So yesterday we had an event at Fort Mifflin. Siege Weekend is not really a reenactment of the actual battle since the British reenactors can’t field the several ships and 200 cannons that assaulted the fort. What we do is a skirmish intended to give the visitors a feel for what 18th Century warfare was like. It was done well by both sides but I was taken aback by one of the reenactors (who did not participate in the skirmish, when they told people in the crowd that portrayal was not realistic “because reenactors refuse to die in the mud….” Okay yeah, nobody wants to fall in the mud and then have to clean up afterwards. We also don’t want to lie in the sun, get stepped on by advancing infantry, become seriously dehydrated while lying motionless in the summer sun, die in the mud, on top of an anthill or a cow patty, hurt ourselves falling from heights or horses, or otherwise incur any undue inconvenience or injury during an event but that’s not the whole story.
The reality is that, unlike Civil War or more modern conflicts, soldiers in the American Revolution were more likely to be wounded than killed in battle and more likely to die from infection or disease than die from the actual wounds. An accurate portrayal of being shot on the battlefield during the Revolution would involve being injured but not killed outright and then being drug from the field by your compatriots to die somewhere else rather than drop dead on the field. Alternatively, one might be incapacitated and then die from a bayonet or sword as the enemy overruns your position.
If you were actually wounded on the battlefield in the 18th Century, you would definitely not want to simply fall down. Those who did not die from their wounds would want to drag themselves away. The victors looted from the fallen of both sides. It was a matter of survival, or profit. Camp followers also stole and salvaged from the battlefield and if you did not die in battle, you were likely to be beaten or killed for your valuables. Some scavengers even came with pliers to pull teeth from dead soldiers which were then sold for the making of dentures.
Of course, you must also consider that there were just not that many casualties due to combat in the 18th Century. Throughout the course of the war, an estimated 6,800 Americans were killed in action, 6,100 wounded, and upwards of 20,000 were taken prisoner. Historians believe that at least an additional 17,000 deaths were the result of disease, including about 8,000–12,000 who died while prisoners of war. Armies won the field, not by killing all the enemy but rather by out maneuvering and forcing the enemy to retreat.
So why would our friend tell people that story about reenactors not wanting it fall in the mud rather than explain that the muskets were inaccurate, and that the army’s goal was to push the opposition from the field rather than kill them. Why wouldn’t they also point out that during the Revolution, Englishmen were fighting Englishmen. They often aimed their muskets high or low so as not to “murder” their neighbors and that, despite the inadequacy of the prison hulks most prisoners were likely to be treated with respect rather than abuse. He didn’t tell this story because the audience would find it hard to accept. They are viewing these events through the perspective of the 21st Century were the norms of warfare and the technology are vastly different.
The audience watches movies and television and is sophisticated enough to know if a shot were made with a rifled weapon which should have hit their mark. Just as in Hollywood, at reenactments, one of our goals is the suspension of disbelief. We want people to see the battle as real. To that end, organizers typically brief reenactors about the approximate number of casualties involved in a battle and who will “win” the day’s fight. If not enough men are falling when the historical circumstances demand it, field commanders will quietly start encouraging more to die. Of course, we are also typically manpower constrained so at smaller events, where manpower is in short supply, dead soldiers often make miraculous recoveries and rejoin the ranks again and again or simply refuse to die so that the battle can go on.