01 October 2007

Time Travel to Mount Vernon

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time?

I was lucky enough to be able to get as close to time travel this weekend as current technology permits, by becoming a re-enactor at a large colonial-era event taking place at Mount Vernon this past weekend.

The concept of time travel has appealed to me since my childhood. I think a large part of my insatiable interest in history relates to the strong desire to know what it is like to live in a different era of the past or of the future.

I read a lot about time travel in science fiction novels and avidly watched the British TV series Doctor Who, about a race of super-genius beings who harnessed the power to travel in time and space. The fact that the show is the longest-running and most-revived British television programme in the genre of science fiction tells me that there are other people out there who share my wacky hope that hurling through time aboard your TARDIS ship would be the ultimate adventure travel trip.

I had a gifted teacher for advanced placement U.S. history in high school who brought the past to life by having us read Civil War diaries, newspaper entries, court records, etc. All of a sudden history class was far more than merely a boring list of names, dates, and events to memorize in order to regurgitate on an exam. It was a powerful link to real people who lived, breathed, and once walked this earth. I strongly suspected that teacher was a Civil War re-enactor. The idea of re-enacting as a hobby grew in the 1960s and has taken many forms including renaissance faires, ethnic festivals and battle re-creations of many different periods.

All of this exposition is my confession that at last I have finally become what I long wanted to be -- a living historian instead of a book-learned historian. Museum educators who work on interpretation of historic sites like me have a natural edge when it comes to making the transition from academic historian to living history re-enactor. Many living history volunteers with whom I've had the pleasure to work over the past five years have been generous with knowledge and advice about what it takes to become a re-enactor. Members of the First Maryland Regiment have slowly turning my mind around to the possibility. Over time, they have become my friends and have shared their knowledge of eighteenth-century life with me. I have also met other museum professionals and colleagues who believe in the power to make history live through living history interpretation at historic sites.

You cannot imagine how intimidating the idea of becoming a living historian has been for me. You would think that someone who lives and breathes history and who also harbors this desire to become a re-enactor, would find the transition simple. Not so. History courses teach you nothing about how to wear five layers of clothing in summer weather; how to purchase your first set of stays (like a corset); where to go to buy accurate straight-lasted shoes; how to hold your posture differently if you are a common person than if you are a gentlewoman; or to speak like someone from out of the past. No, all of these things are not taught in graduate school.
I am lucky enough to have the benefit of friends from several living history organizations and experienced character interpreters who have provided me with advice and encouragement. They have taught me the practicalities and helped me to feel comfortable wearing historic attire as it is intended to be worn. They take all of my questions seriously and often share much research and re-enactor lore. Fortunately, my Girl Scout training did teach me something of surviving in a camp outdoors and cooking over a hearth. At least I was ready to cook when asked to help prepare the stew and spiced sweet potato and apple dishes.

It is difficult to find words to describe what camping out overnight at George Washington's Mount Vernon is like. Beneath a just-recently full moon, the bustling camp was lit in lantern- and fire-light as we finished putting up our tents on Friday night. The uppermost tower in the house was light all night and the great sword of the constellation Orion the Hunter hung above me as I woke before dawn for a stroll down the hill to the necessaries. The temperature was perfect for autumn camping.
In daylight hours, the encampment was filled to the brim with more 18th-century folk than tourists. Children played hide-and-seek and giggled with each other. Women cooked, baked, washed dishes, gossiped, and had afternoon tea with Lady Washington (Mary Wiseman) on the bowling green. Infantrymen, rifle sharpshooters, and artillery troops drilled and demonstrated their training to all assembled in the valley below camp. On Saturday evening the good folks at Mount Vernon allowed the parent re-enactor organization, The Continental Line, to hold a large party for all re-enactors to celebrate the Line's 20th anniversary. It's difficult to say but there could have been one thousand re-enactors taking part during the weekend's events, certainly from every one of the former 13 colonies. I met a lady from Massachusetts during the hearth-baking class and several folks from a New Jersey unit. All volunteers. All driving to Virginia on their own dime just for the chance to be a part of this event.
For two whole days, you might have stepped into another century as a visitors walking along the plantation's main pathways. You could stroll into camp and talk to folks, watch the military drills or interact with 18th century gentlefolk going for a stroll around the grounds. For two entire days I soaked up every minute of not sitting in front of a computer, not answering phone calls, not watching t.v., but rather just living in the moment. That moment ,with the fight for liberty hanging in the balance, seems all the more real when it's enacted before your eyes and you are part of it.


  1. Your words helped me travel with you to Mount Vernon and through your magical experience of moving backwards in time. As someone who has had a lifelong passion for history, your experience was an enviable one.

  2. I love all feedback, even anonymous. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.