Be on the alert for Colonial Era British soldiers marching in the streets of Kingston this weekend: It could signal the retaking of our nation by the Redcoats! Or not. Our national status is firmly established, but the dramatic reenactment of that day in 1777 when the Colonial powers attempted to thwart independence gives us the opportunity to get in touch with our own history.
The Burning of Kingston is a weekendlong biennial celebration of the bravery, sacrifice and resilience of those early colonists who endured the actual demolition of their town. More than 300 homes and barns were reduced to ashes when they were torched in the invasion led by British major general John Vaughan, which forced people into temporary exodus. And because Kingston was then the capital of New York, this successful British campaign pushed the state government further north, where it would eventually settle at Albany. Since most of the local militia was fighting battles elsewhere (such as at the Battle of Saratoga), the vulnerable city burned down in just hours. The event was a dramatic moment in the American Revolutionary War that hardened the determination of colonists to gain their independence, and for local citizens to rebuild Kingston stronger than ever.
Now, over two centuries later, relative peace pervades the streets of town, and all animosity between the Brits and Americans has dissipated. Reenacting history reminds us where we came from and how we got here. It informs us of the customs and conditions under which our forebears lived. And it fascinates us to “try on” a Colonial activity: something as simple as dipping candles or pressing apples for cider, smoking meat in a barrel and cooking with historical authenticity, all while enjoying the camp life and music of the 1700s. Kids can make their own dried-apple wreaths and authentic cornhusk dolls, and pretend to live in another era altogether. Produced every two years by the First Ulster Militia in cooperation with the City of Kingston, the Burning of Kingston reenactment draws participants and spectators in an ever-growing dramatic scenario.
The opening reception will take place at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in the Historic Rondout neighborhood from 4 to 7 p.m. on Friday, and will include costumed interpreters from the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site, along with musket- and cannon-firings, 18th-century medical demos, kids’ activities and a documentary film on Fort Montgomery. The reenactment will move from the waterfront to the Persen House in Uptown Kingston, where the Colonial “Committee of Safety” will meet to make its plans. The Stockade District will come alive with characters and action with candlelight tales in the Old Dutch Church cemetery, where the long-dead will rise up to regale citizens with firsthand accounts of the whole dreadful ordeal.
On Saturday, visitors can hear organ music throughout the day at the Old Dutch Church. The Friends of Historic Kingston will offer a special Burning of Kingston Walking Tour starting in the Stockade District and going by bus through historic locations throughout the City of Kingston. In the Rondout neighborhood, a second walking tour will take place. For information and tickets visit www.fohk.org.
Meanwhile, the British invasion at Kingston Point Beach and the resistance of the Colonists begin in earnest! That afternoon, local theater troupe the Coach House Players will perform at the Farmers’ Market on Wall Street, doing a reading in costume of the song, “Ballad for Americans.” Maneuvers continue all afternoon from Forsyth Park to the Senate House, and British Redcoats will march through the streets for a final battle scene. A mock trial will have Kingston’s mayor charged with treason. And back in the camps, reenactors will continue to play out their various roles.
The Grand Ball will be held on Saturday evening in the Common Council Chambers at Kingston City Hall – just a little diversion from all the violence and confusion will be needed by then – with instruction in 18th-century dance and live music. Both reenactors and the community are invited, and since instruction is provided, one does not have to be familiar with the dance styles to participate. This is your chance to don Colonial garb (it’s encouraged but not required), and there will be refreshments available. The entire event is free of charge.
Sunday morning, the action begins again at Forsyth Park, where reenactor camps will be open to the public to witness assembly, safety inspections, company drills and more demonstrations, including the “Battle of Upper Forsyth Park”: a tactical demo showing the activities of both American and British troops. From the mustering of the militia to the frenzied panic amongst townspeople, the entire extravaganza will have you feeling history in a way that you’ve never before felt it.
The recreated First Ulster Militia was reorganized in 1996 with the purpose to educate the public about our Colonial and Revolutionary War heritage, to support and promote local historical sites and to work to maintain historical accuracy. A mix of drama, commemoration and celebration, the Burning of Kingston is a citywide event, with many local businesses and organizations offering discounts to those who wear Colonial attire. Check the website for a list of participating restaurants offering discounts of some kind over the weekend.
18th-Century Autumn Festival & Burning of Kingston, Friday-Sunday, October 16-18, various times/locations, Kingston; www.burningofkingston.com.