Michael Jesberger presented a Revolutionary War program, “Citizen to Soldier,” including a live muzzle-loading demonstration, for a crowd of about 50 who gathered around him at the Hamburg Park off Island Street. The July 15 program was arranged by the Hamburg Public Library.
Jesberger noted the modern facilities, including the swimming pool and an on-going baseball game, before gesturing to the Schuylkill River behind him. The river and the scenery around it are much like what American soldiers would have seen over 200 years ago. With the Schuylkill as his backdrop, Jesberger proceeded to explain the recruitment processes of the time.
Both American and British forces used their best tactics to sway men, ages 16 to 60, to join their respective side. The British had money and prestige behind their cause: officers were dressed sharply in bright red coats and jingled coins in their pockets as a promise of financial gain. They had fancy, framed posters making lots of promises. The Americans, who did not have a standard uniform, selected best-looking officers to recruit and attracted crowds with homemade pies along with fife and drums. American privates were promised six dollars a month, but that pay was in Spanish-backed paper currency and was not of much value if they lost the war.
“A 13-year-old boy, covered in dirt and filth, hears those coins, ready to be won,” the actor said. “The fact that they fought as long and as hard as they did was a credit to those boys.”
Jesberger noted that Colonial boys as young as eight were already shooting guns, a necessity for supplementing food supplies. Grown men were usually members of local militias, which provided protection from hostile Indian forces. A seventh-grade education was exceptional, Jesberger said, and recruits were asked if they could tell left from right, count to two and had all their teeth. “And you were good to go.”
He held up a homespun hunting frock, a shirt typically worn by colonists for all occasions. Jesberger also had simple items most recruits would have already had: canteens, a hunting “possible” bag, a wooden jig used for holding prepacked ammunition for muzzle-loaders.
As the war progressed, American troops did move toward a standard uniform. The continental Army coat is a good example, and Jesberger held up his replica. “The reason the blue coat won out [over the black design ] is because the blue was easier to dye. Indigo was readily grown in North Carolina,” he explained. The coat still varied by state, with different buttons being a key difference. The United States of America button, introduced partway through the war, helped boost morale.
Regular soldiers lived in poor conditions, Jesberger said, and the stories we still hear of the winter at Valley Forge are not exaggerations. Six men might share a single tent, and they had to rotate blankets and other supplies.
“You never want to underestimate the shoes,” Jesberger said, holding his clad foot out for display. The shoe’s low profile and simple construction meant it came off easily in mud and muck. As soldiers marched along narrow paths four men across and thousands of men deep, it was impossible to stop and retrieve a lost shoe.
“If their shoes ever had buckles, they sold them,” he added. “They were starving.”
Jesberger layered on other pieces of the typical Revolutionary’s “uniform,” including a military-issue cartridge box and bayonet. Men typically carried knapsacks stuffed with blankets, extra socks and knitted hats, scarves and gloves from home. He held up a set of metal “ice creepers,” noting that moving across frozen bodies of water was essential in many battles.
Topping off the look was a tricorn hat. He explained the hats were the typical round hats made on a hat blank or form, but that the sides were folded up for utilitarian purposes – the folds kept the hats from being knocked off when firing a musket, for example. They also provided places to tuck documents for safekeeping.
The most important piece of equipment for the soldier was, of course, the rifle. Jesberger held up his Brown Bess muzzle-loader, typical of the era. A smooth-bore rifle, it required a 50-75 caliber ball and was generally accurate up to 75 yards. Soldiers drilled to smoothly perform the 13 steps needed to fire the gun, and were expected to fire three shots per minute in the heat of battle.
Jesberger then displayed the firing process, noting that the Hamburg library had attained permission for the public demonstration. As he prepped and fired the gun across the river, he explained that statements like “flash in a pan,” “lock, stock and barrel” and “volley” all trace to the use of this weapon. When the gun fired, the loud crack was accompanied by a visible flash of fire and plenty of smoke. “Imagine if 350 of these shot in the same direction at the same time,” he said. “You were bound to hit something. Imagine all that noise, all that confusion.”
He explained that the goal of the Revolutionary fighters was not to kill 49 out of 50 men faced. “The idea,” Jesberger explained, “was to push them back. The British did not really learn this, and it cost them the war. They captured Philadelphia, they captured other cities, but it didn’t really matter. We fought another day, and we pushed them back.”
This fighting spirit has continued to carry America to this day. In his presentation, Jesberger made a point of recognizing any veterans present as well as family members of those who have fought – and died – for the United States. “It is your sacrifice that lets me stand freely and talk about our American History,” he said to veterans and their families.
Jesberger has been an American Civil and Revolutionary war re-enactor for 15 years. He especially likes presenting Revolutionary era programs, he says, because this time in history is “lost in a patriotic fog” with no photos and limited accounts. “Everything we do know, we study in books, journals and maps.” He happily travels to present his programs at schools, libraries and other community events. Readers may contact him for more information at J4regiment@comcast.net or 267.278.0943.