J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Importance of “Being George”

On 26 Dec 1776, Gen. George Washington led a successful attack on Crown forces at Trenton, his first battlefield triumph of the Revolutionary War. That move began with his fabled Crossing of the Delaware River, which local volunteers reenact yearly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Or try to reenact. When the weather is too harsh or the current too strong, local governments call off the row for the sake of safety—for both participants and spectators. (Already the crossing is scheduled for daytime when people can see it easily rather than night-time when people couldn’t.) I recall many news stories over the years about reenactors glumly walking across the bridge instead of getting to travel in the boats.

I also recall reports of some resentments about who got the plum role of Gen. Washington. For a long time that was a matter of seniority within the local reenacting group. Then the director of Washington’s Crossing Historic Park asserted more control. The current process is more formal, with auditions before a panel of judges from local historical organizations, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of controversy.

The Star-Ledger newspaper produced a documentary titled “Being George”, about the choice of Washington in 2012. Directed by Nyier Abdou and Adya Beasley, the video is about forty-five minutes long and focuses on four of the ten men who vied for the post:
  • the incumbent, breaking with a recent precedent of not seeking the role again after a three-year term.
  • a past Washington who never got to cross by water in his years.
  • a devoted Washington impersonator from outside the local community.
  • a long-time reenactor in his forties, about the same age Washington was in 1776. (The other candidates, and our image of Washington, are older.)
Who has the strongest claim? Who would do the best job? Unfortunately for the sake of the documentary, the auditions and the judges’ discussions of them were off-limits to the camera. And unfortunately for the sake of “reality” television, the candidates are too polite for fireworks to erupt on screen. But the emotions are clear, both in the video and in the comments section below it. And there’s always next year.

1 comment:

RFuller said...

As my reenactor friends know what I would say in such a situation, "Holy high school, Batman!" Some people need to check their egos at the front door. Besides, the only REAL rank in historical military reenactment is that of common soldier... ;)