Was that fireworks, a car backfiring — or a British musket?
Unlike those that happen in distant fields, the annual reenactment of the Battle of Germantown takes place right here on city streets.
Although Germantown was once a rural area, rows of houses now border the grounds where the Americans faced off with the British. During the reenactment, “people come out and sit on their porches and look out their windows,” said reenactor and Germantown native Alex DiCesare.
Not only is the battle staged in an urban neighborhood, it happens in and around a historic home, Cliveden.
“It’s not every mansion that’s going to let you do that,” said David Young, executive director of Cliveden.
The battle, which took place on Oct. 4, 1777, was a failed attempt by George Washington to drive the British from Philadelphia. Because it was a tactical loss for Washington’s army, it was reduced to a footnote in history. But it led to the professionalization of the scrappy troops during the winter at Valley Forge and attracted the attention of France and Prussia, possibly turning the tide of the war.
There were periodic reenactments of the battle, including one in 1912 in Fairmount Park complete with a Cliveden façade. Jack Asher of Asher’s Chocolates began sponsoring annual reenactments in 1977.
This year, the Museum of the American Revolution is getting in on the action.
“We thought this would be a great opportunity to bring attention to the period when Philadelphia was occupied by the British Army,” said R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming.
The museum will host a living history event the weekend after the battle with actors stationed around Old City sites in period clothes. A British flag will be flown outside the museum – a reminder, Stephenson said, that the outcome of the Revolution wasn’t predetermined.
History will also come alive at Grumblethorpe, down the road from Cliveden, as some of the more than 300 reenactors “occupy” the historic home for the battle weekend, just as they did in 1777.
There the Philadelphia Society of Landmarks will host the Grumblethorpe Battle Bash, where spectators can join British forces as they celebrate their victory with Evil Genius beer and music from the Knox Street Band. Unlike in 1777, Patriots are welcome, too.
Thousands turn out every year for the reenactment. “They will, of course, boo the British and cheer the Americans,” said Joe Wilson, a reenactor and event organizer.
Favorite memories include the time two commanders pranked a newly promoted corporal by “taking hits” early in the battle, leaving the new guy in charge, and in 2013 when active duty soldiers came and reviewed the Continental troops.
Children who come can learn to write with quill pens, or be patched up at the army “hospital.”
“I love seeing the kids interacting with the soldiers,” said Jonathan Burton, executive director of PhilaLandmarks. “They love it. They’re learning about their neighborhood’s history.”
DiCesare, 23, was 10 when he first came to the event. At 16, he joined the Fourth Legionary Corps of the Continental Army, and later gave tours of Cliveden.
He would tell tour groups to picture being inside the house on that dark, foggy morning. “I can only imagine how thunderous and shaking the walls would have been,” he said.
Wilson was so captivated when he first saw the reenactment 10 years ago that, within a month, he was fully outfitted as a member of the 43rd Regiment of Foot of the British Army. The British, he said, just had a sharper look than the Americans. During the reenactments he shoots at “Doodles” from Cliveden’s second-story windows.
The structure still bears carefully preserved battle scars. Both interior and exterior walls were pitted by musket fire; the marble front steps were dented by cannonballs.
Most reenactors don’t play specific historical figures, and so usually “die” in battle when they run out of ammo or have muskets misfire.
DiCesare’s favorite spot to die is on those cratered marble steps as the Patriots rush the front door.
The Revolutionary Germantown Festival
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Reenactments of the Battle of Germantown at noon and 3 p.m. at Cliveden, 6401 Germantown Ave.
The Grumblethope Battle Bash from 4 to 8 p.m. at 5267 Germantown Ave.
Because parking might be difficult, organizers recommend taking the Chestnut Hill East or West lines or the 23 bus line.
The Museum of the American Revolution will hold a living history event, Occupied Philadelphia: The British are Coming (Back)!, on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 14 and 15, with special programming, activities and tours through the neighborhood.
The museum is located at 101 S. Third St. For more information, visit AmRevMuseum.org.