him when he pauses for breath.

“You heard of us?”

“Nope.”

“Don’t you worry, boy. We’ll have your ass bleeding by the end of the day.”

***
On July 7, with my wife and son, I drive up to Vermont to take part in the re-enactment of the Battle of Hubbardton. We travel under the auspices of the 40th Regiment of Foot, a Rhode Island–based group that since 1989 has been recreating a British Light Infantry company — an enemy unit, for those who need a history refresher course — on maneuvers in the Revolutionary War.

Prior contact with the 40th, at a meeting down in Providence, had already enlarged my sense of the re-enactment world: expecting hermetic nerds or history-sozzled weekenders, I found instead a crew of trim, articulate noise-rock fans, into Lightning Bolt and Mastodon, cheerfully sewing buttons onto their regimental pants.

“Re-enacting is where the art fags and the guys who like putting on costumes meet the metal-shop guys and the history buffs,” says 40th corporal Niels Hobbs, a 37-year-old marine biologist who has been “in the hobby” since he was 14. “It’s one of the only places where that happens.”

The 40th are actually very well regarded in re-enactment circles: not a “spit-and-polish” or “parade-ground” outfit, they are lean and dirt-covered “campaigners,” committed to roughing it in the spirit of the original unit.

While Civil-War re-enactment can be complicated by regional allegiances, among Revolutionary War re-enactors there is no stigma attached to playing “the enemy.” For Hobbs and his men, there is even a bit of bad-boy cachet: the 40th Foot were proto-commandos with woodsmen’s ways and close-fitting rock-and-roll uniforms. Among 18th-century troops, they were almost evilly hip.

Within minutes of arriving on the re-enactment site at Hubbardton, as the evening condenses into rain, the four privates from our group disappear into the woods to hew themselves materials for a leaf-and-branch wigwam. At some events hay is provided as rudimentary bedding, but none is made available at Hubbardton. For my family and for corporal Hobbs and his girlfriend, though, there are authentic linen tents.

Despite being constructed entirely of natural camouflage, the green and shaggy wigwam stands out: it is the only one on the campground, and the 40th are pleased. With this rustic bivouac they are making a “progressive” statement. A fellow re-enactor from a different unit wanders over to salute their efforts: “Nice camp, dudes!”

“I dunno,” says Hobbs, tattoos peeping out of his infantryman's jacket at collar and cuff. “I was hoping there’d be a few more of us here for this.”

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