Last month, I arrived in my university’s health clinic with relatively unusual case for them. They diagnosed me with a “mild cold injury” resulting from “exposure to extreme, natural cold” (the way the nurse lingered on that second adjective – natural – made me wonder about the alternatives). According to my doctor, “frostbite” and “frostnip” are not very scientific diagnoses. But luckily for me, I’m not a very scientific person, so I can stick with the more dramatic description. I had frostbite.
In the doctor’s office, I had tried to dodge around exactly how I got frostbite. “Well,” I answered to their questions, “I spent a night outdoors… in New Jersey… in the snow… walking…” My voice trailed off until I barely muttered, “…wearingwoolclothesandleathershoes.” The nurse raised her eyebrow. The doctor, when he came in, finally settled the issue. “So you were at some sort of enactment?”
Yes. I got frostbite. At a reenactment.
The reenactment in question was part of a complex of historical programming meant to commemorate the 1777 Battle of Princeton, New Jersey, including events at Morven (an eighteenth-century house in Princeton), Princeton Battlefield State Park, and the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton. Part of this involved recreating an overnight march of the Philadelphia Associators, a unit in George Washington’s army, from Trenton to Princeton. It’s the second time reenactors have conducted this event. Matthew C. White analyzed the first one, staged in 2015, in "'Do You Guys Own Slaves?' A Case Study of a High-Minded Living History Event," ALHFAM Bulletin, 45, no. 4 (Winter, 2016). Like many of the young reenactors who attended this round, I seized on the opportunity to participate when it was repeated.
At the several associated sites, the event organizers had gathered a concentrated mass of dedicated living history interpreters and had plans for excellent public programs. The crew up in Princeton did manage to pull off some compelling scenes despite the weather. At the Old Barracks, where I spent Saturday, we had only perhaps a dozen visitors throughout the day because of how quickly the roads turned to ice. Nonetheless, we conducted drills, cooked our rations outdoors, worked on sewing projects, and fired our muskets. By mid-afternoon, we were beginning to operate smoothly as a two-platoon company, even in five inches of snow.
In our last formation, one of our officers read Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, which was making the rounds of the Continental Army at precisely the time of the “Ten Crucial Days” of the battles of Trenton and Princeton in 1777. Facing the eighteenth-century stone barracks, under a cloudy sky with crows flying over, and the snow still falling heavily, we listened. I’d never read the whole thing – indeed, I think most people don’t realize that the compelling rhetoric about sunshine patriots and British tyranny actually bookend a long and less stirring (at least to listeners in 2017) middle section about then-current events. Every minute or two as he read it, the officer had to shake the paper to knock away the snow that piled up on it. Hearing it in such company was a remarkable experience.
Peale's Associators. Courtesy the Old Barracks Museum.
We all fell asleep that night in the barracks rooms, but I think most people were too excited and nervous to get much rest before midnight, when we were awoken with a harsh sergeant’s voice. “Up!” And so we stumbled around clumsily, dressed, and piled on our accouterments.
We marched thirteen miles that night. The snow had stopped, but as the clouds cleared off, the temperature fell, I’m told, below ten degrees. We marched through Trenton proper and passed a few bars that were still open. A couple hardy drinkers tumbled out and gawked at us. And into the suburbs, where two police cars passed us blaring a fife-and-drum “Yankee Doodle” from their loudspeakers. Other late-night drivers encouraged us with, respectively, “The British are coming! Kill them! Fucking kill them!” and “Vote Trump!” Some cars slowed down just long enough for the drivers to assure themselves we were real and snap a cell phone photo.
In Trenton. Photograph by Wilson Freeman, Driftingfocus Photography.
Much had changed between 1777 and 1918, and we should be careful using sources from one period to understand another, especially when it comes to military experiences. But I've just begun research on a dissertation chapter about World War One, and infantry officer Hervey Allen wrote something about marching in his 1926 memoir, Toward the Flame, that resonated with my experience in New Jersey:
“You must imagine us moving along both sides of the road in single file with a couple of paces between each man, rifles slung and heads hung low, everyone trying to accomplish the next step with the least bit of energy possible… Everything we wore began to trouble us. My pack made my shoulders ache intolerably… Places on my feet and legs began to hurt. The outer world seemed to recede to a vast distance; the landscape took on an odd grey appearance. One became preoccupied with musing upon one’s self.” (101)
Back in 2017/1777, our own preoccupied column came to a halt in some woods near the Clarke House on Princeton Battlefield. Through some miscommunication, we were unaware that a large fire awaited us nearby, and instead we struggled to build our own from deadfall and tinder. We couldn't manage even that. In times past, this might have been fatal, or at least very dangerous. It made me think of a short story by Jack London that my grandfather first introduced me to, To Build a Fire (1902), that revolves around the halting and eventually disastrous attempt by a prospector to light a fire in the Yukon. Luckily for us, someone eventually located the existing bonfire and led our shivering column to it. The sight of it alone began to rejuvenate us before we ever got close enough to feel its heat.
On Princeton Battlefield. Photograph by Wilson Freeman, Driftingfocus Photography.
We stood close to the fire, turned sideways so that more people could fit near, and watched our leather shoes begin to steam. A pot of coffee was there. Men began to smile again, and laugh. One young soldier, sitting with his arms on his knees and his pack still on, sat slightly slumped forward, fast asleep. Shortly after sunrise, we conducted a battle demonstration. Even this brief affair, marching and across a snowy field at Princeton, loading and firing, was exhausting. When we concluded, the last few hundred yards we marched to the Clarke House felt interminable.
On Princeton Battlefield. Photograph by Wilson Freeman, Driftingfocus Photography.
What I find particularly remarkable about this whole experience is that it was not even close to the real thing. For a few hours, we marched a few miles on sidewalks, paved roads, and farm fields. The original Philadelphia Associators, after their march to Princeton, continued on several more miles, without food or blankets until they finally stopped for the night and collapsed in exhaustion on the side of road. Other Continental and British soldiers conducted similar marches, almost routinely, over the course of the war. Some soldiers endured months and years of such labor. I got frostbite after only one night – and I had been vigilant about wiggling my toes, drying my feet, and changing into new socks as soon as we finished the event. One of my feet blistered so badly that it bled, but my feet were cold enough I didn't even realize it until later, when I removed my stockings. What would have happened to me if I had to continue on for days in such conditions?
My point here is not that people in the eighteenth century were in some way better, harder, or stronger than us. Yes, some (but not all) would have entered the army with two decades of strenuous prior life experience under their belts. But I don’t think it’s useful to revere our predecessors as somehow superhuman. They are inaccessible enough without crediting them with physical prowess. They were men and women, just like us.
They were men and women, though, whose daily life involved more hardships, physical trials, and outright suffering than most Americans encounter today. For them, exhaustion, pain, and deprivation were not, as they are for me, remarkable exceptions to a comfortable everyday life. Instead, such experiences were at the core of everyday life. For many people in the United Staes and abroad, they still are. But for most Americans of a certain class level, such conditions are rare if not entirely absent from life in 2017.
Which brings me back to the doctor’s office. The doctor told me that the results of frostbite – tingling and numbness – can take weeks or even months to wear off. So I’ll have plenty of time to think about my experiences in New Jersey even when I'm enjoying my painless, everyday comforts. The doctor told me that he had once used acupuncture to treat a World War Two veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, who even fifty years later had painful frostbite symptoms. My cold injury is mild enough that no such treatments – and no such lingering effects – are at all likely. Instead, I’ll carry only memories and the historical insights I gained from this exceptional experience. I think those are well worth some temporary suffering, though my doctor might disagree. As I left, he had a wry smile on his face. “Thanks for your service to our country,” he said, “I think you should avoid winter campaigns from now on."
In the Clarke House. Photograph by Brandyn Charlton.