A Revolutionary Idea

The Finger Lakes was home to several meaningful campaigns during the Revolutionary War, and with a little effort it’s easy to become steeped in the local history of the time. I was reminded of this during the summer battle reenactments at Newtown Battlefield in Elmira. During a mock “march” when my daughters and I were civilians being given travel protection by British Loyalists, we were attacked by Rebels (the eventual founders of our country) and sympathetic Indians. With the sound of musket fire, shouted orders from commanders on both sides, and Indian war whoops all around us, we watched the reenactors fire and then fall back, then again fire and fall back. We were transported back to a different time, and I experienced local history in a vivid way that I never had before.

I’m not a re-enactor, though my daughter and I are considering becoming ones next year. My daughters, now ages 9 and 11, have brought me here. Excited and knowledgeable, they are able to explain what is happening around me. Later that day when we peruse the vendors selling antiques and reproductions of period goods, they explain to me what the different items are and what they were used for. I learn a great deal. The fact is, they learned more by the end of 4th grade about American history, especially Revolutionary War history, than I have throughout my life. More importantly, there are excited and energized about learning more. Let me tell you how this happened in their lives.

Every spring, something incredible happens for the 4th graders at Calvin U. Smith Elementary School, located in Painted Post. The teachers and other staff in the classroom run a Living History Program which teaches the students about Revolutionary War History and life. It is a powerful experience for many students, as it was for me as the parent of a child in the program.

As part of the living history program, students learn about life during the Revolutionary War. They learn what soldiers and families went through around the time of the war, what they ate and how they lived, but their education is more than simply a rote description of facts. They dress in period clothing. They are drafted into the Continental Army. They learn to march, follow orders, and shoot a musket (not a real one, though they have to treat it as if it were)! The students do this over the course of 10 weeks, spending several hours of their own time after school each week, practicing and practicing the skills they are learning.

During the course of the program they learn history on a regional and national level about how the Revolutionary War was fought. There is a field trip to Fort Stanwix. The students march in the Painted Post Colonial Days Parade, where the Calvin U. Smith regiment of 3rd New York has won awards for the last seven years running. The program itself terminates in a historically accurate night of camping at Newtown Battlefield with teachers and reenactors helping the students experience history in a way I certainly never did. The encampment ends with the students learning and completing a reenactment of an actual battle that was fought at Newtown Battlefield.

Outside of school, students often seek to learn more by participating in and visiting such events as the annual local encampment at Newtown Battlefield, and going as far away as Boston to observe (and possibly next year, to participate) in the Patriots Day activities.

This style of education is immersive and deep, and the teachers’ excitement about the subject is infectious. The students absorb the material easily and develop a great appreciation for local and national history, and the tenets that our country was founded upon.

An area rich in history

There were several different campaigns during the Revolutionary War that were fought in and around upstate New York. Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain was originally a British staging area for the war. Fort Ticonderoga was taken by the Continental army in 1775 and the cannons were later used to drive the British out of Boston. A British defeat in Saratoga during an invasion from Canada was crucial to preventing the British from dividing the colonies. Fort Niagara in Youngstown was a British Loyalist base for much of the war.

In the Finger Lakes area, General John Sullivan fought a major battle at Newtown Battlefield, as part of his campaign to destroy the Iroquois and Cayuga settlements that had taken up arms with the British against the Continental Army. The village of Horseheads got its name after an incident during this campaign, as General Sullivan destroyed a large number of his horses in the area after they became sick. Upon seeing the macabre sight, the Iroquois Indians named the area “Valley of the Horses Heads.” Look around as you drive the Elmira area and you are bound to notice some of the mostly blue signs erected by New York State that explain different aspects of local history, and often describe different parts of Sullivan’s mission.

As I have learned more about the Revolutionary War history in and around the Finger Lakes, I come away with a new appreciation for the the founding of our country and for the historical richness of our area. I encourage you to spend some time doing some of your own research as well. You won’t be disappointed.

To view videos about the 3rd New York regiment, use the search words “3rd New York colorguard” on YouTube.com.


by Dan Cohen