Battle of Brooklyn Day
Two Revolutionary War reenactors tell us what it's like to dress up in costume and do fake battle.
Tue Aug 23 2011
Photograph: Marielle Solan
For historical reenactors Mike Grillo and John van Vliet, educating people about the Revolutionary War is serious business. Both men will portray 18th-century soldiers during Green-Wood Cemetery's Battle of Brooklyn Day on Sunday 28, which commemorates the 235th anniversary of the clash, also known as Battle of Long Island. It was one of the first full-blown skirmishes of the war, as well as one of its most important moments. General George Washington and the Continental Army attempted to block the British Army's advance through Brooklyn, but, outmaneuvered and outnumbered, Washington & Co. retreated to Brooklyn Heights, then fled overnight across the East River to Manhattan. Their defeat almost spelled the end of the war. "[British general] Howe was very slow in his response—he could have captured Washington and destroyed the entire Continental Army, and the revolution as we know it could have ended right then and there," says Van Vliet, who will be depicting a British grenadier of the 35th Regiment (he gets to wear a neat bearskin hat).
Grillo will take on George Washington, a role he's been honing for the past 12 years. To get the uniform just right, Grillo looked at portraits of Washington to determine the placement of his ornaments. "You have to make sure everything's accurate, with accurate materials—either wool, cotton, linen or silk," says Grillo. This isn't a cheap hobby; he estimates that a custom-fit coat alone could cost as much as $2,000. To keep the cost down, Grillo has taken tailoring classes and creates many of the articles himself. In addition to obtaining a uniform, each reenactor is responsible for keeping his clothes clean and shoes shined. "There's a practical reason for [maintaining the uniform]—when you have an armed body of men, if they don't have anything to do, that can be dangerous," says Van Vliet. "[A clean uniform] is something the British army was always big on, just to keep [soldiers] occupied and out of trouble."
During the re-creation at Green-Wood, attendees will interact with the soldiers before viewing a weapons demonstration and a small-scale (and bloodless) version of the skirmish. For the demo, soldiers such as Van Vliet's grenadier will be armed with muskets, which they load by tearing into a packet of gunpowder with their teeth before pouring the contents down the barrel. "[Shooting the gun] makes quite a bit of smoke," he says. "We're only shooting blanks—otherwise it would be difficult to convince people that reenacting is a good idea." Blanks or not, reenactors are often called to simulate a battlefield death. What's the experience like? "You lie down, you stay still, and then you wait," says Van Vliet. "And I think it's important to not trivialize battle deaths. You don't often see people making it too theatrical or goofy."