Living History to Learn About the Past Through an American Revolution Reenactment

Everything that we know about the American Revolution is through hand-written documentation and records from those who lived it because it happened well before there was television or the internet to broadcast news out to the masses. There is also no photographs or video to document this time in American History.

Today, we learn about the American Revolution in the classroom by reading books and watching documentaries but another great way to learn is by living it.

I recently attended an American Revolution reenactment. This event was coordinated by the non-profit organization, You Can Live History that is based in Aurora, Colorado. The battle chosen for the reenactment was the Battle of Long Island.

This battle was originally fought on August 27, 1776, and was the first major battle and the largest of the American Revolution. It was also the first battle that followed the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The Reenactment

75 students in the 5th grade at Coal Creek Elementary participated as the Continental Army (American) and British forces. The British in the battle were also joined by the Hessians which were also known as German auxiliary soldiers. The students had spent the past four weeks learning and preparing for this event. Preparations included two weeks of studying the Battle of Long Island, costume fittings, dress rehearsals and making their musket balls (flour wrapped in paper).

Students were chosen at random by the school’s 5th-grade teaching department to play the leadership roles of George Washington and Sir William Howe. George Washington was the leader of the Continental Army and went on to be the first president of the United States. Sir William Howe commanded the British forces.

The purpose of this reenactment is to give the students a realistic feel  for how the people involved in the original historical event lived and fared, both the good and the bad. Learning through doing makes the students think about the skills needed to survive, conquer and move ahead as well as understand how the past shaped the future to where we are now.

The event started at 9:00 a.m. and went until about 2:00 p.m. Darrell Osburn directed the event with a script created to match various events throughout the battle. Part of this reenactment involved recording video of scenes that the students played out that will be compiled into one video for the class so they can remember what they did.

Students were equipped with fake musket rifles, pistols and bayonets. The musket rifles and pistols had a tube the student would blow into to distribute the flour musket balls. The flour represented smoke from what would normally be a real musket ball.

Cannons were also on the field but were more for visualization but a few did shoot caps.

The students participated in a few activities that would resemble actions taken on a real battlefield to fully engulf them into the experience.

  1. Marching. Marching involved proper handling of their musket rifles and keeping in step along with the drummer who played a marching rhythm.
  2. Loading their musket rifles and pistols (with flour packets).
  3. Calling out commands to each other such as forward march, company halt, fall back/retreat

Fun Fact: A student can load their musket with one flour packet per minute. An adult better trained on a real musket could load three per minute.

To further enhance authenticity, each student was dressed in period-appropriate soldier uniforms (including rank). Modern day clothing was covered and items like sunglasses were removed. Common British words and phrases were also heard throughout instructions to the students as they performed.

Ranks of both sides included militiamen, privates, generals, and lieutenants.

As the various fighting scenes occurred, students were selected by birth month or season to be casualties of the battle and would lie down until the scene was reset.

I was able to speak with the students’ teacher for a few minutes. She explained that this is an activity the school holds every year for the 5th-grade classes. Each year is a new battle for the students to experience. In 8th grade, the students will go on to learn about the Civil War in their studies and participate in a similar reenactment with You Can Live History.

The students thoroughly enjoy this activity and will remember this activity and details for years to come. As a matter of fact, the operations director for You Can Live History remembers participating in this event when she was in school.

This day was a history lesson for the parents as well as they were welcome to come out and watch their child participate in the battle. They enjoyed the thoroughness and acknowledged all the hard work that everyone put into the event. They discussed amongst themselves what they remembered learning in school about the American Revolution.

About You Can Live History

Reenactments like the one I witnessed are made possible by the You Can Live History non-profit organization. It’s their mission to educate people of all ages on a variety of historical events from the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Darrell loved studying history since he learned how to read. His used to tell him great stories about his old uncle who was a soldier in the Union army.  His dad talked about his experiences as a paratrooper in WW2.  From them, he learned that the study of history should not just be a collection of memorized names and dates, but instead, it is from the stories that we learn the lessons of history.  And everybody loves a good story!

You Can Live History was founded in 1991 and is operated by Darrel Osburn along with his of event coordinators, photographers, and videographers to capture the learning and the memories created. They also coordinate Civil War reenactments and Colonial/Victorian Balls.