Monday, June 3, 2013

Firing a Musket, in Peace and War

The Bunker Hill Monument on Breed's Hill, Charlestown, MA.
In the life of a young museum professional, there's work, and then there's shooting muskets (for work).

Which is what I did on Thursday at the Bunker Hill Monument, because I recently started my third season at Boston National Historical Park. One of the programs offered most weekends at the park is a demonstration of 18th century musket firing, made somehow less cool (or cooler?) by the NPS-issue olive-green overalls and ball cap. I'm sure I either looked ridiculous or awesome with my protective goggles and bright orange ear-plugs, accentuated by a period cartridge box holding 15 black-powder rounds, and a five-foot long replica flintlock.

It was fun either way.

However, much like our colonial forbears who marched to fight the British Army in 1775, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Unlike our forbears, I had the opportunity to learn musketry without anyone shooting back at me. Nevertheless, after carrying the weapon outside and following the spotter's instructions to load and prepare the piece, I pointed the barrel up at the sky and had a realization...

I'm not sure I could have done it.

I'm not sure that I could have shot at another human being. I'm not sure I could have killed another human being. I'm not sure that I could have coolly loaded and fired what is essentially a low explosive packed into a confined iron tube, with cannonballs and musketballs and all manner of hell raining down on me, watching my friends get blown up and shot and bayoneted. Not for as long, as bravely, or--the embarrassed part of me wants to say-- as foolishly.

And another part of me, the inquisitive, analytic part, wants to know how they did it. How did the rebel Americans-- few of whom had anything like practical military experience-- decide to march to Breed's Hill in June of 1775? How did they decide that they could stand up to the British army, one of the greatest military powers in 18th century Europe? Alternately, how did the British foot-soldiers (many of whom were no doubt intelligent, rational, nervous men) convince themselves that they could cross nearly half a mile of open field to attack a fortified position guarded by other men with the above-mentioned weapons?

When I first picked up my replica musket and pointed it at the sky, I was nervous. After I had fired a second time, and then a third, I was less nervous. It wasn't until the fourth or fifth try that my nerves began to subside, that I realized that I had acquired a knack for the piece. I had learned its secrets. I imagine that the same thing happened in 1775 to the rebels inside the fort on Breed's Hill, and the redcoats they were defending themselves against. The Americans, having largely confined their weapons to the hunting of game, probably had the same sort of hesitation as I did at the thought of using their weapons on other people. Having spent a good part of their career training to do just that, the British soldiers might not have even thought about it, because they had already acquired the knack. Once that happens, do you think about what you're doing, or do you just go through the motions?

No one alive today will ever know what it was like being on an eighteenth-century battlefield. Even modern soldiers--who are better equipped than most of us to understand the mindset of the combatants on Breed's Hill--are not able to fully relate. God willing, none of them will ever have to endure the agony of surgery with nothing but rum to dull the pain, or fight off the inevitable infections without antibiotics. None of them will be used as cannon fodder, sacrificed like human pawns on a chessboard in an era when human life didn't mean what it does today. By most accounts, war today is hell; back then, war was hell without anesthesia.

When we conduct these kinds of demonstrations, we call it living history, but we're not really living it. When our cartridge boxes are empty, the simulation stops and we go back to our modern lives. At best, we're pretending history, and because we can't reproduce everything about the situation faced by these men, the pretending never becomes real. Some things are simply impossible to connect to.

But at least now I know how to fire a flintlock.

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