Early in the morning on July 7th, 1777, musket shots rang out over the ridge in Hubbardton, Vermont. This was the only Revolutionary War battle fought entirely on Vermont soil. More than two centuries later, at 8 a.m. on a bright Sunday, nearly 200 reenactors loaded up their muskets and walked out on that same grassy hill in front of a crowd of spectators.
In July 1777, the British had invaded from Canada and were trying to split New England from the rest of the colonies. British General John Burgoyne chased the Americans from Mount Independence in Orwell, Vermont 20 miles southeast to Hubbardton. That's where the American rear guard engaged Burgoyne’s troops. It was a minor battle, and the British won the field.
"While the American force considered themselves defeated, in fact it was a strategic victory," said Rob Keenan, who narrated the reenactment. "As a rear guard action, it worked. The British force was stung badly enough that it retired back to Ticonderoga. It kept the pressure off the main [American] army and allowed the main army to live yet another day."
Keenan explained to the crowd what was going on as the battle unfolded, calling the shots like a football announcer. The reenactment itself was like some kind of choreographed sporting event, with minor differences: the soldiers running to different positions on the hillside wore period costumes rather than uniforms, and they fired muskets instead of spiraling the ball.
This was all happening on the actual battlefield, and on the same day and month as back in 1777.
"The fact that we can come to an actual site, and participate in an event and try to recreate it for the public, is extremely important to us," Keenan said.
The action on the hill lasted about half an hour. After the battle, the reenactors returned to their "living history" camp, circa 1777: rows of white tents by the battlefield, where they had slept the night before. The air smelled like smoke and meat from the meals being cooked over campfires. The only modern touch was a row of port-a-potties.
“It’s one thing to read it in a book," Keenan said. "It's another thing to be on the spot, dressed the way they would have dressed, carrying all the equipment they would have carried, living in a tent or on the ground. It gives you so much deeper an appreciation of what people went through at the time, and how much different life was."
"It's something special, because a lot of battlefields, you can't do that," said Bob Franzoni. The Castleton resident works at the historic site, which includes a small museum center and an interpretive trail. He and his son got into reenacting together more than 15 years ago.
"We were together, father and son, every other weekend for ten years," Franzoni said. "Hanging out, camping out — with muskets!"
On the British side of camp, Jim Murphy of the Ninth Regiment of Foot of His Majesty’s British Forces in North America was sitting by his tent, taking care of his flintlock musket.
"Right now I'm cleaning it, because we were just in a battle and they get all fouled up with gunpowder residue," he said.
Murphy was there with his fellow Redcoat, his 36-year-old daughter, Sarah. They've been doing this sort of thing together since she was nine.
"Some of the best things about it are what some people describe as a 'period rush,' when you're surrounded by nothing modern," she said. "You can't see any cars, you can't hear any city noises, and you can kind of time travel. You can almost imagine that you are somewhere else and somewhen else."
Walking through the rows of tents to the tune of a fife and drum, surrounded by green hills that have hardly changed in the last 250 years, it wasn't hard to see what she meant.