To wrap up 2020, we are looking back on some of this year’s public humanities happenings in the Greater Philadelphia region. Throughout the week MARCH will feature Public History Year in Review essays written by students in the “Issues in Public History” course at Rutgers-Camden.
by Hannah K. Davis
Bullets flying between flashes of red British regimentals and blue Continental uniforms at the Battle of Germantown Reenactment are being questioned as an effective means of interpreting the battle in light of modern gun violence. Cliveden of the National Trust received a 2019 Discovery Grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to investigate gun violence through its newest program, “Considering Re-enactments: The Battle of Germantown in the Light of 21st-Century Gun Violence.” Data on this complex topic will be published before Cliveden determines the future status of the reenactment.
The communities surrounding Cliveden experience modern gun violence since they are situated in urban Northwest Philadelphia. Educational director Carolyn Wallace remarked that, “our staff has sheltered in place due to active shooters in the area throughout the year.” Neighbors have come to associate the sound of the gun shots with brutality and hate. In 2016 one week before the reenactment, a local shooting occurred with three victims, one of whom lost his life. “Ever since that particular shooting,” said Wallace, “the community has been more uneasy with the reenactment glorifying guns.”
The October 4, 1777 Battle of Germantown reenactment is one of the most expensive and most preparation-demanding events that Cliveden hosts. The reenactment unofficially began in 1927, when Cliveden was still the Chew family’s private home, as neighbors gathered on the grounds in costumes depicting their ancestors. After Cliveden became a museum in 1973, the reenactment began with paid professional reenactors and sponsorship by Asher’s Chocolate Co., among many others. In early 2000s, the reenactment rebranded with other sites in the Historic Germantown consortium to become the Revolutionary Germantown Festival.
Cliveden partnered with several local organizations to kick off the Discovery Grant Program to reevaluate its reenactment. It hired The Roz Group and Patricia Scott Hobbes as consultants. Rosalyn J. McPherson from The Roz Group and Hobbes assisted Cliveden in structuring spaces to encourage inclusive conversations on such a complex and personal topic. Germantown Espresso Bar hosted Cliveden’s first community conversation in early March 2020. The first Cliveden Conversations was with Jessica Roney, a history professor from Temple University. The live discussions resumed in August with a socially-distanced outdoor discussion among Revolutionary War reenactors. Cliveden also plans on including the nearby Project Learn School before the close of the calendar year.
In light of the COVID-19 outbreak the bulk of the data gathering and conversations occurred virtually. During the height of lockdown, Cliveden released a survey via Google Forms to both Revolutionary War reenactors and community members. Recipients responded well to the survey. Additionally, in September one moderated question-and-answer session was held online with Jacob Charles, Executive Director of the Duke University Law Center for Firearms Law. Plans are in the works for a few more virtual and onsite programs, one of which will feature Noah Lewis, first-person interpreter of Revolutionary War teamster Ned Hector.
Throughout these roundtable discussions, opinions were mixed about the use of guns at the reenactment. Some people were quite surprised that Cliveden would host over a yearlong program on the Battle of Germantown and modern gun violence but were grateful for an opportunity to voice their opinions. Reenactors expressed concern that the event would be cancelled.
Wallace animatedly stressed that the site has made no decisions about the fate of the reenactment. Cliveden is continuing to gather and review the date from both the local and reenactment communities. She offered no set time estimate for when the Discovery Grant Program will conclude or when the final verdict about the reenactment will be made. “To acquire information like this takes time,” Wallace said, “and not everyone is willing to share his or her experience on the first go-around with information” due to both comfort and the pandemic. The plan is to share their research in a printed report so all participants can see the findings. After circulating the report further discussions will occur, and only then will a decision be made about the future of the reenactment.
The Discovery Grant did not cancel the 2020 reenactment; rather, COVID-19 and its aftermath restrictions eliminated this year’s event. The city of Philadelphia strictly limited their street closure permits to non-social activities to reduce the spread of infectious diseases. The street permit is essential for the reenactment to operate since it occurs in an urban area. The grounds of Cliveden are not large enough to safely accommodate spectators, reenactors, street vendors, horses, and occasionally historical functioning artillery.
In lieu of the 2020 traditional reenactment at Cliveden, Germantown hosted a one-day open house in which 14 of the 18 member sites of Historic Germantown participated. The event was entirely self-paced and flexible to best accommodate social distancing and state-regulated capability limits. In addition to touring the historic sites various individual interpreters throughout the neighborhood presented their spin on the battle. Interpreters included a Revolutionary War surgeon, African American soldiers, African American teamsters, and a narrator about the battle itself. According to Wallace, the 2020 vignettes portrayed the Battle of Germantown yet differed from the battle reenactment’s adaptation with guns. Vignettes permitted inclusion and dialogue with visitors on a person-to-person level, a contrast with the traditional battle as a theatrical performance. The Revolutionary War involved far more than fighting individuals on battlefields. Individuals of varying race, gender, and class were affected by the war, and individuals contributed to the war effort without firing a gun. Although the battle was a one-day event in Germantown’s history in the War of Independence, the troops together with the locals transformed Germantown.
Carolyn Wallace welcomes more thoughts on guns as interpretive tools. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hannah K. Davis is a first-year graduate student of history at Rutgers University-Camden.