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Published: Sunday, 6/4/2006

Kaboom! The battle's never really over for military re-enactors

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Tamia Land of Northwood sews suspenders into Blade staff writer Ryan E. Smith's uniform as he prepares for a re-enactment of Dudley's Defeat at Fort Meigs. Tamia Land of Northwood sews suspenders into Blade staff writer Ryan E. Smith's uniform as he prepares for a re-enactment of Dudley's Defeat at Fort Meigs.
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So there I was, dead.

Everything had been going so well. We had the British on the run, and we'd captured their artillery before turning to chase some Indians.

That's when I bit the big one, taking a fatal shot from an enemy in the woods. I cried out in pain and crumpled to the ground.

But I fell knowing I had followed my orders to the last, including these words of advice from a fellow soldier:

"I recommend if you die, die on your face."

It was a hot day, after all, and even corpses don't want to stare up at the bright sun.

These are the little tricks you pick up when you're a war re-enactor.

In this case, I was expendable - a private in the U.S. artillery regiment during a recent Siege of 1813 tactical demonstration at Fort Meigs State Memorial in Perrysburg. That doesn't mean it was easy, though.

I started practicing more than a month before the event with members of the Old Northwest Military History Association, a volunteer group of about 60 members that engages in living history and meets regularly.

I was not a natural. During marching drills, I always seemed out of step. When we handled our muskets, I always seemed to turn mine the wrong way.

Slowly, I got a little better. I even started to pick up some of the technical lingo. (For example, an artillery piece doesn't go "boom"; it makes an "earth-shattering kaboom.")

Smith fought for the American side in the battle re-enactment. Smith fought for the American side in the battle re-enactment.
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There were certain rites of passage I had to go through. One was firing my first musket, which exploded in an orange flash followed by sparks and a thick plume of smoke.

Another night I helped fire artillery (after harnessing myself to it and helping drag it around the field). Our leaders rewarded me and a few other newbies by smearing ash on our oreheads and giving us medals featuring St. Barbara, patron saint of artillerymen.

The group has fun reliving history in its own way. One night a few of the guys capped off a practice session by seeing if anyone could load and fire their musket three times in a minute - the standard for troops at the time. At other times, the more zealous members would debate the finer points of marching protocol or get lost on a tangent about a historical figure.

The point is to get immersed in history and make it come alive for others. It helps them understand things you can't get out of a history book, like just how hot it can be to wear a wool coat into battle on an 82-degree day. (Answer: Really hot.)

There was no exact script to follow for our battle sequence on a boiling hot Saturday afternoon before Memorial Day. All we knew is that we would loosely portray the events known as Dudley's Defeat as they played out on the north side of the Maumee River so many years ago. Let's just say that one didn't end well for the good guys.

First, though, I had to look the part.

Smith fires his musket in the tactical demonstration at Fort Meigs State Memorial in Perrysburg. Smith fires his musket in the tactical demonstration at Fort Meigs State Memorial in Perrysburg.
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This proved a challenge, beginning with my baggy white pants, which I initially put on backwards. When they turned out to be too big, I had to be sewn into them by Tamia Land, a fellow soldier from Northwood who makes most of the uniforms and equipment with her husband, Marty.

Comfort clearly had little to do with things. I put on a neck stock - a primitive, stiff cravat that was so tight I had trouble swallowing - and a blue wool jacket with yellow stripes.

Suddenly, I was transformed. Random visitors walked up to me with questions about military practices from the 1800s. Moms with cameras took pictures of me with their kids.

Yes, I was wearing a foot-tall cap topped with a large white plume and I was walking around with my pants up over my navel, but I didn't feel ridiculous.

I roamed around the fort a bit as other soldiers relaxed in the shade of camp.

There were dozens of re-enactors from Ontario, Michigan, and even California, many of them in town for the weekend, living in tents and roasting hunks of meat on outdoor spits. Women in bonnets walked the grounds near bare-chested men in loincloths.

Before the battle as we lined up, my heart was beating loudly as I worried a little about all that could go wrong in the 15-minute skirmish:

Would I stay in step? (No.)

Would I be able to keep up with the rest in reloading our weapons? (No.)

Would I be impaled? (No, but that idea was put in my head by another re-enactor who talked about a ramrod that accidentally was shot out of a musket and hit someone. For that reason and others, lots of safety precautions are taken, including not using rammers.)

As we proudly marched out of the fort's gates toward several hundred onlookers, I desperately tried to look the part, even as others next to me - I was between a 16-year-old high school marching band member and a 25-year-old Fort Meigs employee - would whisper instructions or grab me to keep me in line.

When it was time to attack, I calmly marched forward, never breaking formation or moving faster than a steady pace. Then I stopped, aimed, and fired at the British in their famous red coats.

Earth-shattering kaboom!

(They may question my use of the phrase here, but it was really quite loud.)

I reloaded - biting the top off of a paper cartridge containing gun powder, sprinkling some in the pan by the musket barrel, then dumping the rest down the barrel - and marched forward about 10 paces. Then I aimed again.



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