Seacoast Militia Brings History To Life

Hampton 350

1638 -- 1988

Rockingham County Newspaper -- July 8, 1988

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[The following articles are courtesy of
Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Elkin's Company Colonials Ever Ready

By Paul Wolterbeek, Staff Reporter

One of the more colorful aspects of Hampton's 350th anniversary celebration has been the occasional appearance of Winnacunnet militia members, who recreate Seacoast military companies of the Revolutionary War era.

The militia was present for a musket salute and remembrance of war dead at Hampton ceremonies marking the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution last fall. And militia members camped at Marelli Park over a spring weekend to mark the 350th anniversary of the town.

The local company is officially known as Elkins' Company Winnacunnet Guard Colonial Militia, after Henry Elkins. Elkins was an Exeter Road resident charged with raising the militia in 1775. Modern militia members recreate the lives of Elkins and other actual members of the original militia.

Marelli Square was safe from invading hordes of French soldiers, Indians and redcoats That May weekend — at least as safe as 17th-century technology would have allowed.

The First Newmarket Militia Company, with a strength of nearly 25, camped at Marelli Park May 14 and 15, displaying weapons of the revolutionary period and the ways people of the period would pass the time between battles.

The group includes members from Hampton, Newmarket and points between, and has a full strength of more than 100.

'Doc' Getchell

Dr. L. Forbes Getchell
Dr. L. Forbes Getchell, a retired dentist, portrayed a doctor for
Hampton's May reenactment of the 1st Newmarket Militia and Company.
[Staff photo Paul Wolterbeek]
Dr. L. Forbes Getchell, a retired dentist from Newmarket who portrays a doctor of the Revolution, commanded much attention with his well-stocked doctor's kit and instruments.

"I would have been called a doctor, but I would actually have been trained by other physicians," says Getchell. He says the only formal schooling at the time was in Philadelphia and in Europe, and that most doctors would have been apprentices.

Formal training didn't necessarily mean that a doctor knew more than the Colonial apprentice doctor, says Getchell, but a formally trained doctor would have had exposure to a wider range of diseases and practices.

He says doctors of the day treated people partly by applying the theory that maladies arose from imbalances in the body — too much blood in the system or an excess of bile, saliva or other fluids. This theory gave rise to the practice of bloodletting and the use of leeches. According to Getchell, George Washington lost nine pints of blood through this practice.

Getchell says a doctor was also a chemist in those days, and would have gathered bark and other ingredients for his remedies. Not surprisingly, many of these are still used in some form today. The acetylsalicylic acid in certain bark is the active ingredient in aspirin, and rhubarb is well-known as a purgative.

His instruments, however, would make modern-day doctors and patients wince. They include a battered copy of "Warren's Household Physician," a rusty hammer for removing limbs, and an enema syringe he made of wood.

"It was still too early to realize the full importance of cleanliness and hygiene," says Getchell. Getchell also stocks a set of wood-carving tools for his hobby of whittling birds while awaiting patients.

Militia members live as true to the period as possible, making most of their own uniforms, clothes and tools, and following the recipes and style of cooking of the period.

Getchell's uniform is one of his own tuxedos, converted to revolutionary garb over the course of a year by his wife.

Historically Accurate

Harold Fernald
Harold Fernald, a Winnacunnet High School history teacher,
stands at attention in militia garb at Centre School during Hampton's
celebration of the bicentennial of U.S. Constitution last fall.
[Staff photo Bill Murphy]

The May encampment, typical of a smaller company, included six camp tents, one medical tent and one captain's tent.

Hampton militia leader Captain Harold Fernald, a Winnacunnet High school history teacher, became involved into the group in 1975 and is one of the few to remain. He says the militia had a larger membership in 1975 because many people joined to commemorate the nation's bicentennial. But, he says, many also stayed on and interest continues.

In fact, a weekend like the one in May, with high visibility for the company, is good for recruitment -- one family has indicated interest in joining, and militia members were putting one new recruit, a Dover High School junior, through the paces during the weekend.

"This is the true meaning of a militia," says Fernald.

To make the militia as historically accurate as possible, some members research the lives of real figures out of history and relish retelling the tales of the people's lives.

Fernald says it is the aspect of living history that brings revolutionary years to life for people, more than faded pictures in history texts or tattered costumes at a museum.

"This is real interaction with people of the period," he says.

Fernald, for example, plays the part of Capt. John Elkins, a merchant charged with raising the local militia. Elkin's expertise mustering the group was so impressive that his company was the first in the state.

Capt. Roger Clark from Newmarket vicariously lives the campaigns of Gen. John Sullivan, who was one of Washington's most trusted generals, and Gen. John Stark.

Done Their Homework

The company's members have obviously done their homework and know their period well. They can recite historical facts about campaigns their companies engaged in and they tell of things that motivated their characters centuries ago.

They have reenacted famous battles, from Bennington to Yorktown to Penobscot Bay, and some even sport purple hearts bestowed for wounds received.

Clark once had his leg amputated by the primitive methods of the time, or at least play-acted the part. Doctor Getchell played right along, covering Clark's torso with a blanket while he operated and removing a prosthetic leg while Clark writhed in pain.

Some battle scenes have been so realistically populated as to include prostitutes dressed in the revealing garb of the day, such as it was.

Most members say they enjoy the activity because there is so much family involvement. Entire families are involved, and individual members are not relegated to stereo typed or boring roles; Boys are allowed to be part of cannon crews, the shortage of manpower would have dictated centuries ago.

Modern Conveniences

While they live as true to the period as possible, members admit there are some concessions they must make to modern-day technology. Coolers are need to preserve food, and a can opener is furtively tucked into a box at camp. In addition, some onlookers in May saw a contrast of new and old when Fernald, in militia attire, circled the camp with a video-cassette recorder, preserving the memories.

Other differences: The metals used in reproductions of weapons are much stronger than those used in revolutionary days, and gunpowder has kept pace with the advances. Today's powder is so potent that it is only used in reproductions of weapons: Genuine antique weapons could be blown to bits if fired with modern powders.

And while the company dined on beef stew and chicken made in camp, members also gave some business to local restaurateurs Widow Fletcher's and Friendly's while staked out in town.

Camp Followers

Part of the family attraction is that the militia is open to children and women. While women are most often relegated to the role of "camp followers," and assigned menial work, most enjoy their experiences camping and recreating the Revolutionary War-era, and say they did not find their the roles too confining.

Marcy Cabrera of Newmarket is a camp follower who has been with the company for four years, after moving to the area from Chicago. Cabrera was busily sewing a man's shirt for her "husband" in the group, who is actually a friend who got her involved with the militia when she moved here.

"It's a nice thing to do," says Cabrera. "We see a lot of the country, and I have met only nice people through this. The people we meet are fantastic."

She says although camp life is easier than the routine life of the revolutionary era — and 20th century medical help is always nearby — she has been privileged to experience the life of a bygone day.

"It is rough. Your hands are in terrible shape when you are through for a weekend," says Cabrera. "It is important for people to do this, but I don't envy (Colonial women). I don't envy them one bit."

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