Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Patriotism through villiany

I've received a few emails this week asking questions about why we're dressing up as the British this weekend - and one in particular that directed me to an old online discussion bashing NHS.

First, I should point out that the Naval Heritage Society (NHS) was formed in late 2009 from what until that point had been the Lobsterback Society (LS) - which itself was formed in 2006. The primary goal of the LS was to educate our fellow Americans about their revolutionary heritage by presenting them with the opposition faced by the Founding Fathers - a bunch of really pissed off government officials, their troops, weapons and equipment - all supported by the rule of law. How is it, after all, that common people - who just want to live happily, raise their families and get on with their lives - would put those lives on the line for an idea? The answer isn't so simple. You or I might never think of attacking the local magistrate's house to protest anything, thus risking being arrested and locked up. Most cops might be a little soggy in the midsection these days, but they are still very intimidating! And they do have their elite - think of being run down by a SWAT team. Not fun.

So, the idea was that we would get dressed up in costumes as British soldiers and play a sort of 'police' roll, enforcing now defunct laws and practicing those outrages that the Americans found to be so grievous that they would - as a result - turn on us. And even with the knowledge that we can't actually hurt you, many people were still very intimidated by the big muskets with gleaming bayonets. Very persuasive - sit down, shut up, take what we give you. And most adults tend to comply. Ironically enough it's the kids that usually end up taking a stand first, and when the crowd then realizes that we can be beaten back mob style, we are. And I find it quite interesting how well that whole small scenario parallels the opening of the Revolutionary War in Virginia - something we're setting out to re-create this weekend.

One of the nagging doubts facing most early patriot organizers was the 'might' of the British Military. When the last colonial governor made himself a fort barricading one of the only roads connecting North Carolina with Norfolk and occupied it with troops - and not just any troops, some were the elite 'SWAT team' types - the colonists decided to come out in force and see what - if anything - they could do. As it turns out, the small victory they ended up achieving there convinced more and more people that the "united we stand" principle could in fact beat the British military machine. Patriot ranks swelled, and the rest, as they say, is history.


So, onto the issues with the Lobsterback Society.

We adopted a British Marine impression, primarily because they were everywhere in history that we would need to operate in the present day. They were also formed into fairly fluid groups - and it would not be out of the ordinary to see a dozen or so of them at an engagement. If Royal Navy ships were around, more often than not the marines were provided to shore-based commanders for tasking.

We researched the uniform to some degree, using patterns for pieces of the uniform as we could find them to assemble the complete costume. The underlying administrative goal of the LS had always been to provide ALL costumes and equipment to participants free of charge, and so we weren't just building one impression, we were manufacturing them. That said, economy of scale had to prevail - machine stitching throughout and some corners - such as installation of pockets etc - had to be cut in order to make the process affordable. After all, these are costumes - worn a few times a year. The resulting product was quite good I think, and ended up incorporating many details of the historical uniforms, such as buttons and wool, both of which ended up being purchased in quantity from good quality stock.

The problem with our costumes is generated by what I think of as 'hard core' reenactors, who enjoy researching their costumes to the most minute details and reproducing with care as much as they can. I see this point of view quite clearly - mostly because if I were outfitting myself, I would choose to go that route. I have done this in the past, such as when I reenacted a private in the 5th New York Infantry (Civil War), my costume was immaculate - thoroughly documented and accurate to the type of thread that was used to assemble my cartridge box. But that sort of authenticity is simply not necessary when dealing with the mission of the LS, or of NHS for that matter. Neither our participants nor our audience really care much about what we're wearing - to them, its more about doing things reminiscent of the historical examples. Things such as assembling a full boat crew and being able to maneuver with great efficiency, navigate across great expanses of water, and in the specific realm of the marines - field a small unit that functions much like a small unit might have around that time - with the primary focus on combat readiness and tactics rather than the minute details of the costume. We do have some in the administrative establishment that strive for authenticity, which results in constant improvements to the costumes and equipment in circulation, but everyone has to start somewhere.

Don't take this as a knock against 'hard core' types, either - we, all of us that are involved in the reenactment hobby - bring something to the table. We should all strive to learn from each other, to work together to some degree and just have fun with our mutual love of history. And as far as I am concerned or ever will be concerned, the more involved the merrier! The more viewpoints, the better. The more ATTENTION TO THE SUBJECT the better.

A second issue arose concerning the name Lobsterback Society. It is absolutely true that the term 'lobsterback' is NOT an 18th century term - at least not in North America. Rather, the term was coined after the war - long after, in the 19th century to be exact - by American authors. It seemed appropriate, then, that we should adopt this popularized term generated by Americans after the conflict because, well, we ARE Americans looking back after the conflict. Critics of our use of that name should also note that our official motto was PRODITORES SUGUNT - Latin for treason sucks. It's all about fun here, after all.

I personally find it quite funny that the references many of the arguments provide were given long before on the LS website.

In 2009, three years after the LS began, it was decided that our ever-expanding projects were leading us farther and farther afield of the original mission of simply being 'the bad guys'. Membership numbers climbed higher and higher, interests diversified, and suddenly we no longer fit the mold of what we had created. It was decided to transition to become what we now know as NHS, building a ubiquitous Navy component as our primary focus while still maintaining support for our beloved marines.

We are still, and will remain, an easy target for 'hard core' criticism. I don't really mind that, in fact I rather enjoy revelling in my comparative normalcy - making me look 'normal' isn't easy to do. Besides, we're proving quite a tough turd to flush.


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