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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (03/2002) Relic Hunter (02/2002) Relic Hunter (04/2002)   Vol. 36 March 2002 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the March 2002 edition of W&ET Magazine

Experiencing The French & Indian War

By: Ed Fedory

As the Gray Lady headed up the Northway in those pre-dawn hours, she must have looked quite the sight! She bristled with the trunks of young trees, cut to serve as tent poles for the massive expanse of sailcloth we would call our home for the next couple of days. Every bump in the road was accompanied by the clatter and clang of cast iron pots, pans, and other assorted cooking accoutrements, running the gamut from iron chains to trammels. Our muskets were wrapped in thick woolen blankets that would see service as both our bed and bedding. And, it was not totally unexpected when the tollbooth attendant threw us a triple-take as he took the money from one who appeared to have fallen from the pages of a history book about life in Colonial times!

I guess it is equally strange that just the week prior, I had been digging into that same valley floor, seeking the relics, both lost and discarded, from those very soldiers I now hoped to imitate faithfully. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I sensed a growing bond with the men who had camped, fought, and died in those northern reaches of upstate New York over two centuries ago, and each dug musketball, each button and tent peg ferrule, began to hold for me a deeper feeling for the past. It was something I hadn't expected, but it was a new sensation that was totally welcomed.

Having pitched our canvas tent and stowed our gear, we set out to find, amid 1,200 re-enactors, the other members of our regiment. Our group had signed on with a crew of "battoemen," a support group whose main function had been to man the bateaux and deliver both soldiers and supplies to the front lines of battle. You'll notice that I've used two different spellings for the type of ship we would crew. One is the correct French plural spelling; the other, one of many corrupted English spellings. But there is only one word that can actually define this type of craft... huge!

Following a short search, we found the rest of our regiment hopping on the back of a flatbed truck, in preparation for hauling and launching the bateau from the modern boat launching site a couple of miles above the fort. The launching of the ship went off without a snag, but viewing the 13,000 lb. wooden craft riding on the surface of the lake, I knew this would be no easy trip.

We each manned our stations, slipped the 20' ash oars between the oak pegs along the rail, and pulled. Grudgingly, the craft slowly moved away from the launch ramp. Within a half hour of fighting a stiff southern breeze and tangled weeds that seemed to gravitate to the tips of the oars, I found my hands beginning to cramp. We took a short break, and while my fingers could once again straighten themselves out, it was with a feeling of forlornness that I watched the shoreline slipping by as we were slowly pushed north again under the effects of the wind. Each second without rowing was another foot of ground we would have to make up.

Rowing that bateau was a real hands-on experience with history. I had read many stories and articles about the importance of these ships during the French & Indian War as they plied their way along Lake George and Lake Champlain, but never once did I give any thought to the men who had to row them. I soon acquired a new respect for the men who toiled at the oars to bring needed supplies to the far-flung forts and camps on the edges of the lakes. It was a lesson that could be found in no book.

As the sun began to set on that first day, and following a hearty meal of sausage, potatoes, and onions, the candles and lanterns were lit around the encampment. Absent were the sounds of modern vehicles, telephones, and radios. Absent, too, was the light from flashlights. With the setting sun and dying wind came the sounds of a lone fiddle in the distance, playing an old Colonial tune... the sound of hearty laughter around the open campfire... and the sound of drums and singing from the nearby Indian camp. No science fiction time machine could have transported us more clearly into the middle of the 1700s!

Not more than 30 yards from where our tent was pitched lay the remnants of a Colonial redoubt, and within that same radius was the site of a mass grave where hundreds of American patriots were buried during the Revolutionary War. That evening I was overcome with the greatest sense of awe I had ever experienced. Under those lofty stars I was in the 18th century, and I could almost sense ghostly feet tapping the ground as the fiddle picked up its pace.

For all the serious and thought-provoking images and times we would have, that weekend was not without its lighter moments. I've already described what a lumbering and awkward craft the bateaux is. Well, my relic hunting partner and fellow re-enactor, Charlie Ashby, volunteered to help crew the bateau in a racing competition against a number of smaller and lighter craft. The results were a foregone conclusion before the race had even begun. Nobody knew which ship was going to come in first, but you could sure tell which one was going to come in last.

I have to give Charlie a heck of a lot of credit. He threw every bit of determination and energy he had into that race. According to Charlie, "If we had only fifty more feet of weeds to plow through, we wouldn't have come in last!" Bedraggled and limping, he headed to the tent where the jug of "shrub," a slightly more potent variation of today's Gatorade, was stored. We didn't see Charlie again for the better part of an hour.

One of the main focus points of any weekend such as this one is the re-enacting of a battle. While we acted as mere observers at the battle during the Grand Encampment of the French & Indian War, we were full participants in the mock battle during the Grand Encampment of the American Revolution held every September at Fort Ticonderoga.

In preparation for the battle, we were drilled. Old Baron Von Steuben, of Revolutionary War fame, could not have done it better. Musket loading procedures, marching procedures, the manual of arms... trying to keep in step... wheeling the troops, marching on the oblique... presenting firelocks... grounding firelocks... To say the least, there were enough orders to remember (and forget!) to make anyone look like the village idiot! I even volunteered for remedial drilling!

During any mock battle in which black powder is used, safety becomes a major concern. No musketballs are carried in your cartridge box, and no ramrods are used. Simply, a small powder charge is placed in the pan of the flintlock, and the remaining charge is poured down the barrel. One of the key essentials is that you must bite down far enough on the paper cartridge to get at the powder. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? I found that it does, however, necessitate a little practice.

During my first attempt at loading and firing in unison, I did not bite deeply enough in to the powder charge, and had to fool around for some additional time with the excess paper before joining the rest of the regiment in a volley. The second attempt was no more fruitful, as I bit so deeply into the charge of powder that half of it went into my mouth, half went into the pan, and what few grains were left got dumped down the barrel. I knew then, that somewhere there was a village looking for its black-lipped, black-toothed idiot!

With lessons learned, we marched to the battleground to await the onslaught of British troops. With enemy troops sighted... orders shouted... cannons roaring... and clouds of smoke drifting across the field, it was easy to imagine what an 18th century battle was like.

Of course, there was little chance of injury, and there weren't any musketballs whizzing past your head, but the sights and sounds made the entire experience very realistic. The fumbling for a cartridge, the rear ranks resting and firing over your shoulder, the fields shrouded in black powder smoke, the taste of powder in your mouth- all combined to make the experience life-like. And in that experience was the seed of understanding. An understanding of what those Colonial soldiers had to endure to secure our freedom so long ago... a seed of understanding as to some of the sacrifices that were laid before the altar of liberty.

It was less than 36 hours later that the skyline of New York was forever altered... less than 36 hours later that the lives of so many of our fellow Americans were forever shattered... less than 36 hours later that a new generation of patriots would be called upon to secure those freedoms so dearly bought centuries ago.

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