At public meeting, Cliveden reconsiders Battle of Germantown reenactment

by Patrick Cobbs
Posted 2/25/21

Guns have blazed on the grounds of Cliveden for the past 45 years in the reenactment of the Battle of Germantown, but this year things may be different.

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At public meeting, Cliveden reconsiders Battle of Germantown reenactment


Guns have blazed on the grounds of Cliveden for the past 45 years in the reenactment of the Battle of Germantown, but this year things may be different.

Cliveden held a virtual community meeting on Wed. Feb. 17 about updating the Revolutionary Germantown Festival, which the historic site hosts every October. The meeting presented findings from a year-long consideration of the battle reenactment from the perspectives of a variety of stakeholders in the light of rising city gun violence. Some of the key updates will be aimed at connecting the event more closely to the Mt. Airy and Germantown neighborhoods, and backing away from so many live muskets and cannons in the reenactment is among the possible changes.

“If you’ve been doing an event for over 40 years, you need to reconsider what you’re doing,” said Cliveden Executive Director, Nancy Van Dolsen.

Cliveden’s traditional battle reenactment is long, smokey and booming loud. It was conceived for the Bicentennial celebration (1976) and has not changed a great deal since. The organization and many local residents think it may be time.

Over the past year, Cliveden has listened to ideas about how the festival and the reenactment could change. They heard from students and community members with the help of Project Learn School, and Germantown Espresso Bar, from people interested in the scholarship of First Amendment rights with Jacob Charles, Executive Director of the Duke University Law Center for Firearms Law, from reenactors, many of whom have participated in Cliveden’s event for decades, with Noah Lewis, a reenactor who portrays Ned Hector, a known black Revolutionary, and finally, from locals and others concerned about gun violence with the help of Kimberly Kamara, a Mt. Airy activist and author, who lost her son to gun violence in Germantown.

The discussions were sometimes contentious, often appearing to split on racial lines. Reenactors, who are often white and may not live especially close to Cliveden, seemed to sometimes see efforts to limit theatrical gunfire by some nearby neighbors, who are often black, as a catastrophic loss to the event and the teaching of history.

But, as the live chat and Zoom video showed Feb. 17, positions eventually softened, and discussions of possibilities for reenactors that were sensitive to gun trauma and went beyond battle choreography, and even beyond the grounds of Cliveden to other historic points on Germantown Avenue, brought enthusiasm from many.

“I have not found an objection to the reenactment itself,” said Rosalyn McPherson, who helped facilitate the year-long program. “It has been more so the gunfire.”

Deb Fuller, a reenactor based in Washington D.C., understood this point. She had been involved in a firing demonstration in 2002, during a time when D.C. had been terrorized by sniper shootings, and the public became very upset by the demonstration. The experience made her appreciate the need for reenactments to change with the times, and she said doing that can even help tell better stories.

“Battles are just a tiny, tiny part of history,” she said. “But I think, if you do these conversations, you can get people involved—there are hands-on activities—the public can’t touch the guns, they can’t be part of the battle. But they can help sew a tent together, they can help polish buttons… and if you’re talking about getting involved in history, they can really get involved, as opposed to watching a bunch of guys shoot at the air on a battlefield.”

Likewise, comments in the live chat suggested reenactors could go beyond the Cliveden grounds and walk up and down Germantown Avenue in character interacting with the general public, though not shooting muskets.

Van Dolsen echoed the idea of expansion, noting that last October, in part because of the need to social distance, Cliveden sent visitors attending the festival to many of the 16 other historic sites along Germantown Avenue—something that had not been done in the festival in roughly 20 years. She said response to this change was so positive, that she is sure it will come up again this October.

Some of these other historic sites include The Johnson House, Stenton Family Manor, The Aces Museum, Wyck Historic House and Garden, Grumblethorpe, and Lest We Forget Museum of Slavery, to name just a few.

“It’s quite an amazing collection,” Van Dolsen said.

Cliveden will be making a report and video from the year of reflection available to everyone soon, and the staff and board of directors will then carefully form a more specific plan for the new Revolutionary Germantown Festival this fall.