Re-enactors prepare for epic battle

August 10, 2013

 

Members of the Baltimore United Volunteers march in formation in front of Riversdale.

Members of the Baltimore United Volunteers march in formation in front of Riversdale in an annual tradition, the Battle of Bladensburg re-enactment.

BY MEGAN J. BROCKETT —  On August 24, Kathy Norvell will wake up and start getting ready to go back in time.

Norvell, a veteran War of 1812 re-enactor, will be one of several people in costume for the 18th annual Battle of Bladensburg encampment at the Riversdale House Museum on August 24.

The event, free to the public, will run from noon until 4 p.m. and will include gunnery drills and cannon firings, a special program by the Fort McHenry head ranger and a skirmish between re-enactors dressed as American and British soldiers.

The annual Riversdale encampment has grown in recent years as the region, rich in War of 1812 history, gears up for next summer’s big bicentennial celebration. (The war ended in 1815.)

“[The encampment] is kind of important now because [2014] will be the 200th anniversary of the British invasion, the Battle of Bladensburg and the burning of Washington … and the whole episode at Fort McHenry with the creation of the Star Spangled Banner,” said Edward Day, director of the Riversdale House Museum. “It’s a way to get acquainted and familiarize yourself with that whole story.”

And the story is an important one, Day said, especially for people living in Maryland and the surrounding area, where much of it occurred. Riversdale seemed like a natural setting, since the house was only a few years old when the war began.

Also, he said, “Nobody else was doing [1812 re-enactments], and I thought … that this story needed to be told.”

Day said most people know relatively little about the War of 1812 compared to other historical events like the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Among other people working to change that is Aaron Marcavitch, the executive director of the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area (ATHA).

A program ATHA started last year, Maryland Milestones, is helping educate local residents about the history around them by promoting events like the Riversdale encampment. The organization is also helping to cover the cost of mansion tours, making them free for the day.

“There were 7,500 people tromping across this place that is now a shopping plaza and houses,” Marcavitch said. “There’s not a lot there that will tell you that there’s a battlefield, so this is the way that you can make a connection to that particular moment in history.”

At the center of that connection are the re-enactors. Norvell, who lives in Mount Rainier, said it takes a lot of research and preparation to make the era come to life. For her role as a gentlewoman, Norvell’s research involves finding out as much as she can about the period – everything from what people were wearing to what they were reading.

For the men who portray soldiers, she said, the research centers on the uniforms, weaponry, officers and strategy of the particular unit and the time period.

“In doing living history, you kind of have to immerse yourself in it,” said Norvell.

if everything falls into place, reenactments can create the perfect window into a particular period of time.  This unique portal offers reenactors and viewers the chance not only to learn about history, but to get as close to living and experiencing it as possible.

“Certainly it doesn’t reach everyone that way, but I think that when you’re here and in an old site that’s … over 200 years old, it’s conducive to that,” Day said. “If you squint your eyes a little bit, you think, ‘Wow that must’ve been what it was like.’”