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North Country News

Re-enactors Use New Site During Battle Of Plattsburgh Commemoration

The annual Battle of Plattsburgh Commemoration was held this past weekend to celebrate the U.S. victory over invading British forces on September 11th, 1814.  Although most are aware of the pivotal battle on Lake Champlain, there were a number of land skirmishes as British forces marched south from Canada.  This year the Battle of Plattsburgh used a new site to depict one of those land battles, the expansive north end of the Old Base Oval.
The sounds of battle echoed across an area that’s now used for soccer, football, running and recreation.  

Plattsburgh Mayor James Calnon describes the battle where American forces were pushed back from Culver Hill to the artillery assault on Halsey’s Corners.  “September 6th was to be an eventful day.  British were on the march early that morning.”

As re-enactors appear from a distant hill to advance onto the north end of the parade grounds of the Old Base Oval, volleys of musket fire between the British and militia are exchanged.  Men and women in period costume kept the curious in the crowd out of the line of fire.

NYS Regulated Militia Captain Craig Russell explains the purpose of the skirmish.  “We are portraying September 6th. The British had started out north of where we are. When they reach the ridge, which is to our right, we portray that as Culver Hill and we culminated with the artillery barrage of three shots at Halsey’s Corners. From there Americans withdrew and tomorrow we continue with the battle on the bridge. General Macomb had had ordered men out to harass the British. It's very hard to take a thousand people and think that you're going to stop five thousand on the Beekmantown road. So the object was just to harass them.”

Following the battle, militia re-enactors retreat to the shaded areas that encircle the battleground.
36th NYS Militia Manley Company Sargeant Charlie Mitchell is from Morrisonville, NY.  He describes the preparations for this reenactment.   “Our captain, who also runs the reenactment, has been out here several times with representatives from the city. And then last night commanders from the British and U.S. commanders who are here this weekend came over and walked the site and so on. It's pretty well planned out. There's a group from the city who works very carefully with the reenactors. It may not seem it sometimes while it's taking place but it really is very, very well thought out. But when the muskets start going off anything could happen!”

That led to a discussion about their muskets. Mitchell notes there are safety officers among the crowd because the weapons could do damage.  Richard Belotti, who traveled from Albany to join the militia reenactment, notes that the mechanics of the weapon have not changed.   “Even the reproductions operate exactly the same. The only difference is they’re made with stronger modern materials generally. But it's steel. It's brass. It's wood. There’s not that much different from the originals.” (You have to load them the same way as the people in the militia back then did?) “No ma'am we do not ram ball, like we don't put a ball down the barrel, obviously that's the killie bit.  And we do not put ramrods down the barrel. There's the possibility that someone could forget it and fire it down range. And that is a gigantic safety no-no. So we just pour powder in the pan, pour powder in the barrel, elevate and fire.” (So you're not shooting out any sort of…) “…projectile. Aside from the burning powder no.”

The blast cloud is hot gasses coming out of the barrel, which can burn.  But, Belotti explains, there are a number of stringent safety regulations.  "We can't fire if someone is standing at a certain angle in front of us and he knows the best.”
“Basically the musket is a blast furnace.”  Tom Wolenc jumps into the conversation.  “When you pull the trigger and you ignite the powder with the flint and steel the powder will burn in the pan, shoot straight into the touch hole like a fuse. It will build up enough pressure and blast that powder out. What doesn't get burned in the barrel burns outside the barrel and it will shoot a blast out six, seven, eight feet.”

Belotti showed how a blast guard on the musket protects the re-enactor.  “There is a flash that comes out of the pan, but right here this is flash guard. It directs the blast up instead of out to the side. So generally our faces are at the back end of the stock. There’s a foot difference. The powder going up it's nowhere near as much as in the barrel. It's nothing to worry about.”  
Wolenc:  “One of the strict things that happened during the Revolutionary War when a person who fought in the battle came to collect his money, his pension, the only way that they were handing pensions out to these soldiers if they had a black cheek from the powder from the guy standing next to you because you're standing shoulder to shoulder. When that black powder comes out it will go right into your skin and it’ll burn. It's like an instant Revolutionary tattoo.”

Wolenc, an experienced re-enactor from South Hero, Vermont, says it’s critical to know your musket well to survive.   “When you’re actually facing an enemy who’s coming at you and all you have is a musket, a one shot weapon that you have to reload and know how to do it, you learn fast. See the thing is you don’t want to think about loading. You want to do it automatically so that you become a weapon that can be used. Every man on that field is like a piece on a checkerboard or a chess board. It’s maneuvering. It’s positioning. It’s checking the enemy. You know what they call the clouds of war when the most smoke goes across and you can’t see your enemy?  That’s where your enemy comes out of the fog at fixed bayonets at you trying to catch you in the middle of loading so that your musket can’t work so you can’t defend yourself. You can’t be thinking about anything except making that musket work and listening to the commands. That’ll keep you alive.”  

The Battle of Plattsburgh Bay naval engagement was also re-enacted during the weekend-long festival commemorating the 1814 events.

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