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Drumroll Please: A War Without Casualties

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The army marches around with a bit of a paunch these days, but that’s OK. For veterans of the Revolutionary War, they’re in pretty fair shape.

Of course, they get out and about a lot. Later this month, they’ll hit the Battle of Saratoga in upstate New York, camping for a week in a big field, running around with swords, shooting muskets, and screaming their heads off with 3,000 other rebels, Loyalists, redcoats, Hessians, Native Americans and even a horde of camp followers.

Recently, they were on the grounds of the Reagan Library, staging mock battles, running a court-martial, trudging hither and yon and sweating profusely into their woolens under the baking Simi Valley sun.

For stalwarts such as George Mack, being a Revolutionary War reenactor is a labor of love, especially in the land of citrus and surf.

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“Stand your ground, men!” the 37-year-old Orange County teacher yelled in a passable British accent. His lads from the Third Captain’s Company of Royal Welch Fusiliers in America--lawyers, teachers, accountants and such in real life--glared at some ragtag, buckskin-clad, frightened-looking colonists.

“We’re exercising our militia rights as free Americans!” yelled back rebel chief Hank Kayser, who runs a Simi Valley asphalt plant.

“Go Americans!” shouted a couple of teenage girls in the crowd on the sidelines.

Suddenly, all was pandemonium on the grassy patch between a 9-foot chunk of the Berlin Wall and the tomb in which Nancy and Ronald Reagan will one day rest.

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Rifles were leveled and bayonets were fixed. Shots burst out and a colonist or two were “run through.” A wailing widow rushed onto the killing field, sobbing as she cradled a fallen soldier.

After Mack dressed down his men for firing without an order, a narrator rang a hand bell, intoned “Let the dead arise!” and delivered the episode’s big lesson: “To this day no one knows for sure who fired the shot that began the American Revolution.”

For many in the audience, the ersatz Battle of Lexington would be as close to colonial history as they would ever get west of the Mississippi.

Understandably, the original 13 colonies are the nation’s hotbed of Revolutionary War reenactment, with a cast of thousands simulating conflict near the battlefields of yore. But in California, fans of the “Revwar,” as it’s called in reenactment circles, can be numbered in the dozens--not enough for long combat but plenty for educational events at museums, genealogy conventions and gun shows.

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“We need reinforcements,” Mack groaned as he uncrated a few skimpy bunches of carrots for his compatriots. “There’s not too many of us in these parts.”

Inside his tent--a re-creation of a British officer’s digs, complete with Persian carpet and fine crockery--the heat was crushing. Perspiration streamed from beneath his powdered wig. But there would be no shorts and T-shirts for him or his troop of two dozen, who were drooping in their waistcoats and knee breeches. For a reenactor, authenticity is everything.

Like many of his pals, Mack has outfitted himself with antiques, from walking stick to bayonet. If necessary, he can brew up what he calls “18th century Tang"--extract of dried mashed orange mixed with water, as prescribed in 1776 by British military physician John Ranby. Mack discovered the formula as he was poring over Ranby’s “Marine Practice of Physick and Surgery,” which he keeps around the house.

Across the library’s spacious courtyard, the rebels of the Delaware Regiment Light Company are equally zealous researchers.

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Hank Kayser and four friends started their Revwar group to observe the Bicentennial in 1976. Ever since, Kayser and his comrades have devoted themselves to authenticating the smallest details of life in the regiment, which fought throughout the South and was present for Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in 1781.

Many Revwar units are governed by a New Jersey-based organization called the Brigade of the American Revolution. To meet the brigade’s standards for period garb and gear, members of Kayser’s regiment scoured museums, universities, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Delaware state archives. The task took three years.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art let Kayser and his crew in after hours to scrutinize period clothing.

“We researched it down to the number of threads per square inch,” he said. “We figured, if we were going to do this, we’d do it right.”

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Many reenactors fight in 1st century Rome, at reenactments of Antietam and on the beaches of Normandy.

Others don’t play soldier at all, opting for civilian roles.

Kim Hallinger, a marine-biology instructor in San Pedro who also teaches corset-making, was on hand in a vintage gown. “It was all the rage in 1775,” she said as she prepared to discuss the typical garb.

She told a hushed audience that babies as young as 7 months were bound in organ-strangling corsets. And dresses were never washed, but were “freshened up” with lavender and cornmeal, said Hallinger, who painstakingly re-creates them using 200-year-old tools.

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Under a canvas canopy, “company surgeon” Mark Rutledge displayed a rogue’s gallery of battered medical instruments, including a scoop that caused countless deaths as it chipped lead balls embedded in punctured flesh.

“Bet it makes you feel a little better about your HMO,” cracked Rutledge, who has traveled as far as Paris to study the techniques of 18th century medicine.

A few yards away, Randolph Jonathan Pentress, a 30-year-old house painter from Las Vegas, shrieked “Oh joy!” as he bummed a few shillings from a passerby. His face was caked with dirt, his pants were tattered, his spectacles were shattered, and he cackled through a protruding, stained set of store-bought teeth.

“Everybody thinks that the homeless are today’s problem,” he said as he stepped out of character for a moment. “But that’s not so. Back then, for every magistrate, there were at least five of me.”

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One of the younger reenactors, William Spiller, a 19-year-old college student from Hesperia, took in the scene from a shady spot beneath a tree. “My friends think it’s all a little odd,” he said, “but I tell them it’s just like a camping trip--only times 10.”


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